The National Interest

The National Interest
Winter 2000

Extracts from The Praetorian Guard

by William Pfaff


. . . In September 1939, when Europe went to war, the U.S. Army (including the Army Air Corps, which did not become a separate service until 1947) numbered 174,000 men. The nation had an old and principled hostility to "standing armies", believed to be a threat to democracy. That sentiment was explicit in the Constitution, whose drafters delegated to Congress the authority "to raise and support armies", but made that power subject to the condition that "no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years." The standing military force was constitutionally confined to a "well-regulated militia" in the individual states. A militia is a body of civilians who have received military instruction and can be called up for service in a national emergency. Today that militia is the National Guard, normally under the authority of state governors. John Hancock said in 1774 that from a militia "we have nothing to fear; their interest is the same as that of the state.

Currently, the United States has 1.4 million persons in its "standing army", members of its regular navy and air force included (but excluding the Coast Guard), and a ready reserve and National Guard force of nearly 2.5 million. The population has roughly doubled since 1939. The standing army has increased by a power of eight. If reserves are counted, it is 22 times the size of the 1939 force. Today's force holds itself prepared to wage two simultaneous major wars in different parts of the world, even though the United States faces no serious military challenge. It is the United States, rather, that poses the military threat to others.

As of 1999, according to the New York Times, the United States still maintained some 2,300 nuclear warheads on alert, with an explosive power equivalent to 44,000 Hiroshimas. In 1998 the Clinton administration programmed more money for modernization and simulated testing of the nuclear force than, on annual average, was spent during the Cold War to build the force. The rationale for this is difficult to discern.

In his authoritative book, A History of Militarism, Alfred Vagts wrote that militarism is the "domination of the military man over the civilian, an undue preponderance of military demands, an emphasis on military considerations, spirit, ideals, and scales of value, in the life of states. It has meant also the imposition of heavy burdens on a people for military purposes, to the neglect of welfare and culture." This inadequately describes America's situation today. The matter is more complicated, as Feaver and Kohn (and Cohen) suggest. The military man does not dominate civilian authority in a direct way and has no ambition to do so, even though the Joint Chiefs of Staff has successfully imposed unprecedented limits on civilian authority.

When General Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he gave an interview to the New York Times, in which he courteously but firmly set forth the conditions (in terms of casualty risk and the political definition of the military objective) under which he and his colleagues were prepared to carry out presidential orders (the "Powell Doctrine"). This action would in an earlier time have been regarded as gross insubordination, and General Powell would have been reprimanded or dismissed. . . .