COMMENTARY | There has always been a bit of a divide between full-time, professional soldiers and militiamen. Nations and governments have long struggled with how to best utilize these two separate and differentiated resources. Full-time soldiers are always on call, quicker to mobilize, are less likely to be leaving civilian employers (and families) in a lurch if rapidly deployed, and may be somewhat better trained and motivated. However, they are expensive, especially in times of peace. Militiamen, by contrast, train regularly in case they are needed and, when things are peaceful, contribute to the civilian economy and raise productive families.
Full-time soldiers have fought alongside militiamen for millenia. In recent decades, however, the United States has more closely integrated its “militias,” the National Guard and Reserve units, closer to the operations of its active-duty forces. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, National Guard units were being sent for full-length combat tours. This stands in stark contrast to just 35-40 years earlier, when many young men sought entry into the National Guard to avoid being sent to Vietnam.
Unlike during Vietnam, the National Guard is now an active component in foreign wars. Its role has drastically expanded. In January 2014 Army General Frank Grass declared that National Guard units were “interchangeable” with active-duty units and that it would be dangerous to allow the National Guard to revert to its less-trained, less-prepared status from before 9/11, says DoDbuzz.com.
But with big defense cuts looming, threatening to reduce America’s military to pre-WWII size, a debate is ensuing over whether it is appropriate to subject the National Guard to proportionally greater cuts than active-duty. Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC) has said that the active duty force “hasn’t felt the pain the National Guard has felt, and this is not how you show your thanks,” reports CNN. Major General Wesley Craig, head of the Pennsylvania National Guard, says that National Guard should be spared cuts since the costs of a National Guard unit are approximately only one-third of the costs of a regular Army unit, according to pennlive.com.
As of right now, the National Guard is slated to give up some of its more expensive equipment, such as the Apache helicopter, to active-duty units, reports medium.com, and may see an overall reduction in manpower of up to 20 percent. State governors are decrying the cost-cutting as dangerous because National Guard units help with domestic crises like natural disaster relief. Republican governors like Haley and Texas’ Rick Perry have accused the National Guard cuts of having political overtones, says TIME, with cuts to the states-based Guard being used as federal cuts intentionally to penalize the states.
This brewing discontent, perhaps exemplified by Haley’s “slap in the face” comment, could signal a battle between National Guard and active-duty supporters in terms of funding. Which should keep most of its money? Which is more cost-effective? Which is more beneficial? The budget battle could get ugly, with supporters of one group disparaging the other group. It will also likely bring the forefront many simmering debates about the nature of the National Guard and whether it should be what it has become.
Will we retain a powerful, fully-equipped, combat-savvy National Guard, or will we let it revert to a disaster-fighting militia? How many families rely on members’ benefits from being in the Guard, and will they be hurt by cuts worse than families of active-duty personnel? Whose jobs, active-duty or Guard, should we focus more on sparing?