America Unguarded

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America Unguarded  (2003) 
by Robert C. Byrd
Delivered on February 11, 2003.

As President Bush gears up for a possible war in Iraq, we have been treated to repeated announcements of troop deployments and call-ups of reserve forces. A fourth aircraft carrier battle group centered around the USS Theodore Roosevelt is steaming toward the Persian Gulf and the Navy is reportedly prepared to send up to three more carrier battle groups to the region. Two Marine amphibious groups of seven ships each are also already in the Gulf. Military installations around the nation are taking on an empty, shuttered feeling as unit after unit packs up and ships out.

National Guard and reserve forces have been mobilized not only to go to the Persian Gulf, but also to guard military installations around the United States, leaving vacant spots around countless dinner tables and in countless work places. The 300th Chemical Company, headquartered in Morgantown, West Virginia, was ordered on January 3, 2003, to report to Fort Dix, New Jersey, in anticipation of deployment to some as yet undetermined final destination. These troops may be gone for a year, or even longer.

Other West Virginia Guard and Reserve units have already been called up, including members of the Bluefield-based 340th Military Police Company, the Romney-based 351st Ordnance Company, the Kenova-based 261st Ordnance Company and the Bridgeport-based 459th Engineer Company. West Virginia Army National Guard members have been recalled to active duty, as have members of the Charleston-based 130th Airlift Wing and the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg. West Virginia is playing an active role in our nation's military operations, and the story is the same in states around the nation as, week after week, small town newspapers display the smiling portraits of Guardsmen and Reservists called into active service.

Even the Coast Guard is sending eight of its 49 patrol boats and two port security units – some 600 personnel – to the Persian Gulf. By mid-February, some 150,000 or more service personnel are expected to be in the Persian Gulf region, with the total expected to top 200,000 by early March.

These new deployments to the Persian Gulf come on top of many other ongoing military operations around the globe. Approximately 9,000 U.S. service personnel remain active in Afghanistan, battling Taliban forces and continuing to root out Osama bin Laden's followers. Military and political tensions in South Korea are as high as they have been at any time since the Korean War. Over 51,000 U.S. personnel live in South Korea, including 35,654 active duty military personnel. Some 6,900 U.S. forces remain in Bosnia as part of the NATO Operation Joint Forge.

By mid-February, by this short count, 201,554 American service personnel will be far from home, engaged in dangerous missions around the globe. This figure does not include forces permanently stationed in Europe, Japan and elsewhere, but those on temporary deployments. These deployed troops will be supported by many more military forces based in the United States. In musical terms, the operational tempo of the U.S. Armed forces has moved from adagio (slow) to allegro (fast), and is rapidly moving to prestissimo ("as fast as possible" or "too fast").

No one wants our military to go to war without the resources it needs. No one wants our military to go to war without the advantage of overwhelming force. But in this new era of terrorist attacks in the homeland, I have some concerns that we are leaving America unguarded as we attempt to initiate and sustain so many military operations overseas.

I am not alone in thinking that our country is vulnerable to another massive terrorist attack. On Friday, Attorney General Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Ridge announced to the nation that credible, corroborated intelligence reports required an increase in the homeland security alert level.

In light of this danger, it is almost bizarre that our military continues to run at full tilt to ready for war in the Persian Gulf. It is as if two ships are passing in the night: one filled with our soldiers, headed for the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, the other carrying terrorists headed for our shores. If the risk to the American people was not so great, the situation would be almost comical.

If an attack strikes a city in the United States, who will respond? Governors might wish to call out the National Guard in order to respond to an attack and restore order, but will any units be left to pick up the phone? The military's only mobile chemical and biological laboratory has deployed to the Persian Gulf. Chemical decontamination units, like Morgantown's 300th Chemical Company, have been called up and shipped out. Many of our nation's policemen, firemen, and other first responders are members of the National Guard and Reserves. They have been called up and shipped out, leaving one important national security job for another.

It would be a mistake to assume that these troops will soon return home after defeating Iraq in battle. It is true, Saddam Hussein's military is not as strong as it once was, but the looming specter of street-to-street fighting in the megalopolis of Baghdad is based in reality. Our troops could be forced into a wild goose chase for Saddam Hussein, just as Osama bin Laden has eluded our grasp for the last fourteen months.

We could get lucky and win the war in a matter of days, and Saddam Hussein could be served up to us on a silver platter by his generals who are desperate to save their own lives. But that is not the end of the story. Someone will have to occupy Iraq and purge the government of the Baathist party elites who might seek to succeed one dictatorship with another. Someone will have to calm the situation in the north, where the Kurds might seek to form their own country, which is a serious concern for our ally, Turkey.

