Summary: We face an expanding list of threats, natural and otherwise. We need new ways to prepare for them. In this, as in so many things, the Founders give us sound advice. Militias can provide a key component of our preparations for almost any threat.
History of the Militia, helping nations for a millennium
Militias have their origins deep in western history, back to the 7th Century Anglo-Saxon fyrd — with military service obligatory for every able-bodied freeman. Membership in the fyrd constituted one of the three “Common Burdens” owned to the King by landowners in 8th century England (plus repair of fortifications and bridges).
The Assize of Arms by Henry II of England (1181).
(1) Whoever holds a knight’s fee must have a hauberk and helmet and shield and lance, and all knights should have as many hauberks and helmets and shields and lances as they have knights’ fees within their lordship.
(2) Whichever free laymen who have chattels or rent of 16 marks should have a hauberk and helmet and shield and lance; whichever free layman has chattels or rent of 10 marks must have a light hauberk [aubergel], an iron cap and a lance.
(3) Likewise all burgesses and the whole body of free men must have a gambeson [wambais], an iron cap and a lance.
(4) To that end everyone must swear an oath before the Feast of St Hilary [Jan 13] that they will have these arms and will carry them faithfully for our lord king Henry, son of the Empress Matilda, and that he will be armed according to this order in allegiance to our lord king and his realm. ….
(10) Also let justices cause to be said in every county through which they travel, if any does not have arms in accordance with this order, the king shall take his life and limbs and not only his land and chattels. …
Note the fourth section. Militias have an inherently problematic loyalty to the central Government. Unfortunately, having them swear an oath might not guarantee loyalty and obedience in today’s secular culture. Swear to whom in an atheist culture?
The history of militia in post-medieval Britain and later America has two themes. First, growing central control. Second, militias were seen as a “constitutional force” to guarantee liberty, as a counter-balance against the State’s standing army.
Militias have given great service to America. They were the only defense for Britain’s North America colonies. After the Revolution, militias formed the basis of America’s voluntary mobilization system. They provided the majority of defenders until after the Spanish-American War. For example, in the late 1850’s American had approximately 75 thousand uniformed militia – all self-financed. Drawn from a population of under 30 million, that’s equivalent to approximately 820 thousand today.
Other than the occasional war, our 19th Century militia served in much the same way as our present National Guard, providing valuable help during national disasters and civil disturbances. The modern National Guard was created with the Militia Act of 1903, replacing militia. But there is still a role for a militia.
Create an American militia for the 21st Century
Although few realize it, we have militias today. From US Code: Title 10 – Armed Forces; Subtitle A – General Military Law; Part I – Organization and General Military Powers; Chapter 13 – The Militia (source here).
(a) The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States and of female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard.
(b) The classes of the militia are –
• the organized militia, which consists of the National Guard and the Naval Militia; and
• the unorganized militia, which consists of the members of the militia who are not members of the National Guard or the Naval Militia.
What does an “unorganized militia” look like? Their key characteristics …
- armed forces loyal to the State, under its central control, who have some training;
- part-time volunteers authorized to bear and use arms at the direction of the State;
- operating with some degree of self-organization and local control;
- drawn from and operating in a community, able to mobilize quickly when and as needed (like the Minute Men);
- a trained and armed force intermediate between the police and National Guard.
Twenty States already have militias, but most lack a meaningful role. Many police forces have “reserves” (e.g., New York City Police Department Auxiliary Police). At the lower end, there are loosely organized training programs (e.g., FEMA’s CERT). The legal and historical framework exists to rebuilt militia into an effective tool for America, on a larger scale than any of these used today.
Properly used, militia have unique strengths.
Militia can defend the United States by mobilizing the strong social cohesion of our local communities. That is, defending their communities against natural disasters and civil unrest. As America becomes more diverse, with less social cohesion, bouts of civil unrest (so frequent in US history) will become more severe.
Militias are an intermediary measure: trained, local, and available in large numbers. The National Guard are a heavy-handed response, both “foreign” and military to a community. Police are too few – if their numbers are increased to handle peak demands, they tend to become either corrupt or intrusive during normal times (Proverbs 16:27: “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”). Militias are cheaper than either.
Militias are self-organizing to some degree (local volunteers under local leaders), although not self-supported or self-training.
If given concealed carry permits, a militia can put more trained and armed citizens on the streets.
When protecting their homes, a militia can display resilience under horrific circumstances. Like that of the elderly and boys defending Berlin from the Russians in the closing days of WWII. They fought as determinedly as the Wehrmacht’s professionals did at Stalingrad (the standard for elite troops in the annals of world history).
Trusted by and familiar with their community, members of a militia can operate more effectively under many circumstances than National Guard units. They can be trusted by the community, with greater ability than strangers to use force when and to the degree necessary. That is, they have the ability to use appropriate force while retaining public confidence.
Militias are, of course, no panacea. They have weaknesses different from those of police and National Guard.
- Local organization and control inevitably creates wide variation in unit quality – and corruption.
- Standardization might prove difficult to achieve in key aspects, such as recruitment, doctrine, equipment, and training. Especially if militias are financed by local governments or their own members.
- Focus and seriousness often prove difficult to maintain in militias, as most units will see little or no action. Nineteenth Century militias often degenerated into social clubs.
- They lack the training and experience of police and the National Guard (although many will be veterans). Rivalries among the three groups can prove disastrous.
What can an American militia do during an emergency?
What will they do during an emergency? We already have local police, state police, National Guard, Federal law enforcement agencies (such as the FBI and ATF), State and Federal disaster response organizations (e.g. FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and even the Reserve and Regular military. Plus a host of international and non-governmental agencies. Their fast-response manpower could play a vital role (e.g., in a natural or man-made disaster).
