Back in the Vietnam era, the National Guard was a nice quiet place to wait for the war to end. According to one military historian, President Lyndon Johnson stopped sending the Guard to Vietnam in 1969, for fear of alarming the public. Though it had seen combat previously, the Guard’s reputation was for fighting fires, floods, and freaks at home. Even the chief publicist of the Guard admits there was a time when “people would chuckle” if they heard the Guard was going to invade a country.

Now, because of a policy implemented in the 70s, the Guard has become a place to wait for the war to begin. Guardsmen and women now account for 43 and 86 percent, respectively, of Army and Air Force conventional (i.e., nonnuclear) combat troops; in case of war, they could be called out on 72 hours’ notice. They go to boot camp and in increasing numbers spend their annual two-week training periods overseas. In June, 125 part-time soldiers from the medical support unit of the Broadview Armory on the north side will practice their skills in Panama. Last year, about 900 Illinois Guards, including 364 from the Northwest Armory on North Kedzie, helped build a road in north-central Honduras.

Chicagoans can vote on this turn of events on Tuesday in a nonbinding referendum that asks, “Considering the current state of civil unrest occurring in Central America, should Illinois National Guard troop training in Central America be halted?”

Legally, the referendum is meaningless, but its supporters are predicting passage, which they say will send a message–to legislators, the Pentagon, and to Governor Jim Thompson, who supports the deployment.

A number of other governors don’t. Their opposition to Central American deployment of their state Guards led to the creation and passage of the Reagan-backed Montgomery Amendment in 1986, which limited governors’ power over the Guard. Now governors can object to deployment only if their Guards are needed at the same time at home. Ever since this amendment passed, the Pentagon has been applying pressure to recalcitrant governors. When the National Guard Bureau, the Defense Department office that directs the Guard, told Ohio governor Richard Celeste that he could keep his Guard from going to Honduras as long as he was willing to sacrifice its $223.6 million in federal funding, he gave his permission, reluctantly, for his Guard to train there in 1989. (Some officials say Ohio was scheduled to go down in 1987, and that Illinois substituted.) Two governors, Rudy Perpich of Minnesota and Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, have filed suits challenging the constitutionality of the Montgomery Amendment. Perpich has lost and appealed; a decision is expected in late April. Dukakis hopes for a judgment before May, when 13 Massachusetts Guardsmen and women are scheduled to leave for Panama and then Honduras. (Nine states endorsed a Massachusetts-authored amicus brief in the Minnesota case; three later dropped off. On the other side, Thompson and 17 other governors signed on to an amicus brief filed by the National Guard Association of the United States, which is a nonprofit lobbying and support group.)

The National Guard has been active in Central America for at least ten years. According to Dan Donohue, chief of public affairs for the National Guard Bureau, the Air National Guard has been carrying mail and supplies between embassies there since 1977. The Guard’s first major engineering project in Honduras was in 1985; by June of this year, about 40,000 of the nation’s Guardsmen and women (there are more than 500,000 overall) will have trained in Central America. Between May 1984 and May 1987, more than 2,650 of Illinois’ 14,500 Guardsmen and women trained overseas in 79 missions to 21 countries. In 1984, the 182nd Tactical Air Support Group from Peoria trained with the Honduran Air Force and helped rehabilitate Howard Air Force Base in Panama. In 1985, 112 members of the 123rd Field Artillery Unit from Monmouth trained with their Honduran counterparts.

The Guard’s presence in Central America has been debated on many levels. State legislatures have considered it and activists have protested at armories, airports, and government offices. It’s become an issue in the presidential debates; Democratic candidates Paul Simon, Jesse Jackson, Richard Gephardt, and ex-candidate Bruce Babbitt have endorsed the Chicago referendum. Opponents of the Honduras deployment say it’s a dangerous, underhanded way to bolster U.S. presence in Central America and threaten the Sandinista government of neighboring Nicaragua, and they point to complaints within Honduras about the U.S. military. The General Accounting Office has criticized the Guard’s use of funds in Honduras, and the GAO’s military counterpart, the Army Auditing Agency, has criticized U.S. regular troops and Guard units for sloppiness in training and record keeping in Honduras and Panama. There have been rumors and secondhand reports–but no proof–of Guardsmen fighting with the U.S.-backed contras against the Sandinistas, and leaving equipment for the contras.

“The real strategy is to circumvent Congress,” to get around the War Powers Act, charges State Representative Ellis Levin, who proposed a statewide referendum last year. He let the bill die when it became clear it would fail, due to lobbying by the National Guard Association of Illinois.

