Philip Gold has an excellent piece on a theme I’ve been sounding for several years: the dangers of our overreliance on the military reserves.

Since 9-11, well over 200,000 citizen-soldiers have been mobilized, some more than once — a number that excludes state-ordered National Guard deployments. Additional mobilizations, including three National Guard combat brigades, are planned. The Army has placed its entire reserve “on a war footing.” Everybody’s nervous.

And hardly a day goes by without some Pentagon or think tank dire prediction that the 1 million to 1.2 million-person citizen-soldiery (depending on which statistics you believe) is on the verge of collapse, due to chronic overcommitment and imminent mass exodus.

It’s not quite that bad. At least, not yet. But the citizen-soldiery now faces a crisis four decades in the making. And it’s a crisis that touches upon a fundamental question: the nature and extent of citizen military obligation in the age now upon us.

Thirty years ago, America ended conscription. We ended it because conscription had become politically and morally discredited. Throughout the Cold War, most democracies drafted. But by law and policy and custom, they tied conscription to specific and limited duties, primarily homeland defense. Only America assumed that draftees could be sent anywhere, anytime, to do anything, regardless of national consensus — an assumption that died with Vietnam, but that we now lay upon our citizen-soldiers.


By the latter ’70s, reserves were being used to take on tasks the regulars either couldn’t do or didn’t care to do — a usage that reached ominous levels during the Clinton years, in the Balkans and elsewhere. At first, the Guard and reserves were happy to oblige: prove your worth, and all that. But by 2001, it was clear that this “optempo,” or level of operations, was unsustainable.

The Bush administration had no choice but to increase it, first in response to 9-11, then as a tool for the conquest and occupation of two Islamic nations, plus occasional duties in the 120 or so other countries where we maintain a military presence. And now, even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld concedes that Guard and reserve missions and structures must be radically reconceived.

Quite so. But this reconceiving must begin with a political and moral issue. Should the citizen-soldiery be considered available to be sent anywhere, any time, to do anything? Or should it be “homeland defense only,” except in time of full emergency and solid national commitment? Or should it be (my personal preference) a mixed affair, some units and individuals available for expeditionary duty, others stay-at-homes?

The answer isn’t obvious. What is obvious is the fact that, if we continue the present usage, ever more of our citizen-soldiers will conclude: “Yes, it’s necessary and important work.

“But it isn’t my life.”

And it shouldn’t have to be. The reserves are supposed to be an emergency-only force. It’s members didn’t sign up for peacekeeping duty.

The problem isn’t so much an issue of overall manpower–although that’s something that needs to be looked into–but rather the allocation of certain now-critical assets almost entirely in the reserves: civil affairs, psychological operations, and a host of logistical support activities. It made sense to “reserve” them during the Cold War given the nature of operations then. That logic was overtaken by events over a decade ago and yet still hasn’t been addressed.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. oceanguy says:

    As a Pentagon Warrior in the early 90’s I can tell you that the issue, the logic, certainly was addressed. But the attitude that was most dominant was one of overly optimistic idealism which was fed by those in search of a big peace dividend from the end of the cold war and the denial of threats in the world.

    Too often, we warfighters were beat down as being Neanderthal-like in our thinking and flat out told that we couldn’t afford the force-levels that were necessary. President Bush the first started the cuts, and instead of taking advice on reducing further cuts and even increasing military manpower, the cuts were accelerated.

    Shifting capability to the reserves was a reaction largely intended to maintain capability which would have otherwise been cut altogether. Clinton Administration Defense budgets were dictated from the top down, in that the Pentagon received the spending ceiling number and then went through painful exercises in trying to maintain readiness with drastically reduced budgets. In some cases shell games were played.

    From my point of view the damage done to the Armed Forces during the Clinton Administration was irresponsible. [By the Way, Reagan’s actions were equally irresponsible and damaging in a different way] The current Administration’s record on the matter is still incomplete, but it’s not doing as well as I’d hoped.

    The Idiot’s Guide answer is that the Clinton Administration found military technology more attractive than military people. Their intelligence operations, military responses AND their budgets are evidence to their blind faith in technology solutions.

  2. rkb says:

    I have to disagree with Oceanguy a bit. The original rationale for shifting roles to the reserves goes back to the post-Vietnam era. It was a deliberate attempt by Congress to make it difficult for an administration to wage war unless there was strong public support.

    In other words, to avoid the mistakes of a past war (as that Congress saw them), our active duty military structure was deliberately handicapped. It was knee-jerk reaction without a thoughtful consideration of the side effects.

    The budget games of the 1990s did happen, but that was Clinton’s frosting on the cake.