On Standing Armies


P.J. Sullivan

Albert Einstein said that the way to prevent wars is to prepare for them. Jeanette Rankin disagreed, saying that preparation for war leads to war.

Armies always claim self-defense. They don’t like to admit to being the aggressor. It is always “the other guy” who started it. Of course, this is absurd. Somebody had to start it. But self-defense is the lie that makes aggressive wars possible by making standing armies acceptable to decent people. Has there ever been an army that did not claim that God was on its side?

You have to have a standing army, the argument goes, just in case the other guy attacks. And the other guy uses the same argument against you. It works both ways. “Standing armies,” said Immanuel Kant, “are the cause of aggressive wars.” Armies created under the guise of defense very easily become offensive armies, without even realizing it. All it takes is a little fear-mongering propaganda.

Once you have a standing army, somebody is going to want to use it. Aggressive elements within the armed state will try to use it for their own ends. Has there ever been an army that was not used? Name one. Noam Chomsky said, “States are violent to the extent that they are powerful.” All that power has to go somewhere. Once you have an all-powerful standing army, who or what is to keep it in check?

Armies are about killing people and destroying things. Always have been, always will be. Standing armies are like carnivorous beasts that have to kill to stay alive, to stay in fighting trim, to stay relevant. If there are no enemies, armies have to find them, or create them. Standing armies are provocative, both internally and externally. They provoke other nations to arm, and then you have an arms race. The Spanish “Civil War” was actually a rebellion of the Spanish military leadership. A case of a standing army turning against its own country.

People like to do what they have been trained to do. If you train people to kill, they will want to kill. A sailor on the carrier “Nimitz” regretted that on his last cruise he did not get a chance to drop any bombs. After all that ordnance training, what a waste not to be able to use it!

In America we hear constantly about the “Defense” Department, “defense” spending, the secretary of “defense,” etc., but isn’t this all propaganda? “Defense” spending does not defend the American homeland. It defends only the plunder of plutocrats and predatory corporations. Who are the enemies demonized so persistently in the American media? Most are freedom fighters resisting American military trespass in their neighborhoods.

What then is the answer? Clearly, a line must be drawn between offense and defense, and that line must never be crossed. Standing armies must be disbanded, because they are not defensive. How then can a nation defend itself? With diplomacy and justice and international good will, and a strictly defensive coast guard, confined to its coasts, as a backup.

There has never been a better defense than the golden rule. As Craig Nelson put it, “If everyone loves you, maybe you don’t need so many tanks.” Is this naïve? Has militarism worked? Have standing armies ever brought permanent peace? Wars are a logical outcome of a certain way of life, said A. J. Muste. If you want to stop wars you have to change that way of life.

Imperialism must be recognized and renounced. There is nothing defensive about it and there never will be. The United Irishmen, a Dublin society, agreed in 1793: “War, an occasional duty, ought never to be made an occupation. Every man should become a soldier in the defense of his rights, no man ought to continue [being] a soldier for offending the rights of others.” The trick is to know the difference. That takes critical thinking, independence of mind, an ability to detect humbug.

P.J. Sullivan is the author of three books of historical nonfiction, including “Mostly Rapscallions,” a book of satire about the jokers in history’s deck.



4 thoughts on “On Standing Armies

  1. I completely agree with the authors intent in his essay but he fails to account for two things; one sociological and the other historical.

    As to the first, standing armies are created and supported by psychopaths; people who intend to use such power at some point. If not, they would have no need to create such military machines. Standing armies are a symptom of deeper, underlying social problems in a society. And in the the United States such problems are legion, with many average citizens falling for and believing the nonsense that “we must remain militarily strong”. Where do they get such crap from? Their parents who create the microcosmic cultural aspects of growing up stupid in America. The politicians only add fuel to the fire by promoting structural impediments to a healthy society that fall in line with already existing beliefs.

    As to the second item I noted, the historical, not all standing armies are necessarily bad if well trained and controlled properly. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the United States. However, in the Byzantium Empire it was. Byzantium devised a highly efficient, rapid deployment army that was purely used for defensive purposes as it was too small for any significant offensive operations such as invasion. It was renowned in its time as an army to be very wary of, which kept its belligerent neighbors at bay for as long as the empire maintained its maturity and appropriate governing policies.

    In the world we have today, the United States creates most of its enemies like any failed, developed nation. It could certainly reduce its military force substantially by adjusting its foreign policies to be far more accommodating to the world at large and thus reform its military forces to something more appropriate. However, simply reducing such infrastructure to merely a Coast Guard is also rather naive given the necessary missions of the various Armed Forces. However, none of this will happen since the country is now ruled by psychopaths and sociopaths at all levels of government.

    Get rid of the psychopaths and you get rid of the standing army in its current form. You can’t do this the other way around…

  2. Steve..” Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I don’t think we will solve the problem by banning diagnosed psychopaths from access to political power. Somehow the people who set up this country knew that ANY political power can turn a simple person into a tyrant. Being rather elitists they foresaw that the House of Representatives was the most likely place that idiots, like Golmert of Texas, would sneak into power and thus shortened their term. But they were also aware that the Senate could end up with some of their own elitist class who would take their position too seriously and act like royalty. So they set up a system of checks and balances to lesson the chance of corruption between the executive and congress all desiring to be king.
    Well,we have had a pretty good run of over 200 years as a not perfect but ok democracy. Except the founders forgot the damage a Supreme Court with lifelong members could do. A Supreme Court whose members were elected not by the citizens but by the same politicians the founders didn’t essentially trust.
    Now we live in an oligarchy run by individuals absulutely corrupted by their power, and the money behind them.

    • I can’t disagree with you but the people you describe in your notes are the very psychopaths I was talking about. Unfortunately, America never had a good run of it as the very foundations the “Founding Fathers” created after the Revolution began to break down in 1787 when the Constitution was created. The rest is a history of terrible class and ethnic struggle and deprivation that has brought us top our current situations.

      Unfortunately again, the inmates are running the asylum…

  3. American psychopaths come in a variety of tawdry and transparent disguises. On the one hand, we have the quintessential juvenile twerp neoconservative: “Every so often you have to take some crappy little country and throw it up against the wall just to show we mean business.” On the other hand, we have the delusional dwarf diva neoliberal, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “Why even have this superb military that you’re always talking about if you won’t use it?” Yet somehow, the crappy little countries come bouncing back off the wall and the superb military everyone talks about hauls ass for the exits once again, not so much “standing” as running. In other words:

    Another Catastrophic Success

    With their tails tucked proudly ‘tween their legs
    Advancing towards the exit march the dregs
    Of empire, whose retreat this question begs:
    “No promised omelet, just the broken eggs?

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortuneteller,” copyright 2011

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