The Need for a Modern American Militia

By Atkeson, Edward B.; McCoskey, James L. | Army, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The Need for a Modern American Militia


Atkeson, Edward B., McCoskey, James L., Army


Augmentation for the National Guard on the Home Front

No American military organization has suffered more severe criticism-or won greater praise-from its supreme commander than the state militia in the 18th century. On the one hand, George Washington damned it as a group of "men accustomed to unbounded freedom and no control." He wrote to Congress:

To place any dependence upon Militia is, assuredly, resting on a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender scenes of domestik life, unaccustomed to the din of arms, totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, ... when opposed to troops regularly trained, disciplined, ... [are] timid and ready to fly from their own shadows.

On the other hand, he lauded three of its members at Tappan, N.Y., awarding silver medals-the only ones authorized by Congress during the Revolution-to militiamen who had the perspicacity to arrest the disguised Maj. John Andre, Adjutant General of the British army, after his meeting with the traitor, Benedict Arnold. Behind his contempt for undisciplined armed men, Washington remembered that the war had begun with just such men standing their ground at Concord Bridge and firing "the shot heard around the world." As for the British, Kevin Phillips, author of The Cousins' Wars, wrote that they had reason to be especially worried about New England. "Its militia," he said, "swarmed on a rumor-or on the approach of an unidentified dust cloud."

Today the term "militia" has more connotations than Washington apparently had in mind. In one meaning, it incorporates the entire body of physically fit male civilians eligible by law for military service. In another, it is an organized citizen army, but distinct from a body of professional soldiers. In between, the American Heritage Dictionary offers us "armed citizenry," which has alternatively been interpreted as an officially recognized force liable to call in time of emergency to augment regular forces, or simply armed groups of citizens with their own sense of purpose, including outdoor recreation. Many individuals and organizations today look to the second Amendment of the Constitution to protect their right to carry arms for whatever purpose they see fit. It reads simply:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The Constitution is quite specific in its recognition of requirements for both federal armed forces and local militia for protection of and the defense of the nation in time of emergency. Article II, section 2, prescribes that "the President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States." It is less specific about how "organized" the militia should be, but the Militia Law of 1792 made every white male citizen between the ages of 18 and 45 subject to call for up to three months' duty. The law was little used during the first half of the 19th century, but gradually, over time, elite volunteer units of the states began to refer to themselves as a "National Guard."

It was not until 1903 that the Guard, equipped by the federal government, but under state control, as we know it today, came into existence. Thirteen years later, under the developing pressure of World War I in Europe, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916, clarifying the federal authority for calling the National Guard to duty under federal control and formalizing the "dual hat" federal/state status. After the United States entered the conflict, the National Guard would provide 17 of the 42 Army divisions mobilized. The possibility that the Guard's dual missions might sometime result in a competition between Washington and the state capitals for the services of the same troop resources slid quietly by.

Fortunately, during the last year of the war, when U. …

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