Rebuilding a Republican Army – Steele Brand

Within hours of Hamas’ unprecedented attack that sparked yet another land war in Eurasia, Israel summoned reservists home and began reintegrating them into its military. Meanwhile, Ukraine has survived onslaughts from the Russian Goliath because its citizens picked up rifles and rapidly learned how to deploy sophisticated weapons systems sent by allies.

Contrast this to Armenia, whose decades-long border conflict with Azerbaijan is turning into a defeat, with much of the disputed territory now occupied after Azerbaijan launched several successful offensives in 2022 and 2023. A small country amidst larger, hostile powers, Armenia lost its defensive shield when its peace broker, Russia, became bogged down in Ukraine. America has no such excuses yet currently finds itself in a similar position of weakness compared to our foes.

There are dangerous forces in the world that are already plotting similar attacks on American soil. Great powers like Russia and China war-game how a conventional attack could be successfully carried out. Unconventional foes lurk in the shadows, waiting for the resources and opportunity to pounce. The question isn’t whether American territory will be attacked, but how we will be equipped to respond.

Americans have much to learn from Israel’s and Ukraine’s citizen-soldiers, and the first lesson should be that it’s time to reinstitute the draft along constitutional lines. In the absence of volunteers, the United States must reform its failing recruiting system by updating the militia for the twenty-first century and mandating that more American citizens defend their way of life.

America’s Military Weakness

Americans no longer wish to serve in the military or fund the materiel needed by those who do serve. Why is this so?

First is the restrictive nature of recruiting. This includes disqualifications based on tattoos, past use of drugs and other incidents that lead to a minor criminal record, slight health disorders that involve stimulants or other medications, or an inability to meet the fitness standards. 

With less than 1% of the population serving, there’s also a disconnect between civilians and soldiers, made worse by foreign wars in insignificant places that drag on for decades only to end in chaos or defeat. Gallup reports that public confidence in the military has fallen to lows not seen since the ’90s. Among Republicans, traditionally known as staunch supporters of the military, confidence has dropped from 91% to 68% in the last three years. Even veterans don’t want their kids to serve. This sudden slide is unsurprising given the defeat and retreat from Afghanistan.

What reforms were undertaken in the midst of such a national humiliation? The Department of Defense mandated new experimental vaccines for all active military and began ejecting thousands who refused them. At the same time, the government unleashed social experimentation programs, forcing those with traditional beliefs about marriage and gender—the kind of people typically open to serving—to endure training designed to indoctrinate them into a particular political ideology and violate their freedom of conscience. 

These counterproductive policies hurt both recruitment and retention. Some have even speculated that we could end up in a neo-feudal mercenary century, where competent yet disgruntled soldiers abandon their country to sell their services abroad to the highest bidder.

This is accompanied by a decrease in military spending to about half of what it was in the ’80s, as a percentage of the federal budget. This has led to a weakening across the branches. The Navy and Air Force are unable to update ships and aircraft, and the Army and Marines are unable to maintain troop numbers. Military branches are missing their recruiting targets by the thousands, with the Army alone falling 15,000 recruits short. Everything is in short supply from artillery shells to anti-submarine warfare systems to pilots. America’s military is thus shrinking amidst increasing national security threats and a new era of “great power conflict.”

Yet even if the political will could be mustered to address these problems, America’s recruiting crisis would remain. The simple fact is that Americans have been habituated to serve their own interests at the expense of the neighbor next door and their country. We have a culture that trains a selfishness inimical to our republic. Conscription would both undermine this selfishness and solve the recruiting problem.

The Draft as a Constitutional Way Forward

Reinstituting the draft is inherently democratic and republican. History provides numerous examples demonstrating that democracies and republics cannot exist without citizens willing to defend their homes and their people. The ancient Israelite covenant empowered its fighting men with political power in national assemblies. The classical republics of Greece and Rome based political participation on military service. The logic was that if you want a say in your republic, then you need to fight for it. Otherwise, you don’t deserve to determine how it functions. 

Ancient republics emerged in a chaotic, multipolar world, and only republics that could muster the best and most virtuous citizens, willing to kill and die for their country, stood a chance. Long before Rome became an empire, it was a republic that excelled at blending civic participation with military service. Generous with its citizenship, fair with its laws, and exceptional in its ability to adapt its constitution and military to the needs of the moment, the Roman Republic fought off authoritarian and mercenary armies with an unending supply of citizen-soldiers who had been habituated to serve their republic.

America’s framers looked to the Hebraic republic, the classical republics of Greece and Rome, the medieval Germanic tradition of militias, and republican thinkers like Montesquieu when they considered how to constitute our military. They concluded that we needed both a small standing army and a vast citizenry capable of defending the new republic.

Modern perspectives overlook this history when they argue against any kind of standing army or any kind of conscription. They rightly critique a draft designed to fuel military adventurism; the military-industrial complex needs no more fodder for its cannons. However, they are wrong to insist that the draft or small standing armies are inherently un-republican. Hyper-individualists also fail to understand that a political culture dependent on volunteering for any kind of public duty creates a citizenry incapable of self-sacrifice or civic-mindedness. It also makes its citizens woefully inadequate for defense.

Consider the failure of Machiavelli’s Florentine citizen army. Imbued with republican enthusiasm after the ousting of the Medici princes, Machiavelli recommended that Florence, hastily return to a citizen army during the Italian wars. However, when he threw together an untrained and untested force of citizens against Spanish professionals, they were easily routed, leading to the fall of Florence’s republic and the return of the Medici.

