A Case for an Expanded Militia
Raising and training an army is a complex business. The politics of how to use that army are infinitely more so.
Not surprising, the public has raised important issues about how our armed forces are constituted. One of the most frequently debated topics is the propriety of the all-volunteer force (AVF).
A criticism of the AVF appeared about a year ago in this publication. In his essay titled, “The All-Volunteer Force—the Debate,” Lt. Col. Paul Yingling put forward his case in favor of conscription, as a return to our founding principles.
He is not alone. Commentators as diverse as Bill Moyers, Andy Rooney, and Tony Blankley have all made arguments in favor of reinstating the military draft. A common thread to their reasoning, is their assertion that mandatory service is aligned to our American traditions.
Yet, nothing is closer today to our founding tradition and ideals than the volunteer National Guard. The text of the Constitution itself reminds us of the Guard’s importance: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”
In fact, we should rely more heavily than we do upon the modern incarnation of the militia system for our war fighting capabilities. Departing from the traditional debate over whether conscripted forces are more economical or effective than their volunteer counterparts, we should instead consider whether manning such a large standing army is sound policy. Analysis of American history and tradition leads us to conclude that it is not. We should favor instead a stronger part-time Guard force.
Throughout our nation’s history, we have turned to volunteerism as the best means to raise a fighting force. During the Revolution, the Continental Army was but a compliment to state militias, and seen only as a temporary phenomenon.
Since those revolutionary years, the United States has embarked on a unique dual system: the militia of English tradition and the regular Army created under emergency conditions. Today we have multiple components with vastly different cultures, yet all committed to the same overlapping missions. The National Guard fulfills a major role in the constitution of our overall military strength and capability. In fact, it is largely because of our numerous Guard forces that we have been able to successfully sustain two wars without a general mobilization.
Yet it seems that pressure on the Defense Department has caused it to disfavor too much use of Guard to meet the demands of our current combat needs.
Eighteen months ago, the AP reported a reduction in National Guard recruiting. Ostensibly, the Pentagon didn’t need such a large reserve component, and the National Guard was over strength. Others pointed to “suspicions inside the Guard and out that the reductions are part of an effort to shift the burden of fighting overseas onto the active-duty Army and ease the public outcry over the way that Guard units…have been sent on long, repeated combat tours in Iraq.”
It has become standard fare of demagogic politicians to decry the “overstretch” of the Guard. They often mask an anti-military worldview with feigned concern for service-members and their families. But if the public at large has reservations about the National Guard’s role in the overall national military strategy, it is misplaced. America has long relied on its citizen soldiers. It should do so even more now than ever.
Guard units are highly trained and just as effective in combat as active-duty Soldiers. And they bring to the fight the spirit of volunteerism and other important American values. Indeed, many of the arguments against the AVF would evaporate if the U.S. would move to the state militias to man foreign-fighting armies.
The Guard legacy goes back to 1636, when the Massachusetts Bay General Court ordered the formation of militia companies. Thus the National Guard, a direct descendant of the Massachusetts militia, is older than the United States itself.
According to military historian Michael D. Doubler, John Adams believed that four institutions were critical to American society: towns, religious congregations, schools, and the militia.
The importance of the militia in the War for Independence from the British Empire can’t be overstated. The famous and overwhelming victory at New Orleans in 1815 was achieved by an army composed mostly of volunteers and militiamen.
In every war, militia and Guard units have been key to American success.
The value of our militia is enshrined in the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 distinguishes between “armies” and the “militia,” affixing limitations on the former. It also authorizes the Congress to call on state militias in order “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections, and repel Invasions.”
To be sure, since that time, the militias’ place in our society has evolved as much as our need for military forces. During certain periods, for instance, “militia” implied compulsory service. There was also an understanding, early on, that the militia would not be used for foreign or offensive wars.
Nevertheless, Guardsmen and their militiamen forebears have served the people with distinction and according to American ideals since long before the Revolution. In all our major wars, victorious American soldiers usually went home to families, farms, businesses, and careers, leaving the bloody mess of battle and its aftermath to the politicians.
Our founders entrusted the security of our republic to its citizens acting as part-time soldiers. Although the Continental Army, commanded by George Washington, was instrumental in guaranteeing American independence, a successful break from the British Crown would have been unthinkable without the militia, both militarily and politically.
