On Reserves

There are a number of benefits associated with having an all-volunteer armed forces, not the least of which is the lifting of the burden of sacrifice that would otherwise fall on those with nominal enthusiasm for fighting wars. Even after the initial surge of support received after the attacks of September 11th there are still those who hear a call to public/national service. Those who want to do more than just write a check though for myriad reasons they will never wear a uniform or take down an al-Qaida safe house.

It was that group of citizens that President Bush spoke about in his state of the union speech several weeks ago when he called for a “Civilian Reserve Corps” to assist in the post-war efforts required in Afghanistan and Iraq (and presumably future conflicts). We already have a Peace Corps, so call this the Post-War Corps.

In fact the idea of having a reserve cadre to call upon during times of crisis has been mentioned quite a bit lately. Intelligence reform legislation allows for the formation of a reserve corps of intelligence officers who could be called up on to assist the IC during times of crisis. The USA Freedom Corps is a domestic example of the type of services professionals could provide in foreign settings.

As skilled and educated as members of our military are – in the words of the Marine Corps – “every Marine a rifleman.” Closing with and destroying the enemy is priority one, safety of the force is number two, and every other task a distant third. This wouldn’t be an issue for a force designed from the start to restore/rebuild. A civilian corps would also put the right people in the right jobs now, vice the military Reserves or Guard which is full of engineers and skilled tradesmen that cannot employ those skills when they don a uniform because of their MOS.

The drawbacks of a civilian reserve of any sort are not unlike those associated with the military reserve. Issues related to everything from pay differentials, job protections and post-deployment physical and mental health will have to be addressed. The level of complexity is probably greater than most have envisioned: you’re essentially creating an un-uniformed Army.

Countering any drawbacks are the numerous benefits a civilian reserve corps would have after active hostilities. For starters it takes the burden of non-combat duties from the backs of the military, whose primary purpose is breaking, not building things. In the right setting, top-level engineering, political and business expertise could allow the most desperate nations to leap-frog over the development hurdles that have plagued other developing nations (the civil affairs version of those 3rd world nations that skipped cabling and went straight to wireless services). A successful deployment could serve as the impetus for the formation of the “Department of Everything Else” that Barnett has espoused.

The initial investment required to bring a civilian reserve corps into reality will be substantial and sustaining enthusiasm for the program in the long-term – particularly as time passes and hot wars cool off – will be difficult. It may be that a more practical solution would be the expansion of the Inter-Governmental Personnel Act, in particular enhanced funding to agencies that bring on needed experts who are willing to be seconded to the Pentagon.

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