Politicized National Guard Poses Threat

In the aftermath of the Storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2020, political tensions and civil violence continue to grow across the United States, creating a dangerous situation that National Guard forces is now being called to address. At least 20,000 National Guard troops from the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York are already deployed in the nation’s capital and additional National Guards troops from other states have been mobilized.

Hundreds of National Guard troops hold inside the Capitol Visitor’s Center to reinforce security at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. The House of Representatives is pursuing an article of impeachment against President Donald Trump for his role in inciting an angry mob to storm the Capitol last week. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The reasons for the lack of the participation of National Guard units in defending the Capitol is still under investigation at this point. It is unclear why National Guard units were not mobilized ahead of the threatened storming of the Capitol. We are still unsure exactly when and how the Capitol Police eventually requested reinforcements from National Guard units. There are investigations underway of police officers, military veterans, and active-duty military officers who may have participated in the Storming of the Capitol.

Many political leaders and journalists have rightly underlined how differently law enforcement agencies responded to the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” extremists, in contrast to their responses to the Black Lives Matter protesters during the summer.

Heavily-armed federal police forces led by the Park Police and the D.C. National Guard charged Black Lives Matter protesters around Lafayette Square Park in Washington, D.C. on 1 June 2020, clearing a pathway for President Donald J. Trump and his advisors to walk to nearby St. John’s Church for a now infamous photo op.

The violence of the federal forces—who used tear gas, smoke canisters, pepper balls, and helicopters against protesters—shocked observers and television viewers across the nation and worldwide. The Park Police and the D.C. National Guard have faced serious criticism and a Congressional hearing.

But, the violence in Washington, D.C. in June could have been even worse.

A Washington Post investigative report published in October reveals an even more serious threat to American democracy. We can now see that President Trump’s mobilization of National Guard troops to oppose citizen protesters in Washington, D.C. this summer represented a dangerous abuse of presidential authority in order to create a “red-state army” of National Guard troops for partisan political purposes.

The Trump administration mobilized National Guard troops on 30 May to 1 June 2020, in response to ongoing protests in Washington, D.C. President Trump and then Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper acted deliberately to create a politicized National Guard force, pressuring state governors in multiple phone calls to send Guard troops to the national capital. A number of National Guard commanders found this request highly unusual and worried about its implications. Democratic governors and National Guard commanders from “blue” states were reluctant to mobilize in response to this unprecedented request.

The Trump administration apparently relied on the legal statute known as 32 U.S. Code 502, which regulates funding for National Guard units’ participation in military drills and field exercises, to finance the mobilization. This seems to be a misappropriation of military training finances for partisan political purposes.

The creation of a partisan National Guard force to advance a political agenda of law and order also represents a corruption of the president’s commander-in-chief authority. President Trump reportedly pressured state governors to “get tough” on protesters during a call on 31 May 2020, and the next day he reportedly boasted that “we’re going to have total domination” in Washington, D.C.

National Guard units from eleven mostly “red” states ultimately responded to the President’s call and set out for the District of Columbia. The National Guard units that arrived by 1 June were deployed to support the D.C. National Guard and U.S. Park Police who were maintaining a security perimeter around the White House. President Trump reportedly wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act and escalate the use of force in the capital, but the Secretary Esper and the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed this move. This resistance seems to have contributed to the President’s decision to fire Secretary Esper on 9 November 2020.

We need to recognize the potential for a politicized National Guard force to advance partisan agendas and to engage in political violence in the volatile political environment following the Storming of the Capitol. Numerous current and former police officers, military officers, and veterans are being investigated for their involvement in the MAGA crowd and several, such as Lt. Col. Larry Rendall Brock Jr. and Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansely have already been charged. At least one currently serving National Guard member from Virginia, Cpl. Jacob Fracker, has been arrested for participating in the attack on the Capitol. We have to be concerned that many other National Guard troops may be radicalized supporters of extremist politics.

The history of armed conflict and civil warfare demonstrates that politicized civic guards, militia forces, and national guards have been responsible for some of the most notorious incidents of mass violence in history.

The National Guard claims its origin in the formation of three militia units in the English colony of Massachusetts in 1636, but the colonial militias were part of a broader history of civic armed forces.

Renaissance cities organized civic guard units to keep order in urban spaces. Ultra-Catholic Parisian guards inflicted much of the horrific violence of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 during the French Wars of Religion (1559-1629). Protestant civic guards participated in iconoclasm and urban violence in the Low Countries at the outbreak of the Dutch Revolt (1566-1648).

Peasant militias, which could be mobilized in crises, sometimes committed massacres. Political thinkers such as Niccolò Machiavelli debated the reliability of militia forces during the Italian Wars (1494-1559). Militias became auxiliaries during the Military Revolution, as states began to establish new permanent armies and military administrations. Colonial militias waged irregular warfare against indigenous peoples in the European empires in the Atlantic world and Southeast Asia.

A long history of militia forces thus existed well before the “minutemen” of the American War of Independence forged a powerful and lasting myth of armed citizen soldiers.

French patriots created a National Guard during the French Revolution of 1789, producing a new model for citizen-soldiers. While the ideal of a levée en masse (mass mobilization) of all citizens was never realized, the French National Guard participated actively in revolutionary politics and national defense. National Guard units were also involved in the violent suppression of counterrevolutionary forces during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794).

Since the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), nations around the world have raised National Guards composed of patriotic citizen-soldiers who can be deployed in times of war, national emergency, labor unrest, and civil conflict.

American militia units began adopting the term National Guards to honor Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, the former commander of the Parisian National Guard during his tour of the United States in 1824-1825. President’s Park was renamed Lafayette Square Park for the marquis when he visited Washington, D.C.

The history of Lafayette Square Park reminds us that National Guard units remain susceptible to politicization and that their deployment against civilian protesters or insurrectionists requires careful orchestration by responsible and apolitical commanders.

Fortunately, the National Guard force currently assembling at the U.S. Capitol includes troops mobilized by Democratic and Republican Governors from reliably “blue” states, solidly “red” states, and political divided “swing” states. Army General Dan Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, claims that the National Guards are “proven, prepared, and proud to do their part to ensure a peaceful and safe inauguration of our 46th commander-in-chief.”

Nonetheless, questions remain about the loyalties of some active-duty military officers and National Guard soldiers. Following the Storming of the Capitol, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have issued an unprecedented statement reminding U.S. soldiers of their oaths and legal responsibilities. NPR reports that the FBI is currently vetting National Guard troops who are deployed in Washington, D.C., to ensure their loyalties. [Update: Twelve National Guard soldiers have now been removed from inauguration duties, according to The New York Times.]

We must closely observe the National Guard’s mobilization, deployment, and command in order to ensure that the National Guard plays a neutral role in American political culture and civil-military relations.

This entry was posted in Civil Conflict, Comparative Revolutions, Crowd Studies, Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, French Revolution and Napoleon, History of Violence, Political Activism and Protest Culture, Political Culture, United States History and Society, War and Society, War, Culture, and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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