Politically, many colonists took up arms to defend their rights against tyranny, and proved in action that such a defense was their natural and rational right. Mobilizing the citizenry for a common cause helped solidify public opinion in favor of the politics of independence.
Opponents of the AVF often attach the term, “citizen soldier” to their idea of a conscript. But it was the militiamen, mostly volunteers during the American War for Independence, who deserve the moniker. The volunteer state militias captured the imagination of the public whose support was never taken for granted. It was the spirit of community and fighting for common ideals that ensured the necessary support.
To be sure, some states, like Massachussetts, established “enrolled militias,” which did require that every able-bodied man be prepared to fight. Along with the duty to answer a muster call, he had to maintain his own weapon. Such legal obligations were reserved for necessities like invasions. At no time did the national congress compel military service of citizens.
Militias made political sense, but they were also imperative to the cause of liberty. To ask men to make the sacrifices that war demands in defense of ideals makes for the most politically-active and engaged citizenry. An armed citizenry willing to fight for freedom also keeps the government honest, and its actions close to the will of the people.
The Bill of Rights’ famous reference to a “well regulated Militia,” as a necessary condition “to the security of a free State” implies that volunteer militias—not a full-time standing army—would keep us safe, not only from outside invasion, but from the type of tyranny that spawned the Revolution in the first place. The Continental Army was all but disbanded after the Revolution, but the militia system remained in place.
Even in the 20th century, a period to which proponents of a large, conscripted standing force look to bolster their claims, volunteer state Guard units were instrumental and effective. It isn’t hard to imagine that with a smaller federal force they could have accounted for more of the nation’s military manpower.
Today there are many practical reasons for the American people to put their faith in citizen soldiers. For one, Guardsmen and women have valuable skills that military academies and training camps can’t teach. Yingling rightly declares that “armies do not fight wars; nations fight wars. War is not a military activity conducted by soldiers, but rather a social activity that involves entire nations.” His sentiment is best put into action by the men and women who leave their families, communities, and civilian jobs in order to engage the enemies of the United States in combat.
Our Guard force is filled with accountants, firefighters, plumbers, truckers, police officers, teachers, nurses, and more. They represent our nation more genuinely than a full-time active force ever could. The men and women in the Guard are more grounded in the communities they represent, and thus are ambassadors to the world. The soldiers of the United States National Guard are the best our nation has to offer.
What of the military effectiveness of Guardsmen? It seems natural to think that part-time Soldiers would be less effective, but there is scant evidence to support that. While some studies have shown that the National Guard has higher combat death rates, too many variables are in play to sustain the assertion. For one, Guard units are often assigned to more dangerous missions. Also, Guard units at home often don’t train with the latest equipment that the active Army uses.
Both factors could be mitigated with a deliberate shift in policy. And there are measurable benefits to a larger Guard component. Maintaining a force of citizen warriors costs much less. They train regularly without requiring the burdensome costs of permanent garrison, salary, and family benefits.
With recruitment reductions, they are becoming even more elite. Minimum test scores are up, bonuses down, and age and physical requirements more stringent. Still, folks are lining up, eager to serve.
Expanding the National Guard would likely bring even more competent men and women into the military, since it presents itself as an option for people who would like to serve without leaving their communities and civilian careers.
Countless prior service personnel also find a home in Guard units across the country. Highly trained and motivated military men and women join their local Guard units after they have completed an active-duty contract.
Our active Army plays a crucial role in our national defense. It is responsible for the training of all defense forces. Its Soldiers test new equipment and establish doctrine. They maintain equipment and man foreign outposts. Yet, the U.S. ought to minimize the necessity of the standing army in order to advance the cause of liberty at home and abroad.
Technology can fill the gaps left by a reduction in active forces. Advanced logistics and a strengthened national will to fight important wars—fueled by the understanding that America’s citizens should and will be willing to fight only when civilian authorities have exhausted the alternatives—will enable rapid mobilization of reserve and Guard components.
America doesn’t need a bloated, full-time, professional army. The founders were mistrustful of that, and we should be, too. Instead, they believed that a robust militia system would be the backbone of our national defense. Today’s National Guard is the logical manifestation of that belief. Our founding fathers have been proven prescient on so many counts since. Too often to our peril we have ignored their warnings.