Book 5, Chapter 19 : Of Military Establishments and Treaties
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Book 5, Chapter 19
A country may look for its defense either to a standing army, or an universal militia. - The former condemned. - The latter objected to, as of pernicious tendency - as unnecessary - either in respect to courage - or discipline. - Of a commander. - Of treaties. - Conclusion.
THE last topic which it may be necessary to examine, as to the subject of war, is the conduct it becomes us to observe respecting it, in a time of peace. This article may be distributed into two heads, military establishments, and treaties of alliance.
If military establishments in time of peace be judged proper, their purpose may be effected either by consigning the practice of military discipline to a certain part of the community, or by making every man, whose age is suitable for that purpose, a soldier.
The preferableness of the latter of these methods to the former is obvious. The man that is merely a soldier must always be uncommonly depraved. War, in his case, inevitably degenerates from the necessary precautions of a personal defense into a trade, by which a man sells his skill in murder, and the safety of his existence, for a pecuniary recompense. The man that is merely a soldier ceases to be, in the same sense as his neighbors, a citizen. He is cut off from the rest of the community, and has sentiments and a rule of judgment peculiar to himself. He considers his countrymen as indebted to him for their security; and, by an unavoidable transition of reasoning, believes that, in a double sense, they are at his mercy. On the other hand, that every citizen should exercise in his turn the functions of a soldier seems peculiarly favorable to that confidence in himself, and in the resources of his country, which it is so desirable he should entertain. It is congenial to that equality which must operate to a considerable extent before mankind in general can be either virtuous or wise. And it seems to multiply the powers of defense in a country, so as to render the idea of its falling under the yoke of an enemy in the utmost degree improbable.
There are reasons however that will oblige us to doubt respecting the propriety of cultivating, under any form, the system of military discipline in time of peace. It is, in this respect, with nations as it is with individuals. The man that, with a pistol-bullet, is sure of his mark, or that excels his contemporaries in the exercise of the sword, can scarcely escape those obliquities of understanding which accomplishments of this sort are adapted to nourish. It is not to be expected that he should entertain all that confidence in justice, and distaste of violence, which reason prescribes. It is beyond all controversy that war, though the practice of it, under the present state of the human species, should be found, in some instances, unavoidable, is a proceeding pregnant with calamity and vise. It cannot be a matter of indifference for the human mind to be systematically familiarized to thoughts of murder and desolation. The pupil of nature would not fail, at the sight of a musket or a sword, to be impressed with sentiments of abhorrence. Why expel these sentiments? Why connect the discipline of death with ideas of festivity and splendor; which will inevitably happen if the citizens, without oppression, are accustomed to be drawn out to encampments and reviews? Is it possible that he who has not learned to murder his neighbor with a grace is imperfect in the trade of man?
If it be replied 'that the generating of error is not inseparable from military discipline, and that men may at some time be sufficiently guarded against the abuse, even while they are taught the use of arms'; it will be found upon reflection that this argument is of little weight. If error be not unalterably connected with the science of arms, it will for a long time remain so. When men are sufficiently improved to be able to handle, familiarly, and with application of mind, the instruments of death, without injury to their dispositions, they will also be sufficiently improved to be able to master any study with much greater facility than at present, and consequently the cultivation of the art military in time of peace will have still fewer inducements to recommend it to our choice - To apply these considerations to the present situation of mankind.
We have already seen that the system of a standing army is altogether indefensible, and that a universal militia is a more formidable defense, as well as more agreeable to the principles of justice and political happiness. It remains to be seen what would be the real situation of a nation, surrounded by other nations, in the midst of which standing armies were maintained, that should nevertheless, upon principle, wholly neglect the art military in seasons of peace. In such a nation it will probably be admitted that, so far as relates to mere numbers, an army may be raised upon the spur of occasion nearly as soon as in a nation the citizens of which had been taught to be soldiers. But this army, though numerous, would be in want of many of those principles of combination and activity which are of material importance in a day of battle. There is indeed included in the supposition that the internal state of this people is more equal and free than that of the people by whom they are invaded. This will infallibly be the case in a comparison between a people with a standing army and a people without one; between a people who can be brought blindly and wickedly to the invasion of their peaceful neighbors, and a people who will not be induced to fight but in their own defense. The latter therefore will be obliged to compare the state of society and government, in their own country, and among their neighbors, and will not fail to be impressed with great ardor in defense of the inestimable superiority they possess. Ardor, even in the day of battle, might prove sufficient. A body of men, however undisciplined, whom nothing could induce to quit the field would infallibly be victorious over their veteran adversaries who, under the circumstances of the case, could have no accurate conception of the object for which they were fighting, and therefore could not entertain an inextinguishable love for it. It is not certain that activity and discipline, opposed to ardor, have even a tendency to turn the balance of slaughter against the party that wants them. Their great advantage consists in their power over the imagination to astonish, to terrify and confound. An intrepid courage in the party thus assailed would soon convert them from sources of despair into objects of contempt.
