Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Need for the National Guard

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.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Big Brother Doesn't Care About Me

My wife and I rely on Skype for our communication, it is a wonderful thing. But doesn't our reliance on and confidence in it put us at risk of becoming victim to some sort of "Enemy of the State" conspiracy in which the evil one behind dozens of computer terminals knows our every move and thought?

Indeed, it seems that the infrastructure for Orwell's 1984 is firmly in place.

But, instead of being hapless victims in the scheme to steal our anonymity, privacy, and individuality, we're willing accomplices! We voluntarily submit as much information to the machine as we possibly can.

I play along, of course. I don't worry one bit. As a matter of fact, it is one of my goals-- and I know I am not alone-- to rank as high as I possibly can on a Google search of my name. This is the price of status in our brave new world.

Some years ago I participated in the "unionization of we web surfers." The company was called AllAdvantage, and it paid people to surf while displaying ads in their proprietary ad bar. I must have made about $1500 all told.

A coworker scoffed, informing me that they were tracking my purchases, site activity, and personal habits on the web. No amount of money would be enough for him to surrender such private information.

Not for me. $30 bucks will do it in most cases. Call me naive, but I don't care if some computer in silicon valley knows what web sites I've visited, or if some algorithm in a grocery store's computer knows what kind of peanut butter I usually buy on weekends.

As to Skype, I told me wife that anyone who had the capability of listening in on our conversations probably had more important things-- or people-- to listen to.

All this technology is making my life easier. And if I worry too much about all the bad that could come of it, then I'm only making Big Brother suspicious.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Our Beloved George

A member of our family died yesterday. George, our five year-old cat, passed away, probably of complications from a urinary tract infection.

He was personable (always ready to be held and share his unparalleled cuddling skills), talented (he could fetch as well as any dog out there), selfless (having taken his adopted younger sister, Weezy, under his wing in our huge house), and as hardworking as a feline could be (which is to say, not very).

Some memories that come to my mind and shared by others will be cherished. For one, George could eat anything. He would famously put his paws on the dining room table at dinner time and peer onto the surface not-so-subtly hinting that he felt excluded. At least he was not choosy; he'd eat bread, fruit, and anything else he could get his paws on.

He was decidedly self-sufficient in other ways. He awed many an onlooker by cranking the bath tub faucet to the on position in order to get a drink. He never had a problem with opening it up only slightly enough to coax out a drizzle, although when the shower stop was left up, he was in for more than he bargained. It was also problematic when we corrected the fact that the left valve opened the cold water. As a righty, George always preferred the left side. But he pressed on, never worrying about the fact that he couldn't close what he so easily opened.

We loved the way he would stand guard at the front window of our home, hopping off his perch excitedly as he saw us pull in the driveway. Out of the same window set he once decided to escape. We had the left windows open so the fresh paint on the sill could dry; his paw prints were the crucial evidence we needed to bring him up on charges.

If we had to list one fault, it was his impatience, at least in the morning. Though he would sleep well through the night, when morning came he needed that first meal, and devised ever more diabolical methods for waking the humans. At first he could strum the metal blinds, making an awful grating sound. Then he would drum the steel file cabinet in from a standing position, causing a steady beat that said, "Wake up!, wake up!" He then moved on to patting one's face, gently at first, with incrementally greater tenacity and claw.

We and our friends share many more wonderful memories of that cat (how about the time he was lost in a Utah snowstorm on his first Christmas?) Please comment back and share those memories here.

George, you will be missed.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Teaching at Musa Zajmi

Serving a peacekeeping mission to Kosovo has given me many opportunities, and a recent one I had was to reconnect with my civilian profession: teaching.

I never realized how much I enjoyed teaching, especially math, until I began a career as a full-time professional Soldier. I left the classroom over two years ago, just days before I shipped to Basic Training. Since then I have worked as a consultant, visiting many classrooms and students, but not having any to call my own.

Last Friday visited another classroom, at a school called Musa Zajmi in Gjilane, Kosovo. I had asked the month before if I could teach a math class, and the teachers there graciously assented. It was a bit unnerving—I had never taught to a classroom full of Albanian-speaking students—but I feel very at ease teaching, so I quickly found myself lost in the moment.

Soldiers looking for improvement would conduct an After Action Review following any drill, exercise, or mission. Good teachers do the same thing. Here are a few things that I noted.

Three things I did well were in the areas of preparation and presentation. First, I followed a lesson plan that has served me well in my years of teaching my own students and evaluating other teachers. It consisted of a warm up phase, a short presentation, practice, and a closure. Even in the short classes (30 minutes) I was able to keep students interested by moving from one activity to the next frequently and efficiently.

My second strength was to have everything written for the students. I had everything translated into Albanian (I even learned a few phrases myself) so that student could check what I was saying against the written version.

Finally, I had a specific objective that corresponded with our activity and end-of-lesson exercise. Students understood that my expectations of them were very narrow, and they didn’t have to concern themselves with peripheral facts and formulas.

A few things I could improve on are: creating a small homework task that was more tightly-aligned to the objective, having students identify themselves, and being clearer about instructions during the lesson.

