The unit knew it would soon be shipped to the front. Some soldiers responded by deserting. Others got drunk and fought. In response, officers locked the unit in its barracks, allowing the troops out only to drill, not even to smoke a cigarette, until it could be put on the transport that would take it into combat.
It sounds as if I am describing some third echelon Soviet infantry regiment in, say, 1942. In fact, I am talking about the 1st Battalion of the 178th Field Artillery Regiment, South Carolina National Guard, in September 2004. According to a front-page story in the September 19 Washington Post, the unit was disintegrating even before it was deployed to Iraq. One shudders to think what will happen once it gets there and finds itself under daily attack from skilled enemies it cannot identify.
One of the likely effects of the disastrous war in Iraq will be the destruction of an old American institution, the National Guard. Desperate for troops as the situation in Iraq deteriorates, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is using the National Guard in a mission for which it was never intended: carrying on a “war of choice” halfway around the world. Most Guardsmen enlisted expecting to help their neighbors in natural disasters, or perhaps maintain order locally in the event of rioting. They never signed up for Vietnam II.
Yes, the Guard was mobilized and deployed overseas in both World Wars, but those were true national wars, in which the American people were all involved one way or another. Cabinet wars, as they used to be called, are something altogether different. As Frederick the Great said, cabinet wars must be waged in such a manner that the people do not know they are going on.
But National Guardsmen are the people. To send them into a cabinet war is to misuse them in a way that will destroy them. Even in the American Revolution, militiamen were seldom asked to fight outside their own state. When they were, they usually responded by deserting.
The fault does not lie with the soldiers of the National Guard. Even within their units, they are being horribly misused. One of the Guard’s strengths is unit cohesion: members of a unit come from the same place and usually know each other well, both in the unit, where they serve long-term, and often in the local community as well. In the case of the 1st Battalion, 178th Field Artillery, the Post reports that “to fully man the unit, scores of soldiers were pulled in from different Guard outfits, some voluntarily, some on orders.” Cohesion went out the window. One soldier in the unit said, “Our morale isn’t high enough for us to be away for 18 months…I think a lot of guys will break down in Iraq.” That is always what happens when unit cohesion is destroyed, in every army in history.
For many Guardsmen, deployment to Iraq means economic ruin. They have mortgage payments, car payments, credit card debt, all calculated on their civilian salaries. Suddenly, for a year or more, their pay drops to that of a private. The families they leave behind face the loss of everything they have. What militia wouldn’t desert in that situation?
The real scope of the damage of Mr. Rumsfeld’s decision to send the Guard to Iraq–40% of the American troops in Iraq are now reservists or Guardsmen–will probably not be revealed until units return. One of the few already back saw 70% of its members leave the Guard immediately.
What the Washington elite that wages cabinet wars does not understand, or care about, is the vital role the National Guard plays on the state and local levels. Once the Guard has been destroyed, who will provide the emergency services communities need when disaster strikes? One would think that in a so-called “war against terror,” where the danger to the American homeland is readily acknowledged, someone in the nation’s capital would care about the local first line of defense.
The fact of the matter is that Versailles on the Potomac does not care about the rest of the country in any respect, so long as the tax dollars keep coming in. My old friend King Louis XVI might be able to tell Rumsfeld & Co. where that road eventually ends up.
WILLIAM S. LIND is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.