What Is the National Guard?

Photo of Florida storm

The National Guard is a force that we only tend to see when there is a state of emergency, such as a major hurricane or large-scale riot. Who are these people, what are their roles as part of this national service, and how important are they?

A Brief History of the National Guard

For centuries, the National Guard has been a part of the United States forces. The group didn’t exist in the same capacity as today, but there was a form of citizen-soldier “army” in place that could be called upon. 

The force developed out of the militia, an important part of the American colonies, and was used for defense. The first appeared in Massachusetts Bay in 1636. The government decided to keep state militia groups in place following independence as a balance to federal authority, and the force grew from there. Today, they are called in to assist in major disasters and sometimes in military conflict. 

Who Is a Part of the National Guard?

The membership of the National Guard is different from that of other armed forces, where you are a full-time member of a service. Here, members are serve part-time alongside other jobs. They could be lawyers, accountants, or anything else. What matters is that they commit to a training weekend each month and a few weeks of service over the year. Some will be sent to work on major assignments within their state during this annual service. 

Photo og Black Live Matter protest
The National Guard was called into action to deal with unrest at Black Lives Matter protests.

How Many Organizations Are There? 

There are around 450,000 of these part-time citizen-servicemen working with the National Guard. They are split into 54 organizations between the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard. There is one per state, one that works in Washington D.C, and three that cover the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. These groups are just as important for looking after the people in these United States-owned territories. 

What Does the National Guard Do as a State Organization?

There are three main focuses of the National Guard when it comes to protecting their country, their state, and the people within. They are as follows.

– Domestic law enforcement measures.

– Dealing with state emergencies.

– Foreign military action. 

Domestic Law Enforcement Measures

This is the one that most people probably think about when it comes to the purpose of this organization. The phrase “calling in the national guard” isn’t always a positive one as it often means that there is a scene of potentially dangerous unrest. For example, National Guard troops can be called in to help law enforcement during riots and protests that get out of hand. As you will see below, responses can vary.

One of the most recent examples of the National Guard being used to deal with civil unrest was during the Black Lives Matter protests. Many state officials were quick to call in their National Guard to protect police and break up protests after a police officer in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd.

The idea of bringing in the National Guard is often a threat made to help end such protests. The Guard shouldn’t be too proactive on the front line but can assist law enforcement logistically. They are also often brought in to enforce a curfew and allow for a presence on the streets. 

Dealing With State Emergencies

This National Guard duty that gets better press. They are called in during times of state emergencies to have a skilled and organized team on hand. This means better logistics in bringing in aid, distributing it to those in need, and setting up crisis centers. Guards can also take on other physical tasks to tackle problems head-on, such as dealing with fires, clearing areas cut off in storms, and other essential tasks.

Photo of tornado devastation
The National Guard are often called upon to provide relief in the wake of a tornado.

The National Guard responds to more state emergencies than one might imagine. There is a lot of national publicity for major events like hurricanes and wildfires, but they can also be called out in less serious situations. Tropical storms are increasingly common on the east coast and offshore islands, so hurricane relief is essential. Wildfires are more impactful than ever in California. That’s not to mention freak weather events and tornados. The National Guard were called out to 63 emergencies in 2019 alone. 

Foreign Military Action

There are times when state-based movements are called up to serve on a grander scale. National Guard members can head out to conflict areas to support troops in the United States Armed Forces. They may not have the same training and experience, but they are skilled enough to help in many areas. This has happened for centuries as the government leaned on its resources. Some fought alongside the army in the Revolutionary War and continued to do the same in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

How Much Power Does the President Have Over the National Guard?

Presidents will often make threats about deploying the National Guard in situations and make strong suggestions for state officials to use them. However, presidents can only do so much in this situation. The Posse Comitatus Act was created to stop the president from taking advantage of these state-based forces. However, the Insurrection Act also provides a backup for circumventing that law where essential.

There is a bit of a grey area when it comes to Washington D.C. though. D.C. isn’t a state, so it doesn’t have the a governor to instruct the guards. Instead, the president or Pentagon must do so. This led to a situation during the storming of the capitol in January 2021. Many felt the response was too weak and slow as President Trump supporters entered the building. 

How Important Is the National Guard?

As these various roles show, the National Guard remains an integral part of the armed services in the United States. When utilized correctly, they can help bring aid and peace to areas dealing with conflict and stress. They are a vital tool for state disasters and wider national unrest. 

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