But Who Will Guard The Guardians?

Image: USMC / Lance Cpl. Clarence Leake
Craig Whiteside is a Professor of Theater Security Decision Making for the Naval War College at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. An Iraq war Army veteran, he earned a PhD in political science from Washington State University. His story But Who Will Guard The Guardians? was a finalist in the Art of Future Warfare project’s “After the War” short-story contest. The title is drawn from Plato’s Republic, and Juvenal’s Satires.
And The War Came [i]

Trae was deep in his own thoughts as the transport moved closer to home. He and several members of his unit were still dirty, with uniforms and bodies soiled with grime and blood. The series of missions were complete, and this meant some well earned time at home before they would be needed again. The badlands of the southland were already a distant memory as Trae’s craft neared the rear operating base known as JAROB McGinnis. Somewhere in the great American desert, the city’s bright lights were a familiar and welcome sight. Almost home. A display on Trae’s weapon flashed from green to red, automatically rendering the weapon non-operational as the craft crossed the outer barriers of the joint-agency base. Officially home.

The tension that resided in the area just behind Trae’s forehead disappeared with this last signal indicating he was back from the mission safe and sound. Not everyone was as fortunate. The Fighter known as Big Mac was moving back in a separate transport, destined for state honors before returning to the unit for a series of personal and meaningful unit rituals of honoring its dead. Which meant that although all the mission debriefs were complete, there was still more work to be done.

Trae walked down the ramp and enjoyed the first smell of home – the night desert air he had gradually grown used to after growing up somewhere back East. He walked with a purpose to his house a few blocks from the tarmac, and upon entering moved to the family gear room. His weapon fit into the rack next to his wife’s, and after dropping off his gear moved to check on the boy. His wife wasn’t home, according to the home’s entry access-control panel, and he guessed she was over at Big Mac’s house comforting her husband Mark and his kids. The families hadn’t been particularly close, but Trae had known Big Mac since she joined the unit after the troubles in Bahrain – which was quite some time ago. Trae grabbed a beer from the fridge before plopping down on the couch with James, who was a familiar face here even late at night. Wednesday night football was on, and James and Trae shared a love for the game.

“Tough luck, eh?” James looked over at Trae.

“Yep.” After enough of a pause, Trae added “what is San Francisco doing with that formation?”

“Who knows?” It was more of a statement. “Josh is fine, he has Max sleeping over tonight. Your wife is over at Big Mac’s.”

“Thanks, brother. I think I’m going to crash for a bit after I clean up.”

“I’ll be here all night,” replied James.

Trae got up and walked past James on the couch, stopping to give him a playful and affectionate head rub before heading to Josh’s room. Unlike the smooth skulls of some older men, James’ scalp had deep scars from a previous campaign that had involuntarily changed his status from Fighter to Veteran. Since his recovery period, James has worked in the Fighter Support Bureau in a variety of capacities, but his favorite duty was being a part of Trae’s family. Trae’s fingers lingered respectfully on the scars, absorbing their meaning.

Trae thought about the past, when the military – in its drive for efficiency and adherence to regulations – discarded its veterans in the name of fitness to serve. The Border wars have changed all of that, and like many things, sometimes good comes from the bad. The Border wars changed everything it seemed.

Trae had joined when people still called it “the service.” The connotation there was that service followed a finite period with a start and a finish. You entered from society, did your time, and then left the service. Now it was called “the life,” and when you joined it was for life, for better or for worse, as marriage used to be. As a young private, Trae had been on the mission that killed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, an act that accelerated the break up of the Islamic State into a montage of feudal mini-states that brought no peace, to the surprise of many. Worse, while the American military was focused on containing the problems of the Islamic State and the Iranian Action Network all over the Middle East, Central and South America began its quiet slide into the control of the narco-criminal terrorist networks, or NCTs. The recriminations over the strategic surprise of this collapse still echoed in the American politics of Trae’s day, and the Fort Bliss massacre was a memorable event that helped inspire a revolutionary change in America’s military.

Unlike the Islamist terrorists who preyed on government security forces in countries far from North America, the NCTs had developed a deep reach into the United States. This reality escaped most due to a clever policy of restraint by the NCTs. As the NCTs grew in strength in countries south of the U.S. border, they began exercising local governance in key transportation and activity nodes for narcotic and human trafficking. This expansion led the leaders of the cartels, criminal gangs, and terrorist groups to begin working closely together to achieve shared goals in what one observer has called convergence. Taking advantage of the globalized nature of rapid and secure communication, the NCTs began to fight back against the United States’ targeting of cartel leadership and the disruption of lucrative economic activity on the black market. The first target was the vulnerable Army base in Fort Bliss, which was shelled for weeks by cross-border NCT rocket units that had somehow managed to secure Iranian made rockets in the ungoverned space and mountains of what had once been the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.

