In the early 21st Century, the United States is by far the world's dominant military power. Indeed, the military budget of the United States is nearly as large as the rest of the world put together. While it is basic common sense for the nation to take adequate measures to guarantee its security, the massive American military expenditures every year certainly raise eyebrows, especially in an age of severe budget pressures and a rapidly increasing national debt.
If Jefferson could see the American military of the modern age, he would be very confused and not a little frightened. Jefferson was deeply opposed to the existence of a standing army. Not only was a large standing army a massive weight on the national budget, but it could potentially entice the national leadership to military adventurism of the kind undertaken by the Bush administration in Iraq. Even worse, it could potentially be used by the political faction in power to suppress the opposition by force, as Alexander Hamilton threatened to do to the political followers of Jefferson.
Jefferson would be mystified at the permanent American military deployments overseas, wondering why we have tens of thousands of soldiers in places like Germany, South Korea, and Japan. More to the point, he would wonder why the United States feels it necessary to maintain a massive standing army at all, when defense is easily provided by sufficient naval strength in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The current regular United States Army is made up of ten divisions, six independent brigades or regiments, and large numbers of independent smaller units. The personnel for these units are full-time regular soldiers, a substantial portion of whom intend the Army to be their lifetime career. Regular full-time strength of the Army is around 550,000 men. The Army Reserve contributes another 200,000 men.
For Jefferson, the ideal means of ensuring national security rested primarily with the militia system of the individual states. The state militia could be used by the individual governors to deal with immediate emergencies, such as Indian attacks or slave uprisings. In the unfortunate event of a major war with a foreign power, the first line of defense would be provided by the militia units, until a regular army could be raised by the federal government. In peacetime, only a small federal army should exist, to serve as the core of a large federal army needed in the event of war.
The idea of a national defense secured by a small regular army supplemented by militia units, which can be quickly expanded if necessary, has achieved great success in many countries. Indeed, it is the concept behind the structure of the Israeli Defense Forces, which has proven to be an astoundingly successful military force over the last six decades. And the United States has a ready-made organization to transform our current, bloated military into a fighting force more Jeffersonian: the National Guard.
The Army National Guard has eight divisions and a large number of independent service brigades. Unlike the personnel of the regular Army, the men and women of the National Guard are not full-time professionals, but reservists. They serve, as the motto states, "one weekend a month and two weeks a year." When not training or on actual duty, the men and women of the National Guard are ordinary citizens, working ordinary jobs and living ordinary lives. During peacetime, they may be called into service by their state's governor in the event of an emergency, such as civil unrest or a natural disaster, but they can also be called into federal service in the event of war.
Recently, National Guard units have served with a high degree of effectiveness in both Afghanistan and Iraq. At any given time, between a quarter and a half of all American personnel in the conflict zones have been members of the National Guard. By all accounts, the performance of the National Guardsmen has been excellent.
21st Century Jeffersonians should favor a complete revamping of America's military policy, and the National Guard should play a major role in this. An ideal policy would include a massive reduction of the active-duty military (including the termination of most, if not all, of our permanent overseas deployments) and a shift in reliance from the regular units to the National Guard. In the event of a war with a foreign power, the National Guard could serve as the core of a great national army, and would be returned to its ordinary state once the war was concluded.
Such a policy would allow the United States to maintain a more-than-sufficient ability to defend itself, especially as our security is mostly dependent upon sea and air power in any event. It would also allow us to significantly reduce military expenditures, vastly relieving pressure on the federal budget. Perhaps most importantly, it would remove the temptation for military adventurism that brought such disastrous results to the country during the Bush administration. And American society would also be enriched by the contributions of hundreds of thousands of citizens whose energies would otherwise be sadly devoted to destructive ends.