The Corner

Would a Libertarian Military Be More Lethal?

This may come as a surpise to some — especially considering that each and every member of the military is of course a government employee — but there is a very strong libertarian streak running within the United States military, particularly the lower and middle ranks. I wrote during the 2012 primary season about the appeal Ron Paul held for soldiers, and while others’ experience may differ (military readers, please feel free to set me straight in the comments), I’m noticing military libertarianism increasing, not decreasing, among the more politically aware and engaged officers and enlisted.


I can think of two primary reasons. First, experience with military bureaucracy certainly helps one comprehend the frustrations and insanity of big government run amok. As a military lawyer — and thus perceived more as part of the problem than part of the solution — I spend much of my time aghast at the sheer amount of paperwork required to approve the most simple tasks (and do my best to facilitate rather than impede efficiency). Military discipline has become indescribably complex, providing malingerers and malcontents almost limitless opportunities to frustrate commanders’ intent and impair the morale and effectiveness of his or her unit. To the extent the military functions well, it functions well because of the character of the men and women who join and in spite of the bureaucracy. But even the best and brightest find the bureacracy so unmanageable, so fundamentally irrational and unfair, that the armed forces are bleeding talent at an alarming rate.

Second — and critically — more than a decade of combat in the heart of the Muslim world has made veterans exceedingly cynical about the prospects for continued nation-building and counterinsurgency. If one goes beyond the PowerPoints and drive-through or walk-through battlefield tours and actually spends time in the towns and villages of Iraq and Afghanistan — actually experiences life as it is lived in those cultures — nation-building feels futile. We can engage and destroy the enemy whenever he shows himself, but creating a decent culture out of the utter darkness of fundamentalist Islam and tribal factionalism is a bridge too far for men and women in uniform. Thousand-year-old customs can’t be changed by civil-affairs engagements and irrigation projects, and demanding respect for a faith when the problem is the faith as practiced, well, that just strains credulity.

I supported counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan in large part because I saw full-blown counterinsurgency as the only means for achieving necessary stability as a prelude to disengagement and a restoration of Iraqi and Afghan sovereignty on acceptable terms. As our experience in Iraq demonstrates, counterinsurgency can be effective in defeating terrorists, but the jury is out (to say the least) on its ability to foster and sustain viable civilian governments in the absence of any meaningful democratic traditions.

Frustration with bureaucracy and deep skepticism of nation-building and foreign entanglements should not be confused with weakness or wishful thinking (some civilian libertarians seem downright magical in their understanding of the intentions of our enemies and the real-world effect of disengagement). Military libertarians tend to know how savage our enemy is. Moreover, they have no hesitancy to use overwhelming force in defense of the nation. After all, national defense is a core function of government even in a more libertarian state. In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, thoughtful military libertarians tend to advocate something we haven’t really tried in our more than decade-long fight against Islamic jihad — the relatively brief application of truly overwhelming destructive force against identified enemies.

That’s why I wonder if a libertarian military might be more lethal, even on smaller budgets. A trimmed-down bureaucracy, an increased emphasis on the destructive rather than nation-building capabilities of the force under arms, and doctrines designed to inflict maximum (non-nuclear) destruction on enemy forces rather than transforming and democratizing communities — all of this could add up to a more lethal (yet smaller) military.  

Among the more promising aspects of Rand Paul’s foreign policy address to the Heritage Foundation were his clear identification of our enemy and his realization that they can’t be appeased:

Some libertarians argue that western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam – I agree. But I don’t agree that absent western occupation that radical Islam “goes quietly into that good night.” I don’t agree with FDR’s VP Henry Wallace that the Soviets (or radical Islam in today’s case) can be discouraged by “the glad hand and the winning smile.”

And . . .

Radical Islam is no fleeting fad but a relentless force. Though at times stateless, radical Islam is also supported by radicalized nations such as Iran. Though often militarily weak, radical Islam makes up for its lack of conventional armies with unlimited zeal.

With these statements, Senator Paul demonstrated more clarity about our enemy than the Obama administration has throughout five years of combat. Now, the key is to supplement that clarity with a coherent doctrine that combines respect for liberty and the desire for a leaner military with overwhelming destructive force applied to our enemies. Senator Paul has a budget plan, but a budget plan isn’t military doctrine, and that’s the next step for a libertarian movement that is growing more compelling with each governmental failure.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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