A Unique Military Force: The U.S. National Guard

A Unique Military Force: The U.S. National Guard

The National Guard is a special part of the U.S. military that answers to both state governors and the president. In some instances, how leaders have used the Guard has generated controversy, particularly when responding to civil unrest.
Connecticut National Guard members respond to Hurricane Irma in Florida.
Connecticut National Guard members respond to Hurricane Irma in Florida. Spc. Lisa Crawford/Army National Guard
  • The National Guard is a unique branch of the U.S. military that has both state and federal responsibilities.
  • The Guard routinely responds to domestic emergencies such as natural disasters, and it supports military operations overseas.
  • Presidents have used the Guard to respond to civil unrest, which has at times caused controversy.


The National Guard is an integral component of the U.S. military that is uniquely empowered to respond to both domestic crises and overseas conflicts. Over its nearly four-hundred-year history, the Guard has transformed from a loose collection of colonial militias into a well-trained and equipped force of civilian soldiers. 

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The Guard is also distinctive in that it can be controlled by both state and federal leaders, a command structure that has generated controversy in recent decades. An unprecedented number of Guard members deployed in 2020 to help authorities respond to natural disasters, the coronavirus pandemic, and historic anti-racism protests. In early 2021, the Guard was called on again to restore order after a mob loyal to President Donald J. Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, and an unprecedented number of Guard members have been deployed to secure President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

What is the National Guard?

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The National Guard is unique among the U.S. armed forces in that it can perform state as well as federal functions. The Guard is generally called up to respond to state-level emergencies, such as natural disasters. But, unlike most of the other military forces, it can also serve a domestic law enforcement role. Additionally, it can serve missions overseas, which it has done more frequently in recent years.

The Guard's organization is somewhat convoluted. It consists of two parts: the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard, which are both considered U.S. military reserve components but are distinct from the Army and Air Force reserves. The Guard is overseen at the federal level by the National Guard Bureau, the head of which is a four-star general and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military’s top advisory body.  

There are currently about 450,000 Guard members in total, serving in fifty-four separate organizations across the fifty states; Washington, DC; and three U.S. territories: Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

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Many members of the National Guard serve part-time while holding private-sector jobs. Guard members commit to one weekend of training per month plus a minimum of a few weeks of service per year. Most members serve in the states in which they live.

How did the Guard come about?

The National Guard traces its origins to the militias established by the American colonies. These militias grew out of the English tradition of organizing citizen-soldiers to provide for the common defense. The Guard’s birthday is December 13, 1636, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony created the colonies’ first militia regiments. The state militias were preserved after the founding of the United States, reflecting the balance sought by the Constitution between state and federal authorities.

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However, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century, particularly after the passage of the 1903 Militia Act, and continuing through both World Wars that the Guard was transformed from a loosely organized network of militias into the well-equipped and regimented force it remains today. It was also during this period that the state-federal relationship became more defined.

Who controls it?

Most of the time, state National Guards are activated and commanded by the governors of their respective states or territories, but presidents can federalize the Guard in certain cases. (The DC National Guard is solely under federal control.) For instance, presidents have called units into federal service to respond to hurricanes, to bolster border security, and to assist U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The National Guard can also be federalized but kept under state control, with the federal government paying for the deployment. (Statewide operations are normally funded by the state.) This was done in response to the coronavirus pandemic in many states.

Presidents rarely federalize a state or territory’s Guard without the consent of the governor. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush declined to take control of Louisiana’s National Guard due to the objection of Governor Kathleen Blanco. Governors have at times requested that the federal government assume control over their Guard units, as California Governor Pete Wilson did during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

“Every state has a different way to deal with disasters, and the National Guard is uniquely qualified and postured to act under the command and control of the governors in the state.  And so if you were to federalize them, you would lose that ability,” Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, former chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters in March 2020 when asked about the possibility of federalizing the Guard in response to the pandemic.

What does the National Guard do?

