From the perspective of 1998, the last century has seen an unprecedented militarization of American society and the economy. Critics of that development have shown a ratcheting up of this process as the United States has become involved in one war after another. Apologists of this development have viewed it as a necessary aspect of Americas emergence as a world power, standing since the break-up of the Soviet Union, virtually unchallenged as the worlds now lone superpower. From this latter outlook that role has about it a sense of historical inevitability: somebody, after all, has to assume this burden of global policeman.
The increasingly expensive wars of this century have, of course, played a role in this development, and it is certainly possible to go even farther back and see the governmental centralization which accompanied the American Civil War as an even earlier cause of these developments. What I would like to do in this brief paper, however, is to suggest that the origins of this Imperial Role, what might be called an Imperial Syndrome- were inherent in the internal tensions within the revolutionary coalition which triumphed in the American Revolution. In short, that process was well underway during that four score and seven years between the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincolns Gettysburg Address, which effectively ratified the triumph of this mercantilist vision of a powerful, centralized government. The triumph of the Standing Army concept over that of a Peoples Militia, meant that, organizationally speaking, the beast had been birthed and must be fed, what would be left for later generations to deal with was how much the beast would consume as it grew larger and more demanding in the quest to sustain and expand Empire?
The Revolutionary Coalition: Empire, Standing Armies and Peoples War!
All of the worlds great revolutions, as with many of the great wars, especially the global ones, have been the product of shifting coalitions with considerable internal differences with respect to what the struggle hoped to achieve if it was victorious. In this respect, the American Revolution reflected a number of the tensions which had characterized many of its predecessors, especially those of the English Revolution.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Great Britains American colonies had experienced more than half a century of phenomenal economic growth, aided in no small part by a period of salutary neglect from a rigid mercantilist policy on the part of the Mother Country. On the one hand this extraordinary growth fueled the concern of British policymakers such as the Earl of Sandwich, dating back to the 1680s, that the colonies development, especially New Englands, might one day pose a threat to control by Great Britain. At the same time there was emerging a much more complex, hierarchical social structure, cities and income differences than had been true in the previous century.
There is not space here to discuss all of the interwoven causes which led to the American Revolution. All of these causes, however, fitted into an effort to revive a neo-feudalism which was being reasserted by national states throughout Europe and was especially successful in Prussia and the rest of eastern Europe, including Russia. That tension led in France directly to the great Revolution of 1789.
Some have suggested that feudalism never really played a part in American development, but this is belied by the fact that in the decade prior to the outbreak of the fighting in 1775, the quitrent income from American holdings to British landlords for the first time surpassed income from their holdings in Great Britain. If British growth management policies, to use the term employed by 20th century public administration gurus, could be sustained by limiting American development east of the Proclamation Line of 1763, then the subsequent government induced shortage of land, a fundamental aspect of feudalism, would keep quitrents at a high level.
These British policies were opposed by two groups of Americans whose ideas about Americas role in the world are remarkably similar to those involved in the debate about this nations role in world affairs as we enter the 21st century. On the one hand were the American mercantilists, often nabobs such as Benjamin Franklin or George Washington, who saw themselves increasingly important players in an expanding global British mercantilism. Imagine!, some of those, one is almost tempted to say isolationist British policymakers, were even concerned about the imperialist, interventionist way in which many of these land speculators simply wished to grab lands from the Indian tribes already inhabiting the area.
As mercantilists, these Americans had little use for the idea of limited government. Franklin, as head of the Royal post office in the colonies was already on record as favoring such a monopoly as essential for government to open the mail whenever it was thought necessary to keep informed about citizens thoughts and activities. As such, these nabobs were not adverse to the idea of standing armies as a necessary, integral component of pursuing policies to implement the mercantilist worldview.
At the other extreme of the revolutionary coalition were those Americans who thought in terms of small, limited government. While they were not opposed international trade, they did not view mercantilism as a necessity for encouraging such trade. Influenced by Classical Republican theory going back to Rome, by Machiavelli, who had himself been a militia organizer in Florence, and the lessons of the English Revolution regarding standing armies, these Americans were less interested in promoting a global mercantilism.