The Guard says Central American deployment is a way of getting realistic training. “We were down there doing a real job instead of putting on a show for some evaluator from Georgia,” said Staff Sergeant Karen Hon of the Northwest Armory. Hon and her fellow Guards were in Oso Grande, a temporary base in north-central Honduras, some 100 miles northwest of the Nicaraguan border. She was there for five months, much longer than most. She told me she didn’t feel contra presence: “The only thing I was looking out for were scorpions.”

The Guard’s activities in Honduras are part of a formidable U.S. military presence that is coordinated by “Joint Task Force Bravo” at Palmerola Air Base near Comayagua, less than 75 miles northwest of Nicaragua. (Technically, there are no U.S. bases in Honduras; the bases belong to Honduras.) At any one time, there are some 9,000 to 11,000 troops there from various branches of the armed forces, plus about 1,000 visitors, according to Major Gary R. Hovatter, joint public affairs officer of Joint Task Force Bravo. Since 1983 the Department of Defense reports spending $13 million at Palmerola and $8 million at another air base in La Ceiba, a north-central Caribbean port. In addition, it has added to or repaired nine airstrips (two of which were used, according to some reports, for CIA transport of arms to the contras).

The project that Illinois Guards have been working on is a “farm-to-market” road in the remote mountainous province of Yoro, roughly 50 miles south of the air base in La Ceiba and 100 miles north of Palmerola. Designed by the Honduran ministry of transportation, it is to connect La Ceiba with small villages to the south; eventually, according to Dan Donohue of the National Guard Bureau, it will run south to the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Critics point out that it will be capable of more than helping peasants bring their crops to market: because the road will eventually connect with existing roads near military bases and airstrips, it will make it easier, at least indirectly, to move troops throughout Honduras and to reach the small leftist guerrilla movement in the mountainous north.

Since 1986, each winter and spring, as part of their training, one state’s Guard units have provided the bulk of engineering and backup services for Army reservists, who do most of the actual road building. From late 1986 to the spring of 1987, the Illinois Guard supplied the main support units, providing laundry, cooking, and explosives services for reservists building a 5.5-kilometer stretch of road. In 1985 these services were provided by U.S. Army Engineers, in 1986 by Missouri Guards, and this year by West Virginia Guards. All exercises are temporary, the Guard avers; the Guards live in tents, leaving an open field when they depart. The Department of Defense is allowed to use a petty cash fund to finance temporary projects under $200,000 (or in the case of reserve units, under $100,000), without congressional approval. A GAO report on 1984 activities said the Defense Department broke projects into smaller pieces in order to stay beneath the ceiling, and also wrongly claimed that anything constructed during training was “temporary.” In a report on 1986 activities, the GAO found a similar problem but on a much smaller scale.

The U.S. military presence in Honduras is “temporary but indefinite,” says Assistant Secretary of Defense for Internal Affairs Richard Armitage. He told a Senate subcommittee last April, “When the Sandinistas in Nicaragua cease being a threat to the true democracies of the region, then I am sure that we and the Hondurans will seek a phaseout of the temporary United States military presence in their country.”

No one can prove that any Guardsman has ever fired a shot at a Sandinista. The only reports that even come close are newspaper stories from 1986 claiming that Texas Guardsmen were five miles from the border during a Sandinista-contra confrontation, and that Iowa Guardsmen were giving medical care six miles from the border. In December 1986, volunteers from the group Witness for Peace said a Florida Guardsman told them his unit had “kicked ass on those Sandinistas.” The National Guard Bureau discounts this as “braggadocio.” No Guards have died in combat–though two Air Guards, from Aberdeen, New Jersey, and New Hope, Pennsylvania, died in a plane crash off the northern coast of Honduras in April 1985, and a Guardsman from Florence, Alabama, drowned the same month in Panama while off-duty.

Given these facts, accusations that the National Guard’s temporary presence in Honduras is part of an undeclared war may seem absurd–unless you think about it in terms of “low-intensity conflict,” or LIC.

