The Pandemic and the Protests: Necessity and Perception of the National Guard

Nathalie Grogan is a 2019 MPP graduate of the Trachtenberg School. She is a research assistant in the Military, Veterans, and Society program at the Center for a New American Security. 

The following is an op-ed and does not necessarily reflect the views of Policy Perspectives or the Trachtenberg school.

The coronavirus pandemic and the holistic societal approach that is required to get through this season demonstrates the value of the National Guard and the dual state and federal mission. To date, nearly 44,500 guardsmen have been activated in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in order to manage the COVID-19 crisis. While the sight of uniformed personnel in cities and towns unaccustomed to a military presence has caused fear and fueled rumors, the activation of guardsmen by governors is not unprecedented in times of crisis, nor even during public health emergencies. The Guard is often called upon to assist in hurricane relief, wildfires, and even prior outbreaks.

What Is the Role of the National Guard in the Pandemic?

Due to our nation’s system of federalism, which has been on full display during the coronavirus pandemic, governors play a huge role in determining what types of measures are taken in their states. The National Guard operates under a dual mission to support state needs and, when called upon by the federal government, national crises.

The tasks the guardsmen are carrying out in the time of coronavirus have ranged between healthcare, logistics, and protection. The Florida National Guard has been testing for coronavirus alongside healthcare professionals in Jacksonville; the New York National Guard has provided transportation support on Long Island, the Guam National Guard have disinfected government offices to slow the spread, and the Massachusetts National Guard has stood security for homeless shelters. National Guard linguists in Washington State have translated public health directives into 12 different languages to make sure important updates reach populations that may be more susceptible to misinformation due to a language barrier.

The roles carried out by National Guardsmen emphasize the resources available for combatting COVID-19 by the military: a large available labor force with specialized skills and logistics management capabilities at a larger scale than the health care and transportation infrastructures can provide on their own. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently said in an interview, of the National Guard response to COVID-19, “I’m very proud of what our guardsmen are doing, but we have a whole lot more capacity out there in the guard right now to do more.”

When responding to emergencies, the National Guard has an inherent advantage over active-duty troops performing the same duties. National Guard members are local to the state in which they serve. Because they live in the state and community, guardsmen have a stake in its welfare and are more familiar with the geography, climate, and infrastructure than active-duty troops from across the country. As guardsmen normally serve part-time and hold civilian jobs, they are integrated into their communities in a way that isolated military bases full of active duty troops are not.

The dual state and federal mission of the National Guard is significant when it comes to appropriations: who provides the paychecks for activated guardsmen and benefits for their families? This question is determined on a case-by-case basis, since the length of a deployment is the deciding factor for funding source. As the pandemic rages on, there does not seem to be an end in sight for ongoing National Guard activations. Air Force General Joseph Lengyel recently commented to the Brookings Institution that “COVID-19 appears to be maybe even on the rise, in some cases, and there’s no sign of operational tempo reduction in the near future.” As the situation develops, an increasing number of states are modifying the activation orders to include Title 32 status, which would speed up mobilization and action, as well as ensuring guardsmen are eligible for federal benefits while they battle coronavirus in their states.

Crisis Funding for the National Guard

Due to the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting all 50 states, the presence of each state’s National Guard is key to providing support to each state individually, allowing guardsmen to handle the crisis on a local scale through coordination with civilian authorities. The 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act now allows the use of federal resources to support up to 20,000 guardsmen in the Army and Air National Guard. As Congress deliberates on a second stimulus package, funding for the National Guard should be appropriated to sustain the operations that have proven so beneficial to struggling communities across the country. Without further funding and better understanding, the National Guard will be lacking in resources in the middle of a pandemic longer than any other emergency domestic deployment. President Trump has signified that COVID-19 orders for the guard will be extended past the 90-day requirement for G.I. Bill eligibility due to ongoing need. 

Activated National Guard units have served selflessly through the coronavirus pandemic and have helped struggling communities enormously. Food banks have become desperately overrun as millions of Americans faced unemployment in the wake of stay-at-home orders and food supply chains wobbled. Responding guardsmen have been praised by food bank and charity leaders for their crucial work manning food distribution centers and helping their communities, while risking exposure to the virus. Just as frontline medical workers deserve the nations gratitude and support, members of the National Guard should be appropriated the funding necessary to sustain their work during this time.

Perceptions of the National Guard

Throughout the unfolding saga of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent loss of life, fears have surfaced regarding the activation of National Guard troops. Even prior to nationwide protests and tensions with law enforcement and the guardsmen called in as support, the presence of guardsmen in states and communities unfamiliar with their purpose has caused alarm and panic, even sparking fears of martial law. To some, the act of “calling in the troops” is a signal that the situation has deteriorated to the point of conflict, as the role of the United States military outside of overseas wars and conflicts is little known. To those with an instinctual distrust of the military, uniformed personnel on the streets of New York City is a sign that the situation is beyond hope.

Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash

Recent events have damaged the reputation of the National Guard on the heels of nationwide efforts to manage the coronavirus pandemic. The goodwill generated by tireless assistance for COVID-19 efforts was quickly overtaken by images of guardsmen with riot shields and face masks on streets across the nation in an attempt to rein in protestors. Especially in Washington, D.C., where President Trump activated out-of-state guard units over the objections of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the situation seemed to be spiraling out of control (notably in Lafayette Park). However, military leaders have an obligation to uphold the Constitution, and while there were serious missteps during the tense first week of June, the vast majority of protest-related incidents involving Americans peacefully exercising their first amendment rights were conflicts with local and federal law enforcement, not the National Guard.

The whiplash regarding the national image of guardsmen from heroes to oppressors is a reminder to military leadership that the popularity of the armed forces as an institution is not a given, and democratic accountability must be of prime importance—a lesson that appears to have been taken to heart by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. The same advantage of the National Guard that was present during the COVID-19 response—a stake in the community—remains during riot control incidents. The main problem with the National Guard presence at racial justice protests has been the out-of-state activation by the Trump administration, which turned a tense but manageable situation into a political standoff, highlighting the powerless position of the District of Columbia.  

Moving Forward with the National Guard

To be sure, the coronavirus pandemic has challenged all of us and forced Americans to directly face the effectiveness and efficiency of federal, state, and local governments. Understanding the role of the National Guard and the value it contributes to its communities and our nations’ common defense will help to ameliorate some overwhelming fears. The role of the National Guard during the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests has called attention to a component of the armed forces that is often forgotten, though present in American communities. Federal activation over local concerns threatens the perception of the National Guard among these communities. State National Guard units are used in a variety of ways to support the dual state and federal mission; COVID-19 has demonstrated the flexibility and dedication of guardsmen and the necessity of adequate funding.

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