January 29, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Terrorism, Myth & the Citizen-Soldier

Chances are, something that looks and sounds like a war is, in fact, a war.

Critics dismiss the notion that we should, or even can be, at war with terrorists. They argue that there's no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism -- that you can't have a war without a clear enemy. Combating terrorists, they insist, isn't primarily a military task but a matter of law enforcement, diplomacy and intelligence.

These are interesting academic arguments. But they're not grounded in reality.

First, the terrorists don't seem bothered by the lack of definitional clarity. They are most certainly at war with us.

Second, our military is clearly at war. We've needed U.S. troops to destroy al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan, provide security in postwar Iraq, hunt down terrorist cells in the Horn of Africa, supply security assistance and training in Southeast Asia, and protect infrastructure and points of entry at home.

The future promises more of the same. That's why we need to think hard about the military we need to fight this war.

Much of the heavy lifting has been done by the military's reserve components, the National Guard and Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force Reserves. These men and women are the descendents of the colonial militia, folks with regular jobs who are called to active service when needed. They're employers and employees, family and neighbors. And they've been called up in numbers unprecedented since World War II.

Today, more than 194,000 of these citizen-soldiers are deployed worldwide. Some have faced unexpected deployments, back-to-back overseas tours and involuntary extensions. A serious strain is starting to show.

Using part-time soldiers full-time, all the time, will break the force. The Pentagon and Congress plan to spend the months ahead looking for solutions. Proposals range from reinstating the draft to hiring tens of thousands of additional full-time soldiers.

The right answer is to restructure and adequately fund the reserves so they can provide the extra forces when the nation needs them. That will require ignoring popular myths used to block reform in the past.

Myth #1: "Reserves should be called up only in times of national peril to fight in conventional wars." There is no difference between active and reserve soldiers. They're all professionals. They all serve when the nation needs them, for the missions the nation requires, whether it is assaulting a beach or guarding an airport.

Myth #2: "Frequent use of the reserves will cause dramatic drops in recruiting and retention." It depends. Most reserves find active-duty deployments rewarding. Re-enlistments frequently increase when troops return home. Advance notice of deployment, fair benefits and strong family-support programs also help. Retention problems generally occur when units are misused or forced into frequent back-to-back deployments, problems that could be solved by properly organizing forces and making a larger base of reserve units available for active duty.

Myth #3: "It takes too long to mobilize reserves." Our ability to call up troops quickly is limited only by how much we've prepared beforehand. For example, many deployments are slowed because of the time it takes to ensure soldiers are medically qualified. Reserve soldiers receive medical and dental check-ups only once every five years, and if there's a problem, the military is forbidden to spend any money to correct it until the troops are ordered overseas. If the Pentagon wants reserves to mobilize faster, it should give them the resources and authority to do so.

Myth #4: "Reserve troops should be used only to protect the homeland." National Guard forces always will play an important role support preventing or responding to terrorist attacks, but we can't afford two armies. The answer is making sure we have troops that can support both contingencies.

Myth #5: "The Reserves don't need to change." Many of the policies and structures governing the reserves predate the Cold War, a time when our troops were rarely called to active duty in large numbers. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the number of soldiers serving full-time was cut dramatically, placing more strain on the reserves. The fact that policies and organizations haven't kept up was unimportant when these troops weren't being used all the time. But times have changed -- and so must the reserves.

We're at war, and our reserve forces remain ready to serve. But a protracted war on terrorism requires fundamental reforms -- and the political will to make them.


James Jay Carafano is the Senior Fellow for Defense and Homeland Security at the Heritage Foundation and the author of Waltzing into The Cold War: The Struggle for Occupied Austria.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in Knight-Ridder Tribune.