The National Guard fulfills a range of duties, including:

Disaster relief. The Guard is frequently called up to respond to statewide emergencies, such as natural disasters. For example, hundreds of National Guard members were deployed to combat historic wildfires that ravaged western states including California, Oregon, and Washington in 2020. The Guard prepares every year for the hurricanes that now routinely strike the southeastern United States. In 2019, the Guard responded to sixty-three natural disasters, including seven hurricanes or tropical storms, nineteen floods, and twelve fires.

Military support. The National Guard also plays a crucial role in supporting U.S. military operations [PDF] overseas. Since 9/11, more than one million National Guard members have deployed to theaters including Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the Guard have fought in nearly every U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War. Roughly thirty thousand are deployed around the world on any given day.

Law enforcement. The Guard can be deployed by state governors for law enforcement purposes. Many states activated their National Guards in response to historic anti-racism protests across the United States after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020. In January 2021, the DC National Guard was deployed in response to an assault on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob while lawmakers were meeting to certify the presidential election. The Guard was later quartered inside the Capitol building, evoking comparisons to the Civil War.

More than twenty thousand Guard members are expected to be deployed to provide security for President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, more than three times the number of troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria combined. For comparison, about eight thousand Guard members were on hand for Trump’s inauguration, and ten thousand for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which drew historic crowds.

Election support. The Guard has provided cybersecurity support in recent years to state and local governments administering elections, including the 2020 presidential contest. Due to the pandemic, Guard members performed additional election-related duties, including staffing polling places in some states (though in plain clothes to avoid the perception of military involvement in the political process).

2020 was a historic year for the National Guard. Nearly one hundred thousand Guard members deployed in the United States in response to natural disasters, civil unrest, and the pandemic—almost double the previous record set during the response to Hurricane Katrina. As part of the pandemic response, Guard members have helped carry out coronavirus testing and contact tracing and delivered personal protective equipment and meals, among other duties. Many states have also turned to their Guards to assist with administering COVID-19 vaccines

What controversies have there been over the Guard?

In a few instances, presidents and governors have clashed over the military’s domestic law enforcement role, particularly during periods of civil unrest. While governors can call on Guard members to serve as temporary law enforcers, presidents cannot do so under normal circumstances. The Posse Comitatus Act generally prohibits the president from using the military in this role. However, presidents can circumvent this law by invoking the Insurrection Act. For example, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the law to federalize the Arkansas National Guard to enforce desegregation of the state’s schools following the governor’s refusal to comply with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. President John F. Kennedy did the same in Alabama and Mississippi. 

Debate over the domestic use of the military flared once again in 2020 amid nationwide anti-racism protests sparked by Floyd’s death. President Trump threatened to deploy the military to quell civil unrest in parts of the country, and some Republican lawmakers urged him to do so using the Insurrection Act. Instead, he asked governors to send their National Guard troops to Washington, DC, to aid the federal response there, which was widely criticized as heavy-handed.

Leading legal experts say the law is unclear in this area. Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said the Trump administration’s interpretation of the law provides an “incredibly open-ended backdoor” for federalizing the National Guard. He noted that while some governors voluntarily sent their Guards to be used in this case, it’s unclear if the law would have prevented the president from using those forces outside of DC against a governor’s wishes. Trump also drew criticism for sending federal agents to several U.S. cities during the protests, including Portland, Oregon. Some Democratic lawmakers have suggested changing the law to prevent such an action.

By contrast, the response to rioters’ breach of the Capitol in January 2021 was criticized as slow and insufficient. Because Washington, DC, is not a state, the president or Pentagon must give the order for a Guard deployment. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller ultimately deployed more than one thousand Guard troops, but some analysts questioned why they had not been positioned near the Capitol preemptively. 

Recommended Resources

In I Am the Guard, Michael Doubler chronicles the nearly four-hundred-year history [PDF] of the Army National Guard.

The Washington Post details President Trump’s controversial decision to deploy National Guard units in the nation’s capital in response to protests.

CFR’s David J. Scheffer explains the laws governing the use of military force during U.S. elections.


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