LIC is a new doctrine making the rounds in military and government circles, the subject of Pentagon-sponsored seminars and projects and numerous articles in military journals. Some say it is Kennedy-era counterinsurgency in contemporary dress. Its first premise is that the greatest threat to the U.S. is not from Soviet troops in Europe–as presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter presumed–but from Third World revolutionaries. Therefore, the reasoning goes, the way to defend the national security is not by building up nuclear weapons or conventional forces across the Atlantic, but by aiding friendly governments against leftist guerrillas and undermining pro-Soviet revolutionary regimes. Another premise, noted by Sara Miles in a 1986 issue of the liberal NACLA Report on the Americas (North American Congress on Latin America), is that Americans are still suffering from the “Vietnam syndrome”–they’re resistant to involvement in another war. Therefore LIC theorists aim to keep regular U.S. soldiers away from combat, relying instead on locals, U.S. special forces, and National Guard and reserve units. There is also emphasis on “hearts and minds”–winning over a population, rather than merely territory.

(A 1986 report from the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress speculated that using regular troops instead of Guards “may be more politically sensitive” because regular troops would seem to be permanent.)

In 1985, the Joint Chiefs of Staff defined LIC as “limited politico-military struggle to achieve political, social, economic or psychological objectives.” They said it is often protracted and ranges from diplomatic pressure to terrorism.

Some say this LIC has already begun in Central America–using both Guard and regular troops.

Critics of the Guard deployment love to quote Colonel William Comee, an Army task-force commander once stationed at Palmerola, who is said to have told Oregon legislators in January 1986 that the Guard’s purpose was to “harass and intimidate the Nicaraguan government with the intent of bringing them down.” (Reports are unclear about whether he was talking about the Guard or U.S. troops in general.) Comee was out of line, says Donohue of the National Guard Bureau, and his remarks have not been corroborated.

In July 1986, Comee told a Senate delegation that his men’s mission was “to test and integrate Low Intensity Conflict doctrine in the region.” He left the post that month.

An administration official told the New York Times in 1985, “One of the central purposes [of joint U.S.-Honduran maneuvers] is to create fear of an invasion, to push very close to the border, to set off all the alarms.”

It seems to have worked. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega alleged that invasion was imminent in 1983, after maneuvers called Big Pine II, in which U.S. and Honduran troops trained in counterinsurgency techniques and practiced airlifts. At that time, the militia in Managua dug trenches around the city and families built bomb shelters. Last year, before war games involving at least 40,000 U.S. troops were held in Honduras, the Caribbean, and North Carolina, Ortega again accused the U.S. of preparing for an invasion. (He’s crying wolf, accuses Ron Aures, a career Guardsman who is president of the National Guard Association of Illinois.)

Writer Sara Miles sides with Ortega. “In retrospect,” she writes, “the U.S. [Big Pine II] maneuvers should indeed have been cause for alarm–but not because they heralded a direct military invasion. The maneuvers were not a preparation or cover for war: they were the embodiment of war.”

Supporters of the Guard’s involvement in Honduras point out that its focus is on building roads and providing health care, and participants seem proud of their efforts. Paul Muniz, now a realtor in Bolingbrook, was a staff sergeant in charge of medics on a 17-day stint in Honduras last April. “We did everything,” he told me–“pull teeth, administer stitches, assist in operations. I taught people there hygienic methods as far as boiling the water” and other precautions, he says. “It was free. The people came back with fruit and small gifts.”

But all that is part of LIC, too, says retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel John Buchanan, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. The humanitarian work is designed to comfort the folks at home: “Americans see a steady stream of photographs–they look innocuous, they’re building roads. They think, we’re down there doing good things in Central America.”

No one disputes that Honduras needs some good things. It’s the second-poorest country in the hemisphere (after Haiti), with unemployment estimated at 40 percent and an average life expectancy of 62 years. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, only 15 percent of the population has access to piped water. The U.S. has more Peace Corps workers in Honduras than in any other country. U.S. aid has jumped–from $15 million in total aid in fiscal 1977 to $188 million in 1987. Military aid has increased from $3 million in 1977 to $61 million in 1986.

Because it shares borders with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, all countries with internal wars, Honduras has become both a refuge and a staging ground, says Aryeh Neier, of Americas Watch, in a recent article in the New York Review of Books. The State Department puts the number of contras operating out of Honduras at 1,500; Neier says that estimates on the number of peasants and coffee producers displaced by the contras range from 6,000 to 16,000.

The Honduran government is civilian, though “operating at the pleasure of the military,” says John Buchanan. From 1980 to 1984, a U.S.-backed military strong man, General Gustavo Alvarez, virtually ran the country until ousted by other military officers. Amnesty International’s 1987 report cited human rights abuses in refugee camps and attacks on the president of the Honduran human rights committee CEDOH. This January, the vice president of CEDOH was murdered, four months after testifying before an Organization of American States court on killings by Alvarez’s death squad.

