Chapter 9: National Defense
9.1 National Defense in a Free Society (Part 2)
Raising an Army
Picking up from our review of the first major passage on preventing the warfare state, the second relevant passage covers both the laws for a militia and for waging warfare, all found in Deuteronomy 20:5–20. The first part of this covers the raising of a militia, in verses 1–9:
When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the LORD your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, “Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.” And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, “Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.” And when the officers have finished speaking to the people, then commanders shall be appointed at the head of the people.
There are several principles involved here. First, the militia is raised in a defensive situation. The Israelites are first confronted with the armies of their enemies before they begin this process. The principle here is that a militia is raised for the cause of repelling invaders.
Second, an army is religious in nature, for war is religious in nature: it is God’s judgment on earth, as we shall see later. So the first to speak to the assembled people (not yet an army) is a priest. The army is to be motivated by and finding their primary courage in the fact that God is with them. Now the people would already know for a fact that God does not approve of offensive wars, so had they been assembled for such, this motivational prayer would have been an act of public hypocrisy. And the people—not the government or the priesthood, nor any other top-down authority—have the final right to decide this. This prayer is a final reminder to the assembled men that ultimately God decides the outcomes of battles, and they should consider the call before them in such light.
Third, based on this fact of God’s sovereignty in the affairs of men, and building on God’s prohibition of offensive wars, God leaves the final decision of joining the fight up to the individuals themselves. This is apparent in the militia-raising process that follows. The militia was purely voluntary: anyone who had any unfinished business (whether property, business, or family) was given multiple clear notices, and allowed to leave. Able-bodied males over 20 years old were called, and by implication were expected to fight in any just cause. But the exit door was broadly open for a wide scope of reasons. The civil rulers were not allowed to make exceptions for anyone, but were required by God generally to let those who chose to abstain freely leave.
And if the latitude had not been given widely enough already—land, vineyards, wives—the Law mandated that anyone who was simply fearful could freely leave the militia: “Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go. . . .”
These “freely leaving” measures provided several benefits to the whole scenario: In case the militia had been organized for offensive or dubious purposes—most soldiers would leave, and the campaign would likely fall apart. When given a choice, people will not fight in these conditions. Yet in the case of a legitimate cause, the Law provided every possible out for the fearful, the distracted, worrisome, or otherwise distracted soldiers to be removed from the scene. This protected both those who left—who would not have fought wholeheartedly if at all—and also the willing soldiers who would not want to have to fight beside, or rely on, those with divided loyalty or lack of courage. The end result is, if the cause is just, the most willing, able, and focused army possible (Uriah’s unwillingness to leave his brethren in battle even at the behest of King David is evidence of this spirit; see 2 Sam. 11:11). At this point, the militia was raised. (Consequently also, if the cause were unjust and clearly so, there would be great difficulty on the part of the bloodthirsty, tyrannical government to raise much of a militia at all. A general lack of willingness would drive all those able bodied males readily to accept the various “outs” and leave little more than a meager force standing to serve the corrupt leaders.)
Finally, after all objectors and abstainers left, then and only then were commanders appointed. Note that the military leaders had to be appointed: for as there was no standing army, there would be no lifetime, career military men. There would, of course, probably always be veterans around, skilled in battle and administration from past wars, but these were to return to the private sector when the battle was over. Should another just cause arise, they would probably—though not necessarily—be appointed as commanders again.1
What is clear here is that God’s society has no allowance for a standing army and none for military conscription or draft. Indeed, a military conscription was simply another type of State slavery from which God had delivered Israel, and which He forbade their Kings to practice, as we saw above. And when Israel finally rejected God in choosing for themselves a king like other nations, military conscription was one of the curses which God said that tyrant would bring upon them (1 Sam. 8:11–12). Instead, God protected peace, freedom, and in giving His people every chance to leave a potential militia, He left the final judgment of any particular war’s justness with the individual—not the government. This is decentralization at its finest.
Contrast this with the modern American mentality in regard to the military and war. Not only have we had a draft in more than one instance, we have a tradition of ridiculing objectors, calling them cowards, traitors, and “un-American,” and in some cases even passing laws against detracting from a war effort or discouraging enlistment. From just what we have seen so far, this attitude can only be judged as ungodly—and God is no pansy when it comes to issues of war and judgment in the earth. He nevertheless has a higher standard for conscience and freedom. We have more often than not gotten his standard exactly backwards: whereas He gives men every opportunity to abstain from a battle and welcomes those who would leave to do so, we often force everyone to fight upon threat of civil penalties, or at least ridicule those who object. This is to place nationalism over godliness, and thus to make an idol of one’s nation or armed forces.
