Call for reserves is the new way of US warfare

In a way, President Clinton's order to call up thousands of national guard and reserve troops this week is a routine way to bolster US forces in the Balkans.

But it's also a move that says much about the late 20th-century American style of war.

From World War II through Vietnam, the US military depended on large standing forces. Active-duty divisions, wings, and fleets were self-contained units that didn't didn't need aid from weekend warriors.

The end of the draft changed everything. For reasons both practical and political, America's all-volunteer military has become utterly dependent on the factory workers, police officers, airline pilots, and even college students who make up the guard and reserves.

By ordering them into the war, a US president is necessarily stirring up the opinions of this broad cross-section of America - as well as those of their bosses, customers, friends, parents, siblings, and offspring.

"To commit the reserves is to commit the nation," says a defense department official involved in reserves planning. "And because of the impact on communities and employers, it's never done lightly."

Relying on reserves has become a tenet of today's American military only in the past decade - and for two reasons.

First, after several rounds of post-cold-war downsizing, the armed forces can no longer mount an effective campaign - especially an extended air war - without the reserves, as many as 33,000 of whom could be called soon.

Much of the nation's ability to refuel planes in mid-flight, for instance - a crucial part of NATO's air campaign over Yugoslavia - is vested in air national guard units.

Then there are the sheer numbers: In 1989, there were 2.1 million active-duty troops and 1.6 million reserve forces. Today the balance is dramatically different - and equal: 1.4 million active-duty and 1.4 million in the reserves.

Second, after the public-relations meltdown during the Vietnam War, US military planners deliberately adopted the strategy of relying heavily on reserves. Never again, they vowed, would there be such a chasm between the public and the military elite.

Today it's the political leaders who are largely responsible for ensuring such a gap doesn't develop. In time of war, for the nation's reserves this arrangement means a lot of last-minute preparations and talks with family.

They've been signing power-of-attorney documents, arranging for someone to pay the bills and water the plants while they're gone, and working out life's other details. After all, they could ship out in as few as 24 hours after getting their orders. And they could be gone indefinitely.

Brig Dauber could be one of them. He's a sophomore at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. - and a lance corporal in the Marine reserves. He's been repacking his gear, checking his chinstraps, and watching the news.

"They want us to know everything about the area - and be clear about why we're going," says the young reservist in the clipped, efficient tones of an aspiring military man. If any of his knowledge filters out to friends and family, observers say that's all the better for military planners, who want the public to pay attention - and not wake up one day and say, "How'd we get into this mess?"

Calling home more often

Indeed, Mr. Dauber has been preparing those close to him - especially his mom - for the call-up. "I talk to her once a week these days," he says, which is "more than usual."

Employers too are bracing for the loss of employees. At American Airlines, for instance, 800 of the company's 9,300 pilots are in the military reserves. If many are tapped, there could be flight delays or cancellations.

Most employers are proud to have their workers be in the military. Take Edwin Malzahn, president of Charles Machine Works in rural Perry, Okla., which manufactures Ditch Witch brand ditch diggers. More than a dozen of his 1,300 workers are in the national guard. "We pat 'em on the back and say hallelujah," he says. He wishes more of his employees were reservists, saying they're among his best workers.

But there are also tensions in reserve life. These volunteers must serve a minimum of one weekend a month and two weeks a year. They can also be called to do up to five straight years of extra training. And they can be deployed indefinitely in war.

Federal law guarantees that their jobs will be there when they return. And they get special breaks such as a 6 percent interest rate on consumer debt.

Strains on family life

But that didn't help Steven Negri, a Pittsburgh resident whose Air National Guard unit spent 6-1/2 months in the Middle East during Desert Shield and Storm. He didn't get back until three months after the fighting ended, mostly, he says, because the Air Force couldn't find a plane to transport his unit. "I was sitting there on my Humvee getting a tan," he says, while his marriage was falling apart back home. Within three months of his return he was divorced. He says other men in his unit saw their marriages and businesses fail.

Some observers expect more skepticism about the Kosovo mission. "There could be more of the sentiment that 'I don't want to be called up for some humanitarian gig in the Balkans where lots of people could get killed,' " says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at The Brookings Institution.

But in the end, "when these call-ups come, that's when everyone in the reserves is reminded that they're not on a pleasure cruise," says the Defense Department official. "These are the costs associated with national military power."

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