It is not my purpose here to re-fight the Revolution in terms of the tensions between those who preferred a standing army and those advocated a peoples militia, and I have done that elsewhere, nevertheless, several aspects of the War are worth touching upon. The standing army types never had much respect for the militia although it was the latter which provided the measure of victory at Lexington, Trenton, Saratoga, and in the wearing down of Cornwallis in the interior of North Carolina and Virginia culminating in his ultimate defeat at Yorktown. The British arranged a surrender to the regular army forces rather than faced the militia which had actually defeated them.
The problem with tracing the history of irregular, militia and even guerrilla forces, as compared to the standing army in the American Revolution is the same historical problem faced in every war right up to that great conflict, World War Two, and beyond, up to the present-the former leave few formal records as compared to the formal, standing army forces. It is the latter, based upon the access to their records, that tend later to be glorified by historians, and made to appear essential to victory.
I do not mean to claim that the existence of a standing army was not an important factor in military victory in the American Revolution, because it was. The significant point is, to what other tasks during a war will the standing army be put, and will it on the whole be institutionally reduced after the conflict is concluded. What is clear after 222 years of evolution from Republic toward Empire, is that the institutionalization and expanding cost of a standing army has been integral to Americas evolving role as global policeman. On the other hand, one must not underestimate the role of mercantile/imperialist policymakers in pursuing these policies of institutionalizing a permanent, expanded standing army. We have, indeed. been fortunate that some of the more trenchant critics of this process have been members of the armed forces, who have disagreed with this imperial mission.
The problem is of long standing and goes back even before the Revolution. In recent years historians have shown that British army policies were more important in colonial history than was previously thought, so that in one review Gordon Wood has suggested that we need to rethink the whole colonial period in terms of these broad military, mercantilist policies. I can only imagine here what fun Murray Rothbard would have with this data if he were today revising the four volumes of Conceived in Liberty.
In the late 17th century, in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, the English were concerned not only about the existence of standing armies but the funding of them. Thus funding had to be passed annually by each Parliament and the armies were not to be quartered at home. Both of these aspects of the standing army question are worth a brief comment. The Americans learned that the power of the purse, of funding government annually as a check on the executive, was imperative. The triumph of Japanese militarism in the 20th century was due in no small part to the fact that, borrowed from the Prussian model, the military in order to get its way could create a crisis and cause a disruption of the government in the sure knowledge that the previous years military funding would be retained. This was the foundation from which the oligarchy was able to crush its more liberal critics ultimately by assassinations.
With Whig discontent at home led by radicals like John Wilkes, 18th century British Tory policymakers were faced with the question of where abroad to station the standing army? Those of you who have visited the great British fortress at Halifax, Nova Scotia know the answer as well as to Patrick Henrys in 1765 of what purpose did his Majesty have to station 10,000 troops in that quarter of the world? From that point at the apex of the North Atlantic Triangle, a Rapid Deployment Force (sorry, Jimmy Carter, British colonial policymakers had the idea long before you!) could be sent back east into Great Britain, if necessary, smash the disarmed Irish as was done, or ordered south to subdue the Americans. This sort of planning was hardly the sort of absent minded, haphazard empire building often used to characterize the development of the British Empire, and the Americans, conscious participants in a global republican effort, were hardly paranoid to see it for what it was-a concerted effort to smash that movement. When the British troops disembarked from their ships in October, 1768, to occupy Boston, the great contemporary American historian, Mercy Otis Warren, who was there, had it right when she called it a day that would live in infamy, and later Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his speechmaker, spinmasters certainly recognized a good quote when they read one, although she was never given credit for the phrase.
I have argued elsewhere about the role of the peoples militia in the ultimate American victory, and need not retrace that argument here. Washingtons, and some other officers, dislike of the militia is well known, but less has been said about their plans for Empire and the use of the standing army in achieving that goal. As Tom Paine predicted, the British lost an army every time they ventured into Americas interior. The first of these was lost at Saratoga late in 1777, due essentially to the participation of militia from New England. One result was the alliance with France which a number of historians have stated made an American victory in the Revolution possible.
That is simply nonsense! The British never came close to even defining what they meant by victory in North America any more than the United States did later in Vietnam. Other than New York City, a convenient place for the Americans to obtain hard currency, the British held almost no piece of territory very long. Lacking the alliance, the peoples war might have dragged on longer than it did, but even that is uncertain.
