No Standing Army!

And no foreign entanglements.  In another forum in response to my “The Draft” post of the other day someone made the argument regarding the point about needing training cadre and they would have to be drawn from other uses if we brought them home we wouldn’t need so large an army.  Another respondent then went on about the dangers of a standing army and how the Founding Fathers warned about it.

First off, yes, some of the Founding Fathers objected to having a standing army, believing the citizen militia (all adult males capable of bearing arms) could handle the defensive needs of the country.  There are just two problems with that argument:  one was that even if it were true (which I’ll get to in a moment) that was then, when the ocean on one side and the wilderness on the there were mighty fortifications provided by Mother Nature herself.  The second problem with that argument is that, it was far from a universal view.  The anti-Federalists who held that view lost in the debates at the Constitutional Convention.  Madison, in The Federalist Papers (written to “sell” the Constitution that was being proposed–and, yes, the Anti-Federalists had their own objections to it, but it was the Constitution that ended up being adopted), pointed out that there were needs that could not be well, served by only a citizen militia.  The example he gave was manning forts in the frontier.

None of this eliminates the dangers they foresaw of a standing army, but the goal was to limit that danger and provide safeguards against it.  By restricting military appropriations for an army (the Navy was separate) to two years and requiring appropriations to start in the House (with its two-year terms being more “beholden” to the people) the army could be kept on a short leash as it were.  The other edge of the sword was that citizen militia.  Madison pointed out that there was a limit on how large a standing army a society could maintain (as a function of population about three times the size of our own) and if it were used to override State and Individual rights it would be met by a citizen militia several times its size, thus the necessity for a militia to secure a free state.

Indeed, strong anti-Federalists like Jefferson soon found that they did need a military with “power projection” overseas.  Granted, he used the Navy, Marine Corps, and hired mercenaries rather than the army but the same principle still applies. Previously, Washington and Hamilton argued for an army for the quasi-war with France but they were Federalists (although Washington never accepted the label, his positions were pretty strongly Federalist).  On the other hand, Adams, another Federalist, was less inclined to wanting that army.

The problem is, if we interact at all with people outside our borders, then we will run into people willing to use force of arms to interfere with that interaction.  We might like to be allowed to engage in peaceable trade around the globe but what to do when others are unwilling?  When others are willing to use force of arms to interfere with that trade (as did the Barbary Pirates)?

One approach would be to simply tell those seeking to engage in trade that they were on their own.  If they end up getting captured by pirates, sold into slavery, robbed (foreign government or private sector), the US government will do nothing for them.  Oh, the government might “negotiate” for them, but without the willingness to use force (requiring a military once again), all they can do is say “pretty please, with cream and sugar on top.”

Maybe folk are willing to do accept that for private businesses (and accept the havoc that would play on our economy–higher prices, fewer goods and services available, and basically a poorer country), but how about our diplomatic people?  Do we bring them home too?  Go full isolationist where we don’t even talk to other nations?  Or do we accept that things like the Iran Hostage Crisis of 79-80 will be perfectly acceptable, without even a failed attempt at rescue (let alone sending in a force of Marines to secure the embassy when it comes under attack)?

Now maybe we’re doing too much with our military, things that we could afford to reduce it in scope.  I can even agree with that.  However, the idea that many have that if we just brought our troops home all would be sweetness and light is patently ridiculous.  There are people, people with power in various nations as well as in “non-state actors”, who mean us (by “us” I mean the United States of American and her people) harm.  They’re willing to suffer harm themselves so long as they can hurt us.  Some will claim that this is “blowback” from our own actions in the past.  Maybe so, but we can’t change the past and have to deal with the situation as it is now.  And, frankly, it’s foolish in the extreme to think that the hostility to America is only due to “blowback.” We encountered hostile powers when the only thing we were doing was trying sail through the area to engage in peaceful trade (those Barbary Pirates).

