The Myth of National Defense

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War is like a big machine that no one really knows how to run and when it gets out of control it ends up destroying the things you thought you were fighting for, and a lot of other things you kinda forgot you had.
~ Anonymous

When explaining the advantages of living in a society grounded in liberty and voluntary relationships — rather than the statist model of institutionalized violence — the question that invariably provides the final hurdle to overcome is that involving national defense. Intelligent minds can grasp how streets and highways, schools, fire protection, parks, and other traditional governmental functions can be performed in the marketplace. But as if out of fear of letting go of the statist model altogether, most will hang on to the question: how would a non-statist society protect people from invasion and occupation by a foreign state? In a stateless society, what would prevent our being taken over and tyrannized by outside forces? For many — even those who favor a minimal state — "national defense" is a necessity not to be entrusted to the unstructured nature of a society of free people.

My initial response to such hesitancy is to point out that a strong, national government makes us more vulnerable to attack and invasion. The state serves not as a shield that protects us, but a jugular vein that provides others with a central target to be subdued. If men and women have been foolish enough to identify themselves with a nation-state, such attachments make it easy for their governments to transfer their compliant herds to another power. Consider how easily Hitler and Stalin were able — in some cases within a matter of days — to subdue neighboring lands, acquiring in the processes of surrender people already well-trained in the duties of obedience.

Imagine, by contrast, the difficulties that would be faced by any political system intent on invading and subduing men and women already accustomed to liberty. If the Chinese government was intent on conquering a stateless America, how would it go about doing so? If shiploads of trained soldiers arrived in Los Angeles, for example, where would they go to bring about a surrender of the population? There would be no mayor, governor, or president to surrender a collective horde to such external forces. Knowing that whatever defenses they had to such an attack rested upon themselves, millions of individuals would doubtless devise their own methods of protection. The invading soldiers would have to go door-to-door in an effort to subdue Angelenos. Local people do not take kindly to being invaded and occupied, and will vigorously resist same, a truth that is being rediscovered in places like Iraq, whose state army was long ago disbanded. The inability of governments to effectively resist invasions and attacks has been well-demonstrated in the continuing immigration of Central Americans into America — people who come for peaceful purposes — as well as the attacks of 9/11. That otherwise intelligent beings can continue to sanction the looting of trillions of dollars in furtherance of the illusion that the state is protecting them in some way, is a testament to how well their minds have been conditioned by their masters!

But beyond such apparent arguments against the national defense myth is to be found a more significant truth: national "defense" has nothing whatsoever to do with defending the lives, liberty, and property interests of Americans! The "defense" system is, in fact, a system of offense against, principally, the American people. During my youth, this proposition was made much clearer in identifying the conduct of war as being under the direction of the "War Department." Once World War II was over, and the American government had decided that peace was no longer a value to be pursued; that a permanent war machine was to be set up on behalf of a worldwide corporate-state hegemony, such an emergent purpose had to be disguised as "national defense."

The "state" has been defined, by most, as an institution with a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory. Violence must be resorted to by political systems in order to overcome the self-interested purposes by which individuals conduct their lives. As the state increases the numbers of people to be regulated — as well as the size of the territory within which it operates — it is increasingly confronted by the countervailing forces of individual and private group interests. The state’s response, invariably, is to further expand the coercively-backed demands by which it rules.

The larger the nation that is to be subdued by violence, in other words, the more powerful the force that is needed to terrorize the population into obedience. The statists are well aware that political systems have never arisen through a "social contract;" that contracts are far too personal in nature to allow for the illusion of 300,000,000 people participating in some collective meeting of the minds about anything. Augmented by the deception with which political systems have rationalized their nature and origins, the state has always been the product of violent conquest. Even as the Constitution was undergoing ratification — but after the requisite nine states had approved the document so as to bring it into fruition — the resulting United States government threatened the recalcitrant state of Rhode Island with invasion and a blockade of its port should it fail to ratify. Rhode Island can truly be said to be the first victim of American imperialism!

