Standing in a New Orleans still partially flooded more than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush finally admitted that the federal response to the catastrophe had been flawed. In his prime-time speech, he proposed relying more heavily on the military for disaster relief. The nation would be better served, however, by refocusing the National Guard toward its core mission – protecting Americans at home.
Being in the National Guard, as we’ve all learned through constant advertising, is supposed to require one weekend a month and two weeks’ training in the summer. Now, however, the Guard is hardly distinguishable from the Army Reserve. About 80,000 of its members are currently on overseas missions, mainly in Iraq. Many Guard units are having trouble filling their ranks, as potential recruits realize that the life of a citizen-soldier includes a lot of soldiering these days.
Contrary to popular belief, deployment of the National Guard overseas is nothing new. Guard units saw action in both world wars. What is new, however, is our nation’s reliance on the National Guard for even the most mundane military actions. Both of our wars in Iraq have involved fairly small forces, historically speaking, yet have contained high proportions of Guard units. Even our operations in Kosovo have relied on the National Guard.
This trend toward lengthy overseas deployments has little relation to the popular conception of a National Guard that serves mostly in natural disasters or domestic disturbances. It has resulted in Guard units doing combat duty in Iraq without appropriate training or equipment. And it has brought hardship to Guard members and their families who signed up regarding the prospect of overseas duty as a distant possibility.
Meanwhile, the military seems hardly able to take on the additional challenge of serving as the nation’s first responders in cases of grave emergency. Its forces are stretched thin fighting a nebulous war on terrorism and a persistent insurgency in Iraq. Despite massive anti-war protests this weekend, the war in Iraq – and its effect on military recruiting – will continue for some time. Both the Army and the Marines have missed their recruiting goals for several months during this year.
Soldiers, furthermore, simply might not be the best choice to lead disaster relief efforts. Much of the debate regarding Bush’s proposal has concerned the Posse Comitatus Act, the law prohibiting soldiers from assuming domestic law enforcement duties. Legal scholars and civil libertarians can continue to question the wisdom of making soldiers into cops, but more fundamental issues remain. Soldiers’ primary job is combat. They are trained to create corpses, not recover them; they are skilled in destroying, but – as the slow reconstruction of Iraq has shown – not necessarily the best at rebuilding.
A National Guard focused on action at home and specifically trained for restoring order and recovering from disasters would be a better option. Such a force could draw on the existing skills of its civilian members and train raw recruits less in combat and more in disaster relief. While its members might serve in combat in the unlikely event America were directly invaded, they would otherwise be exempt from being sent to fight overseas. The force could even serve as a useful base for recruiting volunteers for humanitarian missions overseas that are now often staffed by a mix of National Guard and active-duty military.
The National Guard, so constituted, would have one great advantage over its current form: it could draw on patriotic Americans who want to serve their country but aren’t willing to see combat. This isn’t entirely a hypothetical proposition for me. I protested the president’s decision to go to war in Iraq, and I’m not going to volunteer to fight in a war I don’t believe should have been started. But given the chance to serve in a National Guard that wouldn’t call on me to be an active-duty soldier overseas, I’d enlist tomorrow.
Other Americans must have thoughts similar to mine. By recruiting such people, the National Guard could build an effective relief and recovery force and free the military to do the sort of work it does best.
Other kinks would have to be worked out; the National Guard, traditionally under the authority of state governors, would need to be better integrated into a federal chain of command for effective disaster relief, for instance. And certainly our disaster response should be streamlined to take advantage of military units available to help that were sometimes sidelined during Katrina.
But the net result of a shift toward a more national National Guard would be more Americans trained and able to help in a serious emergency. That’s a more effective plan for emergency preparedness than plastic sheeting and duct tape, and it’s something the Bush administration ought to consider.
Zbrozek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.