9/06 The Need For A Modern American Militia

The Need For A Modern American Militia

MG Edward B. Atkeson, USA Ret., PhD and MG James L. McCoskey, Indiana Guard Reserve (IGR), Ret.
originally published in Army Magazine

No American military organization has suffered more severe criticism–or won greater praise–from its supreme commander than the state militia in the 18th century. On the one hand, George Washington damned it as a group of “men accustomed to unbounded freedom and no control.” He wrote to Congress:

To place any dependence upon Militia is, assuredly, resting on a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender scenes of domestik life, unaccustomed to the din of arms, totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, … when opposed to troops regularly trained, disciplined, … [are] timid and ready to fly from their own shadows.

On the other hand, he lauded three of its members at Tappan, N.Y., awarding silver medals–the only ones authorized by Congress during the Revolution–to militiamen who had the perspicacity to arrest the disguised Maj. John Andre, Adjutant General of the British army, after his meeting with the traitor, Benedict Arnold. Behind his contempt for undisciplined armed men, Washington remembered that the war had begun with just such men standing their ground at Concord Bridge and firing “the shot heard around the world.” As for the British, Kevin Phillips, author of The Cousins’ Wars, wrote that they had reason to be especially worried about New England. “Its militia,” he said, “swarmed on a rumor–or on the approach of an unidentified dust cloud.”

Today the term “militia” has more connotations than Washington apparently had in mind. In one meaning, it incorporates the entire body of physically fit male civilians eligible by law for military service. In another, it is an organized citizen army, but distinct from a body of professional soldiers. In between, the American Heritage Dictionary offers us “armed citizenry,” which has alternatively been interpreted as an officially recognized force liable to call in time of emergency to augment regular forces, or simply armed groups of citizens with their own sense of purpose, including outdoor recreation. Many individuals and organizations today look to the Second Amendment of the Constitution to protect their right to carry arms for whatever purpose they see fit. It reads simply:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The Constitution is quite specific in its recognition of requirements for both federal armed forces and local militia for protection of and the defense of the nation in time of emergency. Article II, Section 2, prescribes that “the President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” It is less specific about how “organized” the militia should be, but the Militia Law of 1792 made every white male citizen between the ages of 18 and 45 subject to call for up to three months’ duty. The law was little used during the first half of the 19th century, but gradually, over time, elite volunteer units of the states began to refer to themselves as a “National Guard.”

It was not until 1903 that the Guard, equipped by the federal government, but under state control, as we know it today, came into existence. Thirteen years later, under the developing pressure of World War I in Europe, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916, clarifying the federal authority for calling the National Guard to duty under federal control and formalizing the “dual hat” federal/state status. After the United States entered the conflict, the National Guard would provide 17 of the 42 Army divisions mobilized. The possibility that the Guard’s dual missions might sometime result in a competition between Washington and the state capitals for the services of the same troop resources slid quietly by.

Fortunately, during the last year of the war, when U.S. troop deployments were at their maximum, there were few natural disasters or public disorders in the states from which the units were drawn that might have necessitated their presence back home. On the other hand, the nonoccurrence of such events denied the country of experience in having to cope with disaster at home without the Guard or some sort of backup force. While painful, the experience could have been instructive and, perhaps, led to a better understanding of the need for standby state forces, in being, and ready to step in at home, when the National Guard is deployed elsewhere.

World War II placed sustained demands on practically all of the nation’s resources. For the first time, serious thought was given to concurrent national defense and homeland security needs. Legislation in 1940 authorized state governors to organize State Guard units with limited federal funding, equipment and arms. Over the course of the war, most states stood up modest state-controlled forces. They performed missions ranging from manning antiaircraft guns, to patrolling Pacific beaches, to disaster relief. After action reports from states’ adjutants general indicate that most did not attain sufficient strength to handle domestic crises, but that, as a class, they performed sufficiently well to validate the concept. Most were deactivated after the war.

The Korean War saw a return of federal reliance upon combat and support units of the National Guard. It also saw the reactivation of State Guards in some states. During the Vietnam conflict, however, the National Guard was virtually untouched by federal authorities for political reasons. Almost all federal personnel requirements were fulfilled by volunteers or by the draft.

Since then, federal calls for activation of National Guard units have ebbed and flowed according to short-term requirements, but since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the calls have developed with increasing scope and frequency. In 2001 there were two Guard combat battalions on active duty. In May 2004 the AUSA News reported that almost one-third of the entire Guard (some 100,000 troops) were on active duty. Some of the units had been summoned under conditions of such acute need that members were given less than a week’s notice to report for duty. Lt. Gen. Roger Schultz, Director of the Army National Guard, remarked, “We underestimated the mission requirements in terms of deploying to Iraq.”

A principal point we need to recognize now is the high level of stress under which the National Guard is currently operating with some 41,000 of its members deployed to Iraq and thousands of others to Kosovo, Bosnia, the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere. The Adjutant General of North Dakota reports that his state has mobilized as many troops as were called up during World War II. Two-thirds of the Idaho Guard are expected to deploy with the 116th Cavalry Brigade to Iraq later this year.