The Laws of Waging War
The second part of this passage (Deut. 20:10–20) covers the laws of war. Intertwined in this passage are several aspects pertaining only to Israel’s special situation in the land, yet since we also learn here the general principles of waging warfare, we must focus on these.
But before we can understand these rules of warfare, we have to understand their theological foundation in the laws concerning judgment of false witnesses. These appear in the previous chapter of Deuteronomy.
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deut. 19:15–21).
While not apparent at first, there is a profound connection with the rules of warfare. War is God’s judgment upon whole societies and nations, and it involves the ultimate sanction of God’s judgment in earth—the death penalty. For there to be a sanction of armed defense (especially to the point of killing the aggressor) lawfully applied, there must first have been an aggression that justifies it. Out of this principle comes the theory of “just war.” Thus any nation that acts with deadly force is by implication saying to its target, “You have committed an offense which justifies God’s judgment of the death penalty.”
At this point, the laws against false witness provide a check. Just as with individuals who bring false accusations, any nation aggressing against another without just cause is making that implied justification falsely. An unwarranted aggression is a false declaration of God’s judgment, which means also that those in charge of the decision to aggress have set themselves up as false prophets or even false gods. But God’s laws against false witness in regard to the death penalty state that the bearers of such false accusations themselves should receive the penalty in question—in this case, death or subjugation.
This is in part the theological justification for waging war against an aggressor nation. But unlike cases involving individuals, national disputes have no higher court other than God Himself to decide the evidence in the case and then punish a false witness. National leaders must deliberate among themselves and then, if the attack is unjustified, choose to enact the sanctions against the aggressor themselves. In the end, God will determine which cause was just—and this may very well reflect in the results on the battlefield.
Even at the point of defensive attack, however, the Bible calls leaders to offer terms of peace. They must allow for the admission of guilt on the part of the false-witness aggressor, and then allow the possibility of restitution and peaceful subjugation as opposed to bloodshed. This is a measure to advance peace over warfare. Thus we get to the passage on the laws of waging war:
When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. . . .
When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls (Deut. 20:10–20).
Be clear here: the “terms of peace” proposal is in no way to let the aggressor nation off the hook. They are instead to be forced into restitution and servitude. This does not require occupation necessarily, certainly not at the level of local taskmasters—that is not the point. The point will be civil atonement for the aggression, and the punishment must fit the crime. This is establishing a principle of war reparations to be paid by an entire generation of the aggressing nation. This is no light penalty, but it is just and is to be preferred above the waging of war for the preservation of social peace and life.
Nevertheless, if the aggressor refuses the terms—which would be to persist in declaring the validity of its false judgment—then war and bloodshed are justified, and should indeed be carried out as a matter of cosmic justice. But note, by looking at the big picture here, war and bloodshed are acceptable only in defense, and only as a last resort.
The laws pertaining to trees here sounds obscure and perhaps obsolete, but just the opposite is true: they have both fundamental theological significance and modern practical relevance. The theological significance lies in the significance fruit-bearing trees have for life (stemming all the way back to the Garden). Biblical economist Gary North addresses this issue with powerful insight:
This law of warfare reminded man that fruit-bearing trees sustain man’s life. For this reason, they must not be used to impose man’s death. . . .
