Monday, March 24, 2008


As the American death toll in Iraq topped 4,000 just on the heels of the 5th anniversary of the start of the war, Vice President Cheney had this to say:
The president carries the biggest burden, obviously . . . He's the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans, but we are fortunate to have a group of men and women, the all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm's way for the rest of us.
The bit about the burden on President Bush relative to the troops and their families is simply too preposterous to discuss, but the invocation of the volunteer nature of our military force merits a few words. Cheney's point in using both the adjective and adverb form of "volunteer" seems to be something like this: Don't feel too bad for the dead, the wounded, the traumatized, and the merely extremely disrupted. They knew what they were getting into. Very nice.

But there is also a serious point here too, and it connects, albeit obliquely, to the Second Amendment. There is no doubt that a core concern of the Anti-Federalists and others who fretted over Congressional power to arm---and therefore potentially disarm---the state militias, was their fear of a standing army. Militias composed of citizen-soldiers, Founding Era mythology asserted, would defend liberty, while standing armies of conscripts and mercenaries could become an agent of tyranny. There is disagreement about exactly who got to retain control of their weapons and when---that's what the Heller case is about---but no serious historical question that the fear of standing armies was a standard view in the Founding generation.

Whether that view was warranted even in those days is an open question. Yes, the Minutemen fired the shot heard 'round the world, but it was the Continental Army---eventually a band of seasoned full-timers---who won the Revolutionary War (with help from the French). George Washington was constantly complaining about the militiamen who periodically came under his command.

These days things are more complicated. Our national armed forces includes nationalized units of the state militias, and all are volunteers. We pay our soldiers, sailors and marines, but not enough to warrant the conclusion that they are "mercenaries" in the way that the term was used (and dreaded) in the Eighteenth Century. Thus, it's probably fair to say that, in virtue of their volunteer status, our modern armed forces come reasonably close to the bulwark against
tyranny that the Founders thought the state militias would be. And it's true that we have absolutely no reason to fear that our armed forces could be used against us in the way that, for example, the people of Tibet or even parts of China that are principally ethnically Chinese have to worry about the PLA.

But the Founders weren't worried about standing armies only because they feared a standing army would tyrannize the domestic population. They also feared that a standing army without sufficient connection to the mass of the people would be used by political leaders to entangle the nation in foreign wars. A volunteer force was an antidote to this problem because service would be nearly universal (at least among adult white men). What the Founders did not contemplate was a volunteer force that was sufficiently small relative to the population that its members could be sent into indefinite foreign adventures without sparking a mass movement of the people.

Posted by Mike Dorf