Book Review 396: The Civilian and the Military

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THE CIVILIAN AND THE MILITARY: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition, by Arthur A. Ekirch Jr., 340 pages. Independent Institute paperback

More polemic than history, Arthur Ekirch’s rehearsal of the argument against American militarism was published in 1955 and has ben reissued every few years since, whenever the sabre-rattling seemed unusually loud.

At least up to 1940, the “history” is probably a reasonably accurate summation of the arguments that were used. After that, Ekirch omits the most important points at issue.

Even up to that point, he fails to provide what we read history for, which is some assessment of events in the context of the rest of the events of their period.

The practical argument against an army and a navy was that they were not needed, no one was going to invade America in her calm isolation. This was ridiculous on two fronts.

First, America did not win her independence thanks to embattled farmers but to a large army and a large fleet sent out by a European autocrat. The Framers, whom we adulate as wise above normal measure, lived this and knew it, yet they were firm against a standing army and for a militia, even using a “well-regulated militia” as justification for the 2nd Amendment.

Second, America had not had till then and never has had since a well-regulated militia. In real war, the militia has always proven worthless, and throughout the 19th century it was regularly ridiculed for what it was, a drunken mob whose only practical purpose was to provide a taxpayer-paid police force so that employers could murder workers.

That equally severe criticisms could be laid against the militarists — Teddy Roosevelt appears in a particularly bad light in this book — does not justify presenting the antimilitarist arguments in a vacuum.

Despite occasional outbreaks of patriotism, Americans really did maintain their animus toward armies and military adventures up to 1940. After that, Ekirch sys correctly, everything changed. Considering the superpatriotism and bellicosity of today’s Southerners, it is instructive to see Ekirch quote many Southerners, such as Vardaman, who were usually populist and antimilitarist between 1865 and 1940.

Such limited merits as “The Civilian and the Military” has disappear when Ekirch gets to 1940. He writes from the perspective of a traditional liberal, but all along the pacifist bloc had often found itself allied in practical terms with the worst of rightwing tendencies. Organized labor had signed on to antimilitarism, which meant opting for a militia, even if the militia was likely to shoot workers — as at Ludlow, Colorado.

The helplessness of the liberal pacifists to stay out of the rightwingers’ bed came to a head in the conscription debate of 1940. Ekirch says the old-line antimilitarists were “forced into cooperation with isolationist groups.” He does not say who forced them, and they were — or should have been — free actors. They, after all, were the self-declared guardians of traditional individual liberties.

The isolationists came out of 1940 smelling like nazis, which is what they were. The alliance that the old-line antimilitarists had entered into destroyed their moral standing, if not forever, for long time.

In a world where rightwing aggressors were gobbling up both independent peoples and dependencies of so-called democracies, being against war was to be for nazism.

It was not an American who expressed this most clearly, but the American constructive fascists endorsed his action. This was Pius XII’s demand at Christmas 1942 for an end to hostilities. This episode is not in Ekirch’s book, but it happened nevertheless. And just at the peak of Hitler’s conquests.

World War II was followed by America’s first peacetime draft, and Ekirch endorsed the view of the pacifists that that meant a garrison state and military direction of the economy. His final, overheated chapter is called “Toward the Garrison State,” and the tone is near-hysterical: Ekirch thought the G.I. Bill was a plot to have the Army control the colleges.

In fact, the military had to scrap for bodies in the labor-short ’50s, and by losing a big war managed to lose its access to conscription by 1973. In 2017, the active duty military, badly overstretched, was at about 3.5 million, or 1% of the whole population. While this matched the statutory size of the Prussian army, the paragon of garrison states, in the 19th century, it was tiny compared to the all-out effort in 1944.

Today, for the first time since T.R., America has a militarist president but the citizenry is as civilian-minded as it ever has been. If it weren’t for immigrants, the generals couldn’t even get to 1%.

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