Wrecking the Reserves

The Washington Times, October 15, 2003
Wrecking . . . and fixing the Reserves
By Philip Gold/Erin Solaro

Soldiers grouse. Thus is it ever. Most often, it’s benign. But sometimes, complaining indicates deeper problems.
The “weekend warriors” are complaining. Big time. And a lot of folks who ought to know better are complaining about their complaining. For at issue is the very legitimacy of the concept of the citizen-soldier. And in the age now upon us, no issue is more critical to the national defense.
The present situation: Since September 11, 2001, more than 212,000 citizen-soldiers have been mobilized, a figure that excludes state-ordered National Guard deployments. There are more than 170,000 reservists and Guard members on active duty, about 80,000 of them in Iraq. (This figure excludes all those who did prior tours in Bosnia and elsewhere under the Clinton regime.)
Perhaps 20,000 will have their tours extended for up to a year. The Pentagon has announced that many more reservists, including three National Guard combat brigades, may be mobilized if additional multinational forces don’t materialize. The Army has placed its entire reserve on a “war footing.”
So what’s the griping about? Disruption of civilian lives, mostly: family separation, loss of income, loss of jobs (illegal, but happening), the kinds of damage that long mobilizations inflict. Add to this the inherent inequity of partial mobilization and living conditions in Iraq and elsewhere, and it’s no wonder the protesting Web sites are sprouting.
But something deeper is involved. A little history.
From the Athenian ancients to the Anglo-Saxon fyrd to the American Founders, citizen participation in the common defense has been deemed politically and militarily vital. But no philosopher, and no military system, ever assumed that citizen obligation was limitless. These limits took many forms. But the most crucial was the distinction between homeland defense and expeditionary campaigning. The former could entail something resembling unlimited obligation, although even as late as the Civil War, short-term enlistments remained the norm. But foreign adventures were always limited, by law, contract or custom, either to the duration of the campaign or some fixed term of service.
Throughout the Cold War, most democracies drafted; a few still do. But most democracies tied conscription to homeland defense. French and German draftees couldn’t leave their home territory. The Swiss accepted conscription because it was clear Switzerland wasn’t going to invade anybody. And conscription was more than acceptable in Israel. It was sacrosanct — until the 1982 Lebanon invasion drew the country into its first major action not clearly related to national survival.
Among democracies, only the United States assumed draftees could be sent anywhere to do anything. And when the Vietnam War turned sour, the legitimacy of conscription, and the whole notion of citizen obligation, were shattered.
Then came Gen. Creighton Abrams, the Army chief of staff, a wise and prescient man who determined to restructure the Army so it could not go to war again without major reserve augmentation, i.e., without the popular support necessary to accept that mobilization. The “Total Force Policy” quickly became standard for all the services, and has worked well.
But, starting the latter 1970s, the Guard and reserves became a human reservoir for tasks that the active forces either couldn’t or didn’t care to do.
We are now into our fourth decade of using the citizen-soldiery thus, not just as reinforcements for the regulars but as substitutes. And the citizen-soldiery is wearing out and getting out, and most seriously, beginning to question the whole concept. They will not much longer consent to being treated as conscripts. And even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has conceded it’s time for some serious reconceiving of the missions and structures of the citizen-soldiery.
Absolutely. But we would go further. We believe this is the right moment for a serious national debate on 21st-century military obligation. Everything ought to be “on the table,” including the remaining restrictions on women. And we believe both political wisdom and military necessity will lead us back to a 21st-century version (this time, including all citizens) of the Founders’ original intent:
•A professional force, adequate for its routine tasks.
• A three-tier citizen-soldiery, some units and individuals available for expeditionary campaigning, others (save in extremis) homeland defense only, still others more paramilitary “first responders” than deployable forces. Some reservists might switch categories several times during their service. Others might stay in the homeland forces for their careers.
We are not advocating conscription. We do urge broadening the concept of citizen service and expanding the opportunities to serve, against the perils that lie ahead. And we believe continuing to rely on a couple million volunteers is neither militarily practical nor politically and morally wise.
As citizens, we are, all of us, responsible for the common defense. And it’s time we remembered it.


2 thoughts on “Wrecking the Reserves”

  1. I find it ironic, as an Army Reservist, that I was mobilized to go to Iraq, in order to replace an Active Duty Officer who needed to rotate back to Europe after 3 months to take a job to further his career. Of course, this resulted in the loss of my civilian job. The US Army has declared that “their” active personnel careers are more important than mine, by action, if not words.

    Now, as a military contractor, (one of the few jobs I’ve been able to get hired into, as the civilian employers I’ve applied to are spooked about hiring a reservist) I see the Army Reserve reclassifying individuals into other military career fields to be sent to Iraq, while a significant portion of Active Duty soldiers have done nothing for the Army, deployment-wise.

    Bottom line: The US Army is not taking the war in Iraq seriously, personnel-management-wise, and is abusing the reserves out of laziness, or perhaps out of a sense of vindictiveness. I think it is time for the Army to shake the sick, lame, lazy and cowardly out of their welfare system. Then, we can talk about how to more effectively use the reserves.

  2. Hi, Drew. This article is nearly four years old and I’m amazed at how much more applicable it is today.

    The Army has done severe institutional harm to itself in these years, and nearly destroyed the Reserves and Guard. Just as Vietnam ruined the legitimacy of conscription, Iraq has pretty much ruined the legitmacy of Reserve and Guard service. (My hat is off to folks in the Guard and Reserve who stay in when they have a choice.)

    As in the aftermath of Vietnam, it is going to take decades to undo the damage. But these are decades we probably don’t have: we live in a far more dangerous world.

    Thank you for the comment,

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