As we have seen in recent decades, the strengthening of our "national defense" system has always been accompanied by a weakening of our liberty and the protection of our lives and property that it was the avowed purpose of this system to defend. Taxes become sharply increased, and regulations of our privacy and daily conduct expand to meet what usually turns out to be a bogus threat (e.g., "terrorists"). How much more are our lives policed and restricted today than they were prior to 9/11? When "our" state deprives us of what we are trained to fear others will take from us, it is time for thoughtful people to examine their conditioning.

To those who cluck that, without a strong system of national defense, we could be "taken over" by hostile powers, the Rhode Island episode should be illuminating. We have already been "taken over" by hostile powers, emanating from such places as Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Albany, Springfield, and all other settings where men and women presume the power to rule others. In order to maintain their authority, statists require the means of enforcing their will upon others. Because political systems enjoy a monopoly on the use of violence, their very existence depends upon the permanent installation and equipping of mechanisms of state-directed violence. This is the role played by police and military forces (i.e., those we delude ourselves into believing are employed to "protect and serve" our interests).

When Walt Kelly’s "Pogo Possum" announced to his friends that "we have met the enemy and they is us," he was providing the essence of what we need to know about the nature of state power. His lesson has been echoed so many times in so many places throughout America as men and women have been clubbed, gassed, tear-gassed, caged, and even shot, for daring to openly dissent from the policies of the political establishment. Lest anyone fail to get the message that the well-being of the state depends upon the most arbitrary exercise of its violent capacities, the performance of its "national defense" agencies in foreign lands should awaken them. If the homes of Iraqis can be bombed and forcibly entered with blazing guns; if critics of such practices can be rounded up and shipped off to various foreign lands to be tortured and held without trial; if small children can be blown apart by soldiers employed by political leaders who like to pretend that they are "pro-life;" what message is left for those of us to consume in the safety of our living rooms?

When Randolph Bourne told us that "war is the health of the state," he was fully cognizant of the fact that the war mentality is essential to the creation and enforcement of the collective mindset upon which state power rests. It is what war does to the rest of us, not just to those upon whom the bombs fall, that gives the state its authority. This is why large nation-states (e.g., the United States, Great Britain, Soviet Union, Germany, etc.) require an ongoing war system, and why smaller nations (e.g., Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland, Ireland, etc.) manage to get along quite profitably and peacefully without resorting to wars.

In his important book, The Breakdown of Nations, Leopold Kohr addressed the symbiotic relationship existing between organizational size and the exercise of destructive political power. "Whenever something is wrong, something is too big," he warned, an insight that goes a long way toward explaining why America — the most militarily powerful nation in history — has become such a tyrannical and destructive force throughout the world. That so few Americans are willing to be aware of or critical of this pathological condition, testifies to the impact power-based thinking has on the minds of those who believe themselves to be "protected" by such forces.

The exercise of coercive power begets enemies, a lesson Ron Paul tried to impress upon the vacuous Rudy Giuliani, and of which Chalmers Johnson has written in his book, Blowback. If power is to be maintained — an end to which every institution is devoted — it requires a regular exercise or else, like highly-developed muscles, it atrophies and becomes flabby. But there is a downside to the escalation of the use of power, which may help to explain why a number of civilizations — e.g., the western portion of the Roman empire, and modern America — seem to have gone into entropic collapses following expanded militaristic adventures. Perhaps a useful analogy is to be found in Lewis Thomas’ book, The Lives of a Cell, in which he makes the suggestion that our immune systems are often the cause of death not because of their failure to ward off bacteria or viruses, but because of our defense mechanisms’ over-reaction to foreign agents. Our immune system may over-react to the invasion of a given bacterium — a response out of all proportion to the physical threat posed — and, perhaps by raising our bodily temperature to 110 degrees, bring about our death.

Is there a lesson for us in all of this? Might the systems we have created, ostensibly for our "protection," be the sources of our social miseries and destruction? Perhaps the statists can learn from one of their own, Winston Churchill, who, in 1936, offered the view that the United States, by intervening in World War I, probably brought about the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy, and Communism in Russia. For the sake of life on this planet, we must give up the fantasies that are destroying us, and no longer indulge in the lies our institutional masters expect us to continue verbalizing.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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