As shocking as that assault was on the families and soldiers of Fort Bliss, the NCTs took a page from the Islamic State’s subversion and assassination campaign, well described in al Muqrin’s writings on guerilla warfare and Abu Musab al Suri’s call to global jihad. The NCTs began to use the web and social media to identify and eliminate soldiers and their families living in the greater El Paso area, a technique that spread to other large bases and their surrounding communities. Their motivations for doing so are still debated, but it was most likely done to avenge American counter-criminal operations south of the border and debilitate and deter future operations through the use of discriminate terror. The subversion campaign quickly spread to the rest of the United States, creating a crisis not seen since the Civil War. This plan was successful in achieving the NCT goals in the short term, and it inspired Congressional action to reform the American military in 2025.

The Fort Bliss Recovery and Reform Act changed military accession, operations, and retention in a revolutionary manner. No longer would people enter the military and leave it; instead, military bases were relocated into remote areas where they were constructed as super bases with housing, schools, shopping malls, and amusement parks. Joining the military now meant losing your identity in order to protect family members back home from murder and extortion, and living in secure bases where interaction with the population was limited for security reasons. You could also never leave “the life”, or risk being hunted down by NCT assassins in movie theaters, restaurants, or private residences – as they had eyes and ears everywhere.

The desire to protect the military and its families from the internal threat had some unintended consequences. No one was disposable anymore, and the community – while adding and subtracting on the margins – grew to be a place where people took care of each other. Issues that had plagued military members and veterans such as substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide declined due to centralized health care and support, community structure, remote behavioral monitoring (including alcohol consumption), and remote electronic weapons control. Many of these functions were controlled from the JAROB base Hub.

Home Again

Trae woke up from a deep and pleasant sleep next to his wife, and he asked her about her visit to Big Mac’s family. Under the old way of doing business, Trae would have had to pack all of Big Mac’s belongings up and send them home along with their family, to deal with the loss on their own – away from their military family. This way seemed alien to him, even though he could still remember it. Now, Mark and the kids would stay in the same house, comforted by friends and neighbors who knew more than most how to deal with the loss. Mark’s job as an Air Force pilot meant that after a consolation leave of unlimited length, he could return to ferrying Fighters to objectives far in the south in the never ending Border Wars.

Trae’s wife worked on JAROB McGinnis as a logistician, and had to leave to push out a different unit moving out that night. With Josh off at the base school, Trae was able to pay his respects to Mark before deciding to head to one of his favorite places. He hailed a JAROB Uber, and a familiar face picked him up outside of his house. Pedro (everyone on the base went by first names or nicknames to protect from identity leakage) was truly an old timer compared to most, a veteran of the first African wars. Although he had long been unfit for battle, the gregarious busybody kept Trae fully informed on all the latest gossip on his way to the garden center, along with a war story or two that Trae might have heard before.

The garden center was one of many initiatives funded by the Reform Act, and was originally designed as a morale and welfare activity for bored “lifers.” Instead, it inadvertently became a popular stop for Fighters in between their bouts in the forever war. The center was run by a Veteran who had used the G.I. Bill to earn a degree in botany (online of course, under a protected identity) and functioned as the unofficial advisor for dozens of green spaces all over McGinnis. Trae didn’t know what he wanted as an addition to his Xeriscape garden, but after a few minutes of chatting with his old friend Rod – and following his motorized wheelchair up and down the greenhouse – they came up with an idea and ordered it online. Rod was a master at manipulating his budget for these special requests, and his choice for Trae reflected Big Mac’s prickly nature. Trae loved the idea, and couldn’t wait to add to the tribute to the memorials scattered all over his home garden. His wife, who knew him best, still didn’t understand what Trae got from puttering and fussing in his garden, but he didn’t bother to explain. He wanted to get this order in before he attended to some of the details for the upcoming farewell rituals.

An Irish Wake

The next few days were as sad as they were familiar to the unit’s fighters. Trae attended all the rituals, one for families and one for the unit, one televised for the nation, and one just for his commanders. That one was the toughest, because it mixed mourning with a brutal after action review on why Big Mac died. Trae dreaded this last ritual and never got used to the tension involved in the searing, but necessary, mission autopsies. Finally, the unit conducted a private farewell to Big Mac in its own basement pub, and the Fighters were authorized to forego the nightly two beer/drink limit (monitored by the Hub of course). Free from the normal restrictions, the fighters drank heavily, tears were shed quietly, and the old songs were sung slowly and sadly. Trae didn’t remember getting home at all, as the Veteran in Charge of Quarters (VCQ) organized the unit’s clean up and got them safely back to their homes, as was the norm. Trae woke up the next morning next to his wife, and was thankful to be alive, headache notwithstanding.

