Why can't we keep our National Guard home?

Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Earlier this month, 53 members of Alaska’s Air National Guard returned from a five-week deployment in Qatar. They had been called up to support America’s war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq. Unlike many past homecomings though, these reservists weren’t greeted with any media fanfare. It’s as if we’ve forgotten America is still at war. But another question lurks behind the general public’s apparent indifference. Why is it necessary for the National Guard to support these missions in the first place?

America maintains an active duty force of more than 1.4 million troops. On top of that there are 460,000 men and women in the National Guard. Through 2007 and the Iraq War’s bloodiest days, the Guard made up about 30 percent of the military’s total deployment there. It was during that time Alaska lost four members of the Guard’s 207th Aviation Regiment.

By 2008 the Guard’s role was reduced to 7 and 15 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. And two years after that, total deployment in both countries was cut by 40,000. Yet the Guard is still being deployed, including 76 Alaska Army National Guard members who now are serving a year-long tour in Iraq. It seems President Barack Obama can’t find enough troops from the active duty pool to muster the 150,000 he needs for both missions.

Part of the reason America’s military is spread so thinly is because there are about 160,000 active duty soldiers stationed in other nations. Most are remnants from occupations after World War II, including 34,000 still in Japan. And even though the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, 54,000 troops remain stationed in Germany.

Where are the rest? Just as Americans have lost interest in today’s wars, it’s a matter of uninformed consent that the public permits our government to deploy small military contingents in more than 100 other countries around the globe. That includes 9,500 in Italy and another 1,100 in the African nation of Djibouti. And we have 2,000 troops stationed on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula as if they are protecting the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

It’s one thing to speculate what global strategy justifies these overseas military presences. But shouldn’t we be questioning the cost to sustain them? Consider the infrastructure that exists on those military bases. In Germany and Japan there are more than 14,000 buildings valued at $36 billion. The Department of Defense owns another 15,000 buildings beyond our borders that are estimated to be worth more than $50 billion. Then there are the billions more for roads and bridges, runways and wharfs, utility systems and the equipment and routine supplies necessary to support it all.

Our National Guard isn’t being called up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan because of a military troop shortage. And since neither conflict is dominating the headlines anymore, it’s hypocritical to call them national emergencies. It’s all about supporting a global empire that America today can’t afford to maintain.

There is a clear congressional precedent to downsize such military excess. Between 1989 and 1995, Congress ordered the Department of Defense to close 350 installations as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

Alaska was largely spared from those cuts. The only closure was the Adak Naval Air Station, and part of the Fort Greely’s mission was relocated to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.

But the 2005 BRAC proposal by Congress will have a big impact on Alaska’s two largest cities. If implemented, 95 percent of the military positions from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks would vanish. Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage would close. Add in reductions at Anchorage’s Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson and Alaska could lose almost 5,000 military and civilian positions.

I’m not advocating our state economy be dependent on U.S. military spending. But shouldn’t Congress consider applying the BRAC process to our overseas military bases instead of slashing defense-related jobs here at home? By reducing the military footprint of the American empire, people in certain parts of the world would have less justification to resent our country. And maybe then the National Guard wouldn’t need to be called up to support an endless war.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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