The Honduran Congress has called for a debate on U.S. military presence, but the legislative body is “basically ineffectual,” says Buchanan.

The Honduran press has charged that U.S. troops have encouraged prostitution in Honduras and introduced AIDS and “the flower of Vietnam,” a virulent form of venereal disease–charges the Defense Department calls “propaganda.” AIDS cases were confirmed in places where no U.S. troops were located, says Marine Captain Nancy Laluntas, a Defense Department spokesperson. There were also reports that U.S. soldiers had sexually abused local children. “We cannot rule out isolated incidents of improper behavior,” says Laluntas.

Visiting doctors have also complained about the medical treatment provided by U.S. troops, saying they have used ineffective antibiotics in treating childhood diarrhea, but Guard sources say this is inaccurate. Denise Stanley, a missionary from the United Church of Christ who returned from northern Honduras in December, says the medical care is detrimental in the long run. She says it encourages peasants to look for handouts instead of forming local health cooperatives. “When the military leaves, they’ll have the same lousy health care as before,” she says.

Critics and supporters disagree about Honduran reaction to the U.S. presence. The National Guard Bureau likes to quote a poll commissioned by the United States Information Agency and conducted by a Gallup-affiliated polling organization in Costa Rica. The poll, revealed to reporters by President Reagan during a White House photo session in 1986, supposedly shows that 62 percent of Hondurans supported U.S. aid for the contras. The way the poll was conducted is unclear and will remain so, since USIA polls aren’t supposed to be made public in the U.S., says William Bollinger, director of the Interamerican Research center in Los Angeles. His center and the School of Journalism of the National University of Honduras asked a random sampling of 953 people in Tegucigalpa last year whether the U.S. should continue its military presence. Just over 51 percent said yes, and nearly 38 percent said no; the rest were undecided.

Clearly, at least some Hondurans are disgruntled. Last March, more than 30,000 rallied to call for an end to U.S. involvement, according to Food First, a food policy organization in San Francisco. The Sun-Times reported that on May 1, some 20,000 gathered in Tegucigalpa to protest U.S. and contra presence. The U.S. Embassy disputes these figures.

The idea of amateur defense forces goes back at least as far as the medieval fyrd, a force of citizens who provided their own pikes, swords, and axes and were home by nightfall. Sir William Blackstone, the 18th-century British legal scholar, articulated this philosophy of the part-time soldier: “It is because he is a citizen, and would wish to continue so, that he makes himself for a while a soldier.” Early Americans, fearing that a large standing army would be a threat to democracy, compromised at the Constitutional Convention by establishing both a standing army and a militia, the latter to be organized by Congress, governed by the states, and prepared to serve the federal government. The president would be commander in chief when it was in federal service. The Militia Act of 1792 specified three purposes for which the militia could be federalized: “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”

The militias fought in every war, even distinguishing themselves in combat, though the states showed their independence early on; in 1812, Massachusetts and Connecticut refused to fight the British.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Guard earned its reputation for domestic service. Guardsmen were called out to stop lynchings and to keep the peace during railroad and coal strikes; they came to the rescue in the Johnstown flood and San Francisco earthquake. During the Civil Rights years, the Guard was federalized to act against governors who opposed integration. Guardsmen flanked James Meredith at a cost of $5 million during his two years at the University of Mississippi. Locally, at the behest of Governor Adlai Stevenson, 500 Illinois Guards protected a black family in Cicero against a racist mob. Guards also served during the 1966 Chicago riots and 1968 Democratic convention.

In May of 1970 came perhaps the Guard’s most well-known and tragic tangle–the four students killed at Kent State during a protest of Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. That month the Guard was called out 24 times on 21 campuses.

A majority of those Vietnam-era Guardsmen, 75 percent, told pollsters they were in the Guard to avoid serving overseas–and for the most part they were successful. That same year, a presidentially appointed commission studied the volunteer armed forces. It recommended that Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird consider a “total force” concept, in which the Guard would become an integral part of the fighting forces. Total force became policy in 1973, when the draft ended, but wasn’t seriously implemented until 1979, when the last of the Vietnam enlistees completed their terms in the Guard, according to Dan Donohue.

The Guard has trained overseas for the last two decades, some units taking part in real-life missions. In 1986, eight Washington State Air Guardsmen refueled aircraft on their way to bomb Libya; an Arkansas crew refueled planes on their way to Grenada in 1983. In 1985, five other Arkansas Guardsmen trained with the Chilean military, without their governor’s knowledge. (Despite the ban on military aid to Chile, this was legal, according to a congressional source.)

