Sunday, December 13, 2009

Militias: What They Were. What They Are, What They Can Do and Examples

I have been sort of holding off on this for awhile because well it is going to be a long and complicated post. Today is as good a day as any so I will get started.

Questioning the sanctity of militias in this group is probably more dangerous than saying you voted for Diana Feinstein and party regularly with Bernanke. Anyway I am going to attempt to look at the role of militias in America from the establishment of the new world to now. Also I am going to try and look at some of the examples of successful militias and question what militias can do for our national security. This should be fun.

Militias have a long history. Groups of cave men likely had something like a militia where able bodied men used what weapons were at hand to defend themselves and or just kill other groups of cave men. Prior to division of labor people probably fought much shorter battles because they were unable to really store up food. I imagine groups occasionally bumping into each other and sometimes fighting being the norm.

In England militias have a long tradition. They were a come as you are sort of affair. Our colonial militias were drawn along these lines. Colonial militias were not created because they were the best option, they were created because of a lack of better options. Warfare at that point was so localized that a standing army 20 miles away would not do any good. Also since these colonies were chartered by private companies they were watching their dollars. The general idea was that all able bodied males are armed and will come together to defend their village from aggression or try to massacre the local Indians when they become a bother.

While some militia units did awesome things for every one of them there was at least one bumbling expedition lead by a complete fool that ended in total disaster. Having the head of the militia often be a political figure had disastrous results in many cases. This brings us to a couple of interesting points.

First of all a real problem the militias had in the various conflicts up to and including the French and Indian War was that they were local. Often militias were fairly well organized at the local level and could be called up by the states but that was it. Often say the New Hampshire militia would refuse to go to Vermont to assist them in fighting. Even getting them to leave their local area was often difficult. Don't get my wrong I totally understand why these men wanted to protect their families, homes and livelihoods but a few guys here and a few guys there guarding their towns is not how wars are won. Because of their desire to protect their homes and Governors desires to protect their state and or internal squabbles militias efforts stumbled. By and large in this period they were often unable to achieve Mass, did not have good Unity of Command and lacked Economy of Force. The end of the French Indian was brings us pretty much up to the American Revolution.

To bring this period to a close I think the main points were as follows. Militias were definitely the cheapest and most expedient way to bring a level of protection to the local level. Their performance was good and bad depending mostly on the quality of their key leadership. Ability to work effectively in a regional sense was often hampered by the localized structure of militias and their sometimes unwillingness to go far from home.

The American Revolution is often what is cited as the great American example of why we are awesome and why militias are amazing. I do think it is completely awesome that a bunch of folks stood up the the most powerful and well trained army in the world to pursue the goal of freedom.  Of course these folks could not have done so had they not been armed but we will revisit that point later.

To say American militias beat the Redcoats is a serious oversimplification. To say that America was very lucky that the Revolution happened in a period where England and France happened to be fighting it out abroad would be accurate. To say that American militias were able to avoid being totally destroyed until a the Continental Army could be raised and foreign aid could be secured is probably accurate if not philosophically pleasing.

One part I would like to note from this period is that military and civilian arms at the time were very comparable. In fact in some ways the rifles many colonists carried were superior to the Brown Bess. A group of militiamen from some village were probably equipped in a roughly comparable way as a comparable group of redcoats.

After the Revolutionary War over time the concept of a compulsory militia of all able bodied males became less prevalent as the necessity for it went away.

From the late 19th to early 20th century state militias became much more organized at a federal level. This period saw the Militia Act of 1903 and the creation of the National Guard. as we know it today. This is also where we are going to see a significant shift between what militias were and what they are today. Militias were compulsory organizations of all able bodied adult males of military age who often provided their own weapons and equipment and occasionally (varying widely by period and region) trained at the local level. Though they draw lineage from the militias of the past it could be argued that today's National Guard has little in common with the militias of the past. First of all they are volunteer organizations composed of a relatively small group of individuals and all of the equipment is provided by the Guard and centrally stored at their Armories. The guard is more of a professional  though part time part of the U.S. Army than a militia group at least for the sake of this discussion. One could talk all about the Guard but that isn't really what this is about so further discussion will not involve the National Guard unless they are specifically mentioned.