The real tragedy is that a chance for peace with independence, but without Empire, was squandered early in 1778 by the standing army/empire advocates, and the net result was that in the face of the alliance the British turned to a brutal pacification program, using the same term we used in Vietnam, of which order number one was to burn the rebels democratically organized churches in each town secured by British troops. The last three years of the war were thus much more bloody and costly than the first three. We now know that the Carlisle Commission sent to America was empowered to negotiate some very broad peace terms. The hysterical American reaction deduced its credibility. Some of the American leaders demanded both Canada and Florida as a price for negotiation, and the British were unwilling to do so.
Dreams of Empire die hard! In 1781, the last year of the war, Washington sent LaFayette north to talk to the Green Mountain Boys about launching a new expedition to take Canada. Recall the first American offensive early in the war had been Benedict Arnolds nearly successful attempt to capture Canada, which had been a drain of badly needed men and materials from the standpoint of peoples war. By 1781 it was clear to everyone that Canada did not want to be a part of the Protestant confederation to the south and that any attempt to acquire it would be a war of conquest and denial of self-determination. But by now the Green Mountain militia had caught on to the standing army/empire game and they demanded double pay, double rations and plunder if they were to participate. When LaFayette replied he was unauthorized to make such concessions, the Boys returned to Vermont.
The militia inspired victory at Yorktown cost the British a second army and made a peace possible-independence without Empirebut the standing army problem was evident in the demands of officers for various benefits as the war concluded. But the greatest example of concern about the standing army threat to republican institutions was the debate which concluded with the framing and adoption of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Of what point was the idea of a well-regulated militia except as a counter to the political clout of a standing army? Men like Alexander Hamilton turned from writing in favor of the militia idea in Federalist #29 to urging the regular army to smash the Whiskey Tax Rebellion less than five years later so that as one historian has put it, by 1800 the essence of the militia idea had effectively been murdered.
A Century of Expansion
The 19th century was, of course, a great century of continental expansion, culminating in the quest for Empire in 1898. Before passing on to 1998 and the problems of the 20th century some observations about the role of the standing army in that expansion are worthy of comment. The sad story of relations with the American Indians might have worked itself out quite differently without the existence of the standing army.
The army was used to harass the Indians and buttress the taking of their lands in the process of state building. In the Seminole Wars in Florida, for example, the Indian attacks were not indiscriminate, but focused on those military leader such as Major Francis Dade who had played a major role in abusing them and in violating previously agreed upon treaty commitments. Not all soldiers were proud of this violation of the Indians rights. As late as the Mexican War in the 1840s some army veterans of many years recalled that their greatest act of shame was their role in dragging the Indians from the southeastern United States along the Trail of Tears to the southwestern territories.
A good case can be made that, ironically, the South, once a bastion of the militia, peoples war tradition, had developed a group of military leaders so enamored of Southern prowess in standing army European warfare strategies during the War for Southern Independence that it lost touch with the secret of the regions earlier success. A few southern commanders it is true practiced a kind of brutal, irregular, partisan warfare but this was a far cry from the idea of peoples war in the American Revolution. Among the Souths leaders, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, the Vice President of the Confederacy, perhaps best understood that the Norths victory presaged the triumph of the forces of centralization and Empire. Nothing demonstrated this any better than the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic lining up for decades to receive their patronage.
But apologists for the South tend rather glibly to skip over whether, if that region had been allowed to depart the Union peacefully, it would not also have followed a path of centralization and Empire. Sustaining the slave system would have meant an increased state repressive apparatus which was already consuming economic resources prior to 1861. So would silencing critics of the system. Fire Eating states righters apparently saw no contradiction in intervening in Floridas affairs 1861 by sending thugs from nearby Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina to harass those who opposed secession. Finally, the members of the Confederacys commitment to standing armies and interest in an Empire in the Caribbean, suggest that, if left alone, those states, or groups within them, would have soon launched an imperial adventure to expand the slave system into that area to the south.
