The mainstream media has finally gotten around to reporting that the Pentagon has assigned active-duty troops to a homeland defense mission, a historical first. On Oct. 1, the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, freshly redeployed from Iraq, began a year-long assignment as a domestic "chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive Consequence Management Response Force," or CCMRF ("Sea-Smurf"). The 1st BCT is the first of three CCMRF teams, who will comprise 15,000-20,000 soldiers, according to the Army. The other two will come from the Army National Guard or reserves.
Neither the terrorist threat nor the hazards of bad weather require rethinking our traditional reluctance to use standing armies at home. We need not fear a coup, but we should worry about misusing our busy military for civilian tasks and developing an tendency to rely on the troops to answer every scare.
Initial reports were that the 1st BCT might be used to deal with civil unrest and crowd control, missions that would be in severe tension with the Posse Comitatus Act, the longstanding federal statute that restricts the president's ability to use the U.S. military as a domestic police force. In September, the Army Times described the unit's training as "the first ever nonlethal package that the Army has fielded," including beanbag bullets, Tasers and traffic roadblocks.
That report, along with the Bush administration's claim that the Constitution allows that president to use forces as he sees fit, no matter what Congress forbids, created well-founded fears that the CCMRFs first attack would be on Posse Comitatus. Yet Pentagon spokespeople deny that forces will be used for law enforcement purposes. And one suspects that the Bush administration's monarchial view of executive power will be out of fashion come January.
That shouldn't placate us. The real trouble is what is legal, not what isn't. Even when it doesn't lead to collateral damage, the use of standing armies at home can, to quote Jefferson, "overawe the public sentiment," and acclimate Americans to a militarized home front inconsistent with democratic life.
In the panicked days following 9/11, Bush administration officials repeatedly suggested that only armed soldiers could defeat the domestic terror threat. When thousands of troops patrolled the streets in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted approvingly that "the largest theater for the United States is not Afghanistan today. It is, in fact, Salt Lake City and the environs."
To guard against hijackers, then-Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta proposed putting Delta Force operatives on domestic flights, collecting frequent-flier miles instead of pursuing al Qaida in Afghanistan. Today, along with the "war on drugs," we contemplate using our military to fight hurricanes, floods, immigrants, Mumbai-style attacks, and more, as if it's the national Swiss army knife.
But there is no good argument that domestic militarization is necessary to keep us safe. Civilian officers have been successfully keeping the peace and responding to disasters for a century or so, occasionally supplemented by National Guardsmen under the command of their state governors. Every state's National Guard force is now equipped to cope with attacks using unconventional weapons. Their ranks will be bolstered as the war in Iraq winds down.
The regular military is wonderful for destroying enemy troop formations or bombing their command centers, but not for finding hidden killers like terrorists. Intelligence and old-fashioned police work are our most potent counter-terrorism tools. Neither does Hurricane Katrina justify a domestic army. The problem there was the mismanagement of the National Guard and local first responders, not their lack of capacity.
Moreover, using troops at home undermines military readiness. When soldiers are forced into the role of police officers, their war-fighting skills degrade, according to a 2003 General Accounting Office report that looked at some of the homeland security missions the military carried out after 9/11. The GAO also found that, naturally, such missions also put a serious strain on a military already heavily committed abroad.
Yet creeping militarization continues, and few in the media or Congress object. The militarized future to fear isn't one that ends in a dictatorship or martial law. Our troops' commitment to civilian rule prevents that. The danger we face is one in which the public embraces the notion that civilian institutions are weak and messy, and that when you want the job done, you call in the boys in green. That approach will make us no safer — only less free.