A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the National Guard doing fighting overseas, anyway?

July 21, 2009

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the national military mission that the National Guard was created for? I served in the army National Guard while still in high school; then I went into the U.S. navy for three years of active duty. While serving in the Guard, I was told its mission was to respond to the governor's call to duty at times of national disasters, riots, and other domestic emergencies. If that is indeed the mission of the Guard units, why in the devil are they participating in Iraq? No way can one call the Iraqi invasion a riot!

Paperbackwriter replies:

A quick visit to the National Guard’s Web site tells us it has not one but two missions. The "state mission," which you remember from your service, is to “provide trained and disciplined forces for domestic emergencies or as otherwise required by law.” There is also a "federal mission": to “maintain properly trained and equipped units available for prompt mobilization for war, national emergency, or as otherwise needed.” Guard troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere abroad are fulfilling this federal mission.

Where did this second mission come from, and why haven't you heard more about it before? The thing to understand is that the National Guard wasn’t just created out of thin air. Yes, the National Guard as we know it today was the result of the Dick Act (no snickering, please) of 1903, but its antecedents date back all the way to the colonial militias that existed before the American Revolution. The first militia companies were organized in Virginia and Massachusetts at the time that those colonies were established. The North, South, and East militia regiments organized by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 have descendant regiments in today’s Army National Guard, making the Guard the oldest branch of our military.

The mission of those militias was to defend the colonies from attack and suppress internal disorder. During the revolution the militia famously fired the first shots against the British at Lexington and Concord and were instrumental in many battles. After the revolution the founders almost universally favored militias over a standing professional army; the Articles of Confederation forbade maintenance of armed troops in peacetime beyond the minimum necessary to garrison forts. This reliance on militias became a problem in the early days of the republic, however, when Shays's Rebellion erupted in western Massachusetts, pitting one group of militiamen against another.

The Constitutional Convention was called in part as a reaction to Shays's Rebellion, and Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution contains the "armies clause"; “Congress may declare war [and] raise and support armies …” The Constitution did not, however, eliminate militias; today’s National Guard still derives its authority from a series of constitutional "militia clauses." These clauses establish congressional power to “organize, arm, and discipline” the militias while ensuring that Congress cannot disarm them. This is where the federal government gets the authority to deploy the various states' National Guard units overseas.

The National Guard thus isn’t called upon solely in cases of riots or disasters, but I can understand how one might think that given how the Guard was used for much of the 20th century. Although the constitutional foundation for the National Guard hasn’t changed, the deployment of these units has varied considerably over the last 217 years. (A key point: when the Guard is called into federal service, the entire branch isn’t federalized, only selected units.) For example, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American war were fought almost entirely by state militia units; in the Civil War the first units to see battle were militia, but these gave way to volunteer regiments and eventually drafted servicemen. U.S. ground troops in the Spanish-American war were a mix of guardsmen, volunteers, and regulars, but Guard units were decidedly in the minority in World Wars I and II. This was also the case in the Korean war, and guardsmen played only a minimal role in the Vietnam war. By this time civilians and guardsmen alike thought of the Guard as a force that primarily operated within the U.S., as this had become its principal cold-war era function. As Cecil has discussed, enlisting in the Guard was seen as a way to avoid serving in Vietnam.

When the cold war ended, the troop strength of the regular armed forces was severely reduced. The Army went from 18 divisions in 1987 to 10 in 1999, the Air Force went from 25 fighter wings to 13, and the total active-duty military personnel strength went from 2.17 million to 1.43 million. As a result of these drawdowns, the Guard and Reserves were modernized to provide a ready source of troops for contingencies. While the use of the Guard in the Gulf War and in Iraq and Afghanistan is a departure from the practice of the preceding era, it is fully in keeping with their legal foundation.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.


Articles of Confederation. From the Library of Congress site: http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/articles.html

"Constitutional Charter of the Guard." From the Army National Guard site: http://www.arng.army.mil/constitution.aspx

United States General Accounting Office. Military Personnel: High Aggregate Personnel Levels Maintained Throughout Drawdown. Washington, D.C.: United States General Accounting Office, June 1995

Wright, Robert. Massachusetts Militia Roots: A Bibliographic Study. Washington, D.C.: Departments of the Army and the Air Force Historical Services Branch Office of Public Affairs National Guard Bureau, 1986

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