Nonetheless the Guard has been more readily associated in the public mind with its old duties–helping out locally, such as in the blizzard of ’79 and the floods of ’86. The nature of its mission is still the source of much confusion, and word of overseas training still comes as a surprise.

The local efforts to curtail training in Central America began in the summer of 1986, when two of Ellis Levin’s volunteers mentioned to him at a picnic that the Guard was in Central America. “It just seemed to me absolutely incredible that the Illinois Guard, which belonged in Illinois and fighting floods, was being used to fight an undeclared war.”

Levin led a fact-finding trip to Honduras and Nicaragua early last year, and then proposed legislation for a statewide referendum. In the Senate, Miguel del Valle proposed a similar bill, and they held two hearings in Chicago on the matter, partly organized by the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs. The director of the commission, Maria Torres, contacted Alderman Jesus Garcia, who organized a resolution supporting the state legislation. When that failed in Springfield, aldermen drafted their own resolution for a referendum, and hearings were held before Alderman Roman Pucinski’s Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. The resolution passed the City Council 37-9. It was supported by the late Mayor Harold Washington, who had publicly criticized U.S. aid to the contras and involvement in Central America. One of the aldermen voting for it was Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer.

The resolution calls for a referendum, saying that “a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics” from Chicago trained in Honduras, that a war in Central America “could break out imminently” and endanger Guard members, that the traditional role of the Guard is to assist inside the state, and that Chicago recruits are promised educational benefits and opportunities to serve locally.

Pucinski’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee held two hearings on the resolution–one in June, hearing testimony from the resolution’s supporters, and one in July, devoted to testimony from the National Guard. The second hearing turned into a debate on minorities in the Guard, with Alderman Robert Shaw leading the attack against a conspicuous absence of black faces among the Guard officials present. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Elton L. Denney, administrative assistant to the Illinois adjutant general, politely apologized, apologizing too for not having statistics of officers and minority recruitment. He did have approximate figures on the Guardsmen sent to Honduras in 1987–out of the Northwest Armory, 58 percent black, 28 percent white, and 14 percent other, including Hispanic and Asian. (The city’s population, according to a 1985 planning department estimate, is 41 percent black, nearly 43 percent white, and 16 percent other.)

But Denney said the figures balance out when you consider that the other units, which were from downstate, were between 96 and 98 percent white, making for a total of about 70 percent white. (Based on Guard estimates, of the Guardsmen and women in Honduras in 1987, 23 percent were black, and 6 percent were “other” than white or black. The 1980 census shows a state population of almost 15 percent black and almost 6 percent Hispanic.)

Since passage of the referendum resolution, the National Guard Out of Central America Coalition, a local group, has been picking up endorsements for the referendum from liberal organizations, such as the Gray Panthers and the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization, and trying to stimulate media coverage. On the other side, the National Guard Association of Illinois is working against the referendum’s passage, sending out fliers that say the Guard could be deactivated here and reactivated in states more friendly to the notion of Central American training. “If this referendum should pass on the March 15 ballot,” Eileen M. Courtney of the group wrote in the flier, “within all probability, the Federal Government will cut off all federal funding to the Illinois National Guard, remove all of our equipment and weapons, revert these items to the Army Reserve, and leave the Illinois National Guard standing in the cold . . . helpless to Illinois if there ever were an emergency in the state or the City of Chicago.”

The head of the National Guard Bureau did hold up the specter of transferring certain rebellious units from California to other states, but nothing like that could result from a nonbinding referendum.

What’s most likely to happen, says the Bureau’s Dan Donohue, is nothing.

Backers of the referendum are more sanguine. Greg Greiff of the National Guard Out of Central America Coalition hopes passage would show the Pentagon that the natives are restless, and encourage the Defense Department to pass over Chicago Guard units in planning Central America deployments. The group also hopes that passage would give impetus to Levin’s and del Valle’s new legislation for a statewide referendum.

Aldermen are eager to offer alternatives for the Guard’s service in Central America. If they want to do humanitarian work, let them build roads in Ethiopia, says Shaw. Says Davis, “I think the National Guard should be in South Africa helping the freedom fighters, if we want to send them someplace.”

Some Guardsmen and women just want to be left alone to train where they are sent. Says Karen Hon: “I don’t think the general populace should have a say-so where we do summer camp.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.