Standing armies are full-time professional soldiers employed by the state to defend a country and attack other countries. They are largely an modern phenomenon, making their first appearance with the Fekete sereg (Black Army) of Hungary from 1458 to 1490, which started at approximately 8,000 soldiers but swelled to 30,000 as Hungary engaged invasions of Austria and Bohemia. As a prophetic warning, it was eventually abolished when the king, Vladislas II, realised he could no longer afford to pay for such a force. In the Ottoman Empire, the Janissaries, instituted sometime in the mid-fourteenth century, were also a standing army, used to replace tribal ghazi whose loyalty and training was often suspect. Adam Smith correctly remarked that standing armies are a sign of modern society, as such warfare requires increased skill (especially technical skill), and loyalty to country-wide authorities. However he incorrectly asserts "A well-regulated standing army is superior to every militia" and "... it is only by means of a well regulated standing army that a civilised country can be defended, so it is only by means of it that a barbarous country can be suddenly and tolerably civilised." (Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Chapter 1, Part 1).
Whilst Smith does recognise that standing armies have been a threat to liberty (citing Caeser's army against the Roman Republic and Cromwell's army used to purge dissenting opinion in the Long Parliament), Smith's argues in favour of standing armies on two economic claims. The first is that the cost "... of defending the society from the violence and injustice of other independent societies" increases with technical progress and the sudden possibility of war, requiring a state of constant alertness. The second is that the technical equipment itself is more expensive: "A musket is a more expensive machine than a javelin or a bow and arrows; a cannon or a mortar than a balista or a catapulta" (ibid). However these arguments are false on the very economic premises that Smith raises them. As has been increasingly shown, the cost of standing armies is greater than that of a regulated militia. The second is that, in terms of its capacity to defend and to inflict casualties upon enemies, the gun is less expensive than the javelin. It is very odd that Smith argued the opposite as it goes against the entire principle of his magnum opus.
An related and oft-overlooked factor in considering standing armies is that they are orientated towards aggressive wars, whether this is via invasion or, in the perverse and distorted language, "forward defense". Competitive states engage in a pursuit of natural resources against others for ownership and control of said resources for their own ruling class. It is the State's armed forces that raised the existential risk of planetary life through nuclear weapons, or with technologies designed specifically for invasion such as strategic bombers, aircraft carriers etc. As a result of an telic orientation towards invading technologies, wars between standing armies increasingly cause non-combatant casualties.
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism." Major General Smedley Butler, the highest ranking and most decorated United States Marine, in Common Sense, 1935
Standing armies are not, of course, the only armed section of the State; police agents and their agencies, are empowered to enforce law and order. In preventative and public uniformed roles, or investigative and detective roles, their functions include the executing of criminal investigation and law and well as public by-laws and regulations. Again, this is a largely modern institution with institutions with contemporary equivalence being first established by the French monarch Louis XIV in 1667 to police Paris and the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, established by the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel.
As with standing armies, the equipment used by modern police forces is increasingly expensive and requires additional training, but provides greater effectiveness. Nevertheless it must be emphasised that this equipment largely lacks the capacity to engage in aggressive invasions of a military nature. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this was the attempted use of large numbers of militia forces by the U.S. government in their invasion of Canada in 1812. Even today specialised police forces with the most advanced equipment (e.g., Special Weapons and Tactics) could be re-orientated, at best, 'commando style' raids. All lack the mechanised (this is despite occasional uses of armoured personnel vehicles etc) expression of the invading standing army. Instead, police forces "invade" their own (unarmed) population, in accordance to the laws of the land and the spirit of maintaining the existing order, even if apparently at times the two accords conflict.
With increasing technological capacity for surveillance, aided by both despotic and democratic governments orientated towards popularism rather than principles of the rights of the citizen, increasingly police forces are used against victimless crimes (c.f., Peter McWilliams, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country, 1996) resulting with additional expenses in incarceration and, ironically, empowerment of criminal syndicates. Further, the capacity of the population in removing authoritarian governments in power becomes increasingly difficult as the State establishes, for itself, a monopoly on violence (Gewaltmonopol des Staates, cf., Max Weber, Politics As A Vocation, 1919). Revolutionary attempts to overthrow authoritarian governments are opposed, in the final instance, rarely by soldiers, but instead usually by the police acting as the 'palace guard' of the State and ruling class.
The Civilian Militia Alternative
Supporters of the state monopoly on violence suggest, in the absence of the total adoption of pacifistic principles, individuals and groups will inevitably use violence to assert their will creating an anarchy, in the sense of 'no rules'. But that is not the sort of anarchy that an isocratic approach suggests which argues instead towards the 'no rulers' interpretation, a government that is limited its role to managing the public sphere, and is prohibited in its intervention in the self-regarding and consensual activities of free citizens. This has special implications for the technological development, organisation and use of weapons.
