Among the many grievances stated in America’s Declaration of Independence was that King George kept standing armies in the colonies without the consent of colonial legislatures. It was the period following the French and Indian War and the British claimed they needed to defend its colony from a possible French or Spanish invasion. To support their troops they imposed a tax on the colonists, one of many that helped trigger the American Revolution. But what if Britain had instead taxed itself and given those funds to the colonial governors to defend themselves?
Now that may seem like a purely academic question, but if we look to the political unrest in Egypt, we’ll see a standing army empowered by American taxes. We supported the 30-year tyranny of Hosni Mubarak with more than $30 billion. And in March the Obama administration released $1.3 billion more despite the new government’s crackdown on pro-democracy forces. Now Egyptian military leaders have dissolved the country’s parliament and taken complete control of legislative lawmaking power.
But let’s go back to the 18th century as seeds of our nation were being fertilized. A decade before the battles of Lexington and Concord, Sir William Blackstone published the “Commentaries on the Laws of England.” In one of its 110 chapters the English jurist argued that professional armies “ought not to be permitted in time of peace.” He warned that while the military was supposedly standing in defense of a state that wasn’t at war that they could just as readily be used to repress the peoples’ liberties.
The Commentaries laid the groundwork for the colonists’ complaints about King George’s army occupying American soil. And it significantly influenced the development of our Constitution. There are scholars who believe Blackstone’s treatise is at the heart of the Second Amendment. They contend that the founding fathers believed the most reliable assurance against a repressive government was an armed population. Indeed, that was exactly how they brought about the end to King George’s tyranny. But how many of them would have rebelled had they been bribed to lead a colonial army loyal to the crown?
It’s a formula our government has used to spread its imperial weight around the world. For over a quarter century we supplied Iran with weapons and training that helped the Shah repress his people. Not long after he was ousted from power we gave military aid to Saddam Hussein for Iraq to be our proxy in a war with Iran. And during the past decade we sent more than $3 billion to Pakistan, much of which supported the military rule of President Pervez Musharraf.
Now what would happen if our government began to curtail our liberties at home? The fact is the size and technological might of our military has made the right to bear arms irrelevant as a means of resistance today. And relative to the size of the federal government it’s getting larger every year. Yet Congress won’t touch the Department of Defense budget because both parties sheepishly argue that America has dangerous enemies it must defend against.
“The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home” James Madison said in a speech during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In modern times it was Dwight Eisenhower who warned that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.” Sadly we have enough military bases all over the country to make both former presidents roll over in their graves.
If Congress continues to slash everything in our federal government except the military, the president and the generals he commands could wind up with so much power that Congress will be as feeble as its aspiring counterpart in Egypt. Don’t expect our governor or legislators to lead a freedom rally though, at least not in the full spirit of our Declaration of Independence. They love the standing armies we have here. It seems in that regard their loyalty has been bought by the billions of defense dollars coming to Alaska. They’re ignoring the warnings of the last general we elected president. And they’re deaf to the voices of America’s revolutionary leaders.
• Moniak is a resident of Juneau.