This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.
Think about this for a moment: in a country whose infrastructure is falling apart and where an inequality gap of monumental proportions is still growing, at least we should feel remarkably well-protected. After all, in the last fiscal year, the Pentagon, the one institution in Washington that only seems to receive more taxpayer dollars every year, spent 103 million of them to send thousands of National Guard troops to our southern border. It is expected to spend another $308 million in fiscal 2019 mainly to fund them to string concertina wire and twiddle their thumbs. At least that much (and probably more) will be spent maintaining Army units on that same border, as several thousand more troops are soon to be dispatched there. In 2019, it's estimated that up to 5,800 troops and 2,300 members of the National Guard will continue to be deployed to support and reinforce the president's oversized ego in those borderlands.
When it comes to infrastructure, however, despite his past promises of $1.5 trillion in investment and the barest of nods to such financing in his recent State of (Dis)Union Speech, the main infrastructure Donald J. Trump seems intent on financing with all that concertina wire is the shaky set of great walls inside his still expanding head.
If only we could see that set of structures, we would surely be awed. Since we can't caravan into his brain, however, how about spending a little time instead with TomDispatchregular Rebecca Gordon. Consider just what that strange and, as she puts it, "unregulated" fellow in the Oval Office, who has already felt so free to send the National Guard off in search of his particular demons on that southern border, may do with those same troops in 2019. Who will be his next set of demons, the next caravanning crew to inhabit his disordered brain and our increasingly disordered world? It might even be us. Tom
The Uses of a Well-Regulated Militia by an Unregulated President
Where Will the National Guard Be Sent in 2019?
By Rebecca Gordon
A young friend is seriously considering joining her state's National Guard. She's a world-class athlete, but also a working-class woman from a rural background competing in a rich person's sport. Between seasons, she works for a local farm and auctioneer to put together the money for equipment and travel.
Each season, raising the necessary money to compete is a touch-and-go proposition, so she's now talking to the National Guard. If, after basic training, she joins the Army's World Class Athletes Program as a reservist, her service will essentially consist of competing in her sport. She'll get an annual salary, health care, college tuition -- all to do what she loves and wants to do anyway. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, she could end up fighting in one of this country's forever wars.
That's what happened to thousands of National Guard troops and reservists when Washington discovered its all-volunteer forces were woefully inadequate for the project of occupying Iraq after the 2003 invasion. As then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously explained, Washington went to war with the Army it had, "not the Army you might wish you have." So the National Guard filled in the gaps, supplying up to 41% of the troops deployed there by 2005. By 2011, more than 300,000 Guards had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
Real Soldiers Fighting Real Wars
Members of the National Guard sign on to train one weekend a month and two weeks a year in return for some substantial rewards, including (at the moment) a possible $20,000 signing bonus. But what many of them don't realize is how likely it is that, somewhere along the line, they'll be deployed for a lot more than two weeks.
The National Guard isn't the only force whose members sign up for 12 weekends and two weeks a year. The regular armed forces also maintain reserves, soldiers who want to combine military service with civilian life. Unlike the National Guard, however, they answer only to federal, not to dual (state and federal), authority. Like the Guard, reservists can be deployed for much longer than a weekend. A photograph sent home from Iraq by a reservist classically summed up the situation encountered by both types of part-time soldiers, then and now. It shows a military vehicle with this sign displayed across the windshield: "One Weekend a Month, My Ass!"
In fact, as the Guard explains, its "343,000 Soldiers, 8 division headquarters, 27 brigade combat teams, 55 functional support brigades, 42 multifunctional brigades, 8 combat aviation brigades and 2 Special Forces groups" make it an integral part of the U.S. armed forces. Today, it operates 42% of all military aircraft and supplies 39% of the Army's operational forces -- essentially the same proportion it provided during the early years of the Iraq War.
For example, although President Obama officially ended Operation Enduring Freedom (the U.S.'s post-9/11 war in Afghanistan) in 2014, the Guard continues to deploy to that very war zone, with 400 Illinois reservists, another 400 from Wisconsin, 100 from Georgia, 50 from Colorado, and 46 from New York sent there as recently as this December and January. And not only are they being deployed to Afghanistan, but they're still dying there. Among the 60 sent from Utah in November 2018, for instance, was Brent Taylor, the mayor of the town of North Ogden, who was killed during an "insider attack" at a base in Kabul. Given the provisional peace agreement reportedly now being negotiated between the U.S. and the Taliban, there is at least a modest hope that the deployments of such part-time soldiers to America's longest war may end in some imaginable future.
As TomDispatch regular Nick Turse has observed, it's difficult to get specifics from the U.S. military about much of anything, whether it's foreign bases or deployment numbers. But it's clear that the Guard now goes everywhere the regular Army and Air Force go. Its members have served in U.S. conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, among other places. They are now deployed in at least 56 countries around the world, from Macedonia and Kosovo to Egypt, not to mention the Mexican border inside the U.S.
The Guard appreciates the special skills its members develop in civilian life, which is how the 50-year-old uncle of one of my students found himself deployed as a doctor in Iraq in 2005. Indeed, the soldiers who so infamously abused detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison back in 2004 also had special skills honed in their civilian jobs -- as prison guards. In fact, Specialist Charles Graner, the torturers' ringleader, wrote home at the time, "The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'"
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