This law makes it clear that holy warfare is not just a means of inflicting death and destruction. It is a means of extending life. Holy warfare is not destruction for destruction’s sake. It is destruction for God’s sake. There is an element of disinheritance in war, but it is always to be offset by an element of inheritance.2
The passage goes on to say that the Israelites could cut down non-fruit-bearing trees to make siegeworks—implements for battle in the days of walled cities. But these days ended with the invention of gunpowder and its application in the West in the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, the fruit trees must remain alive. The Israelites could eat the fruit, but must preserve the fruit-bearers.3
Both aspects of this law have modern applications. The destruction of-non fruit trees is still allowed, and has benefits in some conditions of war. Defoliants in jungle warfare are certainly allowable where necessary.4 Nevertheless, fruit trees are not to be cut to make war implements, certainly, but the theological principle of “that which sustains man’s life” has much broader modern applications than the narrow instances in which fruit trees could somehow serve as modern weaponry. The principle means also that crops must be preserved during times of war, as well as water sources and systems, livestock, beehives, and other sources of food and health. The doctrines of total warfare and “scorched earth policy” run completely counter to God’s law here. Deaths of innocent civilians, “collateral damage,” and destruction of private property in general should be condemned. Medical centers and pharmaceutical plants should remain protected. So should most factories and businesses—for these centers of economic production pertain directly to the sustenance of life for many people. Those factories directly involved in any war efforts, however, thereby include themselves in the hostilities, and therefore give up the protections afforded civilian life.
Biblical Ideals in America
So we have seen the basic biblical ideals for the state in regard to the military, the raising of a militia, and the waging of war. The reader will realize that we today are a long way from these ideals. But that has not always been the case in American history. In earlier times, we were closer to the biblical doctrines.
In fact, in early colonial times, we were much closer. The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the first legal code established in the Colonies and was written by a Puritan minister. It outlawed military conscription:
7. No man shall be compelled to go out of the limits of this plantation upon any offensive wars which this Commonwealth or any of our friends or confederates shall voluntarily undertake. . . .
This continued forty five years until usurped by Charles II and again by James II. Nevertheless, colonists were not regularly compelled to fight for Britain, even in their own colonies. In cases where local militia aided British “regulars” they were referred to as a secondary class, “provincials.” Yet these “provincial” militias were enough of a threat that the first thing the British tried to do at the outset of the American Revolution was disarm them. Indeed, it was Britain’s planned raid on their respective armories that led to the battles of Lexington and Concord.
During the American Revolution, recruitment was likely expected but still had a voluntary element. In one example, the famous Lutheran minister and friend of George Washington, John Muhlenberg, gave a rousing sermon on the “time for war.” At the end he disrobed to reveal his own full military regalia and encouraged men to enlist. He signed up three hundred on the spot. This was the common view up to the time: American military was by recruitment of a militia in response to a just cause. Thus a military historian reminds us, “Standing armies are a relatively recent institution in the history of warfare.”5
Many of the American Framers, having learned of and observed the militaristic imperialism in Europe, lauded individual arms and opposed standing armies on principle. Thus, in Federalist 46, Madison lauded
the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of all other countries. . . . Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.6
During the constitutional ratification convention in Virginia, George Mason recalled how Britain aimed “to disarm the people—that was the best and most effective way to enslave them.” This statement came on suspicion of the standing army which was proposed in the Constitution; he feared it would replace or overpower the State militias. The nationalists’ response, which was supposed to alleviate this fear, could only do so by presupposing that State militias and private gun ownership would remain the status quo and would be enough to deter a takeover by the national army. Noah Webster argued,
Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword, because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States.7
The British politician and reformer, James Burgh, whose work was very popular in the colonies (and influenced Jefferson), wrote in his Political Disquisitions (1774),
Those, who have the command of the arms in a country, says Aristotle, are masters of the state, and have it in their power to make what revolutions they please. . . . there is no end to observations on the difference between the measures likely to be pursued by a minister backed by a standing army, and those of a court awed by the fear of an armed people. . . . No kingdom can be secured otherwise than by arming the people. The possession of arms is the distinction between a freeman and a slave. . . .
Even Alexander Hamilton, besieged by anti-federalist complaints about a standing army under the proposed Constitution, proposed in Federalist 29 a militia training program and individual possession of arms:
[I]f circumstances should at any time oblige the [national] government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.
Unfortunately, as we shall see, Hamilton neither truly believed this nor intended to practice it once he and his nationalists got their way.
The anti-federalists remained closer to the older colonial view and greatly feared a standing army. We have already heard Mason in Virginia. Brutus in New York also held this view and would also fall for the nationalist/federalist response. He warned that the standing army was already planned by many of the nationalists and would become inevitable should the Constitution pass:
The idea that there is no danger of the establishment of a standing army, under the new constitution, is without foundation.
