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A republic’s shield or tyranny’s sword?

A republic’s shield or tyranny’s sword?
Photo by Patrick Hendry / Unsplash

In the modern world, it is difficult to imagine a nation without a professional standing military force, but throughout history such a force has been considered at odds with the liberty of the people. The debate was far from settled when the United States was founded. While many consider it an absolute necessity today, the standing army has been recognized by many thinkers as the natural precursor to empire, a force that compels the host nation to constantly expand.

As conservatives slowly begin to question the forever wars that our ruling elite have used to waste the blood and treasure of this nation, it is worth stopping to evaluate the role that the maintenance of a large professional fighting force has played in compelling our leaders to seek constant conflict.

The reflexive conservative support of American soldiers is the correct instinct. Volunteering to put oneself in harm’s way to protect the people of your nation is a noble act. The American military has become an almost hereditary warrior caste drawing heavily from red-state populations to man its most effective combat units. It is entirely proper for conservatives to venerate the honorable service of their brothers, neighbors, and children.

One of the main reasons the U.S. armed forces are facing a recruiting crisis is the way that they have demonized and purged the conservative soldiers who traditionally filled the ranks. So as we look at the virtues and dangers of a standing military, let us remember that we are not questioning the honor of those who have so diligently served this nation.

In defense of liberty

Niccolo Machiavelli is best known for “The Prince,” but most people do not realize that the political theorist was not a monarchist. He was, in fact, a staunch supporter of the republican form of government. For Machiavelli, the nature of a state’s military defense was the most important factor in its ability to secure liberty, and he wrote about the subject at length.

Renaissance Italy was plagued by constant warfare between competing city-states, and the regular use of mercenaries created serious problems for Florence, Machiavelli’s home. Repeated betrayal by troops who had no personal ties to the city-state that they served led Machiavelli to conclude that no matter how rich a nation became, it must have a fighting force loyal to the people it protected.

While Machiavelli understood the critical need for armed forces that were personally connected to the state, he warned against the dangers of keeping a professional army in times of peace in his book “The Art of War.” He believed that the ruling class must always fear professional soldiers because those military men have no other means of making money. Large standing armies are extremely expensive, and if they are not constantly deployed abroad to gather spoils or secure trade, the cost of those forces adds up quickly. If a state does not keep its professional troops deployed abroad and has no consistent way to afford to pay them, then idle armed men with no other form of employment will quickly become a threat to the ruling class.

War can also be an excellent way for the ruling class to make money by funneling tax dollars extracted from the populace through defense contractors who are often owned by or are kicking money back to politicians. This means that those in charge of a country with a large professional fighting force always have an incentive to find a new war that makes them money and keeps the bulk of the military occupied in foreign lands. Empire becomes the natural solution to many problems imposed on a ruling class by a standing military.

As an alternative, Machiavelli encourages republics to adopt the citizen militia as the solution to the problem of standing armies. By making every capable citizen a soldier, the republic ensures that its military will be personally loyal to the state, but it also avoids the temptation of constant deployment and conquest.

Militia members are drilled as soldiers, but they maintain civilian occupations that allow them to feed their families and pay their mortgages. When a threat to the nation arises, the militia defends its homeland. But when the danger has passed, militiamen return to their normal lives. There is no need to constantly find money to pay the troops, no reason to regularly keep forces deployed, and no incentive for a lucrative defense industry to grow around the military.

Machiavelli noted that when ancient Rome was a republic, its military was a citizen militia where each citizen provided his own weapons and armor. But as the army became professionalized and men made soldiering their career, the nation inevitably transitioned into an empire.

What the founders thought

America’s founders were also big admirers of the ancient Roman republic and recognized many of the concerns Machiavelli expressed in his writings.

Thomas Jefferson spoke regularly about the threat that standing armies pose to the liberty of a free people, while James Madison and Alexander Hamilton acknowledged these dangers when writing “The Federalist.” While defending the legislative branch’s ability to maintain a standing army in Federalist 24, Hamilton noted that two state constitutions, those of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, had clauses that explicitly warned that standing armies in a time of peace were a danger to liberty.

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