Does it help to add another organization to this mix during a disaster? Militias need not have their own command and control hierarchy. They could be limited to providing manpower to work under the direction of other organizations. To the extent that militias includes people with a wide range of skills (e.g., engineers, health care, construction), they could provide essential help. But in many situations, unskilled but disciplined manpower makes the difference.
The debate about the utility of militias goes back to the Revolution. Since George Washington, American army officers have believed that militias not directly under their control could not be relied upon in combat (somethings they were right, sometimes wrong). On the other hand, the National Guard of the Cold War era, equipped and trained for combat, proved unprepared to deal with the urban riots of the 1960’s. Militias provide a third tool for our leaders.
A militia consists of armed citizens, not police or soldiers. Restraint when using force is a discipline resulting from training and experience, both probably in short supply among militia. On the other hand, members of SWAT are highly trained, yet the large number of lawsuits proving excessive force shows the intractable nature of this problem.
Politics of Militia
Militia units have been and again could become important social and political groups, supporting goals unrelated to their stated purpose. Their leadership positions could become steppingstones for local politicians, or adornments for the résumés of prominent citizens. Local militias could become powerful political tools if organized upon ethnic, creed, or ideology lines.
To the extent they have any paid support staff, militias become opportunities for patronage – as does any large local operations. Their budgets would become rewards in the local, state, and national government contractor sweepstakes.
Like every other entity in America, we can expect militias to attract well-meaning social engineers seeking to train the New American Men and Women – and so become enmeshed in America’s racial-ethnic-gender battles. Effectiveness might become secondary to their Political Correctness. In strictly military terms, the ability to recruit and train – even unit cohesion – might suffer trade-offs vs. political and social constraints. Imagine the requirements for ethnic diversity and the proper role of women.
We might see the cruel logic of evolution in action. In an age of active 4GW, perhaps communities with good militias survive while other communities suffer.
Militia as a nucleus for vigilantes
Armed forces of the State – military and police, both regular and reserve – are rigorously indoctrinated against “inappropriate” activities and loyalties. Governments also keep them under tight supervision and control. This will be more difficult to achieve with members of a militia. What that might mean in the context of American society?
A strong militia, like the best of the 19th Century, with quality volunteers and competent elected leaders, could be effective – but become controlled by its leaders and membership, independent of elected officials. There are few precedents in American history for rebellion, but there is a long tradition of local citizen-run law enforcement. These kind of social activists are called vigilante committees (quite different than lone vigilantes).
The danger of vigilantism exists when we face threats that our national elites do not choose to recognize, let alone engage. During the 19th century, America’s leaders ignored the need for law and order on our large frontier, forcing people to act on their own. Canada learned from our sorry example, extending the reach of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other governing institutions as the frontier grew.
To mention just one of today’s so far unrecognized threats, note the flow of criminals, terrorists, and what we might call “undesirables” across our open borders. This occurs at considerable cost, mostly unreported in the national media, to those living on the border. In many inner cities crime is common and police are not trusted – ideal conditions for vigilante committees.
Also, major events might spark local forces to act to defend their community in the absence of or in defiance of instructions from the lawful higher authorities (there was some of this after Katrina hit New Orleans). The strong internal cohesion and ties to the local community that make militias effective can easily lead them into vigilantism.
Militias are an attractive tool, providing support during emergencies and as an alternative to the growth of police (both public and private). They allow a fast and flexible response to a community’s crisis, without the cost and complexity of large-scale mobilization of police and Guard units. They can help communities become more resilient, and less dependent (in fact and psychology) on big distant government institutions.
They provide a new means to encourage civic involvement – a worthy goal by itself. We face unknown threats in the next decade. Inexpensive ways to help should be explored. Ron Fogleman (General, USAF, retired) made the case well in “Going Back to the Future” at Defense News , 16 January 2012 – “Militia Model Could Cut U.S. Expenditures.” Brilliant, frequented cited, but no longer online.
“In its current form, the force has become unaffordable…Nonetheless; our nation deserves a modern, balanced and ready defense. The big question is, how does the department reduce its budget and continue to provide a modern, balanced and ready defense when more than half of the budget is committed to personnel costs? …The answer to that question is right before us: We should return to our historic roots as a militia nation. …we should return to the constitutional construct for our military and the days when we maintained a smaller standing military and a robust militia. …This concept worked well for our country for the better part of two centuries. …We need our collective senior military and civilian leaders to recognize there is a way back to a smaller active military and a larger militia posture. The fiscal environment and emerging threats demand it.”
Since WWII the National Guard has become more like a military than a militia. See “Demystifying the Citizen Soldier” by Raphael S. Cohen at RAND (2015).
Others have also proposed building a militia.
William Lind proposed a militia in his “Strategic Defense Initiative” (November 2004).
Also see “Home Guard“ by Lawrence Korb, Democracy (Spring 2008). Korb is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP) and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information(CDI). He served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration. See my post about it.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- We are alone in the defense of the Republic.
- Who can we trust to defend our liberty? Will our culture’s rot spread to the military?
- How can we arouse a passion to reform America in the hearts of our neighbors?
- Is grassroots organizing a snare or magic bullet for the reform of America?
About America’s early militia
“Myths and Realities of the American Revolution.”
By John R. Galvin (General, US Army, retired).
From the publisher …
“The concept of the farmer and shopkeeper pulling rifles off pegs on the wall to fight the British has been the typical image of the American minuteman. The fact that he may have had military training and drilled – and that April 19, 1775 was not his first battle – usually goes unmentioned. Winner of the American Revolution Round Table Award, The Minute Men will be of keen interest to those curious about the true history of some of America’s first soldiers.”