The standing armys continued role after the Civil War in pushing the Indians on to Reservations also reveals some of the complexities of the nations Indian policy. While the regular army often had commanders who pursued policies of punishment and reprisals, the army also at times kept territorial militia, frustrated from chasing young hooligan braves, and happening upon a peaceful village, from doing the same thing. The governments contradictory policies were evident in Annual Reports such as those written by General Lew Wallace the Governor of New Mexico Territory in the 1880s and author of the novel, Ben Hur. He reported that while the territorial militia was issued old Civil War surplus breech-loading rifles by the War Department with which to police the Indians, the Interior Department was giving the Indians the latest Winchester 73s to help them in their hunting. Given the difference in fire power, I dont believe I would have wanted to serve in that particular militia situation! In any event, the standing army veterans of the Indian Wars would soon find themselves involved in wars for Empire ranging from Cuba to the Philippines, and in which herding people onto reservations, now called concentration camps, as part of a program of benevolent pacification, would appear as American as apple pie.
Technology and the Emergence of the Standing Navy
Despite all the talk about John Paul Jones, the American Revolution and the founding of the American Navy, the real story of the Revolution was the guerrilla war at sea where American privateers took over 1,500 prizes during the six years of the war, the profits from which helped to industrialize New England after the conflict. After the Civil War, however, the nation was urged toward a navy second to none," as theorists like Alfred Thayer Mahan touted seapower as the most important factor in military history.
The emergence of the iron-clad battleship transformed the nature of military procurement and the subsequent development of the militarized economy. Considering that the muzzle-loading Brown Bess musket had held sway for more than a century, the technology of weaponry had been such that government operated arsenals could control the development of such weapons. The technological complexity of the battleship, however, from its steel plate, engines, turrets and advanced cannon, changed everything, and heralded the emergence in both Europe and America of what later came to be known as the military-industrial complex, in which business, the Congress, the Executive and administrative bureaucracies all found a profitable endeavor-the permanent war economy to implement the welfare state.
The American EmpireFrom The Philippines to Vietnam & the Persian Gulf
The decision to annex the Philippines and the subsequent Insurrection there formally launched America into the Empire Game, and resulted in the widespread protests of the Anti-Imperialists after 1898 and for some years afterward. There have been so many American global interventions in the 20th century, a number in the name of Anti-Communism, that it would be impossible to detail here the role of the standing army in all of these imperial adventures.
It is, however, perhaps worth comparing the performance of the standing army in the two great Asian interventions of the last century, some fifty years apart, the Philippines and Vietnam. I am not concerned here with whether the United States ought to have intervened militarily in either situation, which is another question, but rather in comparing the performances of the army in each case. That there were atrocities in both cannot be denied, but what is striking is the success of the army in the Philippines in contrast to the failure of Americas armed forces in Vietnam.
Recent research suggests that the older view espoused by Samuel Huntington and others that the late 19th century army career officer corps was isolated and out of touch with the values of American society was incorrect. The military leadership was well educated and reflected many of the reformist values of the progressive era. In the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico the army instituted a number of reforms in local government, sanitation and education so that many of the Filipinos, even among the Insurrectos, began to cooperate with the American authorities, even before the capture of Emiho Aguinaldo. As this writer will attempt to show in detail at the Mises Institute conference on the presidency in the fall, civilian authorities such as William Howard Taft, in developing colonial policies, actually advocated harsher policies against the Insurgents than did the army. Taft, in particular, had difficulty in working with some of the Filipinos in contrast to some of the army officers.
In Vietnam on the other hand, the armys own scholars have in great detail described a failure in military leadership which serves to demonstrate how far the bureaucratic ethos in the standing army imperial forces had eroded during that roughly fifty-year period. A number of bad policies can be briefly listed, although there is not space here to explore them in detail. The appeal of massive fire power, of bringing to bear the full available technology of war of the militarized American economy, was too strong to withstand so that enormous amounts of bombing and search and destroy missions to take territory replaced the nation building efforts that the army had employed in the Philippines earlier. Where Marines and some civilian groups had begun seemingly successful efforts at nation building, these were called off by leaders like General William Westmoreland in favor of a military approach. The one comparison that held with the Philippines was that civilian planners in Washington such as Robert McNamara and his numbers-crunching whiz kids were more out of touch with reality than some of the more astute of the younger officers in the field, who unsuccessfully advocated other alternatives.
Spending billions of dollars on expensive weaponry replaced analysis of the dynamics of revolutionary peoples war and what might have been learned from either the American Revolution or the Philippine Insurrection was either lost, forgotten or just not published. Bomb em Back to the Stone Age, became an economically expensive slogan that substituted for a policy.