People who are championing the militia concept often speak of Switzerland as a great example. I will agree with this with one significant proviso. The Swiss have a very good compulsory militia. That they have a strong tradition of marksmanship and keep their weapons at home would help greatly should they need to be activated. Also that they keep their noses entirely out of every ones business and stick to chocolate and banking helps a lot but that is another discussion entirely.

My proviso is as follows. The Swiss militia had little to do with Germany not invading in WWII. It is fashionable in some circles to say that the Swiss militias were so well trained and great marksmen, etc that Hitler decided not to fight them. I think if we really take an objective look it was geography that kept Switzerland safe, well that and some collaboration. If the Swiss people with their tradition of neutrality and strongly militaristic culture and corresponding militia had happened to live in Poland they would have been Blitzkrieg-ed.

Someone, likely Brass is going to bring up both Vietnam vs France and then the US and the Afghans vs, well everyone who has ever came to Afghanistan but mostly them vs the Ruskies. Small wars/ wars of empire/ whatever the term of the period are an interesting beast. The indigenous group involved tends to do better when there is an outside group providing them with weapons/ equipment and better still when they have a safe haven.  The American Revolution would have been a lot different without help from France and Spain. Vietnam would have been a very different war without the Commies giving aid to the North and them having a safe haven in neighboring countries. The Afghans would have had a far harder time fighting off the Ruskies without massive foreign aid, mainly from America and Saudi Arabia. The Afghan elements we are fighting today would have a harder time without a safe haven in Pakistan.

Maybe it is just because I am in the military but I think these wars are won or lost more by political decisions than military skill/ might. If we really look at it the key factors in these sorts of engagements are how realistic (or unrealistic) the political goals which took the military (Russian, US, whatever) there and their willingness to do what is necessary to meet those goals than anything else. Going back to my post yesterday the military can kill people, break stuff and control space/ deny that space to others. If the enemy crossing an imaginary line gives them a safe haven, there aren't enough troops to get the job done and or the goals are entirely unrealistic the best military in the world can't win. Just to put it into perspective I could whoop a very good boxer in a fist fight if he had drank a quart of booze, was wearing a blindfold and had an arm tied behind his back.

As to the concept of militias in modern America. Some liberals and anti gun folks portray modern militias as a bunch of white, racist trailer trash has been/ never were types with beer guts who get together to shoot guns, ramble anti government conspiracies and drink beer. Liberty and militia type folks will portray modern militias as pro American, well trained and competent, freedom loving individuals looking to protect their communities and families, modern Minute Men if you will. To be honest I think they are both probably somewhat right with their portrayals personifying the extremes of the modern militia movement.

As for how effective militia groups would be I think we first need to say it would vary widely based on the militia itself. That group of a few fat drunk has been/ never were types who get together to ramble about conspiracies and drink some beer would probably not be an effective fighting force unless their job was to turn full beer cans into empty beer cans. A group of reasonably fit and well trained individuals who were properly equipped and effectively lead that took on realistic missions could probably get some stuff done.

Now we ask, effective against what? Lets say there two broad possibilities would be foreign invasion and some sort of an internal problem (I will let you imagine your own scenario).

So lets just say that those darn Canadians raise a million man Army and invade the US. A bunch of militia men in foxholes would not be able to stop an Armored column from taking over their town. Now if they were smart and realistic they could harass the heck out of them and get their hands on some heavy machine guns and then become a real pain a la Red Dawn. Offing a guy here, blowing up a truck there and stealing some supplies in another place is not going to get those darn Canadians back over the border. However the more resources they have to spend guarding their logistics and hind quarters the fewer they have to fight our conventional forces and continue their invasion.

Now to an internal scenario. I think this is where a militia could have some real value. Even those fat drunks might well be able to get together and protect their families, all of their pickups and at least one of the trailers. Also depending on exactly what the scenario is they might be able to get some stuff done. An effective militia force would likely have solid well thought out plans to protect their families and such in their immediate area which could have some real value in an internal scenario.