The appropriate organisational model for a classless, stateless, but organised society is the militia, the armed citizenry. This does not mean the militsiya of the former Communist states of the Eastern Bloc or Yugoslavia where, often despite their origins, were transformed into the equivalent of regional police in a class society. Nor does it mean the fascist milice of the French Vichy regime which also carried out the role of a police force against the population. Finally, nor does it mean a small, non-representative portion of the population or 'select militia' or 'self-appointed' militia, that occasionally makes its appearance among extreme separatist and religious cults.
Instead, what is meant is a trained, voluntary and well-regulated democratic and federal force that has more in common with the the tradition of the ancient Norse leidang and Anglo-Saxon fyrd, the cantonal troops of the Old Swiss Confederation (which is retained, albeit only in part, in the contemporary Swiss military), the Russian Narodnoe Opolcheniye, the militia of the American revolution and the period of the Articles of Confederation immediately subsequent and, in more contemporary times, French francs-tireursand résistants and the Timorese FALINTIL. Such organisations have shown on successive times in history that their capacity, local knowledge and morale in resistance and defense is exceptional; but their ability to wage an aggressive war is hopeless - this is a virtue.
Some key characteristics can be derived from this initial sketch.
Firstly, the defensive characteristics of standing armies, and the prevention of criminal violence is incorporated into the civilian militia, along with the capacity to deal with natural emergencies etc.
Secondly, the invasive characteristics and mechanised military of standing armies and the state terrorism and surveillance of the police is excluded.
Thirdly, the organisational principles of a civilian militia is prone to growth, both within a community governed by such force of arms and without; if a neighbouring state is engaging in suppression of its own people then the solution is to arm the people of that country, not to invade the country.
At risk of losing seriousness by utilising a reference from contemporary avant-popular culture, the argument for a civilian militia was put quite succinctly in the comic series turned movie by Allan Moore, "V for Vendetta". Indeed it possibly has never been expressed so well:
People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.
NB: This article was written after the letter to Minister Fitzgibbon was sent (follows). The first four comments refer to the letter.
Dear Mr Fitzgibbon,
I understand that you are having some problems with the Department of Defense, which as Minister you are responsible for.
For those who can read between the lines in the recent article published in the Sydney Morning Herald ("Defence leaks dirt file on own minister", March 26) can see that there are a number of individuals who, overstepping their own jurisdiction, are engaging in spying of an Australian citizen with a view of generating salacious rumours to discredit your authority.
Evidently any attempt to reform the Department of Defense will be met with extreme opposition. The more than you attempt to reform the Department the greater the resistance and rumour-mongering which will be damaging among simple minds to both yourself and the Labor government.
There is an alternative however, one that thinks outside the square and should be unexpected by those who dislike their nest being disturbed by democratically elected officials such as yourself.
Abolish the Department of Defense.
The question ought to be raised; does Australia actually need a standing army? Could not the defense functions be carried out by a regulated civilian militia instead? Could our obligations to international peace-keeping forces be established through the same?
I refer you to the comments by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on the dangers of standing armies and their alternative.
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to future President James Monroe:
"The Greeks and Romans had no standing armies, yet they defended themselves. The Greeks by their laws, and the Romans by the spirit of their people, took care to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army. Their system was to make every man a soldier, and oblige him to repair to the standard of his country whenever that was reared. This made them invincible; and the same remedy will make us so."
Hamilton wrote in the Daily Advertiser (1788):
"If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the State is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions. [A citizen's militia] appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it."
I also refer to the actions taken by José Figueres Ferrer of Costa Rica who, as the head of military junta after a dispute election, gave blacks citizenship, women the vote, re-established a democratic constitution, abolished military rule and abolished the military. Not surprisingly, Costa Rica has been one Latin American country that has not suffered any other military coups.
Likewise, the fascinating account of how Switzerland, through a civilian militia system, avoided invasion when standing armies failed (See: Stephen Halbook, "Swiss and the Nazis: How the Alpine Republic Survived in the Shadow of the Third Reich", 2006).
Finally, I refer you also to the essay by Robert Higgs, "The Living Reality of Military-Economic Fascism" (http://mises.org/story/2450), published on the von Mises Institute website last year which explores how "military interests" distort democratic processes through contracts and donations.
I urge you Minister, to give serious consideration to these matters. Australia can lead by example with a policy of peaceful armed neutrality.
Abolish the Department of Defense.
Commenting on this Page will be automatically closed on June 16, 2009.