The Dangers of a Standing Army

[This article was originally published on March 4, 2013 at Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.]  

Jacob G. Hornberger – October 5, 2018

Consider why our American ancestors opposed a standing army for our nation:

James Madison: “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

Patrick Henry: “A standing army we shall have, also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny; and how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment?”

Henry St. George Tucker in Blackstone’s 1768 Commentaries on the Laws of England: “Wherever standing armies are kept up, and when the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”

Commonwealth of Virginia in 1788: “… that standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.”

Pennsylvania Convention: “… as standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to and be governed by the civil power.”

U.S. State Department website: “Wrenching memories of the Old World lingered in the 13 original English colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America, giving rise to deep opposition to the maintenance of a standing army in time of peace. All too often the standing armies of Europe were regarded as, at best, a rationale for imposing high taxes, and, at worst, a means to control the civilian population and extort its wealth.”

Now, consider the following statement by former U.S. soldier Kayla Williams in an op-ed in last Friday’s Guardian:

A decade ago, I took part of the initial invasion of Iraq…. I didn’t support the war…. The reasons for invading Iraq seemed disingenuous, at best. But as a soldier, it was not my place to decide: our democratically elected civilian government chooses how to employ the military.

Williams’ mindset reflects perfectly the military mindset — the mindset of standing armies. The soldier obeys orders. When the president orders his military to attack a country that has never attacked the United States, the troops will faithfully and obediently comply. The soldier will do what the president orders him to do.

The oath that the soldier takes to support and defend the Constitution is actually a sham. As Williams’ statement points out, when the president issues an order the soldier isn’t going to reflect on whether the order is constitutional or not. The soldier’s job, in his mind, is simply to obey the president and carry out his orders.

Thus, as a practical matter the soldier’s supreme loyalty is to the president, his commander in chief, not the Constitution. The soldier has convinced himself that carrying out the president’s orders is equivalent to supporting and defending the Constitution.

Keep in mind, after all, that the Constitution requires the president to secure a declaration of war from Congress as a prerequisite to waging war. No declaration, no war. The president never secured a congressional declaration of war against Iraq, and every soldier, including Williams, knew that. Nonetheless, no soldier refused the president’s order to invade Iraq. Every one of them faithfully carried out the orders to invade, and many of them killed and maimed Iraqi citizens who dared to resist the aggression against their country.

Most everyone knows that the primary reason that our American ancestors insisted on the passage of the Second Amendment was to ensure against tyranny. The right to keep and bear arms would enable Americans to resist tyranny with force rather than meekly accept the inevitable.

Americans didn’t trust the federal government that they were calling into existence with the Constitution. That’s why the Constitution limits the federal government to a relative few enumerated powers. It’s also why the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the federal government from depriving people of fundamental rights and why four different amendments require long-established procedural protections before federal officials can do bad things to people.

But how many Americans give careful thought to what tyranny actually means and how it is carried out? I’d venture very few. That’s because people don’t want to confront what is a very discomforting thought: that a tyrannical regime uses its standing army to carry out and enforce its tyranny. Yes, I’m referring to the troops, the people that so many Americans have come to idolize and praise almost as if they were a big brother within their families.

Could a scenario ever arise whereby the president would use the military to carry out orders against Americans that would rise to the level of tyranny?

What we know is that U.S. presidents, the Pentagon, and the CIA have long supported, defended, and trained tyrannical regimes, in the name of protecting “national security.”

For example, there was the Pinochet military dictatorship, which the U.S. national-security state helped install into power. With the full support of the Pentagon and the CIA, Pinochet used his troops, which faithfully and obediently followed his orders, to round up tens of thousands of people, torture them, abuse them, and execute and assassinate thousands of them.

There was the series of military dictatorships that the CIA helped install into power in Guatemala, where Guatemalan troops, many of whom had been trained by the U.S. military, faithfully carried out the orders of their superiors, torturing and massacring hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans who were resisting the tyranny.

There was the Shah of Iran, a brutal dictator who was reinstalled into power by the CIA, and whose national intelligence/police force was trained by the CIA in the art of torture.

There are the decades of military and financial aid provided the brutal military dictatorship in Egypt under military strongman Hosni Mubarak, whose troops and intelligence forces worked closely with both the Pentagon and the CIA.

Thus, U.S. presidents, the Pentagon, and the CIA have had no reservations about supporting, defending, and training foreign tyrannical regimes. In fact, they don’t even consider them to be tyrannies. Instead, the support and defense of such regimes has always been considered to be part and parcel of “working with our partners and allies in the defense of national security.” As Williams points out in her op-ed, the soldier’s job is to obey the orders of his president, not determine the rightness of them or their constitutionality.

The danger, of course, is some big crisis by which the president feels the need to protect “national security” by doing the types of things that those U.S.-supported tyrannical regimes have done to their citizenry. If that were to happen, make no mistake about it: The troops will loyally and obediently obey the president’s orders, especially when he tells them that “national security” is at stake.  Few, if any, of them is going to question the constitutionality of such orders at the height of a major crisis any more than they did the president’s order to invade Iraq.

While Americans are rightfully concerned with out-of-control federal spending, in large part owing to the enormous burden of sustaining the vast military establishment and all its activities, Americans would be wise to reflect upon and reevaluate the fateful decision to abandon the founding principles of our nation with respect to standing armies. That’s the national debate that is needed most of all.


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