I think the biggest things holding militias back are that they are now small, marginally equipped (for modern warfare) and varying trained:

Instead of every able bodied male being in the militia a la colonial America they are now very small select organizations at least by % of the total population. Lots of very competent and well trained folks stay away from militias because they do not want to deal with hassles and put their freedom/ family at risk by drawing that bulls eye on their head. Between unfriendly government agencies, their informants, and just plain psychos in their ranks militias these folks see them as a dangerous group to be involved with. Entrapment is a dangerous thing and conspiracy is a very open ended phrase.

Our weapons laws being what they are militia groups are really handicapped. Either they are seriously lacking weapons for modern warfare or they are probably breaking the law. Class III weapons being highly regulated, rare and VERY EXPENSIVE mean they are almost surely not widely fielded. While it doesn't matter if someones individual rifle goes bang once, three times or repeatedly when the trigger is pulled medium and heavy machine guns are very useful. Also mortars and anti armor weapons are not present at least in more than a token sense.

Of the three things likely holding militia groups back training is the one they can realistically do the most about. Honestly I doubt a group which did not have some experienced folks in key positions for both training and potential operations could be successful. Setting and enforcing standards would be essential. Physical fitness is key. Selection, size, recruitment and training always go together. If goals are set too high you will have three or four highly qualified (whatever that means to you) folks and if they are set too low you will have a bunch of worthless buffoons. Setting realistic goals for who you want to recruit and figuring out how to get them to join and stay would likely be the biggest challenge of a militia.

Broadly speaking the two roles militias have been best in were immediate localized defense and as a balwark against tyranny. Seeing as the Indians have pretty much been done declaring war on local towns and burning isolated farms and we have two weak neighbors (though I am watching those darn Canadians) immediate local defense is probably not a big concern. As for the militias role in preventing tyranny I think it is a distant second to the fact that Americans own about a billion guns but is positive none the less.

I just want to say this was a long post and I didn't spend weeks researching it so I am not going to debate small historic points with you. However discussing broad trends and conclusions should keep us plenty busy.

Edited to include:
To my fat drunk readers in trailers. Sorry if it seemed like I was taking a shot at you guys. It is the liberal anti gun totalitarians stereotype, not mine. I think you are great just the way you are and am fine if you don't want to change. Its just that if you are serious about being part of some sort of militia it might be wise to be a bit more about the exercise. Again sorry if I offended.

Edited again to include:
To all. My point certainly is not to belittle militias or say they could not do some good things. If it came off that way maybe I am having an off day. Note that for both an internal scenario and an external threat I mentioned areas where a militia could be quite successful. Also in mentioning what I see to be their biggest limitations it doesn't take much imagination to turn two of them into a blue print on how to do it very well.  The one they can't do much about is weapons. Unless they can get their hands on Javalines at Costco and RPG's and heavy machine guns at Walmart they are pretty much left to improvise or try and scrape some up if need be. My goal was to look at militias both in the past and today through a pragmatic lense instead of one tinted by political leanings. If I got you thinking a bit more critically it was at least a partial success.


Chris said...

I used to be dismissive of the combat ability of militias in light of modern warfare's capabilities. How do a few irregulars stand against modern PGMs, armor, etc? Then I went to Afghanistan and saw how rag tag militias with old shitty weapons (sometimes including ancient British bolt action Enfields!) and IEDs can tear us up. Knowledge of the local terrain, support of the populace, and high morale are all very effective force multipliers.

theotherryan said...

Chris, I am inclined to agree with you. The Afghans have been doing this for decades and are great light infantry. They have solid adaptive TTP's and are very fit and highly motivated.

Paden Cash said...

I am fat, though I don't drink and am 60. While I agree that I wouldn't be much use in guerrilla operations, or as an assault person, I am a great shot and know how to set up ambushes and booby traps. As an expendable sniper defending my local terrain, I could be an asset to any local force standing up to tyranny. I am also a combat veteran and know how I will react to being fired upon.

theotherryan said...

