Whither the National Guard?


CounterPunch published a piece on October 21 by Vietnam veteran, Colonel Dan Smith. Smith notes:

In April 2005, the [National] Guard had eight combat brigades in Iraq–more than 50 percent of U.S. combat strength in-country. Even in World War II, the percentage of Guard combat units never exceeded 50 percent of the total fighting combat force. [Currently] nearly half–75,000–of the 152,000 U.S. military personnel are reservists.

And the human cost? From ten percent of the fatalities during the ‘major combat’ phase in March and April 2003, National Guard and reserve losses stand at more than 30 percent for the first 10 months of 2005. In August, 56 percent of U.S. fatalities (48 of 85) were reservists. In September, 27 of 49 were reservists. And at October’s midpoint, seven of the 33 U.S. dead in Iraq are from the reserves.

Yet the devastation that Katrina wreaked on Louisiana and Mississippi had commentators and even National Guard officers complaining that the ability to assist affected communities has been severely hampered. Louisiana and Mississippi Guard units are in Iraq, along with much-needed equipment.

On 1 September Salon.com reported on concerns before Katrina hit the US coast:

On Aug. 1, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard lamented to a local reporter that the state might be stretched for security personnel in the event of a big hurricane. Dozens of high-water vehicles, generators and Humvees were employed in Iraq, along with 3,000 Louisiana National Guard troops. Military experts have long said that repeated, lengthy deployments to Iraq are decimating the National Guard. Dispirited veterans are leaving the Guard in droves and recruiting has plummeted.

Norman Solomon had this to say on CounterPunch on the 31 August:

National Guard troops don’t belong in Iraq. They should be rescuing and protecting in Louisiana and Mississippi, not patrolling and killing in a country that was invaded on the basis of presidential deception. They should be fighting the effects of flood waters at home — helping people in the communities they know best — not battling Iraqi people who want them to go away. Bring the National Guard home. Immediately.

Ramzy Baroud wrote in October:

The U.S. Army is stretched too thin, bogged down in a war gone awry. Many National Guard units, whose sole mission is to tend to the nation’s needs in times of crisis, were deployed to Iraq. The consequences of such indiscretions were exhibited in the Katrina disaster to a humiliating degree.

The National Guard’s sole mission to tend to the nation’s needs in times of crisis? Well not quite.

What is the nature of this strange beast?

The only sustained treatment of the Guard appears to be the official history, John Mahon’s History of the Militia and the National Guard (1983), part of a series, The Macmillan Wars of the United States.

The Guard started life as a citizen’s militia in the early American colonies. From the start of the Republic there was a tension between the centralising Federalists, who wanted a national standing army, and the States’ righters, who saw a local militia as fundamental to their autonomy. The militia supporters also inherited the then English cultural antagonism to a standing army. The tension is still there.

When Eisenhower attempted greater centralisation of the forces in 1958 in the Department of Defense, the Alabama Governor claimed that ‘if the military power had not been dispersed from the beginning, the United States would have succumbed more than a century before to a military dictatorship’ (Mahon).

The 1792 Uniform Militia Act entrenched States’ rights for over a century. The 1812 war with the British and the 1846 war with Mexico enhanced the myth that a citizen soldiery could ‘whip’ a trained army while undermining the claim in practice.

With myth in place, the militia found ready employment through the century, not least against indigenous tribes, but also against workers, and even the newly arriving Irish migrant hordes (1840s), who were considered by established residents to be ‘ignorant, degraded and virtually subhuman’ (Mahon).

The militia acquired rejuvenation and purpose (expanded in number after the Civil War) with the rise of corporate industrial America and the ensuing class war. The Eastern States’ railway strike of 1877 was the flashpoint, and the birth of the modern National Guard (as its States-based units paradoxically came to be labeled). At its peak, 45,000 Guardsmen were called in across eleven states. Quoting Mahon:

At that time, business moved into a tacit alliance with the guard as an important agency in protecting private property (sic) and thereafter provided it with financial aid, beyond what the state and national governments gave.

