The Pentagon’s reliance on National Guard and Reserve troops to fight the war in Iraq has brought clusters of combat deaths to U.S. towns for the first time in more than 50 years.
The deaths of 19 Marine reservists from an Ohio unit in the past week highlight the risks to part-time military units, which earlier this year hit a peak of about 40% of U.S. troop strength in Iraq.
Since the Civil War, when entire towns shared in the grief of combat losses, the active-duty military has shifted away from using locally based units. The heavy use of Guard and Reserve units in Iraq has undercut a tradition that kept most of these troops out of combat since World War II and Korea. The military also restricted the number of family members required to serve in combat following World War II after multiple siblings died in battle.
When a large number of casualties hits a community, it causes “a pocket of trauma,” says Jim Martin, a retired Army colonel who teaches military culture at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “It’s aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, boyfriends and girlfriends. … It’s not just 20 families, it’s 200 families.”
In January, four Marine reservists from a combat engineer unit in Lynchburg, Va., were killed in an ambush near Baghdad. In May 2004, five men from a Navy Reserve unit in Jacksonville died in a mortar attack near Ramadi. Two days earlier, two other members of that unit were killed.
Such concentrations of casualties were once common, as during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, when 19 men from a Bedford, Va., unit were killed.
Few Guard and Reserve troops were deployed during the Vietnam War. After that war, the Pentagon shifted large numbers of critical support jobs to the Guard and Reserves. That made it difficult to go to war without part-time units.
Guard and Reserve troops were mobilized broadly for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which ended with relatively few casualties. One exception: a missile attack that killed 13 Pennsylvania reservists.