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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 08:04 pm

Keeping Guard

Antiwar activists say that governors should be doing more

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Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich
PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA/KRT

The state of Louisiana, a third of whose National Guard troops are in Iraq, is activating 3,500 soldiers, roughly half of the state’s forces, to clean up behind Katrina, the hurricane that slammed New Orleans on Monday.

Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, also with large Guard contingencies on overseas duty, have mobilized guardsmen to deal with Katrina’s aftermath in those states. Meanwhile, other Guard units from around the country, including Illinois, have been placed on standby.

Katrina highlights the burden America’s continuing presence in Iraq is placing on the Guard, which typically has been used for domestic problems — from natural disasters to civil unrest — and not for supporting prolonged military operations.

Some governors, such as Montana’s, have complained about the Guard’s prolonged deployment in Iraq. But Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — who has had no reservations about speaking out on other national and international matters — has been markedly silent.

Since March 2003, 12 members of the Illinois National Guard have been killed while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Approximately 1,400 of the state’s 9,000 National Guardsmen are on duty in Iraq.

Anti-war activists say that governors, who have some responsibility for the Guard in their states, need to stand up and be counted.

In a telephone interview from “Camp Casey,” an anti-war demonstration in Crawford, Texas, Charley Richardson tells Illinois Times that the organization he helped co-found, Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), has urged several state governors to be more proactive in bringing National Guard troops home from what he calls a “war based on lies.”

Richardson’s group questions the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion and occupation, but it also says that an overextended Guard will ultimately hurt the ability of states to respond to emergencies such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

This spring, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, even went so far as to ask the Pentagon to release his state’s Guard for what was expected to be a particularly severe summer wildfire season.

Certainly Illinois is as prone to natural disaster as Louisiana or Montana — and likely a more desirable terrorist target than either.

But despite his part as commander in chief of the Illinois Air and Army National Guards, Blagojevich has not articulated a position on the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq or its impact on the state National Guard.

In October 2002, as a Democratic congressman from a Chicago district, Blagojevich voted to give Bush the authority to use force against Iraq — the critical vote that led to the invasion and occupation.

Blagojevich may have been in lockstep with the Bush administration on Iraq then, but since his election as governor, Blagojevich has been more willing than willing to lock horns with the administration on other hot-button issues.

He’s fought the Food and Drug Administration on the prescription-drug issue, in favor of importing lower-priced drugs from Canada. In response to rising gas prices, he recently urged the president to release oil from the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And he’s led the charge on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission-directed military-base closings by filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense.

The BRAC cuts — which, among other shifts, would strip Springfield’s 183rd Fighter Wing of its F-16 jets — Blagojevich says, violate federal law by disregarding his role as Illinois National Guard commander in chief.

One reason that officials such as Blagojevich have not taken a position on the war is simply because they don’t have to — voters tend to blame Bush for the war, not the bipartisan Congress that allowed it.

“For a lot of state and local politicians, they’ve felt like the war was not something they had to pay any attention to because they could write it off as a federal policy issue,” says MFSO’s Richardson.

Of course, even if Blagojevich wanted to wade into this issue, his power would be severely circumscribed.

According to Loyola University Chicago political-science professor John Williams, even if the governor wanted to call home the Guard, he would not have the legal authority to do so — not if the troops have been federalized.

Title 10 of the U.S. Code states that a governor may not withhold consent “with regard to active duty outside the United States, its territories, and its possessions, because of any objection to the location, purpose, type, or schedule of such active duty” of the National Guard.

Legalities aside, groups such as Richardson’s insist that governors must do more to advocate for soldiers from their home states.

“State politicians have a duty to their constituents,” Richardson says. “The fact that there may not be something they can do directly doesn’t mean there aren’t things they can do to advocate for the return of their National Guard to try and change the minds of the policy-makers in Washington, D.C.”

Blagojevich’s press office did not return calls for this story.

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