The right wing went apoplectic at the skepticism that greeted Gen.
David Petraeuss recent testimony about the alleged success of
the military escalation in Iraq. It was as though a member of the
military was incapable of engaging in spin to support his commander
in chiefs war policy. President Bush summed up this attitude
revealingly when he said it was one thing to attack him, but quite
another to question General Petraeus. War, Clausewitz noted, is politics
by other means. That makes high-ranking generals a species of politician.
Not a few have harbored presidential thoughts, and some have made
it. It is said that Petraeus would like to be another. These are the
people the pro-war conservatives are willing to trust implicitly?
(Anti-war members of the armed forces, on the other hand, are, in
Rush Limbaughs words, phony soldiers.)
It is unappreciated today that an earlier American culture was anti-militarist.
classic study The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American
Tradition (1956), historian Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. wrote, The
tradition of antimilitarism has been an important factor in the shaping
of some two hundred years of American history.
This tradition, Ekirch notes, stretched back to England, where until
century the militia, not a standing army, provided defense and was
unsuited to aggressive war. This attitude was carried to the New World,
where subordination of military to civil power became the cardinal
principle it was in England.
Anti-militarism colored much political thinking as the new country
took shape. The
Pennsylvania constitution declared a peacetime standing army a danger
to liberty [and] ought not to be kept up. All state constitutions
contained language subordinating military to civil authority. The
Declaration of Independence criticized the standing army and military
independence. The Articles of Confederation, Americas first
constitution, withheld from Congress the power to create a peacetime
army (although attempts to expressly forbid its creation were unsuccessful
in the rush to submit the Articles to the states for approval).
The Revolutionary War itself did not change the American attitude
in a pro-military
direction; Ekirch reported that states had trouble getting the required
number of militiamen. When conscription was resorted to, it was not
well received. Those who did don the uniform hardly exhibited the
After the Revolution, the conservative aristocracy that had emerged
during the Colonial period wanted a strong central state with a powerful
army. But the radical liberals of the day wanted a decentralized power
structure and a militia. A standing army was anathema its potential
for domestic oppression was too well known. The idea of any
sort of a regular army in peacetime at once met with strong opposition
in Congress, Ekirch wrote.
James Monroe and Richard Henry Lee warned of the danger to liberty,
and Benjamin Franklin worried that a soldiers training made
him accepting of war.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the suspicion of the military
led to the
separation of the power of the commander in chief from the power to
declare and finance war. (This has proven to be a weak protection
against executive warmaking.) It was said of Convention delegate George
Mason, He was for clogging rather than facilitating war; but
for facilitating peace.
Although James Madison was a leader of the centralists, he warned,
A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will
not long be safe companions to liberty.
The anti-militarists won only partial victories in the Convention,
subordination of the military to the civilian authority. During the
debates over the
proposed Constitution, some of the writers known as Anti-Federalists
railed against the standing army. Centinel proclaimed
it that grand engine of oppression. The upshot is that
the conservative fawning over the military displays an attitude that
would have infuriated those first generations of Americans who actually
built this country.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future
of Freedom Foundation, and editor of The Freeman magazine and author
of Ancient History: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East
since World War II and the Folly of Intervention.