Georgia has already deployed all of its military police personnel and has none left to deal with any possible natural disaster or civil unrest in the state. Mississippi has recovered its 223rd Engineer Battalion from Iraq, but was obliged to leave its equipment in place for use by other units. Commanders are apprehensive that they may not be capable of responding to problems that could arise during the coming hurricane season. South Carolina is in such a situation. Its brigade, now in Iraq, comes primarily from the southern part of the state, which is most prone to hurricanes.

The degree of absorption of the National Guard into the total Army is laudatory in many respects, but it must not be forgotten that these same troops also have important obligations in their states. Clearly they cannot answer their governor’s call when they are guarding an oil line half a world away. And there is little indication that federal demands for the Guard will abate any time soon. One congressional observer calculated that Army Guard requirements in 2005 could exceed the number of combat battalions currently in the force. Already some accommodation is being made by retraining certain units to serve higher priority functions, but, according to defense officials, troop requirements could be either lower or higher in 2006, depending upon conditions.

Further, there is a limit to how much Transformation training can be done. The Pentagon is already examining Title 32 of the U.S. Code to determine if it can legally assign additional missions to the Guard within the country in the context of homeland security. Conceivably, this could develop into additional operational requirements that would likely involve the deployment of some Guard units out of their home states to meet crises elsewhere in the United States or its territories. However, as the law stands now, federal troops (including the National Guard when on federal duty), are constrained from participation in law enforcement operations by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. State forces are not.

Still further, it must be borne in mind that the National Guard includes within its ranks many of the very men and women who are regularly employed in jobs upon which local and state officials depend for meeting the most routine and frequently occurring emergencies: the police, firefighters and ambulance crews. Thus the deployment of National Guard formations can remove or degrade not only the governors’ capability for dealing with major disasters, but the warp and woof of routine protection for even the smallest communities.

An obvious and reasonably promising solution to this problem is to provide a backup force for the National Guard, trained, equipped and ready to take over state responsibilities when the Guard is committed to federal duty. Whatever comes of unit transformation or the employment of the Guard under federal control for domestic crises, the need for standby reserves is apparent.

Of course, a militia-based force does not need to be nearly as heavily equipped or as prepared for foreign commitment or combat as the Army Guard, but it does require transportation, modern communications and light weaponry. Above all, as George Washington would be first to point out, it needs discipline and training. That means that it must have public moral and financial support, uniforms for office and fieldwork, organization and experienced leadership. It must have personnel compensation for the hours of commitment to its planning, training and housekeeping functions, as well as actual mission deployment. In other words, in an era of worldwide terrorist threat, it must be real. It is interesting to note that about half of the states have had the makings of such organizations for a number of years, collectively referred to by some as State Guard Reserves (SGR) and by others as State Defense Forces (SDF). Some of these forces are quite viable. They have assisted in the past, and continue to assist the National Guard and to ready themselves to assume as much of the Guard’s missions as possible.

The state governors and adjutants general encouraging these forces have taken their responsibilities seriously, providing modest SGR/SDF budgets, office space, training and planning support, and occasionally taking part in ceremonies. But with few assets, either real or financial, to devote to the programs–the members are generally neither armed nor paid–no state has realized anything close to its requirements or its capabilities for meeting emergencies.

The omission of payment for services by participants has been a boon to state governments, but a devastating blow to the efficient development of the programs. Not only has it limited the degree of commitment of the members, but it has shaped the organizations as top heavy clubs of old soldiers, however experienced and dedicated they may be. Not many youths are interested in assuming the duties of privates or corporals without compensation.

The result has been a plethora of retired senior officers overseeing a somewhat smaller group of retired senior noncommissioned officers. It is largely an organism without a body. If it is to assume serious responsibilities, it must develop arms and legs, and be trained and exercised in fulfilling its mission. This cannot be done without regular pay. Some analysts have pointed out that under ordinary conditions, units of the Army National Guard can fulfill their responsibilities at a quarter of the cost of equivalent units of the active Army. Perhaps the militia/SDF/SGR could develop into an efficient backup to the Army National Guard at a quarter of the cost of the Guard.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the federal government has come to a new understanding of the nature of foreign threats to the security of the United States. The overall threat has changed in many respects, especially with respect to venue. Today, serious threats can develop just as quickly “over here” as they have traditionally “over there.”

Greater concern for the security of the homeland, however, does not alleviate concerns abroad. While the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq–particularly the latter–remain controversial, they may be models for conflicts yet to be realized in other areas of the globe where anti-Americanism has taken root.

With a volunteer Army of limited dimensions and little public support for a draft, it is quite likely that the National Guard will continue to be called upon to meet demands for security abroad. Thus, the nagging question will continue, and likely with increasing urgency: who will mind the store while the Guard members are away? The best answer remains the one that George Washington found he could not live without, and the one provided in the Constitution: “a well-regulated militia.” Call it what you will.

MAJ. GEN. EDWARD B. ATKESON, USA Ret., Ph.D., is a senior fellow at AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare. He has written four books and more than 100 articles on military affairs. MAJ. GEN. JAMES L. McCOSKEY, Indiana Guard Reserve (IGR) Ret., joined the U.S. Army as a field artilleryman from Indiana University ROTC in 1960. He retired from the Army as a colonel in 1988 and was appointed deputy commander, IGR. He rose to the position of commanding general, retiring in 1996.