If the United States goes forward with a war with only token support from some of our allies, it is not hard to see that we will also bear the greatest burdens in the occupation of Iraq. The Department of Defense has, so far, been reluctant to hazard a guess at how many troops might be required, and how long their mission might last. Perhaps those numbers are too alarming to discuss at this point. But one British think tank has estimated that occupation of Iraq may require 50,000 to 200,000 troops and cost $12 billion to $50 billion per year, for five years, and perhaps more.

So long as this occupation continues, how is the National Guard supposed to help our states in homeland security missions? Our police forces can hardly pick up the slack – they are already working full tilt performing the myriad tasks that keep our streets and schools safe twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Just because the threat of terrorist activity is higher does not mean that run-of-the-mill villains go on vacation. Just because Osama bin Laden is still on the loose does not mean that the John Allen Muhammeds of the world will decide not to go on random nationwide shooting rampages.

At a time when port security has become increasingly important, and in which we have learned what a tiny fraction of incoming ships and containers are being searched for weapons of mass destruction, the Coast Guard is reducing its interdiction capability by sending one-sixth of its patrol craft to the Persian Gulf. How many more Haitian refugees will be able to land on our shores? How many more drug shipments will make it in? How many ships in distress will have to wait to get help? How many terrorists will be able to land on our shores?

One key problem in trying to balance the demands of states for National Guard to perform homeland security missions with the deployment of Guardsmen to deal with international crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere, is that the military reserves are the well from which the active duty forces must draw for units with unique skills. If the military needs large numbers of military police, engineers, or civil affairs specialists, it has no choice but to draw from the reserve components. Our military is arranged so that the active forces alone simply are not able to carry out long periods of conflict or peacekeeping missions.

The Department of Defense has announced that it will seek to realign some units so that our active duty forces will be better able to perform specialized missions without drawing so heavily from our citizen-soldiers. But I have questions about how this will be done. Will the 300th Chemical Company be ripped out from its home in West Virginia, and sent off to a military base hundreds of miles away? If so, who would the Governor of West Virginia call upon if a chemical attack were to occur in my state?

The President has repeatedly said that our country is in this war on terrorism for the long haul. We should not seek band-aid solutions to important problems. Realignment of reserve and active forces might make sense for Fiscal Year 2004, but what are we going to do about the problem today? What needs to be done to prepare for ten years down the road?

Let us start by asking some tough questions. Do we need more active duty forces to do everything that the President is asking our military to do? If so, can we increase our recruiting to find more Americans who are willing to serve in the military? While the White House is prepared to dedicate every greater sums to our military, have we underestimated the manpower requirements for the war on terrorism, nation-building in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq, and maintaining our security guarantees to South Korea? Let us not shy away from asking these questions simply because we are afraid of honest answers that could expose a weakness in our military planning.

Mr. President, our states, cities, and towns are in a homeland security crunch. Security demands are increasing, state budget deficits are soaring, and citizen-soldiers are shipping out. Perhaps the homeland security crunch could not have been avoided completely, but its effects could have been mitigated.

In November 2001, I offered a $15 billion package to address urgent homeland security needs. The White House opposed it. In December 2001, I proposed $7.5 billion in homeland security funds. The Administration shaved that down to a fraction of its size. Wouldn't our communities be better prepared for the current terrorism warnings if those funds had reached our communities more than a year ago? With the homeland security crunch now effecting virtually every state in the union, one would think that we should have learned a lesson.

But just last month, I offered a $5 billion amendment to H.J.Res. 2, the FY 2003 omnibus appropriations legislation, to fund these programs that the President had authorized in earlier legislation. The White House opposed my amendment, terming it "new extraneous spending." My opinion differs from that of the White House. I believe that providing funding for programs that have been requested and authorized, and which are critical pieces of homeland security, is just as critical as going for the public acclaim that comes from proposing a bureaucratic reorganization. Words, and promises, need to be backed up with the money to make those words a reality. Empty promises and hollow rhetoric, no matter how stirring and how bedecked in flags and bunting, will not protect our families, our neighbors, our fellow citizens.

Mr. President, Iraq is not the only crisis on the American agenda. Hundreds of thousands of troops are shipping out for distant lands while the threat of terrorism is growing at home. They have our support and our prayers for their safe return. The families they leave behind also need the very best that we can do for them. They need more than our prayers. They need to have programs designed to improve their safety and security funded and implemented, not put on hold. I hope that the view from the White House will expand to focus not just beyond our shores, but also within our shoreline. We must not leave America unguarded.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).