Dispatch the War Department

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However small or large a government you consider ideal, whether you’re left, right or center, you probably agree that the military is indispensable and legitimate. You may quibble about its size and purpose (defensive versus policing the world), but almost no one wonders whether we need an army.

It’s time we did.

Questioning the military’s necessity puts us in good company, specifically that of the Founders. Many of them vehemently opposed a "standing" army (i.e. one that is professionally, permanently established and remains intact rather than disbanding after beating off an attack. That definition encompasses cops as well: the Founders would never have drawn the artificial distinction we do between a force that fights overseas and one that wars on its own citizens. Indeed, the Redcoats patrolling Boston in the 1760’s and ’70’s fulfilled the functions of modern police).

So Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts articulated popular wisdom when he damned standing armies as "the bane of liberty" during Congressional debate in 1789. The heroic Patrick Henry, too, denounced bellicose professionals because they "execute the execrable commands of tyranny."

Even James Madison, among the most Federalistic of the Founders, listed the horrors that "proceed" from armies: "debts and taxes; … [which] are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few." At the Constitutional Convention, he cautioned, "A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved, the people."

Despite these warnings, the Constitution assumes that the Feds will maintain not only an Army but a Navy, too. Why? Perhaps partly because of a debate then ongoing — and one that still rages among historians and military buffs: could the militia, which simply means armed citizens as opposed to professional soldiers, have prevailed against the British Army by itself? After all, Patriot militia won several battles, including the essential one at Saratoga. Or was the United States’ victory in the Revolution impossible without the professional, full-time Continental Army?

Then, too, during the years that a Convention debated and states ratified the Constitution, Americans fretted about the precarious peace the Treaty of Paris brought in 1783. England refused to withdraw its troops from the Northwest Territory (modern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) despite the Treaty’s stipulations to do so — to say nothing of Britain’s vast beachhead, Canada. And France might demand more than mere amity for the money and soldiers it had lent the Continental Congress for the rebellion.

Were these Americans correct? If Britain and France — or today’s terrorists — were truly as threatening as feared, was a professional army under politicians’ control the safest and most efficient way to counter them?

Government is inherently incompetent, as it obligingly demonstrates every day in everything it does. Whether we’re talking graduates of its schools who can’t read, write, or reason; letters its Post Office takes days to deliver to the next block; or its Ponzi Scheme for retirees’ pensions that keep both the retirees and the scheme on the verge of bankruptcy, government fails everywhere, all the time. Why, then, would we entrust to it a life-and-death matter like defense? Why would we expect it to handle that any more competently than it does its security checkpoints at airports?

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Becky Akers [send her mail] writes primarily about the American Revolution.

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