The governor of Oklahoma versus the Biden administration. The governor of Texas versus the Biden administration. The governor of South Dakota versus the Biden administration.
Three recent battles between political forces centering on COVID-19 public health policies and immigration.
And caught in the middle, between state politicians and federal political appointees, are National Guard troops.
After spending two decades in near constant rotations to the Middle East, National Guardsmen have found themselves in the very center of some of the most heated American political battles of the last few years. The Guard by its very nature is meant to balance a carefully calibrated set of dual roles -- answering to governors but paid for through federal funds and trained by military commanders to handle the national security needs of the nation.
But sometime in the last few years, the balance between two responsibilities has begun to resemble a tug-of-war.
"It's the fault of the elected officials," Nathalie Grogan, a research associate for the Center for a New American Security, told Military.com. "They are politicizing members of the military; this is almost unprecedented."
There have been examples of National Guard troops used by federal officials during fraught political fights -- the civil rights movement featured several instances of the Guard helping to desegregate schools -- but what has made the last few years different is how frequent these events are and how the rhetoric used by elected officials has grown more inflammatory, violent and, in some cases, authoritarian.
Three recent examples of how governors are seemingly using Guard forces in a power match against the federal government, testing the centuries-old militia rules the Guard still runs on:
- The secretary of defense is threatening Guardsmen's pay while trying to enforce vaccine mandates to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as Oklahoma officials have filed a lawsuit against those mandates mirroring burgeoning national political resistance over public health policy.
- The Biden administration entered office committed to cooling the escalating military bravado at the Southern border, only to see Texas' governor call up the Guard with minimal notice and, according to some sources, failing to tell Guard leadership in the Pentagon how many troops were being deployed.
- In South Dakota, a state that is bordered only by other American states, the governor took private funds from a major donor to Republican politicians to pay for a state Guard deployment to the border with Mexico, rebuking the Biden administration over border policy in the process.
Yet National Guard officials are seemingly unfazed by recent high-profile wielding of Guardsmen. When asked by Military.com in early November about the Republican mega-donor funding South Dakota's troops at the border, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, directed all questions to the governor.
"Ultimately, the Guard funds are under command and control of the governors, and the governor needs to answer to that," he said.
"That's their decision, and that's how the National Guard is set up. We don't want to see that at all," Hokanson added when pressed on criticisms of partisan Guard deployments. "[Governors] have to answer to that."
Oklahoma and the Politics of COVID-19
At least five states are considering whether to follow Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt's lead in fighting the Defense Department's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to his office, in a test of federal control over the National Guard.
Fights over vaccine mandates are the latest in what have become highly contentious political battles over public health policies tied to the coronavirus pandemic. In Florida, Republican politicians on the state level pushed through a bill banning schools from creating masking requirements, while the Biden administration has put in place national mask mandates on public transportation.
That kind of conflicting policy is not a problem for the active-duty force, where the Pentagon can add the COVID-19 vaccine onto a long preexisting list of vaccines required for troops. But for the Guard, which answers to both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the governors, the conflicts are finding their way into court.
Austin has threatened to withhold pay from unvaccinated Guardsmen, but how the Pentagon would enforce that and its authority to do so is murky at best. On Thursday, Stitt and his state attorney general filed a federal lawsuit challenging the vaccination mandate, with the governor underscoring his ultimate authority over Oklahoma troops unless they are federally mobilized under so-called Title 10 orders, a mechanism typically reserved for overseas missions.
But the political disagreements about the Guard aren't limited to policies. They're showing up in how the Guard is used as well.
Militarizing and Demilitarizing the Southern Border
In October 2018, then-President Donald Trump ordered a surge of 5,200 active-duty troops and 2,000 National Guard troops to the southern border for a mission known at the time as "Operation Faithful Patriot" to supplement the some 2,000 service members already on the border.
The move by Trump came just two weeks before national midterm elections, which were looking grim for the GOP. The president and his administration claimed migrant caravans in Mexico were threatening the U.S., and Trump called it an "invasion" of "tough people."
That was the first time since the post-9/11 wars that the volume of troops on the border rivaled the number in some war zones abroad. Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis scrubbed the mission's name on Election Day 2018, saying it framed it in "arcane military terms," and the troop number dwindled swiftly after votes were cast.
The Biden administration came into office decrying the martial rhetoric Trump had deployed when talking about migrants, and promising a more compassionate approach to dealing with the thousands of people who continue to attempt to cross the border.
Despite that shift in the tenor of the federal response, large numbers of migrants have continued to show up at the border, challenging the new administration. Republicans have seized on Biden's border response to hammer him as ineffective and out of touch.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a potential contender for the presidency if Trump declines to seek a second term, has deployed thousands of Guardsmen to the border this year -- and frequently brandishes the mission on social media. Some of those deployments happen on short notice -- as little as 10 days for a yearlong mission, according to several soldiers interviewed by Military.com.
