Militia Mythology

by Seth Finkelstein

With the rise of the "Militia Movement", a once-arcane topic of military structure has suddenly become a controversial subject. People are being told that they are members of a defense organization they've never heard about. Private quasi-armies are said to be as much a part of the Constitution as free speech or jury trials, and armed parading as much a right as having a parade. Unfortunately for the proponents of this cause, its tenets are utterly without support.

To start, I refer any "militia" supporters to the actual text of the Constitution, article I, section 8, which states:

The Congress shall have power: ...
To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
(emphasis added)
I do not know of any these "militia"s which recognizes the State's authority to appoint its officers and the authority of Congress with regard to *anything* affecting it. They are no militia in the Constitutional sense, and are much closer to the sort of "insurrections" that the real militia was designed to be called out against.

The resurrection of the concept of the militia in modern times has very little little to do with the defense duties in the original concept, and everything to do with the politics of gun control. It is not the purpose of this article to argue regarding an individual right of gun possession. That is far beyond the intended scope. What I say to the more level-headed people concerned with gun rights is to distance themselves from the Soldier-Of-Fortune fantasizers as much as possible. Such thugs have zero Constitutional justification, are real close to the legal line if not over it, and will do legitimate gun-rights far more harm than good by convincing people by abject demonstration that the debate is really about paramilitary gangs which accept no civilian authority but themselves.

The militia mythology seems to have developed as a direct response to a line of Second Amendment argument in the past few decades. The full text reads:

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 debate rages over the meaning of those phrases. On one side, "What part of "shall not be infringed" didn't you understand?", on the other, the "collective interpretation", which basically states that the right is only that of the States to keep the mentioned militia. Thus, if the right only refers to the people in an now-obsolete militia context, it becomes very much a guarantee inoperative in modern times.

Given this dispute, the driving force of militia mythology should be clearer. It's a rhetorical way of completely defeating the "collective interpretation", by saying that even if the context is restricted to the militia, that's practically everybody, everywhere, all the time, so that restriction is the aspect which is virtually inoperative.

The Second Amendment is very obscure nowadays, being rooted in historical rationale to a greater degree than many other aspects of the Bill of Rights. Individual possession of arms was certainly a thread of concern, but in terms of priority, it might lose out to the problem of the expense of funding a standing army. When actually reading through the history, it's apparent that there were a lot things going on in the original setup. The States were much more independent 200 years ago, they were more like little nations unto themselves, and feared the central government. They didn't want a big Federal army, and in fact the the US didn't have a large standing army until around WWII. Basically, the idea worked out to solve all these concerns (including personal bearing arms) by having an army system mostly maintained by the States themselves drawing from the populace in general. This concept has split in modern times into people saying that the Second Amendment is for the States to maintain militias against the Federal government, OR that it's about personal use. But really both concepts were deliberately linked, which is why the Second Amendment reads as it does, with a militia part and personal part. This isn't clear until you read some original sources, then it makes much more sense.

But again, this is a big problem for gun-rights advocates, because the intended militia system is utterly defunct nowadays (whatever archaic laws there are around). It never worked very well, but ironically it was really killed by RIGHT-WING militarism, which created a large standing peace-time army, something the Framers were utterly against (this is very rarely mentioned, as it's not something that's politically convenient). A private armed group in camouflage togs is much a militia as a gang in blue colors is a police force.

To try to get around this problem, the militia advocates have seized upon the phrase "unorganized militia" in the US regulations. The subtle rhetoric trick here is to claim the "unorganized militia", (a term simply meaning eligible citizens) is the same as the "organized militia" (a term meaning near-army) - EXCEPT when it comes to any State and Federal controls. They thus try to have it both ways, all the good things about the term (military connotations), without any of the restraints implied (government authority). However, it's very much an invention without any basis in fact. They just hope no-one in the audience knows enough history to call them on it, and they're often right.

But the propaganda here has it exactly backwards. The whole "unorganized militia" aspect was a much later legislative maneuver for people to GET OUT of the real (i.e. "organized") militia, akin to say getting out of the draft by being shuffled into a "reserve draft" category. It was for people to escape the conscription-like service requirements, not a license for private paramilitary groups. The structural details of the militia system were concerned with the extremely difficult task of funding and running an effective military without having a large standing army, and had nothing to do with individual gun rights. "Unorganized militia" in modern terms was more a draft-dodging loophole, not a Rambo clause.

It's something like if during the Vietnam War, people could get out of the draft by merely going into the "unorganized draft", which was supposed to come forth if the US was invaded by Vietnam. Formally, if you read that many decades later, you might naively think it actually implied some military service, whereas knowing the historical background gives it a very different aspect.

This whole "unorganized militia" banner is a bit like people calling themselves "draft dodgers", and then claiming veteran's preference because they've been part of a "dodged draft". The word simply means the opposite of what they think it means.

Militia mythology has a certain appeal, because of the resonance of the terms and the emotional tugs of local defense. But such a fiction will not survive the weakest scrutiny. The end result will only be to further associate guns with dangerous loonies.

For extensive historical discussion of the US militia system and many citations from original sources, see the excellent New Militia FAQ