America’s first commander-in-chief learned this same lesson. Militias may have launched the war at Lexington and Concord and achieved some success at battles like Bennington. They could be used in tandem with regular forces. But they could not win wars. George Washington knew well the limits of militias and learned to appreciate the value of continental troops with longer terms of enlistment and commitments to deploy farther from their homes. Despite the successful raids at Trenton and Princeton, Washington’s term as general was lackluster through 1776–77. His men, his officers, and his own command lacked discipline, training, and experience.

A militia-conscription would yield other benefits. It would broaden military participation, giving more citizens experience with training and drilling, expertise with military technologies and weapons, and providing them a sense of discipline and esprit de corps.

Only after he had time to sufficiently train and discipline his continental forces was he able to hold the field against a British army at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. By this time, Washington had also learned to put aside his own aristocratic inclinations, understanding that republican citizens only fight for causes they believe in and commanders they trust. Year after year throughout the War of Independence, Washington had to persuade his men to remain in the fight. He was equal to the task, sharing every hardship and embodying what American republican leadership should look like.

This is the context in which the US Constitution established two federal military branches—the Army and the Navy—and militias. The United States would field a smaller, more professional force of soldiers and sailors, commanded by the President and financed by Congress. These would be ready to deploy against the perils of the moment but also prevent tyrannies, such as quartering in people’s homes. 

The Constitution gives more attention, however, to the militia. Militias can be mustered to enforce federal laws, suppress rebellions, or repel invasions. The oft-misunderstood Second Amendment is intended to make sure such citizens are always ready to defend their homes and their republic. These citizens need a modest amount of training, familiarity with weapons, and a keen desire to maintain “the security of a free State.”

During the colonial and early American periods, able-bodied men were expected to enroll and train in their local militia. The experiment led by Jefferson and Madison of stripping down the military and avoiding the draft until it was too late led to the military catastrophes of the War of 1812. Henceforth, Americans understood that drafts would be required leading up to and during great conflicts such as the Civil War, the World Wars, and the Cold War.

Reforming Military Service

Citizens should be conscripted to fill our current recruiting shortfalls. The draft must return to America’s military, but it should be accompanied by reforms that revivify the militia tradition. More Americans should serve their country. More Americans should feel the consequences of the wars we fight. More Americans should be forced to judge whether or not our causes are just. This participation is historically in the nature of republican warfare, and if we cease to fight as a republic, then we risk losing it.

We need a defensive option for military service. The militia has all but disappeared in recent years. The National Guard is now nearly indistinguishable from the Reserves and throughout the War on Terror it looked more like Active Duty service. Those who served became part of a different culture that endured several long foreign deployments every decade. Part-timers spent too much time away from career and family, looking less like citizen-soldiers and more like a warrior class.

Either the National Guard needs to be reformed, or a new military service option must emerge that conforms to the original intention of a militia. These reforms should increase the limitations states may place on military service, with options for shorter enlistments after the initial training is complete, as short as a single year. Many might serve as part-timers for longer, aiding their states and providing a ready reserve during emergencies. 

This system would increase volunteers to the military, with fence-sitters opting to enlist and choose their own branch rather than be drafted by a lottery into something less preferable. Even those who opt for a discharge at the earliest opportunity will have gained valuable moral and civic experience. These minutemen-for-a-modern-age will be trained to endure hardship and fight ferociously when needed.

They will also provide a check on the hawks and meddlers in DC. When deployments to the eastern hemisphere or unjust incursions closer to home are recommended, troops will observe this in their units’ future planning. They can then consider turning in their papers and refusing to participate in such adventurism. Citizen-soldiers would maintain their monthly and summer drills but not be forced to leave their families, jobs, and homes for causes they deem unjust. They would reflect how much Americans actually want to fund or fight for Ukraine, intervene in Syria, or even invade Mexico, as some politicians are advocating. The goal of these reforms is not to provide grist for the military-industrial mill, but to create citizens capable of defending their country when a genuine need arises.

The draft should remain restricted to young men, which will also aid the pandemic of listlessness and nihilism gripping that demographic (volunteering would remain open to both sexes). Except for religious conscientious objectors or the medically unfit, exclusions must be eliminated. PhDs should serve alongside farmers, the sons of senators and CEOs alongside those of plumbers and electricians. Every elite who argues for war and every citizen who votes for it should feel the consequences of that decision, knowing the draft might pull someone from their household into service. 

A militia-conscription would yield other benefits. It would broaden military participation, giving more citizens experience with training and drilling, expertise with military technologies and weapons, and providing them a sense of discipline and esprit de corps. Military service for more citizens would also help bridge the political divide. Anyone who has completed Basic Training has gained invaluable contact in close quarters with people from different backgrounds. They have learned to live with a cross-section of America and to work together despite any religious, ideological, and cultural differences. 

The most important benefit would be America’s preparation for the attack that will one day strike our shores and threaten our way of life. Citizen-soldiers may check our leaders when they seek to engage in an unjust war, but they will remain prepared when a just war needs citizens capable of killing for their republic. These citizens will be the sort that George Washington needed to make the American experiment viable: tough, experienced, and deadly citizens who will not be condescended and fight not merely for money or for honor. They will fight because they love their homes, their neighbors, and their country, and they will know how to achieve a victory.

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