By DAN K. THOMASSON
Not long ago while perusing reports of the daily slaughter in Iraq, I noticed that one of those killed in action was a 48-year-old enlisted man with five children.
What, I asked myself, is a man of that age with those responsibilities doing in this fight? We didn’t take those men in World War II. Then it occurred to me. He was either a member of the National Guard or the Reserve.
The recent casualty lists from Iraq reflect a military problem common to most wars but punctuated in this one by the apparent lack of professional troops, a reliance on citizen soldiers who signed up for the National Guard to serve their states and to be called up to federal duty in extraordinary times. Iraq seems to be one of those times as the U.S. military struggles to keep up with the manpower demands.
The result has been the loss of their services, often permanently, to their families and communities that was never anticipated when they enlisted for part time duty in what has been known, sometimes derisively and unfairly, as the “weekend warriors.” These are often men and women approaching middle age who come from the same locale, not 18-year-old regular military volunteers who come together from different parts of the country. The impact, therefore, can be devastating to their towns.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, sees this as one of the major concerns of the continuing long-term deployment of Guard troops, calling the overuse of these forces the result of “a tone deafness” that has plagued the war planning and management from the beginning. He notes that in his state 80 percent of the guard has been called to fight in Iraq, “exacting a huge strain on families and employers both private and public.” The losses to community services include policemen, nurses and teachers, fathers and mothers.
Almost daily there is a new report of a father or even a mother who has left the children to head for the war zone, something that would have been unimaginable in previous conflicts. As a youngster immediately following World War II, I remember vividly seeing several survivors of the Bataan death march who had been called up in the National Guard and sent to the Philippines as the war approached. A recent acquaintance, Nick Chintis, an Indiana boy who had gone to play basketball in New Mexico, joined that state’s Guard, a coastal artillery unit, and with a teammate became one of the heroes of that terrible experience, returning to and remaining in his adopted college-town community of Silver City the rest of his life.
But that was a time when the pre-Pearl Harbor standing military was tiny and the first draft was being instituted only as a precaution with draftees serving a short time. Certainly, Guard units carried much of the fighting load at the beginning and even throughout World War II. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of that conflict, was a member of the Texas National Guard. When Korea began, U.S. permanent forces had been drastically reduced so units like the Oklahoma National Guard once more had to carry much of the water until regular Army units could be trained.
The difference now, however, is enormous. This was supposed to be a limited engagement in two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, to be fought by regular career troops. The fact that it is now being undertaken by a disproportionate number of part-timers is, as Huckabee noted, testimony to the bad planning that went into this exercise. He points out that although the number of casualties in Iraq is low in comparison to other wars, including Vietnam, the impact is horrendous when men and women vital to their families and communities are killed.
As the Congress debates the plan to increase U.S. troops by 21,500 and President Bush asks for funds to bolster the manpower in the Army and Marine Corps, it has become clear that many of those in the Reserves and National Guard, most of whom are in their second tour, probably will have their terms extended once again. This is a problem facing governors when their states’ own needs arise. It is also a dilemma for any number of cities and towns across the nation where important members of the community are being missed as never before in what was supposed to be a short-term affair and has now lasted longer than World War II.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)