The War Between the States

Politicians discover a right to keep-and-bear fighter-bombers


Pentagon war planners have a new foe, a cunning and ruthless enemy well versed in unconventional conflict, psy-war ops, and black propaganda. America's governors have declared war on the nation's defense establishment, using the courts to derail the unit reshuffling that both the Pentagon and the civilian reviewers at the base-closure commission recommend. In deed—and damn near word—the governors and their attack-dog state attorneys general seek to enshrine military spending as a government jobs program that only tangentially attempts to defend the country.

You would think real, live shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would temper the grubbing for defense dollars in state capitols, but you'd be wrong. Seven states, with more on deck, are going to court to block planned base decisions. Two federal judges, one in Pennsylvania and one in Connecticut, have already sided with the states, risking a protracted legal fight on what should be relatively straightforward strategic calls.

More amazing still is the tortured legal argument the states are using to assert control over the Air National Guard units the Pentagon would like to order around like the vital components of national defense they are. The governors are claiming that a kind of hyper-Second Amendment right to control a "well-ordered militia" gives them final say over Air Guard assets and bases. That's right, the Constitution says entire wings of A-10s and F-16s are needed by the governors to maintain order and provide for the common defense. (Of course, Louisiana and Mississippi could probably use a few of the National Guard personnel currently stationed in Iraq to help with hurricane relief , but it's not clear what sort of useful role combat planes would play.)

Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, in fact, explicitly makes the claim that she, not George W. Bush, commands the A-10s the Air Force would like to phase out. "I am going to court to protect my authority, and that of future governors, as commander in chief," Rell says.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt claims that the closure commission's attempt to relocate F-15s from St. Louis amounts to illegal "micromanagement" of his aircraft.

In decrying the Pentagon's "power grab," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal strapped on his rarely worn strict-constructionist hat to try and explain what in the world the governors are talking about.

"There is an important principle here that goes back to the first days of the republic. The National Guard is the successor to our militia. We are guaranteed a militia by the United States Constitution and, equally important, by the statutes of our nation," Blumenthal told reporters.

But Blumenthal, last seen suing the federal government over the No Child Left Behind Act, misses some important realities. First, an Air Guard unit flying hundreds of millions of dollars in federally-purchased, supersonic aircraft is not really the same thing as some guys in fatigues down at the armory. Also, governors have traditionally had command of guard units only when they are not in federal service, or "called up." However, due to the 24/7 nature of the terrorism threat and the need for Guard units to train regularly with active duty units, the Pentagon is moving to a footing that has air units in de facto continuous federal service. What could be wrong with that? Plenty, the guvs say.

The governor of Illinois actually suggests that letting the military call the Air Guard shots will leave residents of his state dangerously unprotected against the terrorist threat. Or maybe a sneak attack from Wisconsin—Gov. Rod Blagojevich is not real clear on that.

"Taking the F-16s out of Springfield would compromise our ability to protect the people of Illinois and will impact the safety and security of the entire Midwest," Blagojevich claims. The entire Midwest?

U.S. Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) makes a similar claim, arguing that taking A-10s from the Air National Guard Base at Bradley International Airport would leave Connecticut "the only state in the nation without an active air defense." That's an interesting way to put it, considering both that the A-10s in question are ground-attack aircraft and that the Air Force would like to move the planes all of 12 miles away. Into Massachusetts.

At some point—and we're well past it—politicians must put aside their narrow, parochial interests, not to mention their new command fetish, and accept that the nation can no longer sustain a two-track military: one part actual defense, one part pork engine. Change might be painful at first, but the alternative is eternal shame and national humiliation.