It is a well known fact, that a number of those who had an agency in producing this system, and many of those who it is probable will have a principal share in the administration of the government under it, if it is adopted, are avowedly in favor of standing armies. It is language common among them, “That no people can be kept in order, unless the government have an army to awe them into obedience; it is necessary to support the dignity of the government, to have a military establishment.” And there will not be wanting a variety of plausible reason [sic] to justify the raising one, drawn from the danger we are in from the Indians on our frontier, or from the European provinces in our neighborhood. If to this we add, that an army will afford a decent support, and agreeable employment to the young men of many families, who are too indolent to follow occupations that will require care and industry, and too poor to live without doing any business[,] we can have little doubt, but that we will have a large standing army, as soon as the government can find money to pay them, and perhaps sooner.8
Centinel (probably Judge George Bryan or his son, Samuel, of Philadelphia), feared the broad military power given to Congress. Speaking of Article 1, Section 8 of the proposed Constitution, he wrote,
This section will subject the citizens of these States to the most arbitrary military discipline, even death may be inflicted upon the disobedient; in the character of a [national] militia, you may be dragged from your families and homes to any part of the continent, and for any length of time, at the discretion of a future Congress: and as a militia, you may be made the unwilling instruments of oppression, under the direction of government; there is no exemption upon account of conscientious scruples of bearing arms; no equivalent to be received in lieu of personal services. The militia of Pennsylvania may be marched to Georgia or New-Hampshire, however incompatible with their interests or consciences;—in short, they may be made as mere machines as Prussian soldiers.9
The State of Pennsylvania—being populated largely by Quakers and other conscientious objectors to war—saw the same concerns addressed in a report of the Minority’s “Dissent” to its Convention. Along with several other changes to the proposed constitution, the Minority proposed that “as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not be kept up.”10 The “Dissent” also warned that a standing army may be used to enforce the collection of taxes, and to enforce any laws it creates from which even the majority of people dissent.11 This would be “inconsistent with every idea of liberty.” (We will see an example of these concerns coming to fruition in the next section.) The report warned, “[F]or the same force that may be employed to compel obedience to good laws, might and probably would be used to wrest from the people their constitutional liberties.”12 The Minority certainly did not trust the Convention:
The framers of this constitution appear to have been aware of this great deficiency; to have been sensible that no dependence could be placed on the people for their support: but on the contrary, that the government must be executed by force. They have therefore made a provision for this purpose in a permanent standing army, and a militia that may be subjected to as strict discipline and government.13
Luther Martin, who had been a delegate, addressed the Maryland Assembly in regard to the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention: “It was further observed, that when a government wishes to deprive their citizens of freedom, and reduce them to slavery, it generally makes use of a standing army for that purpose, and leaves the militia in a situation as contemptible as possible, least they might oppose it arbitrary designs.”14 Nevertheless, he continues to reveal, this concern and many like it were steamrolled by a single majority vote on the floor.
“John DeWitt” of Boston saw the constitutional grant of power for a standing national army as the beginning of the subversion of State militias, and all defenses of that power were but cover for the greater plan of centralization. But it needed to start as only an apparently small grant of power, for “They are aware of the necessity of catching Samson asleep to trim him of his locks.” He added,
It is asserted by the most respectable writers on Government, that a well regulated militia, composed of the yeomanry of the country have ever been considered the bulwark of a free people; and, says the celebrated Mr. Hume, “without it, it is folly to think any free government will have stability and security. . . .” It is universally agreed, that a militia and a standing body of troops never flourished on the same soil. Tyrants have uniformly depended upon the latter at the expense of the former. . . . No, my fellow-citizens, this plainly shews they do not mean to depend upon the citizens of the States alone to enforce their powers, wherefore it is their policy to neglect them, and lean upon something more substantial and summary.15
The principle that the militia should be decentralized, local, and composed of “yeomanry of the country” parallels the biblical ideal that rulers should be from among their own people. If they are not, they have less interest in the land and the people they are supposed to defend. The Federal Farmer recognized this problem, and thus warned “that all regulations tending to render this general militia useless and defenceless, by establishing select corps of militia, or distinct bodies of military men [both instances of a central army], not having permanent interests and attachments in the community to be avoided.”16 In a much earlier essay, the same writer expressed—as did many of the writers on both sides—that the Constitution would lead eventually to a civil war. The Federal Farmer argued this could happen in two ways, and a national, central army would be the key factor in one of them. He wrote,
No position can be truer than this, that in this country either neglected laws or a military execution of them, must lead to a revolution, and to the destruction of freedom. Neglected laws must first lead to anarchy and confusion; and a military execution of laws is only a shorter way to the same point—despotic government.17
We could follow with yet further quotations showing a general fear and suspicion of standing armies and centralized armies in the United States, or the Colonies, before the Constitution. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence itself states that one of the colonists’ grievances against George III was that he “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.” This was one of the very reasons American declared independence to begin with!