Two days later found Trae shooting at the unit range and absorbing intelligence updates for the inevitable next mission. In between events, Trae was able to squeeze in a trip to the boy’s school where Josh was wrestling. Trae and Josh loved to wrestle together, and Trae was interested in seeing Josh’s progress on the mat. Trae didn’t worry that Josh would be injured or lose in the contest, but wanted to observe something more important – Josh’s continued development of the spirit he would need if he joined “the life.” For that reason, Josh’s sports were programmed with a heavy martial flavor, with football and track and field, boxing, self-defense, and outdoor events with the Boy Scouts. The recruiting station on McGinnis was the primary accessions source for the future recruits of the unit, a fact as much influenced by the possible NCT infiltration threat from outside candidates as it was the interest of the families living on the JAROB. Most importantly, Trae and his wife had long and serious discussions about what it would mean if Josh didn’t join “the life.” He would have to leave with a new identity, and their chances to see him again after that would be few and far between. Trae and his wife had lost more friends in the post-Fort Bliss massacre period than he had in combat with the NCTs. Life on the outside was just too dangerous for the military and government law enforcement agencies. This might be the best thing for the family, although in the end the choice would be left up to Josh.

A Ticket Aboard The Locomotive Of History [ii]

Trae and his fellow unit members watched their sister units fight on multiple screens in the operations center thanks to their ever-evolving new technology. Some of the NCT networks they were fighting had developed effective electronic counter measures to the unit’s ubiquitous drones and robots. Trae’s commanders were flexible with each mission’s tactics, and often adapted to the conditions on the ground before launching the units. The military had evolved along with the Reform Act, with the Navy and Marines focused on combatting the far threats across the globe and the Army focused on the near threats. The Air Force was the glue that tied them all together, although even these labels were more relics of a bygone era than the reality of the joint character of everyday missions. The previous era’s reliance on Special Operations Forces had not been sufficient to meet the ever-increasing demands of the NCT network, and many of its functions and assets had returned to the general force to support the subsequent expansion of continuous operations against the network.

Trae could sense the next mission creeping toward him inexorably, yet he uncharacteristically found his mind drifting from the situation unfolding before him. This scared him because paying attention to details is what had kept him alive this long. But truthfully, he had heard this story over and over. His experience allowed him to focus on the critical aspects of the new situation while ignoring the details that he could guess after hundreds of these very same missions. Trae had been on several missions targeting this very international criminal organization before, and was familiar with their personnel and the methods with which they dominated a human trafficking chain from New York to the favelas of Rio. Instead, however, he found himself thinking about how long he could continue in the unit.

Trae found it humorous that the politicians themselves couldn’t come up with a term for the war they fought. They had once called the struggle the “Global War on Terror” and sometimes “The Long War,” and swore that the events at Fort Bliss… “Would. Not. Stand!” The truth is that what Trae’s unit did was hard to describe, even for someone intimately involved in the fight. Trae and his unit members instead used sports analogies; they were “in the trenches,” and extended time off the line was considered “the off-season.” They were forever preparing for “next season,” playing tough “away games” with hostile crowds and hoping they would make “the post-season.” They lived for professional glory, like the capture of a mysterious kingpin or the impossible shot captured on the Go-Pro helmet cam. And like a professional ball player, they would play as hard as they could, sustaining whatever damage they could, until they just couldn’t do it anymore.

He should be paying attention to the brief, if not for his own sake and his unit’s – than for the sake of his wife and son. Truthfully, he was a fighter for all of these reasons, but looking around at his comrades always gave him a comfort in contemplating the next mission. What were the alternatives? He could always turn in his rifle and join the Fighter Support Bureau, and there was no shame in that. The Reform Act had created the structure that allowed the organization to work as a functioning team that always recycled and reprogrammed its people in ways helpful to them and the organization. Trae found that to be a great improvement over the past. But he wasn’t quite ready to step back. He wouldn’t step back from the challenge. Just do this one mission, he thought, and then we’ll decide.

Trae smiled as if his mind was made up and returned to the present. He could feel the impending mission, like a train coming down the track.


[i] From Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

[ii] From Leon Trotsky’s 1922 Report on the Communist International.