What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role. That reflects America’s traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that’s well-justified.
There are good reasons to resist any push toward domestic militarization.
As one federal court has explained: “Military personnel must be trained to operate under circumstances where the protection of constitutional freedoms cannot receive the consideration needed in order to assure their preservation. The Posse Comitatus statute is intended to meet that danger.”
Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, commander of the federal troops helping out in New Orleans, seemed to recognize that danger when he ordered his soldiers to keep their guns pointed down: “This isn’t Iraq,” he said.
Soldiers are trained to be warriors, not peace officers — which is as it should be. But putting full-time warriors into a civilian policing situation can result in serious collateral damage to American life and liberty.
It can also undermine military readiness, because when soldiers are forced into the role of police officers, their war-fighting skills degrade. That’s what the General Accounting Office concluded in a 2003 report looking at some of the homeland security missions the military was required to carry out after Sept. 11, 2001.
According to the report, “While on domestic military missions, combat units are unable to maintain proficiency because these missions provide less opportunity to practice the varied skills required for combat and consequently offer little training value.”
The GAO also concluded that such missions put a serious strain on a military already heavily committed abroad.
American law calls for civilian peace officers to keep the peace, or, failing that, National Guard troops under the command of their state governors. So perhaps we should stop treating the National Guard as if it’s no different than the Army Reserve.More