Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where Is My Village Militia?

For some time I have been intrigued, perhaps even troubled, by today's title question. In days past, every adult male - or nearly every - would serve in his village militia. Something of the sort existed in Anglo-Saxon England, when the Normans invaded in 1066, and continued to exist into the 19th century in the United States. The primary purpose of this militia was to defend the village, either from marauders (such as American Indians) or to participate in a larger defensive effort against an invading army. On the side, the village militia might be called out from time to time to help with manhunts or crowd control. Nevertheless, this was fundamentally a civilian organization, and so it served only occasionally.

Participating in the village militia was once an integral part of republican life, but where is the village militia today? How do I fulfill this long-standing duty?

The simple fact of the matter is that my village - College Station, TX - has no militia. Even if it did, it would be largely pointless. If a Chinese army comes rolling through College Station, America is in serious trouble, probably something far bigger than a militia could handle. As for marauders, thankfully there are none these days. And modern policing means manhunts are few and the forces to conduct them already in place. (Admittedly, I could become a police officer or sheriff's deputy, but these are full time jobs, no the part time work of a republican citizen.)

The most obvious candidate for the modern militia is the National Guard. While this is an admirable force which does many important things, even it is something different than the militia of old. This is, in large part, the result of the changing nature of conflict. In Anglo-Saxon England, an army consisted almost entirely of village militia (fyrd) members, with a sprinkling of professional housecarls in the king's retinue. That was it. No air support, no supplies, no intelligence service. Maybe a couple stray monks acted as messengers and diplomats, if their services were needed. It was a pretty lean operation. Even in the 19th century, the villager with his musket remained of primary importance.

But the nature of conflict has changed. While the infantryman remains central and essential to warfare, he now has artillery, armor and air support aiding him. He is backed by a massive logistical tail. And behind the logicians stand an army of bureaucrats who file paperwork on benefits, write contracts for equipment and manage massive budgets. Engineers design gizmos of every sort to support the war effort. And then there are those beyond the military and its supporting elements: there are countless intelligence agencies, diplomats, economists and analysts of every strip involved in our nation's national security process. If they could all be tabulated, we would find that not only is the infantryman in the minority, but even the military itself no longer plays the overwhelming role it once did. Thus, joining the National Guard would provide support to one aspect of our nation's security, but only one.

The second problem with the village militia/National Guard parallel is that today's Guardsmen are really professional - if part time - soldiers. They fight in distant wars, not in the environs of their home. One can argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought to protect American homes, and perhaps they are, but this is hardly the same as standing within sight of your own property and bodily defending it. Not only is the obvious motivation for fighting lost, but so is a certain advantage. The militiaman knows his home terrain and draws his supplies from his own home and neighbors. Today's Guardsmen, fighting halfway around the world, enjoy no such advantages.

To find the modern parallel to the old republican militia, we must first ask: what threatens my home and family? The answers are many: burglars and muggers, flooding, Chinese cyberattacks, Russian cybercriminals, Islamic terrorists, manipulation of oil prices by foreign powers... The list could go on and one. Suffice it to say, we can identify two qualities of these threats: they are generally unlikely and they are incredibly diverse. And, with few exceptions, there are no militia to meet them. There might be a neighborhood watch I could join or a county emergency volunteer program, but there are no weekend cyberwarriors of which I am aware, nor militias which participate in part time economic warfare. Nor have I seen any signs of an on-call intelligence outfit of citizens-spies.

Where is my village militia?

Perhaps the village militia is gone for good. Perhaps it has become defused over countless volunteer and professional organizations. For now, I shall keep looking. And if you find it, please send me a note.

Today's image depicts a Massachusetts militia muster, c. 1637. The work was done by Don Troiani for the National Guard Heritage Series.
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