Viewpoint: A Libertarian Critique of the Military


Mr. Jerry Norton is one of the brighter lights among the younger conservatives writing today, a former editor of Young Americans for Freedom's monthly, NEW GUARD, and now finishing a post-grad year at Columbia Journalism School. He came to his YAF position from Oregon and a stint in the United States Army, including a year in Vietnam during the early 1970's. And he came up to Boston the other day to lecture on matters military to my Harvard University (Institute of Politics) class on "Big Brother as Tarzan: A Right-wing Critique of the State."

Like all conservatives, Mr. Norton sees a legitimate role for the government in our lives. Like all but the most zealous of libertarians, he would have that role confined largely to matters of protection against aggression and provision for peaceful adjudication of disputes; i.e., he considers the military, properly restrained police forces, and the legal system as acceptable minima of government.

He is rare, however, in going beyond the rote libertarian triad—army, cops, and court; army, cops, and court—and actually considering the military in both its necessary and undesirable aspects. Of the necessary purposes of the military, nothing need be said here now. But the military as a collectivist monstrosity (my term, with which I saddled his talk on my course syllabus) is another matter, and one to which Jerry Norton has given considerable thought.

Norton cast his lecture in the framework of a paradox: the military is essential to preserve our liberties, he contends; yet it exemplifies in many ways precisely those collectivist and anti-freedom characteristics against which many conservatives and almost all libertarians regularly crusade. Not only in the early period of basic training, but also throughout a soldier's term in the military, many of the freedoms we civilians take for granted are severely restricted if not actually denied. Granting, as Jerry Norton does, that military discipline is justified within the context of creating The Good Soldier, and all that; still, what justifies the other deprivations of liberty?

The soldier in basic training is regularly denied opportunities for communication with the outside world. He even finds it extremely difficult, sometimes impossible, to contact friends in other brigades within the same unit at the same training base. He may not engage in political activities, his freedom of speech is drastically abridged, his every waking hour is programmed.

Following basic training, the soldier is obliged by contract—his enlistment papers, now that the draft is at least temporarily inoperative—to serve for a specified number of years. Unlike the civilian, who can quit his job if it displeases him, the soldier is stuck for the duration, except under the most extreme circumstances. Chalk them up: freedom of speech, freedom of political activity, freedom of contract (which includes the right to exit from as well as enter into a contract), freedom of association: all are less in the lives of an American soldier than in those of the civilian.

It is indeed a paradox for the libertarian (or libertarian-conservative). The military is A Good Thing, but military life encompasses many bad aspects which may exist for no particularly valid reason of military discipline whatsoever.

Jerry Norton is by no means a crusader against the military. He volunteered for service, performed honorably, and frequently speaks—and eloquently—against blanket amnesty. He was an early spokesman within the youthful Right for the volunteer army, and is often heard in the media defending the volunteer military both as concept and as practice. But he is genuinely and deeply concerned about the paradox he outlined the other day at Harvard. His concern impressed me, and the force of his low-key and genial argument made a powerful impression on me and my students alike.

It may be that the paradox is unresolveable. More likely, as Norton would (and does) insist, it is not insoluble. At Harvard Mr. Norton did not elaborate on proposals for confronting the problem, but they are implicit in what he said: reduce to the absolute minimum those infringements on basic American liberties, even for the soldier in that necessary institution of society, the military. The army not infrequently lies to the volunteer, promising him many options but in practice determining his service path and duty station. This, Norton contends, is unnecessary and violative of the necessary function of the armed forces.

Need one go the whole route with the anarcho-capitalist ultra-libertarians, who say that we can get along with no military at all? I think not. But Jerry Norton's calmly reasoned critique of the military sets one to wondering.

David Brudnoy teaches at Boston College and the University of Rhode Island, and recently completed a year with the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. Dr. Brudnoy's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Murray Rothbard and Tibor Machan.