Standing Armies

Like the Founders, I am opposed to standing armies. In Federalist 26, Hamilton lays out the history & the political theory. Standing armies are threats to democracy & morality. The modern American volunteer army is the contemporary version of a standing army. And the political right -- a category that includes a large number of politicians with a D after thier names -- takes it as given that an even bigger milatery is required for American "security." The opposite is true. The US would be far better served by a small professional army & a draft in wartime. Here is what we have now, instead of a draft. The infection is very deep. In my recent run-in with the frothing Right, three themes emerged in my comment threads & those at the Chronicle & Free Republic:
  1. If I didn't appreciate my American freedoms, I should go live in North Korea, or wherever. This is just the old Vietnam-era America Love it of Leave it line dressed up for the new century. Militarists have to assume those critical of the military & of the use of the military are not "real Americans" or that we "hate America." This cultural positioning has itself become a cliché that is almost impossible to think oneself out of.
  2. The idea that the military does not defend Constitutional freedoms, but grants them: It was taken as given that, at least, I was ungrateful for "the freedoms I had been granted" by "those [I] hate and demean." I also fail, apparently, to recognize ". . . the simple truth that freedom is always tethered to a soldier’s gun," another wrote. The semi-literate clichés of those posting at the Free Republic site are symptomatic of a deeper atavism in American culture, but it is, we might say, an ascendant atavism. Many people who responded to my provocation did so by fantasizing situations in which they or someone else would beat me up. One posted the Mapquest directions from my house to the entrance of Fort Drum, the local army base. Another imagined me revealing my views in a bar outside Fort Bragg.
  3. The mockery of poetry. This might be simple anti-intellectualism, which has a long history in American politics. One writer went to the trouble to look up the titles of some of my poems, then posted them with the comment "'nuff said." I have to admit, when I first read this, I was mystified. But when someone else posted my picture & called me a "pussy," I wasn't surprised. The point is, these people are representative. Their voices constitute the low rumble behind the network news.
The "volunteer army" & the National Guard as career paths for the working class are the most dangerous legacies of the American defeat in Vietnam. Alexander Hamilton, no friend of popular democracy, understood the dangers of standing armies; the nation is now imperiled because we have forgotten his warning.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

14 thoughts on “Standing Armies”

  1. I am told the US retains the capacity to fight something like 2.4 wars. A spooky, surreal statistic (what constitutes “one war”?).

    I was just reading about the Third Servile War in Rome, and how the legion generals who put down that threat to the Republic then muscled their way into the Senate, a first slip along the inevitable slope toward Empire.

    I wonder if they, too, calculated how many simultaneous wars they could sustain, how many enemies they identified, if Spartacus would have been labeled a terrorist – and if Orwell wasn’t off by just a decade or two in his literary predictions.

  2. Another thought that kept me up last night: The army as a kind of economic subsidy. To whom do the armed forces pitch themselves as a career opportunity? The underprivileged and those who struggle with education – i.e. all the same people who might not otherwise have jobs, or have difficulty finding jobs, due to automation and off-shoring. Dramatically reduce the size of our standing army, and we’d feel the impact of the vacuum in the blue-collar sector of the job spectrum acutely – not unlike how Europeans feel it now. Even as subsidized gasoline buffers us from the real costs of our oil-based culture, so does the standing army shield us from the economic realities of the 21st century – while making us trigger-happy and sparking arms races in the process.

  3. Thanks for these two thoughtful posts, Robert. I hadn’t thought of the military as an economic buffer, but you’re certainly right.

  4. More random thoughts: even as automation and globalization encroaches on blue-collar jobs, the blogosphere and other sources of user-generated content now being categorized under the broad banner of “Web 2.0” are encroaching on white-collar mainstream media jobs.

    So, as much as sending the working class off to war creates a disturbing kind of “job,” the same war likewise creates compelling reality content only mainstream media can cover – since, after all, I’ve yet to hear of an amateur blogger being embedded in a military unit. The more I think about where our culture is placing its collective energy and attention, the more Orwellian it seems.

  5. A serious look at the evolution of warfare in the 20th century should make it clear that modern technology in tandem with our urbanized lifestyle make a standing army a necessity. It is true that colonial America relied on a relatively small standing army. However, they were able to do so for two major reasons. There was no significant difference between “military” and “civilian” technology at that time. A musket was a musket was a musket. Even the technology not readily available to the average citizen, such as a cannon, was not terribly complex to learn and operate. In addition, American society was rural, and the average citizen was capable of basic military tasks like shooting and land navigation. These factors allowed America to handle her early wars by rapidly elevating herself to a wartime status in an era in which any threatening enemy transported itself at a snail’s pace.

