Reserve promotions and politics

THE process by which Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese obtained his promotion to colonel in the Army Reserve, and by which Sen. Gary Hart obtained a commission in the Navy Reserve, casts renewed doubt on the wisdom of placing increased reliance on the National Guard and Reserve.

The question of ''politics'' in the ''Militia'' - now the National Guard and Reserve - is older than the United States itself. ''Politicking'' with Guard and Reserve commissions is not confined to Washington.

In every state the chief of the National Guard is a political appointee or elected official permitted by Army and Air Force regulations to draw a substantial federal ''drill'' pay whether or not he is fully qualified to wear the stars that go with the job. Suggestions that the functions of political appointee and military chief be separated in state commands, as they are in federal military departments, have gotten nowhere. The extent to which this unhealthy political-military mix in a single official is used for partisan political purposes varies from state to state, depending on the personality of individual state military chiefs and the governors they serve.

The Army Reserve was created in 1916, supposedly to get away from the politics of the National Guard. But as the Meese case demonstrates, politics both of the personal and partisan varieties are every bit as intense in the federal Army Reserve as they are in the state system. This is because of a central flaw that the Reserve copied from the Guard.

From the time it elected its own officers the Militia-become-National Guard has based the officer selection and promotion process almost totally on local residence. That is, promotion in the National Guard from Colonial days to this depends largely on living in the same community and, indeed, on membership in the same unit, throughout one's military career. That was the only way to do it in the Colonial era, but the system has made less and less sense as the population has become increasingly mobile. The result is that the higher one goes in the National Guard today, the less likely the chances of transfer to a like unit and job in the event of a major job change outside of one's home locality. Thus what are likely to be the most capable and energetic people available are gradually forced out of any meaningful assignment.

Strange to say, the Army Reserve adopted exactly the same system.

Politics - such as the chain of ''coincidences'' that accompanied Mr. Meese's promotion to colonel - is virtually the only way to overcome this system.

So the emphasis in the top levels of the National Guard and Reserve is far less on military efficiency than it is on maintaining the skein of personal and political relationships on which professional survival and advancement depend.

The results of this sadly deficient system are less apparent in the Air Force and Navy reserve systems, because airplanes tend to crash and ships tend to run into things when incompetently operated. Even so, the taxpayer is required to pick up the tab for a duplicative Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve system, because to combine them into one state or federal system would jeopardize the jobs of many senior officers.

A serious byproduct of the Army system, in particular, is superannuation, in that officers of every rank tend to hold on to their positions to the last day and hour possible, with the result that many are beyond the age and physical condition necessary to perform their duties properly in time of war.

The United States is already in a position whereby it cannot react to a major crisis wtihout immediate recourse to Guard and Reserve units whose leadership may or may not be the best available. Before additional responsibilities are transferred, Congress would do well to look beyond the Meese promotion to the process and structures that made it possible.William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs. He has served as a staff officer in the National Guard Bureau, Washington, and as a colonel in the Army Reserve.

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