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The Common Defense

The National Guard, the true descendent of the citizen-soldier militia, has become a sad and incoherent shell of itself.

D.C. National Guard
(Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Imagine a long line of people—men—winding down a city street. Of various race, age, background, and education, all are heeding their country’s call. After the war, they will not think themselves brave. They merely fulfilled their republican duty, that of a citizen-soldier. It is a proud American tradition rooted in the free societies of the past. The Second World War has often been called “the last good war” our country has fought. It was also the last typified by the citizen-soldier. 

For most of the colonial period, Britain kept a loose leash on its American colonies. Average civilians had to cut out a hardscrabble life in the wild frontier. Left on their own, this reality created a citizenry accustomed to the rights and responsibilities inherent in autonomy. As long as the flow of raw materials flowed freely back to the mother country, the colonists were left to their own devices. 


A culture of self-governance and self-defense was a natural outgrowth of this reality. Without parliament or the army, the common man had to shoulder both burdens. Continuing the Western tradition of the citizen-soldier, the American colonist farmed his land, participated in local politics, and when necessary, bore arms in its defense. He did this because there was no one else to do it for him. As European states modernized and specialized, outsourcing their violence more and more to “professionals,” American society remained an anomaly out of necessity. 

At the heart of this phenomena was the militia. Consisting of every able-bodied male that could provide and carry his own musket, the burden of war and peace was broadly shared. Whether it be fighting fires or natives, every man was expected to understand that his survival was contingent on that of the community’s. Militia service was inseparable from civic service, with men of stature holding posts in each capacity. The plow and musket were both equally important tools of survival in colonial America, and every man was expected to be well versed in their use.

After the French and Indian War, the British state needed to recoup some of its expenditures from keeping the American colonies safe. The Stamp Act followed, with the attendant tension between the colonies and the metropolis, which came to a head at Lexington and Concord as British regulars attempted to seize arms from colonial militias. 

Immortalized in the “shot heard round the world,” the citizen-soldier stood valiantly against his professional counterpart. Ironically, historical memory from this point forward paints a negative picture of the militia. More professionally minded military men castigated the irregular forces amongst their ranks, considering them untrustworthy to stand and fight in a pitched battle. Indeed, once the gentry became involved in the Revolution, the impetus for a Continental Army formed along the European model evolved. George Washington, a former British officer himself, championed this view, wishing to mold colonial troops into a facsimile of the enemy’s professional army. Trapped in the conventional military thinking of the era, it was an attempt to fight a superior force on their own terms, leading to oftentimes disastrous results. 

The lone voice of reason was a man by the name of Charles Lee. Lee understood the reality of the colonial situation. Militiamen weren’t cowards in avoiding pitched battles, they merely didn’t wish to die for nothing. He favored a strategy involving small, mobile, semi-autonomous local forces. The goal was to wear down their foes, forcing them into an unpopular and wasteful counter-insurgency, presaging the type of combatant that would continually defeat the future professional army of the United States. Unfortunately, he was a man before his time, descending into ignominy. Fortunately, through the assistance of the French, conventional American forces under control of Washington were able to secure victory against the British. 


With the conclusion of the war, the Continental Army was disbanded. In the modern era of American global military supremacy, the early American distrust of regular military forces is often forgotten. Professional soldiers were viewed as a critical component of tyranny. A vestige of this tendency is enshrined in the overlooked Third Amendment, forbidding the quartering of troops in private homes during peacetime, and only as prescribed by law during war. A small regular force was maintained to guard the frontier, bolstered by militia in times of war, and reduced again after peace was established. 

This model was maintained throughout the nineteenth century and lasted until America’s first foray into imperialism. Leading up to the Spanish–American War, the regular Army was not deemed large enough for the enterprise. However, the Constitution disallowed the use of the militia for anything other than suppressing rebellion, repelling invasions, and executing the law. To circumvent this, Congress enacted a law allowing for the recruitment of a Volunteer Army, maintained only during the existence of war, or while war was imminent. Members were taken from state militias and new enlistments for a mandated two years, or at the conclusion of hostilities.

Although the U.S. Army was victorious, the war taught the regulars important lessons, signaling the death of the frontier Army. Fighting professional European armies in foreign lands was a bit different from fighting Comanches and Lakota Sioux. The Volunteer Army, mainly consisting of militia troops from various states, was woefully under-equipped with antiquated kit and weaponry. In response to this deficiency came the Militia Act of 1903. The militia system was transformed into what we now know as the National Guard. Federal funding was now available for the equipment and training required to modernize state military forces to meet regular Army standards. 

The traditional restriction of militia serving overseas was permanently overcome with the National Defense Act of 1916, allowing National Guard members to be discharged from state militia service and drafted them into federal service when operating under federal authority. By 1933, the transition was completed. The National Guard primarily became a reserve component of the United States Army and secondarily a state militia force. 

Today, the National Guard is tasked with an impossible mission. Domestically, it has been tasked with everything from Covid response, protecting Congress from the aftermath of “insurrection,” guarding the southern border, and local emergency response. On top of that, it serves to augment and supplant a regular Army that has been suffering historic recruitment and retention issues. The National Guard has two contradictory missions, domestic emergency response and expeditionary military activities. Because funding primarily comes from the federal government, war fighting takes a primary focus. 

As the needs of the regular Army increase, the attention paid to its other duties and the Guardsmen’s civilian lives decrease. “One weekend a month, two weeks out the summer” is largely a thing of the past as the Guard is leaned upon to suffer the inadequacies of their full-time sister service. What was once established as a local protective force has increasingly become a tool of empire, at the expense of the very citizens it claims to serve. 

These internal contradictions hit the Guardsmen themselves the worst. Their civilian lives increasingly take a backseat to military demands, with no increase in benefits or pay. Arguably, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act stands to protect them from negative consequences in their civilian employment, but in right-to-work states this has little effect. Any number of alternative reasons can be concocted to terminate a Guardsman that is constantly pulled for extended trainings or deployments necessitated by American hegemony. 

This significantly limits the average Guardsman in their civilian job opportunities, forcing him to lean harder and harder into military service for adequate compensation. In field training, strict operational standards disallow many from keeping up with home, forcing soldiers to risk reprimand for using their cellphones to run their businesses, locate apartments,  and other such necessities of civilian life. The Guardsman is asked to be a full time soldier at part-time pay, expected to drop their life at the drop of a hat. 

The militia was established to protect communities by a force that knew them best and cared for them the most. Yet career officers in Big Army have readiness tasks to fulfill for promotion, and increasingly depend on using reserve components to fill the gaps that regular soldiers can’t. The reserve component is a cheap and easy method of fulfilling goals without rectifying institutional issues within the regular Army.

The citizen-soldier does not shirk service that matters. When the nation is on the line, they can always be called to serve. This is proven time and time again by our country’s history. However, the citizen-soldier is incompatible with the needs of empire. American hegemony requires a larger corps of regular soldiers than the citizenry is willing to provide. The citizen-soldier fights a decisive conflict with clear goals and returns home to rejoin productive society. This tradition is far more hallowed than the more recent deification of the professional warfighter. If we are conservatives, we should wish to conserve the fighting force for when they are most needed by the nation, not by the needs of neo-liberal global order.