    Contrast that with modern technology and the limits of the modern citizen. These factors, coupled with the speed with which countries can now move troops, have made this a largely unrealistic paradigm in the 20th century. This isn’t to say that today’s military is an ideal size, or that a large military doesn’t still carry some drawbacks. It is merely to say that it seems to be the least undesirable option.

  6. I wish the last few wars had been fought to protect American freedom. The logic seems to be that if we hadn’t fought these wars, we would not now enjoy freedom of speech, religion, assembly, etc… But when was the last war fought against an enemy that proposed to take away those rights and freedoms from us?

    I hear this “You enjoy your freedom because of the military” talk all the time. It drives me crazy because the enemy is never someone who is going to come over and take away our freedoms.

  7. Josh, I agree with you, with this caveat: Let it be a conscript army. That keeps things real. A standing army is a necessary evil of a mass society, so the best we can hope for is to make the use of that army in adventurist, elective wars politically difficult.

    Jonathan: speaking of who we ought to be worrying about taking away our freedoms, I give you this little gem.

  8. Yeah, Jonathan, you should check out Josh’s website, the guy who commented just before you. If you were looking for the very quintessence, this purest distillation, the most refined odor of solipsistic American youth fascism, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example. He did me the favor of linking to my post about “the troops” & I made the mistake of posting a couple of replies on his weblog. Now I feel like I have touched someone else’s shit. You will no doubt find some humor in the title of his weblog, by the way, given your recent post on “earnestness.”

  9. JD, you can spend as much time as you want throwing around insults like fascist (which you obviously don’t understand the definition of, given your usage), but when I come over and comment on your blog, I do so politely and respectfully. Just because we disagree on issues does not require the immature and mean-spirited posts you’ve made over on mine. Given the vast differences between our ages and educational backgrounds, your comments reflect poorly on you, not me.

  10. I exactly understand the meaning of “fascist” in American political usage, Josh. I use it sparingly & when applying it to your weblog I used it with an adjective, “youth,” not to soften my meaning but to indicate a kind of movement psychology I find abhorrent. (Evoking Herbert Marcuse’s use of the term “happy fascism” in One-Dimensional Man).

    But you are right. My posts on your blog reflect badly on me: I should have learned long ago not to argue with those who are as convinced of their “innocence” as you are. But you called me out by linking here with a comment about “the left” that intentionally distorted what I was getting at in that post.

    Let me be clear. I believe your political & philosophical views are not merely wrong or misguided, but that they are evil. That’s another word I almost never throw around, partly because of its religious overtones, but also because the word implies an absolute judgment & I am very leery of absolute judgments. Your blithe self-regard masks a deep moral vacuity & one has to draw the line somewhere: the views you express on your weblog, along with the views of the moral monsters to whom you link & whose language you ape, fall on the far side of a line that defines decent human values.

    I wish I could withdraw my petulant comments on your website, but I can’t. I wish I could withdraw them, not because they are untrue, but because being associated with your weblog in any way makes me feel a little sick. I won’t put myself in that position again.

  11. Again, I think you illustrate the vast difference between us in a way that reflects poorly on yourself, whether you have the self-awareness to realize it or not. I believe that you, and most people on the left, hold foolish and naive views. You believe that myself, and most people on the right, are evil. The ability to disagree without vilification is vital to sustained democracy, so I hope that the current preponderance of people like you on the left is a temporary, not permanent, development. Since thoughtful dialogue is made impossible by such an attitude, and since I have no desire to cause you further painful contamination through engagement, I will not comment on your blog any further. You are still more than welcome to comment on mine should you ever see fit to do so.

  12. The rhetorical high road isn’t very becoming in one who links to the fear-monger, the hate-peddlers, the immigrant-bashers, the money-worshipers, the outright liars, authority-worshipers, homophobes, & racists in your sidebar. As far as your call for “disagreement without vilification,” something you say the right possesses but the left lacks, I invite you to read through the comment threads on my posts about soldiers’ moral responsibilities & the follow-up post, in which I responded specifically to several individuals. Then go take a look at the discussion thread dealing with my post at the Free Republic & at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Then come back here & tell me with a straight face how much the right loves “thoughtful dialog.” The post on your site that brought you to my attention was part of a mob action & one does not reason with mobs. It felt good to be a little bully among the big bullies, didn’t it? And now, in the time-honored way of bullies, even little ones, you say you just wanted to have a conversation & that my anger reflects badly on me. I don’t know whether to quote Arlo Guthrie — “You got a lot of damn gall” — or Bugs Bunny — “It is to laugh.” And by the way, I said your views were evil, not you. As a liberal, I believe in the possibility of redemption even for smug young right-wingers & I live in hope that you will abandon your evil views.

  13. The argument for a standing army as “the least undesirable option” seems to run along the same lines as any escalation – a line of thought most youngsters summarize with the outburst, “he started it!” For all our aging, have we really grown up?

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