- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Robert Goldich
Best Defense bureau of politico-military affairs
It’s a mistake to look at the Guard/Reserve mix from a purely "analytical" — that is, programmatic, costs, and tangible benefits, etc. — point of view, due to the constitutionally-mandated and statutorily fleshed-out dual role of the Guard. The Guard is political because the Founders wanted the state militias to be political-or, more accurately, could not even envision that they would not be political-and they embodied that in the Constitution. Because the Guard has state power bases, the active Army and Air Force will never, ever be able to make large changes in it without taking state political considerations into account.
Not only do I think this will never change, I do not think it should change. A country with such a huge population (our 317 million is exceeded only by China and India) and territory, and incredibly polyglot mix of racial, ethnic, religious, and foreign-country nationalities in it, cannot afford not to have a large, powerful force that can deploy in case of major civil disorder. The Guard enables us to have such a force without the danger of a highly bureaucratized and almost inevitably oppressive national paramilitary police force such as exists in other countries.
Deploying the Guard domestically also does not have the connotation of massive federal intervention that deploying the active Army does, because it is known to be a state force with local and state ties, despite the near-identical (to the layperson) uniforms, structure, equipment, and weapons. Interestingly, we have recently seen what happens in a country that has a small active army (relative to the population) and no force with any domestic operational capability other than local police forces — Britain. Local police simply did not have the capability to deal with the humanitarian and infrastructure problems that recent massive floods created in Britain. The active army was small and there were constitutional (in the British unwritten sense) and statutory problems in deploying the army to deal with such domestic problems. In the United States, the Guard would have filled such a gap quickly and decisively.
Commissions and boards and study groups and analyses should focus on what can be done within the existing constitutional and political underpinning of the Guard, rather than calling for futile "rationalization" of their force structures — which, in ignoring political factors, isn’t even very rational.