Tuesday, December 28, 2004


The Iraq War has redeemed the National Guard from the ignominy of its Vietnam years. Back then, the National Guard was marginally functional, a safe alternative to Vietnam. The Reserves also offered a haven but Guard units were more numerous, convenient and, when openings became scarce, subject to influence by prominent citizens on behalf of their sons. Friends who found their way into 60's and 70's National Guard Units described tolerable conditions (some partying) and minimal interference with their lives. Most important, they were safe. All they had to do George W. Bush excepted) was spend a few weekends and summer camps on duty for six years.

The Regular Army had no love for National Guard in those years. Basic training was one place where Vietnam era Guardsmen took real grief in their short, happy military careers. They were “Fucking National Guard”, FNG’s, to the drill sergeants who questioned their manhood and harassed them maybe a bit more than the rest of us. But even then NG’s knew that within a few months, all this BS would be comfortably behind them.

Not so in the Iraq War. National Guard and Reserve units are in the thick of battle in a war with no front lines. Guard and Reserve units, like Regular Army units, are now making their second rotations into Iraq. The National Guard is no haven in this war. Like the victims of the great tsunami that struck south Asia, Americans serving in the Guard and Reserve were caught unawares and swept into the maw of combat.

Guard and Reserve troops have served well in Iraq. As well, and sometimes as poorly, as regular forces. These Americans have earned my respect. They have faced danger, loneliness and fear. They must remain constantly alert, on edge, lest they make that one stupid mistake that will kill them or (worse) their buddies. Life in a combat environment sears the mind, burning unforgettable images and sensations into the consciousness. (“They come back different/If they came back at all.” This Old Town by Janis Ian and Jon Venzer.) An earlier generation escaped this reality in the National Guard. Not this generation. The National Guard is their ticket to hell. Trapped by stop loss provisions and unit rotations, the Guard and Reserve are ths unwilling troops in this war.

On their way to combat, Guard units must contend with inadequate equipment and training. The Guard has always been poorly equipped compared to regular forces. Recent US military doctrine placing greater reliance on Guard and Reserve units has improved training and equipment somewhat but not to the levels needed to sustain and survive combat. Prior to Iraq, Guard and Reserve training was not combat oriented, focusing instead on maintaining technical and operational proficiency. Combat training for Guard and Reserve units going to Iraq is four days of tactics, equipment, hygiene and theater operations. An overview of combat, a bit of how to and war stories. The training cadre call it “Target School”. They know how little the training prepares these troops for what they will face.

Comparing Guard and Reserve troops in Iraq to Vietnam era draftees is not original but it is appropriate. Draftees going to Vietnam didn’t get much more training than Iraq bound NG’s these days. I had eight weeks of basic training and another eight weeks infantry training before going to Vietnam. The infantry training was mostly “here is a weapon, here’s how it works, fire it” mixed with tactics. Familiarization, not proficiency. In-country, my division conducted three days training before sending us to a forward firebase. A little more familiarization, hygiene for the jungle and one rappel from a tower. Everything else I learned or didn’t learn from my platoon whom I met on the firebase. Somehow, I survived.

NG’s have one advantage Vietnam soldiers did not. NG’s go in-country as a unit, with people they already know and work with. This familiarity builds confidence and cohesion, qualities that contribute to unit performance. I was very alone when I arrived on my firebase. Arriving with buddies would have been far, far better. I’m guessing that unit cohesion has helped many NG’s alive and sane in this war. I hope it keeps working for them.

In Iraq the joke is on the National Guard but the men and women of the National Guard serving in Iraq are no joke. They are brothers and sisters in arms to the generations before.

I salute you. Brothers. Sisters. Comrades.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

A Morning in Maine

We are out of camp at 5:30, walking in the dark. We have eight miles to go by noon to meet a hostel shuttle and are taking no chance that we'll be late. The trail climbs straight up for a mile. Lots of rocks, lots of roots but we move steadily and reach the West Peak of Baldpate Mountain as the sun rises. I am stunned and awed by its immensity. Orange-yellow shafts of light punch through dark blue clouds on the horizon. Above, the night sky retreats before the coming day. Ridges, peaks and valleys stretch in all directions around us. Fog–thick and white in some valleys, a mere wisp in others–lies in many of the valleys, soft cotton in dark green bowls under an increasingly blue sky. The ridges are still dark. The day’s light has not begun to pour across them yet. The only signs of human activity are we three and the few cairns and blazes guiding us across this rocky dome. For a few short moments that remain forever suspended in time, we are alone on the earth. I am transcendent in joy and rapture. This moment at this place justifies all that I have experienced in getting here. The Way Life Should Be.