As the coronavirus continues to spread around the US, it’s possible you’ll see members of the National Guard come to your town.
From California to New York, Wisconsin to Texas, the National Guard is now active in all US states and territories to help local governments contend with the rise of Covid-19 cases.
If you see a National Guard member, it’s understandable if you do a double take: Seeing people in military uniforms driving in big military trucks and walking around your neighborhood can, at first glance, be a bit disquieting. But if the National Guard is working near you, that means the governor of your state thought it best for some of your neighbors to help civilian agencies respond to the crisis.
So if you have fears of impending martial law, the good news is that that’s not going to happen where you live or anywhere else around America. National Guard members are “our fellow citizens, not Imperial Stormtroopers,” said Kori Schake, an expert on civil-military relations at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.
What National Guard members are doing is not so scary. Among other things, they’re disinfecting public places, delivering food, and helping administer drive-through tests for Covid-19, the official name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Working under the authority of a state’s governor, they’re providing personnel, vehicles, and other equipment to the response effort. In some cases, Guard members might be performing some law enforcement functions, but that’s always under the direction of the local police force.
Put together, the National Guard will be helping fill whatever gaps civilian leaders identify, not implementing a military takeover. “The National Guard is called up when local resources are insufficient to meet the need,” Lindsay Cohn, a Naval War College expert on the National Guard, told me.
What follows is a guide to what the National Guard can do and is doing to fight the coronavirus in the places the Guard is already deployed, and what that might mean for your hometown down the line.
Why use the National Guard during the coronavirus response?
Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the National Guard chief, explained to reporters on March 19 why his force should be called on to help during the coronavirus outbreak.
“With Covid-19, it’s like we have 54 separate hurricanes in every state, territory, and the District of Columbia,” he said. “When disaster strikes, we don’t have to mobilize from some base. We pack a lunch, we go to work, because we are already there in the communities where these events are taking place. We live there, we can respond faster.“
That’s a critical point to understand: A state’s National Guard is made up of people from that state. National Guard members are farmers, coal miners, doctors, lawyers, teachers, postal workers, grocery store clerks, and more. On occasion, mainly weekends, they’ll train with their unit. Most of the time, though, those in the Guard are doing their day jobs.
“The National Guard comes from the community and knows the community,” Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon’s top policy official from 2014 to 2016, told me.
When there’s a crisis, like with coronavirus, the governor mobilizes the state National Guard to assist civilian agencies in their response. That means the person in charge of them when they’re called up is the governor — so an elected leader is still in charge, not the military. In rare instances, the president can federalize the Guard, putting it under his control along with that of the Defense Secretary. That, however, is done in only the rarest of cases.
Governors can also use what’s called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact if they feel they need more resources to address their state’s issues. In broad terms, it allows governors to request that another state send some of its National Guard members, police officers, firefighters, and other critical workers to help out.
So if there’s a major coronavirus outbreak in, say, California, while Wyoming has a lot fewer cases, the governor of California can ask that members of Wyoming’s National Guard be sent to California for a while to work under his or her direction.
As for what the National Guard can actually do, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, who served as the National Guard’s chief from 2003 to 2008, told me the force can do a lot of missions, but four in particular stick out:
The personnel and vehicles at the Guard’s disposal — both on the ground and in the air — make it a big asset in a crisis. If, say, Michigan’s medical authorities are overwhelmed, the state’s National Guard can use its trucks and planes to deliver medication.
If people are struggling to get regular access to food, the same can be done to distribute pallets of emergency rations, usually normal food like rice or soup. And if hospitals get full, National Guard members can build new field hospitals or retrofit existing facilities like stadiums or hotels to take care of more patients.
National Guard troops can help control crowds, ensure products get where they need to go, and support law enforcement if need be. In that last case, members would be working for local police leaders to provide more workforce, not taking the law into their own hands. Some members will be armed, depending on what they’re asked to do, but not all will be carrying weapons.
Communications and electricity
The National Guard has advanced communications systems — large radios, teleconferencing equipment, and more — so that leaders across local, state, and federal governments can stay in touch, even in the most remote areas.
One such system, called DIRECT, allows National Guard members to have access to cellular service even in disaster areas or when tons of people are trying to get online at once. That allows them to keep communications flowing in even the worst situations.
And should electricity be required quickly — say, during a power outage while severely infected patients are being treated — National Guard members can install and use generators to keep the lights on.
The National Guard has physicians who can assist with the medical side of the coronavirus response. If some hospitals require more doctors to treat a growing flow of patients, the Guard could provide that assistance.
