Denied a combat role in the Persian Gulf war, threatened by massive reductions in force during the Bush era, the Army National Guard today is besieged by demands for its services now that the Cold War is over.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., wants 4,000 Guardsmen on the Mexican border. Washington's Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly seeks the Guard's help in combating her crime wave. Puerto Rico has been tapping into the Guard for supplemental police work. Maryland Guardsmen at Aberdeen Proving Ground are helping to put high school dropouts on the right path. Defense Secretary Les Aspin wants 15 Guard brigades souped up for combat readiness with only 90 days' notice.
And now the biggest, most controversial proposal of all: the Pentagon's bid to create a special volunteer Guard unit to take over peacekeeping duties in the Sinai. This would be without precedent. Those assigned to this mission might require six months training and six months on active duty, a far cry from the concept of the "weekend citizen soldier" in the field only two weeks a year.
This idea may reflect a mixture of Army stress and Army lobbying. But in the past three years, the number of G.I.s on peacekeeping duty in 71 countries has tripled to 21,113 troops. Should an estimated 25,000 more be sent to Bosnia, with rotation requiring triple that number, authorities worry the regular forces may not be able to fight two major regional wars at once as war planners envisage.
There is a serious disconnect between the need for peacekeeping operations in an increasingly turbulent world and the administration's determination to downsize the Army from 567,000 troops in 14 divisions to 480,000 in 10 divisions by 1999. The day after Sun reporter Richard H.P. Sia disclosed plans for using Guard volunteers for peacekeeping duties, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., head of the House military forces subcommittee, said the Army's "personnel numbers are going south too fast and too far."
Maybe so. Maybe not. But until the administration injects some coherence into the confused dialogue about the Guard's proper role and until civilian leaders stop conjuring up dubious ways to take advantage of the Guard's services, Mr. Skelton's concerns are bound to spread.
Traditionally, the Guard's main tasks have been to supplement the regular forces in peacetime and to help on the domestic front when riots or natural disasters occur. But the idea of the Minuteman, with rifle ready on the instant, is a chimera. It took 28 months to gear up Guard divisions for World War II and 17 months in Korea. The gulf war was over before Guard brigades saw action.
As a candidate, President Clinton said a "strong role" for the Guard "makes more sense, not less," in the post Cold War world. It will make sense, however, only if the administration carefully calibrates and clarifies when, where and how the Guard should be or should not be used.