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  • Writer's pictureMax McCoy, Kansas Reflector

Opinion: Send the Kansas National Guard to Texas? Only if you despise democracy.

A military helicopter hovers over the French Quarter of New Orleans five days after the city was struck by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The relief response was the largest in the history of the National Guard to that time, with 60,000 troops from all 50 states deployed. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


By Max McCoy, Kansas Reflector


Nearly 20 years ago, in the chaotic days following Hurricane Katrina, I found myself embedded with a Missouri National Guard military police company. I was reporting for a daily newspaper in southwest Missouri — the Joplin Globe — and I say “found myself” because I was at the mercy of whatever state guard unit would have me as a correspondent.


The unit that gave me a seat in one of its Humvees for the long ride to Louisiana was the 1138th Military Police Company, headquartered at West Plains, Missouri. When we started out my media credentials were still being processed, and by the time I was officially embedded we were nearly to New Orleans. Eating and bunking with the company, I had plenty of time to talk with the soldiers, and what struck me was the seriousness with which they approached their mission.


Lately my thoughts have increasingly turned to my days embedded with the Missouri 1138th because of the power struggle between the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly over deploying the Kansas National Guard to Texas. The GOP-controlled Legislature has earmarked $15.7 million to send troops to support the Texas campaign against undocumented immigrants, while Kelly has no plans to do so.


Kelly, a Democrat, vetoed the provision in the budget bill to fund the deployment, but the Kansas House and Senate overrode that veto. But because the governor is the only state official with the actual authority to deploy the guard, Kelly has the last word, supermajorities or no.


During peacetime, Guard forces may be called up only by a state’s governor, through the adjutant general’s office, to respond to local or statewide emergencies. In addition, the president can deploy the Guard on national and international missions, for both humanitarian and military objectives. When federalized, the Guard falls under the same chain of command as regular troops. The 1138th, for example, had supported combat missions in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, to name two. In 1989, in Panama, it was the first Army National Guard unit activated since the Vietnam War.


My experience embedded with the 1138th in the aftermath of Katrina informs my belief that Kelly is doing the right thing for the right reasons. The Guard, famously composed of “citizen soldiers” who are our friends and neighbors, is at its best when it is helping Americans through natural disasters.


Katrina was among the deadliest natural disasters in American history, according to the National Hurricane Center, claiming about 1,400 lives. It was also the costliest, with damage estimates well over $100 billion. The hurricane struck the Gulf coast the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, and within days the largest ever National Guard mobilization followed. The 125 soldiers of the 1138th were among 50,000 Guard troops mobilized from every state and territory, including Kansas, in the two weeks following the storm. Since then, the National Guard has described the disaster response to Katrina as its “finest hour.” The mobilization was three times larger than any previous relief operation and resembled the Berlin Air Lift in logistics.


There were many failures with Katrina, both before and after the storm, as detailed in a 2006 congressional report. The flooding that came after the levees broke was a predictable outcome that city, state, and federal authorities ignored until it was too late. But the response of the National Guard, although perceived as slow by some, resulted in thousands of rescues.

The Guard saved lives.


It wasn’t so much the storm that devastated New Orleans, because the hurricane had weakened from a Category 5 to a Category 3 by the time it engulfed the city, but a failure of civil engineering. The levees that protected the city from flooding failed, and within 24 hours about 80% of the city was under water. The city’s infrastructure also collapsed, including power and communications, and police abuses ranged from dereliction of duty to killing evacuees attempting to cross a bridge to safety.


A Humvee splashes through floodwaters in the central business district of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


It would take years for the full and horrific story of Katrina to be told. All that members of the 1138th knew on their way south was that they were heading into a challenging and potentially dangerous situation and their mission was to help people. The company represented a cross-section of Missouri, from rural kids from the Ozarks to young Black men from the St. Louis area. At first they regarded my presence with skeptical amusement, then they tolerated me, and eventually they spoke to me freely.


The company’s supply sergeant was worried about having chainsaws in case the unit had to open up roofs to save evacuees. Others had been listening to reports of widespread looting in the city and were concerned about being sent into what seemed a lawless situation. Those reports, we now know, were misleading and made the crisis worse by stoking fear and suspicion. It became difficult, in the minds of some, to tell evacuees clutching their possessions from thieves with their loot.


Much of the conversation at night, among groups of these citizen soldiers, was about what they would do if ordered to fire on American citizens who were looting. The company had already been briefed on rules of engagement and were told to expect to be issued live ammo. What followed was a grassroots debate, among hillbillies and urbanites, Black and white, laborers and professionals, that centered on ethics. How could one justify the use of lethal force for a property crime, especially if that television set was being traded for food in a community where all safety nets had collapsed? The consensus among the discussions I heard was that if ordered to shoot looters, they would refuse.