A rare instance in which this support for capital had a positive moral effect was in the mid-1880s in Washington and Seattle’s sizeable Chinese community. Business enjoyed the cheap labour; a populist racist push wanted the Chinese out, and the Guard stepped in to prevent their forcible deportation.

But acting as handmaiden for the employers’ class warfare against labour was the bread and butter of the Guard’s activities–not least the mid-1880s agitation for the eight-hour day, the 1892 Homestead steel strike, and the 1894 Chicago Pullman strike.

The War with Spain diverted the Guard from its repressive contribution to the class struggle. But as American support of the rebels against Spain turned to occupation, the Guard and Guard members faced the conundrum that faces them to a heightened degree in Iraq today. Was the Guard to be an instrument of defense, or of foreign interventions, whether humanitarian or imperialistic?

That the Americans were having difficulty distinguishing humanitarian and imperialistic excursions was reflected in the hubris of Manifest Destiny that accompanied the irrepressible expansion of territory through the nineteenth century. The behaviour of the troops in the ex-Spanish colonies exposed the imperial agenda to the harsh light of day.

Acts of 1902, 1908 and 1916 drew the Guard increasingly into the status of reserves for a national standing army. There were some concessions to Guard sensibilities, but federal imperatives prevailed–Guard members were to constitute a reserve, and not Guard units and their chain of command and culture. Guard members were deployed in this capacity in significant numbers in both World War II and the Korean War.

Johnson broke with tradition by deciding to use draftees rather than Guard reserves to complement regular forces in Vietnam. The Guard became a refuge for draft dodgers (including the Dallas Cowboys football team and George W. Bush), and the draft system fueled dissent which ultimately ended the War itself.

Interestingly, in 1912 the US Attorney General declared the 1908 Act unconstitutional ‘and that the National Guard, which was the militia of the Constitution, could not be used outside the country, since it was a defense force only’ (Mahon). This was a charming sentiment but as the century progressed to be observed (excepting Vietnam) in the breach.

Meanwhile, the Guard’s role as a domestic constabulary of the ‘forces of law and order’ continued apace. West Virginia and Pennsylvania coal miners were the subjects of attention in 1902, their Colorado counterparts in 1903. The El Dorado of the Guard’s contribution to class warfare was in Rockefeller’s Colorado town of Ludlow in 1913, in which the Guard allowed itself to be infiltrated by company thugs, and a massacre at ‘Bloody Ludlow’ ensued. Samuel Yellen’s 1936 American Labor Struggles is the indispensable source for this disgraceful history.

Because labour had no rights other than servitude before the law until 1935, the National Guard was a natural complement to the indomitable right to rule of Capital.

There is a telling tabular construction in Alan Wolfe’s 1973 The Seamy Side of Democracy of the Guard’s constabulary role through the twentieth century. Wage labour was the favourite whipping boy until the passage of the Wagner Act. After World War II, the Guard’s attention is turned elsewhere–Cold War repression, then race, then student dissent.

The peculiar hierarchy of the Guard (the President through the Governors) produced an inevitable tension during the federal-ordered 1950s school integration process. The Guards were called out both to prevent and to enforce integration. But given that Washington paid most of the bills, the feds typically had the upper hand. The Governor of Arkansas, Orville Faubus, referred to the enablers at Central High, Little Rock, as ‘occupation forces’.

The same responsibilities and tensions were reproduced in 1962 and 1963 when the Universities (especially of Mississippi and Alabama) became the battleground for integration. At its peak, 30,000 troops were on hand to enforce nominal integration at ‘Ole Miss’.

The race riots of the late 1960s had the Guard busy in ‘preserving order’, albeit equipment and training were not up to the task. There were 10,000 Guardsmen and 5,000 regulars in Detroit in July 1967, with 40 deaths and 2,000 wounded. General Throckmorton, sent by Johnson to take charge, banned live ammunition, but ‘the Guard either did not received the order or, because the state commander disagreed, did not obey it’ (Mahon).

The high point of publicity for the Guard’s ‘preserving order’ role was at Kent State on 4 May 1970. Again live bullets were used, with four deaths and nine people wounded.

