The Anglosphere Constitutional Tradition and War

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

I just finished reading James C. Bennett’s The Anglosphere Challenge, and I particularly enjoyed this passage on The Anglosphere Constitutional Tradition and War:

Anglo-American tradition had always held that the executive, whether Crown or White House, could not engage the country in war without presenting to the populace, as represented by the legislature, the reasons for the war and obtaining approval. These checks and balances came in several forms. One was the raising of funds earmarked for the conflict, in the form of appropriations and special levies approved by the legislature, and subscriptions and loans volunteered by the financial community and general public. A second was the response of the people to a call for military volunteers, in the form of voluntary enlistment and a willingness of the militias to respond to a call for mobilization. The third was the traditional sentiment in both England and America against maintaining a large standing army, or even a military establishment, in time of peace.

That last point is more interesting than I first realized.

Historically, there was no national army, and the Crown had to call on nobles and burghers to provide men and equipment to wage war — that’s what Parliament was in large part for — but Cromwell’s professional New Model Army changed all that. It also validated fears of a standing army by intervening in politics:

Much of the political effort of the Restoration was devoted to preventing the concentration of power that the New Model Army represented. Britain, the United States, and the British colonies followed the subsequent military model through 1914.

This model was based, fundamentally, on the militia system. The “general militia” was defined as the armed populace of the country, organized on a county-by-county basis. Those who trained regularly and were preorganized into units having a dedicated function in wartime were known as “select militia.” In time of war, this militia was to form the core of the army, along with the royal bodyguard regiments and any additional new regiments raised specifically for that war. Permanent peacetime military forces were viewed with such suspicion, constitutionally, that even select militia training was opposed by most Whigs throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

There were several important exceptions. It was recognized that specialized bodies of military experts could not be trained up quickly in emergencies, but would have to be maintained in time of peace. Artillerymen were the most obvious example; fortification engineers were another. To maintain this expertise, specialized bodies such as the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers were established and maintained.

Note the terminology. Contemporaries, ignorant of the constitutional purpose behind the Anglo-American military structure, idly wonder why the British Air Force and Navy are termed “Royal” while the Army is merely the “British Army.”

This terminology is not a piece of historical trivia: it reflects and illustrates a specific constitutional point. “Royal” forces are permanent forces of the state, maintained even in peacetime.
Therefore, while the British Army is not a “Royal” force, those parts of it that historically had to be maintained in peacetime are. Examples include the artillery or engineers: Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, and so on. The Royal patronage of various individual regiments comes originally from their origin as the personal bodyguard of the king — the Coldstream Guards, Horse Guards, and the like. Another force of troops maintained in peacetime was the category of “guards and garrisons” — troops manning forts at home and overseas. This category constituted most of the nonspecialist peacetime standing forces maintained by the British military from the Restoration until the post-1918 era.

Since it was recognized that maintenance of the freedom of international commerce and other necessary functions of government might require small-scale exercise of military force, one standing land force was earmarked for that purpose — the Royal Marines, maintained as an adjunct of the Royal Navy. The navy was ever landing small parties of marines to deal with pirates or piratical small tyrants, especially in areas such as North Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia (all of which, for that matter, remain troublesome nests of piracy to this day). An examination of the use of the Royal Marines, and subsequently the U.S. Marines, demonstrates how the structure of the armed forces under the Anglo-American civil constitution historically served to create an effective barrier to the abuse of the war-making power. Small-scale interventions have been, and will probably continue to be, an inevitable adjunct of the functions of a large country with worldwide trade and maritime activities. The need to deal with organized ideological-religious terrorist groups, larger than gangs but smaller than states, makes it all the more likely that small-scale armed expeditions will be an ongoing feature of contemporary affairs.

Traditionally, intervention using the navy and marines could be done on the initiative of the executive without the explicit sanction of Parliament. When the problem became too large and army troops had to be raised (since there were so few permanent troops, to send any overseas almost always implied raising them), the Crown was required to go to Parliament for an authorization for troops and funds. In the course of this process, the goals and objectives of the conflict could be thoroughly debated, and the costs and benefits to the country weighed. The subsequent call for volunteers and appeal for subscriptions and loans gave the country an additional opportunity to demonstrate its enthusiasm or lack thereof for the conflict in question. The bias against standing armies was so great that the term “British Army” was not used in official language, like acts of Parliament during peacetime, until 1745. (Appropriations for existing forces were earmarked for “guards and garrisons.”)

America followed this tradition, and for many years the US had a Department of the Navy and a Department of War:

Why was the army’s department the department of “War” while the navy’s was titled the “Navy”? Was not the navy also involved in war? The point, now lost, was that the navy was intended to function in peace as well as war, while the army was expected to exist (except for its few necessarily permanent functions) only in time of war.

The very small standing army compromised a few specialists who needed specialized training:

The old fort of West Point was turned into an engineering school (the first and, for decades, the only such in the country) to provide the specialists needed to maintain these functions. Unlike European military academies, which concentrate on teaching the methods and history of war, West Point was created as, and until recently remained, an engineering school. In fact, for much of its first century, West Point functioned more as a polytechnic school on the model of the French Grandes Écoles — a Republic-wide resource for technical talent. West Point graduates often found themselves loaned out to private railroad or other civil engineering projects, and in fact, many did not pursue a military career at all after graduation.

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