But it would be extremely unwise in us to have no other resource but in the chance of this intrepidity. A resource much surer, and more agreeable to justice, is in recollecting that the war of which we treat is a war of defense. Battle is not the object of such a war. An army which, like that of Fabius, by keeping on the hills, or by whatever other means, rendered it impracticable for the enemy to force them to an engagement might look with indifference upon his impotent efforts to enthralled the country. One advantage included in such a system of war is that, as its very essence is protraction, the defending army might, in a short time, be rendered as skillful as the assailants. Discipline, like every other art, has been represented, by vain and interested men, as surrounded with imaginary difficulties, but is, in reality exceedingly simple; and would be learned much more effectually in the scene of a real war than in the puppet-show exhibitions of a period of peace.
It is desirable indeed that we should have a commander of considerable skill, or rather of considerable wisdom, to reduce this patient and indefatigable system into practice. This is of greater importance than the mere discipline of the ranks. But the nature of military wisdom has been greatly misrepresented. Experience in this, as well as in other arts, has been unreasonably magnified, and the general power of a cultivated mind been thrown into shade. It will probably be no long time before this quackery of professional men will be thoroughly exploded. How often do we meet with those whom experience finds incorrigible; while it is recorded of one of the greatest generals of antiquity that he set out for his appointment wholly unacquainted with his art, and was indebted for that skill, which broke out immediately upon his arrival, to the assiduity of his inquiries, and a careful examination of those writers by whom the art had most successfully been illustrated?1 In all events it will be admitted that the maintenance of a standing army, or the perpetual discipline of a nation, is a very dear price to pay for the purchase of a general, as well as that the purchase would be extremely precarious if we were even persuaded to consent to the condition. It may perhaps be true, though this is not altogether clear, that a nation by whom military discipline was wholly neglected would be exposed to some disadvantage. In that case, it becomes us to weigh the neglect and cultivation together, and to cast the balance on the side to which, upon mature examination, it shall appear to belong.
A second article which belongs to the military system in a season of peace is that of treaties of alliance. This subject may easily be dispatched. Treaties of alliance, if we examine and weigh the history of mankind, will perhaps be found to have been, in all cases, nugatory, or worse. Governments, and public men, will not, and ought not, to hold themselves bound to the injury of the concerns they conduct, because a parchment, to which they or their predecessors were a party, requires it. If the concert demanded in time of need approve itself to their judgment, and correspond with their inclination, it will be yielded, though they are under no previous engagement for that purpose. Treaties of alliance serve to no other end than to exhibit, by their violation, an appearance of profligacy and vise, which unfortunately becomes too often a powerful encouragement to the inconsistency of individuals. Add to this, that if alliances were engines as powerful as they are really important, they could seldom be of use to a nation uniformly adhering to the principles of justice. They would be useless, because they are, in reality, ill calculated for any other purposes than those of ambition. They might be pernicious, because it would be beneficial for nations, as it is for individuals, to look for resources at home, instead of depending upon the precarious compassion of their neighbors.
It would be unjust to dismiss the consideration of this most dreadful, yet perhaps, in the present state of things, sometimes unavoidable, calamity of war, without again reminding the reader of its true character. It is that state of things where a man stands prepared to deal slaughter and death to his fellow men. Let us image to ourselves a human being, surveying, as soon as his appetite for carnage is satiated, the scene of devastation he has produced. Let us view him surrounded with the dying and the dead, his arms bathed to the very elbow in their blood. Let us investigate along with him the features of the field, attempt to divide the wounded from the slain, observe their distorted countenances, their mutilated limbs, their convulsed and palpitating flesh. Let us observe the long drawn march of the hospital-wagons, every motion attended with pangs unutterable, and shrieks that rend the air. Let us enter the hospital itself, and note the desperate and dreadful cases that now call for the skill of the surgeon, even omitting those to which neither skill nor care is ever extended. Whence came all this misery? What manner of creature shall we now adjudge the warrior to be? What had these men done to him? Alas! he knew them not; they had never offended; he smote them to the death, unprovoked by momentary anger, coldly deliberating on faults of which they were guiltless, and executing plans of willful and meditated destruction. Is not this man a murderer? Yet such is the man who goes to battle, whatever be the cause that induces him. Who that reflects on these things does not feel himself prompted to say, 'Let who will engage in the business of war; never will I, on any pretense, lift up a word against my brother'?
We have entered, in these chapters, somewhat more at large into the subject of war than the question of democracy, might seem to require. So far as this is a digression, the importance of the topic may perhaps plead our excuse.
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