Many years ago, in an online discussion, the late Dr. Jerry Pournelle said that the purpose of the military presence in Europe was to get the Warsaw pact leaders (which, in truth meant the Soviet Union leaders) to look across the field at the forces arrayed against them, to look at their own forces, at their maps, then again at the forces on the other side and say “not today” and then repeat that the next day, and the next, in perpetuity (or, as it happened, until the collapse of Soviet Communism).
That also describes the purpose of an armed citizenry.
Some people are dismissive of the idea of an armed citizenry as a weapon against tyranny because “the government has drones, and tanks, and bombers, and nukes, and… You rednecks and your assault rifles can’t possibly stand against that.”
The problem is, as we learned in Vietnam, and seem to keep having to relearn in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, all that military hardware and technology is great when it comes to defeating armies in set-piece battles, even battles of maneuver. It’s far less useful against an insurgency. When you have insurgents hiding among the civilian population you need boots on the ground able to go door to door and sort out the insurgents from the civilians. You need those civilians, at least a significant portion of them, to be willing to point out the actual insurgents to you (and not just use you to take down someone they don’t like, who may or may not be an actual insurgent–“Insurgents? Yes, my business rival provides support to the rebels. If you shut him down it will cripple the rebels.”)
What are you going to do with that heavy weaponry? Roll tanks through Boise because someone’s holding secret meetings plotting the overthrow of the government? Make an Arclight strike (carpet bombing) against Des Moines because there are weapons caches somewhere in the city? Nuke Indianapolis because insurgents are hiding among the population?
Those kinds of things can’t be solved with the heavy hardware, or not easily (and I’ll get to that in a minute). They require boots on the ground, investigations and intel, and generally a cooperative population. The “hearts and minds” component of counter-insurgency operations. I would recommend Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by General Peter J. Shoomaker for how that worked, or failed to work, in they Malaya and Vietnam. (I will note that I believe General Shoomaker gives insufficient weight to Vietnam being both an insurgency and a “conventional” war being fought in parallel and many of the things he dismissed as being “the wrong approach” were correct for the conventional part of the war. The problem wasn’t that things appropriate to conventional war were advocated. The problem was that solutions appropriate to an insurgency were not. This is a case where we needed to embrace the power of “and”.)
While you can possibly beat even an insurgency with the “heavy hardware”, and indeed, this is another point that General Shoomaker elided over (perhaps because the British in Malaya and the US in Vietnam simply were not willing to be sufficiently ruthless, and that reality colored what he had to say) it usually involves a price that most Western nations simply are unwilling to pay. It requires utter callousness to collateral damage and positively rejoicing in poor “international opinion”. It requires viciousness on a level that makes the Mongol hordes look like nice guys. And even that is no sinecure. After all, the former Soviet Union had no particular qualms against ruthlessness but they still were unable to make much headway in Afghanistan.
And in the end, however ruthless you are, you still have to send troops in on the ground.
Try that on your own people without years, possibly decades, of careful preparation, building a military force that’s both amoral and personally loyal to you. That means getting rid of all the people who hold to ideals like honor, loyalty, and defending the nation rather than the ruler at its head–and, of course, all those people you’ve gotten rid of, presuming you haven’t tipped your hand with Stalinesque purges and show trials–with all their training and experince will now be in the civilian sector and arrayed against you.
No, the vast power of military hardware would be of little use in an actual insurgency. And if you get to the point you can use it? You’ve got a military that will actually obey orders to wage Total War on the American people?
That battle tank? Where is its fuel coming from? How is it getting from it’s start as an infusion in rocks deep underground through wells, refineries, pipes, trucks, and storage tanks until if finally ends up in the tank itself? How many men does it take to guard every step of the way because anything you leave unguarded is an opportunity for insurgents to interrupt the supply–blow up a pipeline, ambush tank trucks, demolish a railroad bridge, and on and on.
Now apply it not just to the tank, but to everything else that goes into the care and feeding of a modern military force.
And those guards? Spread out. Distributed. Vulnerable to being picked off. So you need more men. But where are you going to get them except from the American people you’ve just declared total war on? Much of that and your guards are as likely to be saboteurs as not.
The US had the advantage of a secure source of supply for its troops in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The Soviet Union had the same for Afghanistan. And still they faced ongoing challenges from disruptions of that portion of the supply chain that was in hostile territory. How much worse, then, when the entire supply chain is in “hostile territory”?
Now, this is not to say that the insurgents would have it all their own way. A sufficiently ruthless government, with a sufficiently loyal Praetorian Guard of a military, could end up killing enough to cow enough of the rest to “win” such a war. And it’s possible with a sufficiently complicit media, and sufficient suppression of “unapproved” sources, that such a government might even keep general support away from the insurgents despite bombing your own cities.
But even if you win, the likelihood is that all you’ll rule is a burnt-out ruin, ripe for some foreign power to come in and pluck it away from you.
And if the insurgents win, the same thing applies–they only win a burned-out ruin, ripe for some foreign power to come in and establish their own overlordship. (This, incidentally, is why I so strongly argue against armed rebellion against the abuses to the Constitution that are daily occurrences now: even if successful, it would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. Armed rebellion really is an absolute last-ditch recourse.)
That’s with an armed citizenry, a large pool of armed people who could be insurgents, even if most of them are not. Eliminate that, and it becomes much easier. If all the insurgents can do is throw rocks at you, it’s much easier to cow them. Even if they’ve got improvised weapons, the issue is dramatically simplified for the would be tyrant.
So, the purpose of an armed citizenry is less to win a conflict against the United States military. It’s to make the would-be tyrants in power look at the citizenry, look at the forces they have, look at the vulnerability of their supply lines where everything is “enemy territory”–and if they don’t understand or believe the situation themselves, those would have to carry out orders to establish their tyrannical rule will–and size up the chances and what they’d likely “win” even if successful…
…and say “Not today.”