The official history places responsibility for the tragedy in hands other than the Guards. Notes Mahon, the students had gutted the ROTC building. They had:

hurled rocks, bottles, and foul epithets at the Guardsmen They also burned the American flag and displayed in its place the red flag of North Vietnam. All the while they chanted: ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war ‘. News reporters from every big city recognized that if this sort of provocation continued there would be gunfire. It is evidence of how little the students understood the culture in which they had been brought up that the same truth was not apparent to them.

In the rioting on the campuses, the Guard was uniformly on the side of law and order. What if the most radical of the rioters had achieved their objectives, namely, to destroy the universities and beyond them the other institutions of the nation in order to clear the ground for a new society not as rotten as the one they thought they were living in?

When the Guard was not drilling into recalcitrant Americans ‘the culture in which they had been brought up’, members were more harmoniously employed in emergency control and relief efforts. Thus did Guard members become accidental heroes, sustaining people in atrocious weather, rescuing birds from oil spills, and even donating blood in quantity.

Until Katrina that is. Because the Guards and their equipment were in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the Guards are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. What are they doing dying in those countries? According to the Guard’s website:

This page is dedicated to those Army National Guard soldiers who have given their lives for liberty in the War on Terrorism.

They are fighting a war on terrorism, under the elegant codenames Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. And the list of deaths keeps growing.

Now ‘the war on terrorism’ seems to be some distance from the motives of self defense on which the early militia were established.

* * *

Some comments from Guard members themselves, courtesy of Michael Moore’s Will They Ever Trust Us Again? Letters from the War Zone.

[July 2004, Baghdad]

My name is Michael W. Yes, I signed a contract with the government to serve in our military, and proudly, but I never thought that our military would be used in such a self-serving, crooked and disgraceful way.

the government is calling up more and more troops from the Reserves. For what? Man, there is a huge fucking scam going on here! There are civilian contractors crawling all over this country. Blackwater, Kellogg Brown and Root, Halliburton, on and on. These guys are making bank off this bullshit war, and us soldiers are paying in more ways than one!

[August 2004, Kuwait]

My name is Tony P. The Iraqi resistance was insanity. all we see is hostility and anger over our being there.

I have gone from 18 to 20 without seeing my home. I live in constant fear, because all these laws made to protect soldiers from being overused are on the verge of being thrown out. There are constantly putting us on a stop loss, extending our time of duty. Bush is constantly talking about other countries besides Iraq and Afghanistan that are security problems, and I think to myself, Is two not enough? Are you willing to just destroy my life and the lives of thousands of others on a whim?

[Brett S, December 2003, Kosovo]

This war and occupation [Iraq] has come to disrespect all those who were trained to believe in self-sacrifice for the greater good, with no provocation, with no evidence of its supposed purposes (finding weapons of mass destruction, ending terrorism), and with such obvious ulterior motives (money, oil, a family vendetta). It seems the only way it could be justified is through an exhaustive campaign of deception and diversion.

President Bush must be seen for what he is: someone who has taken a meritorious institution composed of people who have signed a contract to serve their country, and has employed them for his own pursuits. He should be seen as a traitor to the ideals of honor and integrity. He should be seen as a traitor to all soldiers who trusted that their sacrifice would be worth something to their families and loved ones, rather than a death to serve the financial and political pursuits of one man.

* * *

The deaths of the National Guards members keep happening, the names of those sacrificed for a higher cause dutifully filed in that expanding list on the official site.

The National Guard is a body that has always lived at cross purposes. It exists to maintain order but it has been used to repress dissent against established forces. It is a vehicle for good in social emergencies. It was created for self-defense but came to fight overseas both in just and unjust wars. In sense, the tensions of the National Guard’s multiple roles symbolise the tensions within United States society itself.

Getting the Guard out of Iraq is an important symbolic step to getting the US forces in toto out of Iraq. Besides, there’s work to do in New Orleans. Getting the Guard out of Iraq is an important symbolic step to a reordering of political priorities within the US in general.

EVAN JONES can be reached at: E.Jones@econ.usyd.edu.au



Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached at:evan.jones@sydney.edu.au