So long as there are people out there hostile to the United States and her people, we need to deal with that reality.  And no longer can we rely on the oceans as a barrier.  It was little enough of one before–as the War of 1812 and the Mexican War demonstrated–but it’s far less of one now, particularly when it comes to asymmetric warfare and terrorism.  Too a large extent, an armed populace is a useful deterrent but there are some things where it’s just not that useful.  Being armed is little defense against suicide bombers or the guys who drive trucks through crowds.

So the question becomes how to deal with those hostile interests.  We can retreat before them.  We can listen to our modern day Neville Chamberlain’s and give them what they want in exchange for “peace.” We can pay the modern version of the Danegeld.  After all, even Jefferson and Adams paid tribute to the Barbary States to get them to leave our shipping alone–at that time we did not have a navy and so lacked the “power projection” to do anything else.

That is the equivalent of attempting to turn a tiger into a vegetarian by feeding it steaks.  See how well that works.  Adams and Jefferson, at least, only agreed to buy time to build up the force necessary to fight back–as Jefferson did when he was President.

In the end, sooner or later, when it comes to powers inimical to the United States, we have to say “no” and back that up with force.  Even if we play “pay the Danegeld” the demands will just increase.  And sooner or later it will become more than we as a people are willing to pay.  And when that happens we’ll end up in an armed confrontation.  They won’t back down.  Why should they?  Past history will have shown them that we would.  So we’ll need to actually fight it out.

The thing is, the longer we keep appeasing in the interest of “preserving peace” the more violent and bloody the eventual confrontation will be because of the certainty the other side will have that we will give in if they just remain strong.

So if there’s going to be a confrontation, then sooner is better than later.  And, to be honest, I’d rather fight it over there than over here.

The trick is in knowing when the confrontation is inevitable, in knowing when you can ignore the yapping dog (yapping safely from the security of a fenced yard) as harmless, and knowing when the yapping indicates an actual threat which must be dealt with.  It’s in knowing when the other side is negotiating in good faith for a fair exchange or when they’re demanding “tribute” in exchange for “peace.”

I admit that I am far from qualified to make that judgment in most cases.  I simply do not have the information necessary, or the understanding of the various cultures involved.

So, are we involved in more military adventures than are truly necessary?  Probably.  Is the US “meddling” in more places than it should?  Almost certainly.  Which places?  Um, that I do not know.

The thing is, though, if we want to continue to have a strong, growing, vibrant economy.  If we want our people to be able to have the benefits of free society.  And if we don’t want to be the target of every tin-pot dictator seeking to make a name for himself by poking the lion, we must be involved in world affairs.

And that requires an army maybe not quite as big as we have now, but big enough.

3 thoughts on “No Standing Army!”

  1. One thought on the “And no foreign entanglements” is that when Washington said that, the US was a fourth-third ranking nation compared to European powers like Britain and France.

    IMO Washington was warning against alliances with European Powers as doing so would make the US a target from the enemies of the Power we allied with.

    We’re one of the most powerful nations around today, so such alliances don’t endanger us as they would in Washington’s time.

    I can see strong arguments against the US being involved in some world matters, but Washington’s warning involved a different situation.


  2. As you pointed out in your Draft post, inducting and training anything other than pure cannon fodder takes a long, long time- and a year is a really long time during wartime. Someone’s got to hold the line until they get trained up.
    Likewise, things like warships, combat aircraft, tanks, and similar weapons systems can’t just be built overnight, nor can you just throw people on board and expect them to fight well.

    But, on the gripping hand, one problem is that peacetime armies do tend to accumulate a lot of deadwood- careerist with no real leadership talent, or throwbacks unable to comprehend new tactics and weapons and cling to the familiar obscenest lessons of the previous war (hello early WWII France & England!). Sadly, you are often stuck with them until the next generation can come to the top in the crucible of combat.


  3. If “Wars are caused by undefended wealth” (Douglas MacArthur), then the size of our military should arise from the size of our assets. With that as a criterion, we probably have about the right size military. Yes, we do tend to misuse it — among other things, it should not be used as a disaster relief agency unless the disaster is mind-bogglingly huge and there are no alternatives whatsoever — but it is a proven effective instrument for those occasions when the only solution to a genuinely pressing need is to kill people and break things.


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