The National Guard’s primary task is responding to natural or manmade disasters that strike the homeland. Yet, when Hurricane Katrina struck in the summer of 2005, the combat brigades of Louisiana and Mississippi, along with their equipment, were in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless lives were lost before the Bush Administration could scramble Guard units from other states and active-duty soldiers in the Gulf region. This situation was repeated in 2007 when tornados struck Kansas and fires engulfed Southern California. Put bluntly, the members of the Guard cannot protect us here while fighting over there.
When the all-volunteer military was created, the National Guard was intended to act as a strategic reserve, to serve as a bridge to conscription should a protracted conflict occur. But the Guard is now being used as an operational reserve, alternating deployments with the active force. Since the attacks of 9/11, about 80 percent of the Army National Guard’s 350,000 people have been mobilized and deployed overseas, some of them more than once. And as long as this nation conducts the global war on terrorism without reinstituting the draft, this stress on the Guard will not change.
Even in the event of a withdrawal from Iraq, our ground forces are likely to be called upon to help stabilize other areas of the world; such potential situations might include a collapse of the government in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. And given budget and political realities, the active Army is not likely to be expanded back to anywhere near its Cold War level of 800,000, nor will we reinstitute the draft. Moreover, as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, technology is no substitute for boots on the ground.
Because the National Guard will continue to be needed overseas, the next president and the nation’s governors should establish an adequately trained, non-deployable Home Guard in each state. These all-volunteer units would consist of doctors, nurses, construction workers, firefighters, police officers, communications experts, city planners, engineers, and social workers–all skills central to responding to catastrophic terrorist attacks and natural disasters. To enable states to train and equip these units adequately, the new president should ask the Congress to increase the budget of the Department of Homeland Security by at least $10 billion, the cost of one month’s operations in Iraq.
President George W. Bush has embraced this idea, at least rhetorically. In his 2002 State of the Union address, his first after 9/11, he called on all Americans to serve their country for the equivalent of two years over their lifetimes in a “Freedom Corps,” but no legislation followed. Five years later, Bush suggested establishing a civilian reserve corps that would function like our military reserve–again, without following up.
In the absence of federal action, over the years 23 states and Puerto Rico have established state military organizations. These state reserves, which are called by different names in every state but share many common characteristics, are in essence Home Guards. These units are all under the command of the state’s adjutant general, who also commands the National Guard. They consist of several thousand volunteer citizen-soldiers who can be called to active duty by their respective governors; members of the California State Military Reserve conducted emergency building damage assessments in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. If adequately financed and trained, these state reservists can fill in for National Guard units when they are mobilized away from their home states. But for the most part, they do not have enough equipment or training because, unlike the National Guard, they do not receive any federal funding nor are there any performance criteria–two elements critical for making the Home Guard work.
Participation in a volunteer Home Guard would make many more Americans feel that their efforts are making the war on terror sustainable. The dangers we face are found in the Gulf of Mexico as well as in the Persian Gulf. The cost of one month’s operations in Iraq is a small price to pay for protecting the homeland from a natural calamity like a Category 5 hurricane or a terrorist attack. For the next president to do less is to court disaster.