Paden Cash, Interesting point. Depending on the exact scenario I think old guys could have a significant role. I could potentially see a lot more of them being willing to get 'involved' in some situations. A young guy with a family is probably a lot less willing to accept risk.

Just be sure to get out of there before you get Dan Fong ed.

Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that the vast majority of the Regiments in the Confederate Army started life as state militia units. The number of actual "Confederate States of America" units raised by the government was quite small. One reason the South did so well initially was that militias were popular social organizations in the South whose activities actually revolved around shooting.
The military tradition in the South was reinforced and perpetuated by milita activity right up to the war.

Greek armies were exclusively militia during the classical age with the exception of the Spartans and later the Thebans. When the need arose, male citizens above a certain income level were expected to drop their civilian jobs and take up arms. When fighting another city state like themselves, they did ok. It did not work out so well sometimes against professional troops, although the Athenians kicked ass and took names at Marathon and that was a purely militia army.

Wyn Boniface said...

Switzerland was projected to kill 11 million German soldiers to settle an invasion due to their bunker network, which still exists and expanded. It was plotted in case they cut them off from Italy. Sweden was not invaded by the Nazis either as they established a fall back situation all the way into the arctic. Finland was attacked by the Russians though, but the nation survived. Nobody else had any militia forces in their nation, and they were all squashed in a heart beat. I think common man forces work fabulously. The National Guard does not count in my opinion since they get rotated overseas now-a-days. Militias also serve during emergencies like floods, lost kids, storms, earthquakes, etc it is more then just packing a rifle.

theotherryan said...

Hermit, Very good points. As usual I find little to nothing to disagree with.

Wyn, To the first part I would account that far more to Switzerland's geography than bunkers. The Frenchies had a fabulous system of bunkers they it did not work so well. Don't know much about Sweden and Finland during WWII. I concur that an organized group of able bodied individuals could be useful in many situations especially if they have solid medical backgrounds, transportation and communications capabilities.

Kyle D said...


A few thoughts:

1. Militia's unwillingness to go outside of their "home territory" is exactly what makes them great. No militia is going to go on a rampage and invade neighbors. they are decidedly defensive.

2. ALL wars are political. War is a political tool, and means to a political end. Von Clauswitz said as much. The thought that any war is ruined due to politics fails to see a larger picture.

3. The point about France's bunker system is moot. They only built the Maginot Line on their German border. Hitler simply looped around and enveloped them. They could then take their time and destroy it bunker by bunker. Almost any defense that is enveloped will fall.

4. I'm a bit confused by the way the posts have gone. I understand that you are in the military, and thank you for your service, but any Libertarian who is pro war is no Libertarian. All war leads to losses of liberty, on either side of any conflict. Obviously, I'm not talking of defensive wars here, but where/why do you draw a line about our wars of aggression? I know that you have to be careful about speaking out about our wars, but why did you join in the first place?

5. Any Army that is subject to constant, continued harassment by and sort of indiginous population is bound to fail. The people have every right to fight, the soldier fights for monetary gain, or patriotism, etc. Similiar to the tale of the fox and the rabbit, who wins? The rabbit runs for his life, the fox for dinner. The rabbit will win out.

Anonymous said...

"To my fat drunk readers in trailers."

Well, I'm not fat (I weigh 110 lbs.) and I'm not drunk (the Lord prohibits that type of behavior), but I do live in a single wide trailer in a trailer park.

Anyway, let's move beyond idiotic and incorrect stereotypes shall we?

If you want to learn more about militias and the Second Amendment I highly suggest that you read "Whose Right to Bear Arms Did The Second Amendment Protect?" - Readings Selected and Introduced by Saul Cornell. The book is fascinating and comes with an amazing amount of detailed footnotes, end notes, and group discussion questions (!). I read the book while I was taking a college class entitled "The Constitution and Modern Issues." (Yes, even trailer trashies attend college. Shocking, isn't it?) The book completely changed the way I view militias of both the past and the present. Personally, I would consider it a "must read" for any self-professed militia expert. If memory serves me correctly, I purchased the book online on the Barnes and Noble website. It was relatively inexpensive.
Think about adding it to your Christmas list!

theotherryan said...

