WASHINGTON — America's military reserves have played a key role in the nation's defense - from the Minutemen ousting the British in the 1770s to National Guard units bolstering sandbag walls in the Midwest floods of 1997.
But even they aren't safe from downsizing.
The Pentagon's latest blueprint for US global defense strategy includes significant trims from the Army National Guard and military reserves.
The proposed cuts have ignited a political firestorm that has brought intense pressure on the Army to reconsider the plan. Underlying the dispute is a philosophical debate over the nation's citizen-soldiery that's as old as the Republic itself.
"People don't realize what the Guard and Reserves do," says Sgt. 1st Class James Smith, a licensed nurse and Desert Storm veteran, who's assigned to the South Carolina National Guard headquarters in Columbia. "I've got folks in Equador, Bosnia, Qatar, Korea and El Salvador."
The blueprint released last month, called the Quadrennial Defense Review, would reduce the National Guard by 38,000 slots. It would also eliminate 15,000 active Army troops and 7,000 members of the Army Reserve, the federally run reserve component.
Some of the savings would help pay for modernization. Others would fund the speed-up of a National Guard reorganization approved last year.
In a show of the huge political clout commanded by the National Guard, 36 governors have written letters of protest to the administration, and members of Congress - including Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi - have urged Defense Secretary William Cohen to reconsider the plan.
"This troop reduction will severely reduce the emergency response capacity and capability of the National Guard in every state and territory," warns Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) in a letter to President Clinton.
Such assertions may be overblown as the National Guard would still number 327,000 personnel. But the pressure has had an impact. At Mr. Cohen's direction, the Army is to begin three days of talks today with the National Guard to "try to find what the right balance is going to be in terms of the reductions," Cohen says.
At issue is whether the way the Army divided the troop cuts was the most effective balance between saving funds and apportioning capabilities at a time when US military power is unrivaled and new technology is bringing revolutionary changes to war-fighting.
National Guardsmen cost between 25 percent and 80 percent of what the Pentagon spends to maintain comparable active-duty troops. Given the post-war constraints on defense spending, National Guard officers say major savings could be had by eliminating active-duty Army troops whose functions could be performed just as effectively by their units.
"There are many things that can be done in the Guard and Reserve that the active Army doesn't need to do itself in these times of reduced threat, and we need to talk about those," says Maj. Gen. Ronald Harrison, head of the Adjutants-General Association of the United States, which represents National Guard commanders.
"The National Guard and Reserves have proven to be less expensive and more economical than the active duty," adds Maj. Pete Brooks, commander of a headquarters company with the National Guard's 218th Heavy Separate Brigade in Newberry, S.C.
"The whole idea behind the [defense review] was to save money for modernization. So you're cutting out the less-expensive soldiers - it doesn't make sense," he says. In Major Brooks's state, trims could total 1,300 troops out of 11,200. "We would have to go to soldiers and say, 'Thanks for your service to the country. However, you're no longer needed here,' " he says.
Others defend the Army's decision to target the bulk of the personnel cuts on the National Guard.
They argue that because of advances in weaponry and tactics, future conflicts will be short and confined within regions. For that reason, they say, the country can afford to reduce its reserve forces, thereby freeing up scarce resources for the regular Army.
"If you buy into the current strategy, which is that we need to respond quickly to two major regional wars ... it's very hard to see a meaningful role for at least eight National Guard divisions," says Steve Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a Washington-based defense think tank.
The arguments reflect tensions between regular and reserve forces that have existed since the nation won independence. At that time, some opposed the creation of a regular Army, insisting the US remain a country of citizen-soldiers as a precaution against a return of a despotic central authority.
Professional soldiers, however, have questioned the need for citizen-militias. They believe that part-time soldiers lack the training to fight the country's wars and should be restricted to providing logistical support for their full-time counterparts.
The tensions were most recently aggravated during the 1991 Gulf war, when three National Guard divisions were mobilized, but never sent overseas. Army officials claimed the divisions were not ready for combat in time; the National Guard says the Army deliberately delayed calling up the divisions, fearing that they would outshine active-duty units.
* Dave Moniz contributed to this report from Columbia, S.C.
SPOTLIGHT ON US RESERVES
* The US Military Reserve comprises the National Guard and Reserve forces of the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force.
* Reserve forces are stationed in every US state and territory.
* The reserves are 38 percent of the total US military force and spend 7.6 percent of the Department of Defense budget.
* 1,810,000 people are in the reserves.
* Most reservists work part-time for the military and have a full-time civilian job.
* The Selected Reserve - the group that's first in line to be called to active duty - trains 30 days per year.
* 106,000 reservists were deployed in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
* 4,300 reservists served in Bosnia as part of Operation Joint Endeavor.
* 3,700 reservists are stationed as peacekeepers in 21 countries worldwide.