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The American Citizen as Soldier

A Solution Whose Time Has Come?

The Founding Fathers wanted America defended by a small professional military and a large people’s militia. Today, that idea seems as quaint as the horse cavalry, and about as practical.
And yet . . . it’s coming back. Two new books, both by well-left-of-center authors, sketch the military and political rationales for a citizen-based post Cold War military.

And conservatives, who far too often equate a strong defense with throwing money at the Pentagon, would do well to consider an alternative, based upon military realities and faithful to the Founders’ intent.

In “The Minuteman: Restoring an Army of the People,” former Democratic Senator Gary Hart calls for drastic (too drastic) cuts in the active Army and greater reliance on the National Guard and service reserves. His book is more a political manifesto than a nuts-and-bolts military restructuring plan. But his logic is evocative.

The Founders, as every schoolperson used to know, hated standing armies. They had their reasons. One, the least important, was fear of military dictatorship. Another had something to do with the alleged propensity of men on horseback to be always riding off somewhere: a danger only slightly more real in America than the threat of a military coup. Tocqueville long ago observed that in a democracy the greatest pacifists are the generals. And those who’ve been to the World of Hurt tend not to return too eagerly.

These fears amount to little more than 18th century hot-button issues. But the Founders, who’d recently fought an eight-year war and who harbored no illusions about the military limitations of citizen soldiers, preferred the militia arrangement for two more positive reasons. One was, as Hart points out, that military service gives the citizenry a personal stake in foreign policy. Reliance on the Guard provides a de facto “people’s veto” on unwise adventures undertaken by the civilian leadership. If the government lacks sufficient political support to call forth the armed citizenry–and have them show up–then the government’s reasons are either inadequate or inadequately explained.

Further, the Founders knew that the militias could serve as “deliberative” bodies. Members would discuss the issues and their experiences; their thoughts would flow to the federal military and the Congress. Hart summarizes:

QUOTE “The purpose of an army of the people is to rescue ideas and ideals from those who distort them. But, even more, its purpose is to link the citizens of the United States more closely to the foreign policy of their country and to the decisions regarding deployment of U.S. military forces by giving them a greater and more immediate burden in sharing in the national defense.” QUOTE

The second book, this one by a Yale law professor and an attorney-turned-journalist, places the People’s military function within a larger Constitutional context. In “For the People: What the Constitution Really Says about Your Right,” Akhil Reed Amar and Alan Hirsch assert that:

QUOTE “In our view, both liberals and conservatives are wrong to see almost all constitutional rights as individualistic in nature. We the People can lay claim to a bountiful harvest of constitutional rights, but many of these belong to us less as private individuals entitled to be left alone than as public citizens entitled to act together.” QUOTE The three major collective rights of self-governance: “to vote (in elections, to fight (in militias), and to judge (on juries).” QUOTE

If this is so, the authors argue, then exclusion from military service must be based upon constitutionally-acceptable grounds, not military preference or administrative convenience. (Read here: women in combat and gays in uniform.) Sometimes their reasoning approaches the silly, for example in their argument that women should serve in combat so they can run for office later as heroes. But their basic argument–that military service should be reconceived as a vital aspect of citizenship and a right collectively

exercised–is valid.

But would it work?

Gary Hart, in his enthusiasm for the citizen soldiery, perhaps overpromises. Amar and Hirsch contend that the right to serve must be held at the federal level; the genuine citizen soldiery, to them, is obsolete. In this, they’re far more wrong than Gary Hart.

There is no inherent reason why citizen soldiers, properly trained and equipped, cannot function effectively across the spectrum of military operations. The Marines, the Air National Guard, and the Air Force Reserve have shown how much citizen soldiers can accomplish, especially when their parent services want them to succeed. The Pentagon’s Total Force Policy demands full integration of active and reserve forces. It has to. Today, the regular establishment depends heavily upon the citizen soldiery . . . more heavily than perhaps it would care to admit. This dependence can only increase as defense budgets stagnate.

And there is another reason, as yet dimly perceived. High technology empowers the citizen soldier. New training gizmos make possible unprecedented levels of skill maintenance. Civilian and military technologies converge. And there is a concept kicking around the Pentagon known as “The Gift of Time”–that if you stop an enemy attack very quickly with air power, you buy precious weeks to mobilize and train-up the Guard and reserves.

The Founding Fathers would approve.