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December 28, 2003

The Men with Guns

In the year 107 BCE the Roman general Gauis Marius began to recruit soldiers into the legions from the "head count" (urban poor) of Rome. Prior to this point the rankers in the legions had been propertied farmers, but due to military catastrophes and the resultant deficits in manpower from this class, property qualifications were waived in the interests of expediency. The new soldiers were men without means who had to be provided for in a more direct fashion by their generals, whether that be in the basics of their arms or long term land distributions. Within two generations Republican Rome was in shambles, and many point to this act by Marius as one of the main catalysts.

When the stakeholders in Roman society fought for their land and their families, there was a counterbalance to the charisma of their generals. Not being dependent on these egotistical men, it would have been beyond the pale of conception that the legions would march against Rome herself in the interests of the army. The army was Rome, and Rome was the army. This point changed in a not so subtle way after 100 BCE, as the Roman armies became stocked by the dispossessed who had little stake in the status quo. The logical end point of the separation between stakeholders and the soldiers who defended them can be seen in the late Roman Empire, at this point, the soldiers of the legions were usually Germans who were led by nominally civilized German generals.

In 1450 the general who led the armies of the Italian city of Milan took power from a Republican government. This was the age of the condottiere, a time when mercenary troupes dominated much of Europe. The Catalan Company can be thought of as an exemplary model for these moving cities of armed men. This was an age of religious wars, and the powerful men who led the soldiers who fought for the glory of gold achieved their apotheosis in the person of Albrecht Wallenstein, officially a hireling and vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor, but a wolf who in many ways overshadowed the Catholic emperor and the Protestant princes who fought him.

This age of mercenary soldiers has been washed away from historical memory by the rise of enormous conscript armies in the service of the industrial state during the 19th century. Coalescence of the nation-state over the past 200 years make the fact that non-citizens can enlist in the United States military surprising to many Americans. The genuine patriotism espoused by many American soldiers makes it easy to forget our military is an enormous professional force. The fact that the United States has demobilized large armed forces several times in its history after the end of military hostilities is a testament to the caution that our political class has often had towards militarization. Since many of the earlier leaders had classical educations, they must surely known of the Roman precedent.

The American military is fast becoming a society apart. Granted, the enlisted men have a high turnover rate, but they tend to come from specific elements of society, more toward the lower socioeconomic end of the ladder, and concentrated among the white Scots-Irish and blacks among our many ethnic groups. It seems likely that the officer corps is now mostly Republican, and some surveys assert that it is 80% Republican.

This moves me to note another point: General Wes Clark was praised by many on the Left for the following statement: "but people who like assault weapons should join the United States Army, we have them." The particular context was the assault weapons ban. Moving away from any position point on this topic, I would like to note that those on the Left often seem to think that only the military should have lethal weapons. On the other hand, I highly doubt that many of those who praised Clark's suggestion for those who liked lethal weapons to join the military would be pleased if any of those they knew actually joined the military! Those who want to disarm this society in my personal experience have a range of feelings toward soldiers that range from confusion to hatred, wich contempt, condescension and simple distaste falling somewhere in the middle. It seems ironic that they should so trust a caste of people who they have little sympathy or empathy for to husband the precious resource of lethal killing power.

I think those those who read the Washington Monthly article G.I. Woe should keep in mind the confused (and sometimes not-so-confused) attitude of the Left toward the military in mind. One of the main critiques that the author makes against the current system of military organization is that it treats soldiers as interchangeable and does not allow for group cohesion. Here is a choice quote:


"When you get down to the unit level, what it means is that for the most part, the formations you are deploying on any given day consist of strangers," says Col. Douglas A. Macgregor, a research fellow at the National Defense University and author of Breaking the Phalanx, a bible for military reform advocates.

From the point of military efficiency, this criticism does make a lot of sense. But keep in mind that group cohesion can cause problems. Roman legions had a common standard, a totem, worshipped gods of the legion together, and often paid into common burial accounts. It became in far-off-lands the closest thing that men had to a family (and in the early days those who enlisted were prevented from officially marrying). The legions revelled in their history, which often they stretched back centuries. These units were in effect small mobile communities united by bonds of common feeling. They were not strangers. But as noted above, these legions often owed personal loyalty to their generals. In the chaotic transitions between dynasties, the legions of the Rhine, or the Danube or Syria would often march together to forward their claimant to the purple, knowing that the new emperor would reward them if he was one of their own. The Praetorian Guard (the emperor's elite personal soldiers) even auctioned the emperorship at one point.

So, a thought experiment, what if American soldiers became attached to their division, and drilled and deployed with the same comrades year after year? I think it is highly plausible that a generally diffused patriotism could be supplemented by a feeling of divisional unity, family, and if officers were assigned to one division over their whole career, the bonds between them and the enlistees would grow even closer.

In sum, you have a professional military which espouses values somewhat at variance with the population at large because of selection bias. You also have an anti-military intellgensia arguing for a strict monopoly of lethal force to be given over to a culture and organization that they have little understanding of, and to some extent loath, feelings that are often reciprocated by the military. Additionally, parts of the intellgensia (those that detest the military the least, granted), are arguing for an increase of group cohesion in the interests of utilitarian outcome.

All this suggests to me that a decline in classical education is having a negative impact on our policy analyzing elite. The model that the Founders used, Republican Rome, give a clear indication of what might come about if all the variables are in place[1]. Examples in contemporary times abound, for instance our ally in the War On Terror, Pakistan, where the military does exist as a separate, and dominant, subculture within the nation.

To my liberal friends, I often say: You want gun control, you want only the military to have guns, a military that is often illiberal and reactionary in its first impulses. Do you really trust these people?

fn1. If you want to get multicultural, just point to the Samurai monopoly on wearing swords during the Tokugawa Era, or the Muslim near exclusive rights (officially) to join the armies of the Mughals (in addition to some Hindu Rajputs, who were a martial caste themselves). Small minorities, separate from the majority, rule easily when they can monopolize weaponry.

Update: Matthew Yglesias points to this article at the Washington Monthly that is pro-draft. Please note, I am not espousing any policy solutions like the draft. I am though suggesting that we need to be less complacent about the continuance of America's democratic republic. I think many Americans view our governmental system, and the status quo, as having reached fixation, something I'm skeptical of....

Posted by razib at 03:00 PM