Nevertheless, despite the few dozen grievances listed, the colonists followed the biblical principle of making war a last resort, making numerous appeals for peaceful redress to both the King and the British people:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. . . .
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
This principle and the discipline to apply it exhibit strongly the Reformed Christian heritage—so much of which the early Puritans brought with them to this land. John Calvin himself had urged the use of war only as a last resort: if Kings
must arm themselves against the enemy, that is, the armed robber, let them not lightly seek occasion to do so; indeed, let them not accept the occasion when offered, unless they are driven to it by extreme necessity. For . . . surely everything else ought to be tried before recourse is had to arms.18
Calvin’s colleague Pierre Viret was even more tenacious on the subject. He called war a “sickness” and said “there is nothing which Christians should be more wary to employ nor which is less suited to their profession.”19 Distinguished Professor Robert D. Linder notes how Viret “denounced those who made their living manufacturing military equipment and munitions,” for it was pursued in view of profit via the shedding of blood.20 The resulting military-industrial complex, he argued in so many words, then had an interest in creating and sustaining more and more wars: it magnified the differences between peoples so that “hateful, ambitious, greedy people who hoped to profit from the war” increased their chances. He considered the wars of religion as largely products of such avaricious greed.21 While he believed in a doctrine of just war, he also thought it should be used only as an absolute last resort, for even just wars have unwelcome consequences.
These beliefs are, of course, merely extensions of the laws of kings and the laws of warfare taken from Scripture above. There were to be no standing armies and no large treasury from which the king could draw to fund a war. And every measure was to be taken to avoid war when necessary.
These theological principles held by the early American colonies helped them retain much of this spirit of peace and reasonableness. While certainly not developing a fully biblical view of military and war, the colonies were certainly much closer than America today. But those earlier principles were compromised already at the Constitution, making even some of the grievances of the Declaration—just eleven years prior—appear hypocritical to many of our ancestors. In the years that followed—the Civil War, and the subsequent Progressive Era of empire for starters—the principles are more and more abused. We will, of course, cover in the next section more about how these ideals of freedom were lost and further compromised.
Next section: War and the military: How freedom was lost (beginnings)
- In such a free society, there would probably also exist private institutions providing combat training and skills during peacetime, thus keeping military skills and knowledge in the land sharp during peacetime, yet unavailable as a political resource.(↩)
- Gary North, Inheritance and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Deuteronomy, 4 vols. (Harrisonburg, VA: Dominion Education Ministries, Inc., 2003), 759.(↩)
- Gary North goes on to discuss several implications of this law in Israel’s context.(↩)
- See North, 769.(↩)
- Mark Mayo Boatner, III, “Militia in the American Revolution,” Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York: David McKay Company, 1966), 705.(↩)
- Quoted in Lawrence D. Pratt, “Tools of Biblical Resistance,” in Tactics of Christian Resistance, ed. by Gary North (Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983), 441–442. This quotation, and others below, are found in The Right to Keep and Bear Arms: Report of the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary in the United States Senate, Ninety-Seventh Congress, Second Session (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982), unpaginated.(↩)
- Quoted in Pratt, 441.(↩)
- Strong, 2:410–411.(↩)
- Storing, 2:160–161.(↩)
- Storing, 3:151.(↩)
- Storing, 3:162, 163–4.(↩)
- Storing, 3:163–4.(↩)
- Storing, 3:164.(↩)
- Storing, 2:59.(↩)
- Storing, 4:36–37.(↩)
- Storing, 2:341, emphasis added.(↩)
- Storing, 2:234.(↩)
- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.12 (Battles’ translation).(↩)
- Quoted in Robert D. Linder, “Pierre Viret: A Christian View of War,” Faith for All of Life, March/April 2011: 9, 10.(↩)
- Linder, 10.(↩)
- Linder, 10.(↩)