The conventional wisdom in the press and across the internet is that the US military is dangerously overstretched as a result of the high optempo (operational tempo) of the global war on terrorism (not to mention our previously scheduled commitments, like South Korea). Pervasive too are the cries of the inadequacy of the remaining stateside National Guard units, such as in the wake of hurricane Katrina, when the chorus of voices making a direct link between the war in Iraq and the devastation wrought by the hurricane was almost deafening. In general, almost everyone seems to agree that the global war on terrorism is a bad thing for the United States military, and especially for the “weekend warriors” of the National Guard.
I’m not a general, or a grand strategist. Maybe those people are right. But I’m going to take the contrarian view and state that, at least on the micro level (company-sized element and below), a high optempo is a good thing for the Guard.
Probably the greatest benefit is the most obvious, but also sometimes the hardest to see: it gives soldiers who are otherwise just “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” more experience in simply being a soldier. All aspects of military life – wear of the uniform, paperwork procedures, drill & ceremony, supply operations, vehicle maintenance, military courtesy, unit SOPs – become part of daily existence and are subsumed into the indvidual soldier’s character and knowledge. This doesn’t mean that a deployment to Iraq will turn a shitbag into a super-troop, but it at least forms a baseline of experience.
This baseline experience extends to two other, more specialized aspects of the military, and the Signal Corps in particular. The first is weapons handling. As a National Guard signal unit, weapons handling is, in general, almost an afterthought in training. Since training hours are at a premium, most of our time is spent preparing for our primary mission, which is signal operations. A deployment gives, if nothing else, increased familiarity with weapons due to mundane daily handling (even a fobbit has to carry a rifle everywhere he or she goes).
The second is experience in our aforementioned primary job, that of signal operations. Before B Company was activated, the collective skill level was already fairly high – probably as high as it could be in a peacetime environment, built up during training maybe one day a month “on the equipment.” But after a year of continuous operation, the company was truly expert – “S Rank,” if you will – having a level of experience that can only come under stress, serving real subscribers in a real situation.
The technical skill gap between those who have been activated and those who haven’t is really quite considerable. While there are many bright soldiers in this descendant of the signal battalion (the unfortunately-named 34th Special Troops Battalion), there are some things that just cannot be taught – they must be experienced. Most abstract is how our unit fits into the larger tactical picture; without having seen our role in combat, it’s almost impossible to explain or visualize adequately. I know that if someone had tried to explain the arcane tactical network in Iraq to me prior to deploying, my eyes would have glazed over. This experience, however, doesn’t only affect those soldiers who deployed – that experience can also trickle down to the other troops, who have much to gain from the hard-won experience of a wartime environment. This effect is obviously present in all units, not just signal ones, but I’m using my situation as an example.
Another benefit of the Guard’s high optempo is that of unit cohesion. The once-a-month format of Guard drills not only presents training problems, but social ones as well. It’s hard to make great pals with someone you only see two days out of every month. But for those who spend 18 months of train-up and deployment together, then return to their home unit, a camraderie and familiarity is formed that is invaluable, if unquantifiable. Even people who you could barely tolerate during the deployment become “good ol’ war buddies” – as long as you don’t have to spend too much time together.
As with anything, practice makes perfect, and the Guard is no different. Even if the Guard had never gone to Iraq, elements of it would be activated someday, for something – and without experience it would be worthless as a fighting force. To further torture an analogy, muscle fibers must be damaged so that they rebuild and become stronger, and so it is with the military, which must stretch and fight and bleed in order to gain that valuable experience. For the Guard, that is especially true, because it for too long has been flabby and under-used, atrophied by the long peace since Vietnam. Far from being overstretched, I would argue that the National Guard is just now getting back to its fighting weight – and retention numbers seem to bear out this opinion, at least for now. Maybe I’m wrong, and the GWOT will ruin the Guard, but I’d be willing to bet that in five years, the Guard will be a better organization and a stronger force than it is even now.