Even if physicians aren’t needed, National Guard members can help direct traffic at drive-through testing facilities, freeing up civilian medical staff to focus on the actual administration of the tests.
For all of these reasons, Blum says that seeing the National Guard in your town “ought to be a calming factor, not a cause for fear.”
Two examples of the current National Guard response
Democratic and Republican governors in every state and territory have called upon their National Guards to help with their coronavirus responses so far. Two of those missions in particular are useful examples of what the National Guard might do if it comes to your hometown in the coming weeks.
Let’s start with New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo activated his state’s National Guard members on March 10 in order to create a “containment area” around New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City that has been majorly impacted by Covid-19.
According to the press release at the time, Cuomo authorized the Guard “to deliver food to homes and help with cleaning public spaces in the containment area.” That makes sense: New Rochelle has about 80,000 people in it, and it’d be really hard to ensure those inside the containment area would be adequately served by that city’s civilian government alone.
On March 12, about a half dozen National Guard members showed up inside the one-mile containment area and began unloading pallets of food — bags of rice, cans of cream of mushroom soup, and more. They took it to one of the city’s community centers for volunteers to then help sort out. The meals off that truck went to roughly 3,000 students who normally rely on school lunches for meals.
“It’s a relief in a sense that we are going to have food, that we are not going to do these deliveries alone,” Daniel Bonnet, the community center’s director, told the New York Times that day.
There are some worries that as cases rise in New York City, the food distribution network might collapse. It’s therefore no surprise that the National Guard is considered as an option to help deliver food to those stores and people who might need it.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has mobilized his National Guard another way: He sent 500 troops to Broward County to help administer drive-through coronavirus tests. “Broward County right now in Florida is the epicenter of what we’re seeing, so we need to be here for our friends in Broward and turn the tide on this thing,” DeSantis told reporters on Thursday.
In the Broward County city of Pembroke Pines, for example, about 100 Guard members are working with the Memorial Healthcare System to operate five lanes of drive-through testing for eight hours a day. Combat medics in the National Guard are even conducting some of the tests themselves, working alongside local law enforcement and various state agencies that run that facility.
“We have qualified [service members] to get the mission done, so it just makes sense,” Staff Sgt. Patrick Salas of the Florida National Guard noted in a news release from the service on March 17. “A lot of [members] are in the medical industry on the civilian side, so they are just great resources.”
Those are just two examples of what the National Guard is doing now. But as the number of coronavirus cases grows and more National Guard troops are called up to assist with the crisis, questions will almost certainly arise about what, exactly, they’re legally allowed to do and not do, and about the authorities governors have in using them.
Deploying the National Guard is not the same thing as instituting martial law
You might have heard of “posse comitatus,” a longstanding law that bars the US military from being used to enforce domestic law in the country in most cases.
That law doesn’t apply to the National Guard when it’s operating under state authority, or if the president calls on it under federal authority to do things like quelling an unlawful domestic insurrection. Which means that National Guard troops can actually carry out domestic law enforcement operations, including arresting people.
But, experts note, that’s not likely to happen unless there’s a massive breakdown in societal order. “It’s politically not desirable, so governors don’t want to do that kind of thing,” the Naval War College’s Cohn told me.
We saw this happen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Blum, who led National Guard members during the Hurricane Katrina response, noted that the New Orleans police force was decimated for about two years following that disaster. That required National Guard members to step in and serve as a temporary police force until local law enforcement officers got back on their feet.
One can imagine a similar situation taking place during the coronavirus outbreak — albeit on a much smaller scale — if, say, a large portion of a local police force becomes infected with the coronavirus and has to self-quarantine for 14 days or longer.
Even if a state governor were to take such a step during the coronavirus crisis, though, it’s worth remembering that National Guard members would still be subordinate to the local police chiefs. They’d be augmenting the police presence and assisting with manpower shortfalls, not running things on their own.
And even if National Guard members were assisting with law enforcement, it’d be a far cry from the institution of martial law.
“Martial law is when civilian authority is incapacitated and cannot function,” Cohn told me, and a military officer is in control of the three functions of government (legislative, executive, and judicial).
The president, Congress, or a state’s governor (if the state’s constitution allows) can declare martial law and put a seasoned military officer in charge temporarily. That officer would have discretion over those three functions of government, but would still be working for civilian leaders.
But getting to that point would require a calamitous collapse of the country’s institutions, and we’re nowhere close to that happening.
The most likely eventuality — indeed, the one that’s happening right now — is that the National Guard might be in your neighborhood delivering food and medicine, conducting medical tests, providing medical care, and maybe sanitizing a table or two.
As Blum told me, if you see National Guard members in your area, “you ought to be reassured.”