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Research Questions

  1. How has the National Guard transformed from a militia to the institution it is today?
  2. What does the term "citizen soldier" mean?
  3. How have the militia and the National Guard embodied the attributes of the "citizen soldier" at various points during history?

The National Guard is often portrayed as the modern heir to the colonial militia and retaining at least three of the latter's defining attributes — a key instrument of American national security, a check on federal power, and home of today's "citizen soldiers." This report explores how the term citizen soldier has been defined in academic literature — as compulsory, universal, legitimate service by civilians — and then looks at how the National Guard has evinced these attributes at various periods in its history. Since the United States' founding, the militia — and later, the National Guard — slowly evolved into an increasingly formidable warfighting force and increasingly important tool for national security. This evolution, however, has come at the expense of two other attributes of the colonial militia — serving as a check on federal power and filling its ranks with citizen soldiers. The report concludes that there are inherent and increasing tensions among being a warfighting force, serving as a check on federal power, and embodying the ideals of a citizen soldier, and it is not clear that the Guard — or any other force for that matter — can fully reconcile them. Ultimately, the Guard's transformation from citizen soldiers to a professional force may very well be inevitable and is likely a positive development for American national security. It is, however, important to realize that this trend is occurring, to demystify the citizen soldier, and to see the force for what it is.

Key Findings

A Citizen Soldier Is a Civilian First

  • The generally accepted academic definition of "citizen soldier" includes four traits: Military service must be obligatory (compulsory service fulfilling part of one's duties as a citizen), universal (reflective of the nation as a whole, not just one segment of the population), have legitimacy by democratic standards (or strong popular support), and personnel identify themselves as civilians first, rather than as soldiers. The final attribute, however, is often considered the most important of the four.

The National Guard Is an Increasingly Important Tool for National Security

  • Since the United States' founding, the militia — and later, the National Guard — slowly evolved into an increasingly formidable warfighting force and increasingly important tool for national security. This evolution involved increased federal funding and control and less attachment to state government.

The National Guard's Evolution Has Come at the Expense of Some Its "Citizen Soldier" Character

  • Service is no longer an obligatory part of citizenship. The National Guard also reflects a narrower portion of the population (and so is less universal) and is composed of fewer civilians than in earlier eras of its history.
  • As a result, the National Guard looks increasingly similar to the active component, and less like "citizen soldiers" of the early period of American history.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was prepared for the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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