KANDAHAR, August 24, 2014—So Ferguson is calm…ing.
The improved situation is thanks, in part at least, to the National Guard, which, by most accounts, performed admirably.
Gov. Jay Nixon sent Missouri Guardsmen to carry out a “specific, limited mission of protecting the Unified Command Center so that law enforcement officers could focus on the important work of increasing communication within the community.”
It was wholly appropriate to call in the state militia, whose soldiers are trained and prepared for just this sort of situation.
Soldiers weren’t patrolling the streets or arresting protesters. But maybe they should have been. The Ferguson debacle has divided Americans along predictable lines, but has also revealed something of a consensus that urban policing has strayed from American values.
State National Guard forces still reflect those values, and Missouri’s deployment of those forces highlights why the Guard is still important even for non-combat, domestic duties.
Various federal laws, including the Posse Comitatus Act, the Domestic Insurrection Act, and recent Defense Authorization Acts, forbid federal military forces from engaging in domestic law and order maintenance. Such checks have presented a high bar to presidents hoping to use soldiers at home. But no such limitations stand in the way of state chief executives from calling on their military units. Governors have a valuable tool at their disposal.
Three reasons stand out to explain why the National Guard does such a great job under these circumstances.
1. National Guard soldiers are professionals.
Sure, they get a paycheck, but the National Guard soldiers who get called up by gubernatorial order aren’t in it for the money. They respond at a moment’s notice and serve dispassionately. They are bound by no “green line” that forces them to close ranks and protect their own. They simply follow orders, which ultimately come from civilian authorities.
National Guardsmen are ultimate professionals who live and work by the same ethos that inspires combat soldiers to put their self interests aside and risk their lives for a mission. At home, the risks are different, yet these state militia women and men put mission first. Nobody can accuse them of serving themselves.
2. National Guard soldiers are servants.
The men and women of the National Guard usually enlist out of a desire to serve their country and community. Unlike active duty military personnel, who also enlist or commission to serve, Guardsmen typically don’t don the uniform as a way to make a living. Most have full- or part-time jobs or go to school. Their commitment is to serve when needed, knowing that they might not be activated.
Many enlist knowing that they’ll be called upon for disaster relief. Training for stateside missions often includes responding to wildfires and earthquakes. The civil disturbances in Missouri are less common these days, but the motives are the same—to help those in need.
2. The National Guard is part of the community.
Since the days of the historic first muster in Massachusetts, Guardsmen are community members first and military personnel second. Their heritage is of a self-defense force that activates only when the community requires.
Mobilizations by the governor represent a principle of good government that goes back to the earliest days of the state militias—that local governments are more responsive to, and thus better servants of, the sovereign people.
In this last sense, it was probably more of a strategic and symbolic move than a tactical one by the Missouri governor. The Army and the National Guard have made a significant investment in goodwill effort with the American People. No doubt the Missouri National Guard has high favorability with the people from the Show Me State. On one hand, Nixon got out the message that he would take control of the situation with the National Guard. On the other, he was saying, look, these guys are you. They are here to help.
Whether the situation continues to improve in Ferguson remains to be seen.
If it doesn’t, the National Guard will be ready again.