Overuse of Guard Could Undermine Its Effectiveness

After Vietnam, military became overly dependent on its reserve forces

In addition to informing Matt Lauer that the war against terrorism is unwinnable, President George W. Bush made at least one other disingenuous comment to the NBC Today host.

In the interview, which was broadcast during the Republican National Convention, the president said that although his service in the Texas Air National Guard unit during the Vietnam War did not place him in harm’s way, he would have been happy to go to Vietnam if his unit had been called. Really?

Most men who flocked to join the Guard and Reserves during the war in Vietnam did so to evade going there. In order to minimize the public impact of the war and hence a damaging public debate, President Lyndon B. Johnson ignored the advice of the uniformed military and decided that he would expand our forces primarily by increasing draft calls rather than by activating the Guard and Reserves (as we had in all our previous armed conflicts).

Once it became clear that the Guard and Reserves would not be activated, many young men who were anxious to avoid being the last man to die in a hopeless cause and who could not beat the system by receiving multiple deferments – like Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz did – lined up in droves to join Guard units in their states. Of the 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam, less than 1 percent were in the Guard, and only 100 of the 58,000 killed there were members of the Guard.

In the late 1960s, receiving a coveted slot in a Guard unit was akin to winning the lottery, unless you had connections. Bush himself vaulted passed several hundred people who scored higher than he did on the pilot aptitude test, thanks to his family connections.

Moreover, even if Bush’s unit had been activated in the waning days of the war, he could not have gone. Halfway through his obligated tour in the Texas Air National Guard, he transferred to the Alabama Guard to work on Red Blount’s U.S. Senate campaign, missed five months of drills, and failed to take his flight physical, thus making him ineligible to pilot his aircraft. How he was able to do these things still remains a mystery.

If Bush had indeed wanted to serve in the conflict as a pilot, he cold have joined the Air Force or become a naval aviator like his father. As the war dragged on, and the casualties mounted, both the Air Force and Navy had an increasing need for combat pilots. The Marine Corps was having such difficulty recruiting people that for one of the few times in its proud history it had to resort to drafting men for the Corps.

Johnson’s decision not to activate the Guard had disastrous consequences for the Vietnam War and is also causing us problems in Bush’s war in Iraq. The military was forced to send individuals on a constantly rotating basis – rather than as cohesive units – to fight. In addition, since most of the nation’s elite managed to avoid the war entirely, the quality of the recruits was much lower than in previous conflicts.

The military leadership was so upset by these consequences that they constructed a post-Vietnam military that was overly dependent on its Guard and Reserve forces. The military that is conducting the war on terror literally cannot engage in any significant action without calling up a significant portion of the Guard and Reserves. As a result, 40 percent of the troops in Iraq are from the reserve component.

Many Guard and Reserve units have been activated several times since Sept. 11, 2001, and many have been kept on active duty for much longer than the one in every five or six years norm. Furthermore, several thousand individual ready reservists, who have completed their active service and do not belong to any unit, have been summoned to Iraq. The president has compounded this situation by adamantly resisting calls from Congress to increase the size of the active army just as Johnson resisted calls to activate the Guard.

Lyndon Johnson’s over reliance on an unfair draft to fight the war in Vietnam not only undermined our ability to conduct that war, but it ultimately destroyed the draft itself. In January 1973, as the United States was withdrawing its last combat troops from Vietnam, it stopped conscripting men. Likewise, Bush’s overuse of the Guard and Reserve in Iraq will very likely undermine the effectiveness of the Guard and Reserve. This is something that the president should be worried about, not rewriting his history of avoiding the last unnecessary war that this nation engaged in.

Just as he retracted his statement about being unable to win the war on terror, the president should also retract his statements about his willingness to serve in Vietnam and instead increase the size of the active force.

Lawrence J. Korb is senior fellow for the American Progress Action Fund and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. He served as assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration.

This column originally appeared in the Dayton Daily News on September 24, 2004.