Of course, it did not come to that. Just before arriving in New Orleans the company received orders to play a supporting role in nearby Kenner, Louisiana. I did make it into the city, by hitching rides on other National Guard vehicles. I saw the worst of the flooding and much human suffering. A few days later, I was at a command center waiting for a Humvee ride to Baton Rouge, where I would file my stories. There was a big-screen television hooked up to a satellite feed that had CNN playing and as I stood there and watched coverage of the relief efforts, somebody smoking a cigar came up behind me and asked where I was from.


It was Lt. General Russel L. Honoré, the commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. Honoré, who later became famous for his advice “Don’t get stuck on stupid,” was in charge of the entire military relief effort. He asked me what I’d seen and I told him. Then he asked me how I had gotten around, and I told him I had hitched rides, and that seemed to please him. That’s the way it’s done, he said. Then he was called away.


In his 2021 book, Honoré elaborated on his catchphrase by providing principles that guide his leadership. They include, “Are we doing the right thing — or are we choosing the easier wrong over the harder right?” Also, is the decision based on “some partisanship ideal, religious belief, or demagoguery?”


While I can’t speak for Honoré on what he would think of the current situation, an application of his principles with respect to deploying the Kansas National Guard to Texas suggests that doing so would be an example of being stuck on stupid.


To send the men and women of the Kansas National Guard on a politically motivated, quasi-military mission to “secure” the southern border is to invite disaster. Injecting the Guard into such a charged political atmosphere on American soil is to invite another Kent State. It is also a step along the way to using the Guard to seize voting machines, as was contemplated by the Trump administration, or creating a Fort Sumter-like standoff between state and federal authorities that could be the spark for the next civil war. At the moment, we are in a kind of cold secession. More than a dozen Republican governors have already sent Guard troops to Eagle Pass, Texas, a small town on the Rio Grande that has emerged as the Checkpoint Charlie of the immigration war, razor wire and all.


What is happening at Eagle Pass is not a political stunt, nor are the actions by red state governors to send the National Guard there as “support.” It is a manifestation of a kind of democracy death wish by state supremacists to militarily challenge the federal government. These are the election (and reality) deniers who would trade democracy and the will of the majority for authoritarianism and oppression by the few — or the one. On women’s reproductive rights, immigration, diversity, and gender and economic equality, the rallying cry of these provincial prefects is “state’s rights,” just as it was 164 years ago. Do not forgive them, for they know what they do.


“Those justifying their embrace of authoritarianism as the future of government in the twenty-first century say that democracy is obsolete,” writes Heather Cox Richardson in “Democracy Awakening,” her 2023 book. “Some argue that popular government responds too slowly to the rapid pace of the modern world and that strong countries need a leader who can make fast decisions without trying to create a consensus among the people.”


But the concept that human beings have the right to determine their own fates is as true today, Richardson says, as it was for the signing of the Declaration of Independence or FDR’s New Deal. Self-determination was, and is, a radical idea. It is not claiming to be above the law, but to be of the law, with your rights judged as equal to others. This is what today’s libertarians and MAGA maniacs just don’t get, that you have a right to your constitutional freedoms, but not the right to trample on others.


Flood waters surround the Superdome in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


We have today a powerful phalanx of politicians who would deny us that right to choose for ourselves how to live — whether we are writing from a book-filled room on Constitution Street in Emporia, or wading to an unknown shore toward the promise of a better life, drawn by the lamp of liberty.


To deny the humanity in others is to deny the humanity in ourselves.


A sweeping statement, I know, and I can already hear the howls of my critics.


Fentanyl! Human trafficking! Gang violence! Foreign acquisition of farmland!


Yes, there are criminals among undocumented immigrants, but studies show they are less prone to crime than U.S. residents. Foreign purchase of land? Not a significant threat. And while immigration presents a considerable challenge in this era of political, cultural and climate-driven displacement, we must always remember that we are dealing with fellow human beings.


Who constitutes a human being has been the overwhelming question driving the American experiment. We have gotten it badly wrong at times, from counting Black people as three-fifths of a person to denying women the vote. The definition of who deserves the inalienable rights guaranteed us by the founders has always been what threatens to break us as a nation. Until recently, we moved in fits and starts toward a definition that is progressively more equal and inclusive. Yet, the current authoritarian impulses of a minority of Americans is threatening to undo us and plunge us back to the pre-Civil War days when your freedoms were largely defined not by the federal government, but by the state where you lived.


Again we have this idea that states can go their own way and define independently who is a human being in full, and deserving of the right to self-determination. Undocumented migrants, women seeking abortions, voting populations who have been gerrymandered into the margin — all of these are, for the purposes of state supremacists, not human beings. The will of the majority be damned.


“Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy,” Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, about a month before Southern troops fired the first shots of the Civil War on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter on May 12, 1861. “A majority … is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or despotism.”


Let us not invite calamity by putting the Kansas National Guard in the chaos of a cold secession movement that might become hot in an instant. Kelly must stand fast on her refusal. Our GOP lawmakers in Topeka are dabbling with a fire they do not understand.


Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.


This article was reprinted with permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.

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