“The New Normal? Heightened Use of the National Guard in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars”

By William Taylor, Angelo State University

Note: This is the third in a series of posts about the National Guard and the Reserves.

He was many things to many people: a loving husband, a devoted father to seven children, and an admired and respected leader in both civilian and military contexts, serving as the mayor of North Ogden, Utah, and a major in the Utah National Guard. In many ways, Brent Taylor (no relation to the author) also personified the devoted service and significant sacrifice of the National Guard in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. On November 3, 2018, Taylor was killed in action during his fourth deployment, having already completed two in Iraq and on his second to Afghanistan. Like many of the citizen soldiers in these wars, Taylor enlisted after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, along with his five brothers, out of a tremendous sense of duty and patriotism, wisely reminding us all that “we have far more as Americans that unites us than divides us.”[1] Taylor was not alone.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars witnessed, or some would say precipitated, a much-heightened use of the National Guard. Some sources estimate that National Guard and Reserve units comprised nearly half of the total force deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered nearly 20 percent of all casualties there.[2] Compare those numbers to America’s previous longest war in Vietnam, where less than one percent of the deployed force and a mere .2 percent of the casualties were members of the National Guard.[3] That is quite a shift indeed.

The National Guard is part of the seven reserve components of the U.S. military and includes the Army National Guard, nearly 340,000 soldiers, and the Air National Guard, roughly 110,000 airmen, in the Ready Reserve. Therefore, the National Guard encompasses roughly 450,000 of the nation’s slightly more than 1 million Ready Reserve personnel.[4] With the end of the draft and the advent of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973, the use of the National Guard slowly began to swell. These changes were somewhat subtle until the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, where they became both stark in their presence and troubling in their implications.

Commentators have increasingly critiqued these trends. Andrew Bacevich characterized the problem as “too much war and too few soldiers” and revealed the tragic consequences for guardsmen and reservists, and indeed the nation.[5] Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich, U.S. Army (retired), emphasized that one of the most significant changes in the recent use of the National Guard has been its shift from a strategic to an operational reserve, resulting in vast numbers of citizen soldiers experiencing overseas deployments, many of them multiple times.[6] David R. Segal and Lawrence J. Korb demonstrated how over time the AVF has become less representative of broader American society, including overuse of the National Guard and more demands placed on fewer people.[7] I too have highlighted how the National Guard and professional military contractors have become two of the newest substitutions for the dearth of available active duty military personnel in the AVF.[8]

The National Guard has served this country remarkably well throughout its history. The recent use of the National Guard in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, however, has not always done that service and sacrifice justice. U.S. leaders will hopefully begin to realize that national power is both finite and precious and start to match the nation’s foreign commitments to the available personnel, either reducing demand by paring back requirements or increasing supply by augmenting personnel in the active forces. If they fail to do so, however, one can only hope that the amplified deployment of the National Guard in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars will cause pause at continuing its regular and repeated use as an operational reserve and instead encourage policy makers to address the underlying challenges of the AVF that result in such higher demand for the National Guard in the first place. Subsequent endeavors, however, including President Trump’s deployment of the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border, indicate that heightened use of the National Guard might simply be the new normal.[9]

William Taylor
William Taylorhttps://www.angelo.edu/content/profiles/877-william-a-taylor

William A. Taylor is the holder of the Lee Drain Endowed University Professorship, previous department chair, and award-winning Associate Professor of Global Security Studies in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University. He is the series editor for the new book series Studies in Civil-Military Relations with University Press of Kansas and the author or editor of four books, including George C. Marshall and the Early Cold War: Policy, Politics, and Society (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, forthcoming 2020).


[1] Julie Turkewitz, “Brent Taylor, Utah Mayor Killed in Afghanistan, Was on 4th Deployment,” New York Times, November 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/us/utah-mayor-killed-afghanistan-brent-taylor.html.

[2] “National Guard: Service in the War on Terror,” Military.com, December 13, 2019, https://www.military.com/national-guard-birthday/national-guard-service-in-the-war-on-terror.html.

[3] Lawrence J. Korb, “Overuse of the Guard Could Undermine Its Effectiveness,” Center for American Progress, September 24, 2004, https://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/security/news/2004/09/24/1110/overuse-of-guard-could-undermine-its-effectiveness/.

[4] Lawrence Kapp, “Defense Primer: Reserve Forces,” Congressional Research Service, January 6, 2020, 1–3, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/IF10540.pdf.

[5] Andrew J. Bacevich, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), esp. 105–7.

[6] Dennis Laich, Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2013), esp. 77–82.

[7] David R. Segal and Lawrence J. Korb, “Manning and Financing the Twenty-First-Century All-Volunteer Force,” in The Modern American Military, ed. David M. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 111–33.

[8] William A. Taylor, Military Service and American Democracy: From World War II to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016), esp. 279–91.

[9] Maya Rhodan, “National Guard Troops Have Already Begun Patrolling the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Time, April 12, 2018, https://time.com/5238395/national-guard-troops-mexico-border/; Rebecca Gordon, “Trump Is Exploiting the National Guard,” Nation, February 11, 2019, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/trump-national-guard-reserves-border/.

About Douglas Bristol

Douglas Bristol is an Associate Professor of History and a Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. In his teaching and research, he focuses on the beliefs, institutions, and strategies that ordinary Americans developed to exercise control over their lives. In his first book, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (reissued in paperback in 2015), Bristol examines the relationship between black barbers and the prosperous white men whose throats they shaved with straight-edged razors from the colonial period to the Great Migration. He co-edited Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality Since World War II, to which he contributed a chapter on understanding the resistance of black soldiers during World War II. His current book project, Khaki Globe Trotters, explores how black GIs used military service in World War II to claim the New Deal's promise of security. The Art of Manliness podcast and the PBS documentary, Boss: The Black Experience in Business, featured his work.
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