The last point is a particularly important one. Clarity is the most important trait instruction can have (after accuracy, I suppose). I did my best, given the circumstances, to make my intentions crystal clear to these Kosovar students. But even small things, like asking for volunteers, can get muddled and have cumulatively detrimental effects on learning. For instance, in an attempt to get a variety of students up to the board I employed a simple strategy that I have used in the U.S., which was to require the student at the board to choose the next participant. In my experience, students choose their friends or others who might not want to go to the board.

What happened at Musa Zajmi was that students chose their classmates who also raised their hands. Thus, only the most confident students got to the board. I could have been more explicit about my desire to see a greater variety of students demonstrating at the chalkboard.

I had a lot of fun, and practiced a skill that is too easily lost in my case. I want to remain sharp, reflective, and progressive. Teaching at Musa Zajmi helped me do it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My One-track Mind

I realized that I had not written much that was not military related in some time. It got me wondeing why I was so obsessed with the Army?

Well, isn't it logical? I am serving a deployment. To say that I am working for the Army full time is an understatement. I carry my weapon nearly all of my waking hours, and am on call for military duties 24/7. I do have some down time, but even that is spent performing maintenance on my equipment and getting ready for more work.

We are in a sort of news vaccuum out here, and the people I see, even at the "store" or at dinner, are all here for the same thing, and only reinforce the mindset that comes along with a deployment.

Needless to say, I have to make every effort to redirect my thoughts away from the Army, and I don't often have epitomies about things that used to occupy my mind. So, it's hard to be clever about topics about which a Factotum should be clever.

But it's important. I don't want to be so narrow. Does it not go to the heart of the question about whether it is good to be generalists or specialists? I would rather be the former, but certianly our society needs specialists. Maybe I am still looking for what really motivates me. Do we all find a speciality in the end?

I hope that's not the inevitable conclusion to our lives' paths. I love teaching, but I joined the military knowing full well that it could take me away from it. I am also trying to get into investing, but a teacher's salary doesn't exactly foster a climate of investment opportunity. The Army has taught me a bit about video editing, and I am learning more in hopes of applying it to my teaching. I also love writing, and both math and my military service have given me fodder to practice the craft.

At any rate, I like to dabble in lots of things. It's enjoyable, and I would encourage those around me to do the same. I am making my best attempt to avoid keeping my mind on one lonely track.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Biggest Federal Work Program

One realizes on an Army deployment that there are many Soldiers who don’t do much work. They represent all ranks and branches, and they are a drag on Army Efficiency.
But, if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written about the Army, you’ll know that I’ve never accused the Army of being efficient. Nevertheless, the reality is that too many Soldiers take advantage of the opportunity that Uncle Sam gives them to collect a paycheck without much effort.

A certain Sergeant Major—-representative of many, many more—-is past the point when he can retire. There are likely many E-8s who can fill his shoes admirably, so in the spirit of preparing the younger generation and giving troops an opportunity to grow, what does he do?

He stays on. And why not? He can take one more short year of his life away from home to collect good pay on deployment. He’s pulling in over $6,000 a month base pay. Add to that the housing allowance of over two grand, plus a few little extra goodies like sustenance pay, separation pay, and hazardous duty pay. All this is tax free.

So while the Army looks to replenish its ranks with young men and women, enticing them with bonuses and college money, it is merely adding to the dole of the largest Federal Work Program. Many politicians lament the size of our military, saying the money is better used helping put people to work. It already is.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is the Army Effective?

I was a Truck Commander today. That’s a glorified way of saying that I sat in the passenger seat while my buddy drove the humvee from the dispatch lot to our working area.

We had been assigned a vehicle, but the only one available was a tactical humvee. With any tactical vehicle come too many rules and restrictions. You need a ground guide to move in and out of parking lots, Kevlar helmets must be worn by all vehicle occupants, and drivers need to place blocks and drip pans whenever shutting down. So even though we are only driving the truck on paved roads in a one-mile radius at no more than 18 miles per hour, we are burdened with all these inefficiencies.

I understand that the United States Army is not designed to run with ruthless drive for profits. But the mentality of thoroughness translates into other areas. It took several man-hours to get the vehicle signed over to us. Two Specialists, a Sergeant First Class, a Major, and a civilian contractor all had their hands in the transaction. What productive items of business could at least some of these soldiers been engaged in?
There is no such thing as “military efficiency.” The U.S. Army is not efficient. It is thorough. Thoroughness can serve us well, but should it be the highest priority?
How many bright, talented people are stifled in the military because they are forced to comply with endless regulations and redundancies? In the world of the Army, even these people, as smart as they may be, end up as mindless automatons, more worried about compliance and approval from their superiors than about getting a job done right.

Frustration is the call word, even among these people. Everyone in the Army loves to say express how screwed up it is. One high-ranking officer told me not too long ago, “You need to become an officer so you can fix this.”

“You’re an officer!,” I shouted in my mind! It seems everyone can see how fouled up the system is, but no one sees how screwed up it is in their own area of responsibility, and nobody wants to tell their superiors that the way we’ve been doing it sucks.

At Basic Training, when I thought twice about executing a command that sounded mistaken, my drill sergeant told me not to second guess myself. As I noted then, even when you’re right, you look like an ass if you’re the only one.

That truism holds in the everyday institutional army. It is much easier to hide behind caution smothered in ineffectiveness, then to tread into open ground of risk, where the potential of figuring out better ways to do things lurk.

The Army is effective at being a behemoth of an organization, and can run itself for the sake of running itself.