Saturday, May 29, 2010

History Lesson

A review of An Artist in Treason: the Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson in the New York Review of Books tells a tale of a highly self-serving man. A paid Spanish agent even as he served in America's highest military offices at a time the US was contending with Spain for control of the continental heartland, Wilkinson is described as "maybe the most unscrupulous character in all of American history". His extraordinary career included facing "...three military tribunals and four congressional investigations into allegations of misdeeds. Yet he was never found guilty. No wonder it was said of him that although he had never won a battle, he had never lost an inquiry."

Not exactly a figure of worthy regard. Except for his opposition to a standing army. As Jefferson's commander-in-chief, Wilkinson was the only officer supporting Jefferson's efforts to reform the army, with preference for state militias over a standing army. By dint of a scoundrel supporting a president with an agenda, the US was spared a standing army for its first eight score and ten years.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the Constitution does not establish or require an army. Article 1, section 8 requires Congress to provide and maintain a Navy but simply authorizes Congress to raise and support armies. The framers were certainly conscious of the need to provide for a common defense but were well aware of the dangers of standing army.

That circumspection ended after World War II. America has had a substantial standing army throughout my lifetime. Like any well well entrenched institution, the US military/national security establishment has its own perspectives and interests. If you have any doubt that those interests do not necessarily serve the nation's interests, look at the military budgets that include weapons systems that either do not work or are irrelevant to the international threats this nation faces. Read James Carroll's House of War. Or ask yourself why America's foreign policy is discussed largely in terms of military action.

Only one president in my lifetime actually saw through the veil of military obfuscation and self-interest: John Kennedy. And even he didn't have the nerve to fully act on that knowledge until after he was safely re-elected. Too bad he did not live to act on his knowledge.

America is unlikely to give up its standing army under any circumstances. We could probably live with that if we really believed and acted with serious attention to civilian control of that standing army.



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