Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Relations Sour Between Army and Its Guardsmen

Squabbling reaches historic high over representation on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and new cuts in US ground forces.

The United States Army and the Army National Guard have quarreled over resources and responsibilities since the birth of the nation.

But relations between the active Army and the 370,000-strong reserve force may never have been as poor as they are now.

About these ads

Defying the objections of the Pentagon's civilian and military hierarchy, the Senate approved an amendment to the 1998 defense bill that would add a National Guard chair to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the council comprising the heads of the military services.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, faces tough going in House-Senate talks on the defense bill. But even if it fails, the damage has already been done.

While it is unlikely to impact military operations, the heightened animosity has further hurt the reservists' morale and soured cooperation between their leaders and their active-duty counterparts.

"There can be no greater division between the Army National Guard and the active Army than now exists," asserts retired Gen. Edward Philbin, executive director of the Washington-based National Guard Association of the United States.

The so-called Stevens amendment followed the release in May of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Pentagon's latest post-cold war attempt to balance US military requirements with growing constraints on defense spending.

The Army National Guard says the regular Army failed to consult it before including in the QDR a plan to cut the reservist contingent by 38,000 troops. The Army itself is to lose 15,000 troops, while 7,000 would be shorn from the Army reserve.

Three days of talks in June failed to resolve the dispute.

About these ads

National Guard officials contend that the regular Army could save US taxpayers more money without compromising national security by eliminating more of its own troops, whose functions can be performed just as effectively by National Guard units. And a National Guard member of the JCS would have ensured that such an option would have received serious consideration, they say.

Underlying the plan, however, is a deeper question of respect. The Army National Guard says its active-duty brethren have treated it like a second-class organization since the Revolutionary War. Only by awarding the National Guard its own JCS slot can the historic wrongs be righted, they argue.

"There has been acrimony for 221 years, but the QDR exacerbated the problems," says Gen. Philbin.

Active-duty commanders reject those contentions. They argue that with a tight budget, the post-cold war downsizing of the military and the unprecedented pace of overseas operations, the reservists should give up resources to their full-time colleagues

Many independent experts agree, saying the Army National Guard, with the help of congressional supporters eager to win political capital back in their districts, is simply trying to protect its turf.

These experts argue that because of the new international landscape and advances in technology, conflicts the US will face in coming decades will likely be confined within small regions and quickly resolved. Maintaining large pools of reserves consumes resources badly needed by the full-time force, they assert. "The real risk is that we are not going to keep the active force ready enough or well-equipped enough," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.

The Pentagon's objections to placing a National Guard officer on the JCS, however, are not just about money.

The six-member JCS and Defense Secretary William Cohen argue that adding a National Guard position could be tantamount to creating a brand new military service, undermining the active Army's planning and cohesion. "I am concerned that creating this additional four-star position ... would be decisive and counterproductive to the goal of greater unity," Mr. Cohen writes in a July 10th letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.