Kyle D, Point by point.

1. I disagree entirely. The inability to bring overwhelming force against a mutual enemy at a decisive point is a problem. Lets say you are oh fighting a bunch of Indians who have a relatively large group just going around causing trouble. A fer hundred militia here and a few hundred there and a few hundred in another place are not as useful as all of them coming together to attack at once.

Also examples of this religions/ province/ cultural groups militias being played against another group's militias are countless. That is how the Brits were so successful in India among other places.

2. Interesting point. I am not so much saying wars are not political but that we can politically create a conflict that can not be won.

3. Static defenses fail period.

4. As for where I am going on some of this stuff I am asking myself the same thing. More about how/ why/ what of my place here in the blogosphere than anything else.

I joined to protect my country.

5. Unless they crush the harassers. Many an indigenous population has been repressed for the long term.

4:42, I have lived in a mobile home during my life and recently in a mobile home park. As for ridiculous stereotypes I can not promise to move past them because I am irreverent and like to have some fun. Mainly I was using those words because that is how militias are widely portrayed these days. Plenty of people who are fat and or drunk and or live in trailers are my friends.

I don't think I claimed to be a militia expert, just a guy who thinks about stuff and writes what he thinks. I will keep the books in mind.

Kyle D said...


thanks for your quick responses. I enjoy how well your interact with your commentors.

As to the 1st point you make about militia's coming together to attack, I agree they would be more powerful attacking together. The point is if one militia is being attacked in New Hampshire, and I am a part of the Massachusetts militia, and we haven't been attacked, why must I be asked to fight for New Hampshire? If Indians (which is a poor example to continue using) attacked me as well, then why not band together for one attack or a series of attacks against the aggressor.

The point being unless force is used upon me, I should not be coerced into fighting.

The militia system is also better in that if any fighter disagreed with any part of the action that was happening, for instance if something was against his morals, he was free to walk away. In the modern military one that stands up against something being immoral is either lambasted as a rat or is shouted down, court martialed and given dishonorable discharges.

theotherryan said...

Kyle D, I sure try to be good with responses. I have been using the Indians analogy because by and large that is who colonial militias fought. The problem with your theory then and now is that I am talking about common enemies of all the militia groups in question. Instead of unifying and achieving proper mass to face the enemy and win they would stay in their towns or states and either be out of the fight entirely or have a serious disadvantage because there were too few of them. As for your last paragraph I will have to think on the pro's and cons of that one.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you ever read To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement. If not it is a great read, however the beginning is a little dry.

To me there are four types of militias out there.

The militias where the Klan has traded in white sheets for BDUs.

The militia were some very anti-government losers sit around blaming others for their problems.

The militia were a group of citizens activity practice for survival,protection, or future need.

Then the militia that we Constitutionally all belong to, but few know about. We the People are we the militia - it is the reason for the 2nd Amendment.

Freedom Strikes Back said...

The talk over local militas and if they should help their neighbor (other states, cities, etc.) is actually an issue the founders went through both during the war and after. What if the Georgia miltia (I know there were many but lets just use only one for this example) were asked to help South Carolina. They always feared that the British could land and invade their lands and they would be helpless to stop them being many miles away.

But, as TOR states, A large group would have a better chance repelling the British if they made land fall in South Carolina.

George Washington went through this very senerio during the siege of Boston. Many of the milita's from other states failed to see the point in being there when their towns were virtually unprotected (starvation, and cold winters helped too). Some hung around until their "draft" was up, but many left early making it that much harder to keep the seige. Fortunatley, he was able to keep the seige.

I can't help but think of the term "divide and conquer". The inablity, of many peoples througout history, to colaborate as one group/army has lead to many a defeat. American Indians, Medieval Europe, and Greek city states to name a few. Often they would finally band together but it was often too little, too late.

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