The dry rot of careerism flourished as has been amply documented by the military itself. A one year tour of duty rotating field commands led to higher casualties and the ratio of actual fighting men to personnel was incredibly low. At one point late in 1968 with 536,000 troops in Vietnam, fewer than 80,000 served in infantry battalions and if all other potential combat troops in other services were counted it, would not double that number.
Is it unfair to say that the bureaucratization of the armed forces in Vietnam was a logical culmination of 200 years of the standing army organization, increasingly devoted to an imperial mission where spending more money on everything from weapons to personnel serves as substitute for effectiveness? It appears to this writer that the militarized economy had arrived in force!
Since Vietnam the army has tried a number of reforms ranging from an all-volunteer force, to greater education and the increased use of women, all with the mixed result. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 was hyped as a great victory but we have learned to questions many of the statistics about the accuracy Of missiles, etc., in that conflict. What the Pentagon apparently learned from the Vietnam experience was that control of information-limiting the access of the press-is the most important single ingredient in its approach to modern warfare.
The Volunteer, Standing Army, Imperial Intervention and the Militarized Economy in the 21st Century
During the last decade two development have impacted on the question of the military and its role in American life; the collapse Communism and overall performance of the American economy. Paradoxically, the Congress commitment to pork barrel legislation has proved more of a difficulty in closing military bases than has the Pentagon, and a number of companies have been more than pleased to move away from dependence on military contracts. Ultimately, it all boils down to the question of political power.
As America has emerged as the sole remaining super-power, what has not been questioned is its role as the worlds policeman. The problem which surfaced in Vietnam, the morale of a standing army of conscripts assigned an imperial mission, has seemingly been solved by the adoption of a all-volunteer force. It is at this point that I disagree with those of a theoretical libertarian persuasion who view this as a positive development.
As Classical Republicans long ago understood, standing armies assigned imperial tasks-whether keeping order and stability in the Pax Romana or the Pax Americana as a Marine Corps enlistment poster put it several years ago-have historically tended to become volunteer, mercenary professional forces with all of the problems of careerism and bureaucracy which we witnessed in Vietnam. Finally, those who do the bleeding and dying to defend or expand the Empire, come to feel, not unnaturally, that the Empire owes them something in return, while those who have risen to positions of leadership in that army may come to feel they are better suited to rule than those politicians whom they may see as hopelessly corrupted by the graft within the militarized economy.
Is there any way out of this dilemma? I believe that there is, based primarily on Classical Republican theory and the evidence of contemporary history which confirms it. There are at present three nations which follow the Classical precept that citizenship is inexorably interwoven with defense of the community; Switzerland, Israel, and Singapore which has been trained by the Israelis.
Is there anyone who doubts the economic viability of these three small countries? Granted, Israel is a special case as Alvin Rabushka has repeatedly pointed, because despite considerable entrepreneurship, American aid-free money-has been the major factor in sheltering the socialist policies of the Histadrut from the influence of market forces.
A study of tiny Nepal some years ago by a former State Department Foreign Service officer pointed out that while the U.S. and the Soviet Union wasted billions in a Cold War battle of ineffective aid? projects there, both Switzerland and Israel operated successful programs which actually helped the Nepalese people. Service in those kinds of people to people, and not government to government, programs falls within the Classical Republican paradigm of functioning citizenship. Women need not seek some kind of Amazonian egalitarianism by accompanying the men on the military battlefield.
A major problem for business in such citizen based forces is training a sufficient number of middle managers while some are off on military duty as I learned a few years ago from a McDonalds executive in southeast Asia as many Singaporean managers were often off on maneuvers with their Israeli trainers. This was, however, viewed as a small price to maintain their liberty.
Contrast this, as I have recounted elsewhere, with my experience in Washington a few years ago, when offered the opportunity to share some of these ideas with some of the National Security managers. They simply werent interested!
On the other hand, I believe that the time is ripe for Americans to reconsider some alternatives to the volunteer, standing army, imperial strike force which has been developing in this country since the American Revolution. To do that, one has to raise questions about Empire as well as the imperial mission of our present standing army.
For further articles and studies, please see OnPower.org.
William Marina was a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.