"While securing the border is the federal government's responsibility, Texas will not sit idly by as this crisis grows," Abbott said in a statement last month. "Texas is responding with the most robust and comprehensive border plan the nation has ever seen."
The Texas National Guard refused to tell Military.com exactly how many troops are on the mission, and several sources said even the Pentagon might not know. A National Guard official told Military.com that states do not have to report troop numbers to the National Guard Bureau of the Defense Department.
"What Gov. Abbott is doing, he's doing that in a state of active-duty status, well within his authority," Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army National Guard, told reporters at the annual Association of the United States Army convention in October. "What may be described as a political decision could be described as a security decision, depending on where you sit on that issue."
Meanwhile, the border has become a top issue in the state's politics. Some of Abbott's GOP opponents in next year's gubernatorial primary have hit him for not being aggressive enough on the border, with Allen West, the former Texas GOP chair running against him, calling for the deployment of all 26,000 troops in the Texas Guard.
Border deployments also serve as a feature of political posturing in states far from the division with Mexico.
Republican Billionaire Funds South Dakota Mission
This summer, roughly 50 South Dakota Guardsmen deployed on state orders to the U.S.-Mexico border. In an unprecedented move, the two-month mission was funded by a more than $1 million donation by Tennessee GOP mega-donor Willis Johnson, prompting concerns over whether the National Guard could be a private army for hire.
Military.com talked to multiple South Dakota Democratic lawmakers, all of whom say the state's budget was healthy and that they could have easily afforded the mission. The move by Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, was even more unusual given the state was sending more than 100 soldiers to the border on a yearlong mission funded by the federal government.
State orders are usually reserved for emergencies within the state's borders, such as responding to civil unrest and natural disasters. Under those orders, troop pay is often much lower than on federal orders, and Guardsmen do not accrue benefits such as the GI Bill and cannot seek care or file disability claims through the Department of Veterans Affairs if injured.
Noem never explained why a separate, privately funded mission was necessary, saying in a statement at the time only that "the Biden administration has failed in the most basic duty of the federal government: keeping the American people safe." It's unclear what danger Noem was describing, as crime rates tied to immigrant populations are far lower than rates for those born in America, and a small deployment of Guard troops would be unlikely to impact the decades-long flow of drugs across the border.
The move prompted widespread concern in Congress over whether the Guard is effectively for hire. Amid Republican opposition, the House Armed Services Committee in September voted to prevent states from using private money to fund the National Guard.
"I don't believe that our National Guard should be up for auction or up for sale; that limits transparency," Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said at the time. "We have no idea who is funding private donations for what some would consider political purposes. We don't know if any of those sources are foreign sources. We don't even know if those sources are adversaries."
The measure was stapled onto the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, which sets funding and policy priorities for the Pentagon. The NDAA has not yet been passed by Congress.
The top officer for the South Dakota Guard told lawmakers he was blindsided by Noem's decision to privately fund the border mission, telling state lawmakers the "National Guard isn't for hire," according to reporting from The Associated Press.
"Nowhere in this planning process was there a discussion of, 'I'll go send the Guard if I can find somebody to pay for it,'" Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Marlette said at a budget hearing in August.
The Appearance of Politicization
These fights between state and federal officials are taking place during a period when there is growing concern among experts and members of the military that those in uniform are being used as political props.
Amid nationwide protests following multiple instances of police brutality against unarmed Black men and women, particularly George Floyd, Trump urged "radical left" mayors to combat protests and riots or he would "send in the National Guard and get the job done right."
Trump's incendiary rhetoric was part of a sequence of events that culminated in a violent standoff between police and National Guard troops against protesters in front of the White House in June 2020. Law enforcement advanced on the crowd using batons, rubber bullets and tear gas; members of the media also were attacked by officers.
The assault on the protesters was seemingly done to clear a path for Trump to walk across Lafayette Square for a photo op holding a Bible in front of St. John's Church across the street from the White House.
Trump's top military official later apologized for taking part in the photo op. "I should not have been there," said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."
Milley, who has been a frequent target of right-wing pundits and Trump himself, was even reportedly afraid of a coup from the former president and his supporters.
Grogan, the research associate for the Center for a New American Security, points to politicizing the Guard as possibly having grim long-term consequences for the entire Defense Department. Public confidence in the military has fallen significantly over the last three years, according to a recent survey released this week by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.
"The National Guard is the part of the military civilians will have the most interaction with," Grogan said. "Some are viewing the military through vastly different lenses, which really undermines the whole institution as apolitical, and the Guard will feel that loss of trust most immediately, which could have dangerous effects."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.