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The Curse of Standing Armies

Review of Joel McDurmon, The Bible & War in America: A Biblical View of an American Obsession and Steps to Recover Liberty (America Vision, 2012), vii + 107 pgs., paperback, $12.95.

Joel McDurmon is Director of Research at American Vision, not to be confused with Vision America. He is also a lecturer, a preacher, and the author of a powerful little new book, The Bible & War in America: A Biblical View of an American Obsession and Steps to Recover Liberty (hereafter The Bible & War in America).

McDurmon is also the author of Restoring America One County at a Time, God Versus Socialism, and several other books. He explains in his preface that The Bible & War in America is an expanded version of a chapter from his larger book Restoring America One County at a Time.

Although the book is not about standing armies per se, if there is one theme that resonates throughout this book, it is the curse of standing armies:

No tyranny can rule without military force, and when a central government has access to a standing army, then not even long traditions, faith, or well-entrenched legal systems can constrain a tyrant’s whim.

A standing army is a perpetual temptation for a king to impose his will by force somewhere, if not abroad in imperial conquest, then in tyranny upon the people at home – or both.

But McDurmon doesn’t stop there: “The lust for a standing army transforms the entire character of a nation from liberty to centralized nanny-state.” The welfare and warfare states are “evil twins, constantly feeding and empowering the other.” They are “one and the same, fueled by the same lusts, toward the same ends, by the same spirit.”

Because he writes from a Christian perspective, McDurmon is distressed that “many Christians uncritically praise every advance of American ship and jet, hailing every missile strike with strains of ‘God Bless America.’” Thus, he emphasizes that if

American Christians, especially fundamentalists and evangelicals, are serious about the Bible and biblical freedom, they have got to end their love affair with America’s standing army. It is unbiblical; it is outrageously, unbiblically expensive; and it is invasive, destructive, and deadly, most often not in pure defense.

The Bible & War in America is in three parts. Part 1 presents the biblical teaching on war and the military. The author finds it so “contrary to what we have know and come to accept as normal, that were it not God’s Own Word, many Americans would refuse even to tolerate hearing it for a second.” Part 2, which takes up a majority of the book, is a survey of American history as it relates to the rise of a standing army, the destruction of the Militia, the centralization of state power during wartime, and the establishment of the Total State. Part 3 provides practical steps that individuals can take to restore the freedoms they once had in the areas of war and the military.

In part 1, McDurmon focuses mainly on two passages of Scripture from the Book of Deuteronomy.

Based on the laws for kings in Deuteronomy 17, and especially the prohibition against multiplying horses (Deut. 17:16), McDurmon concludes that a king is forbidden offensive armies, standing armies, imperialism, conscription, foreign alliances, and a large public treasury.

Based on the laws for warfare in Deuteronomy 20, McDurmon concludes that war and bloodshed are acceptable only in defense, only after terms of peace are offered, and only as a last resort. Crops, water sources and systems, livestock, beehives, other sources of food and health, medical centers, pharmaceutical plants, factories (if not used for war efforts), and businesses should be preserved during times of war.

McDurmon says that although we are a long way from these ideals today, that has not always been the case. He discusses the aversion to standing armies of the anti-federalists and their suspicion of the military clauses in the new Constitution. And “while the colonies certainly did not develop a fully biblical view of the military and war, they were far closer to one than America is today.” The American colonists “followed the biblical principle of making war a last resort.”

Later in the book, McDurmon refers back to these ideals as biblical principles, a biblical model, the biblical standard of a free society, biblical freedom, and biblical standards of freedom, as well as implying that they are universal laws for kings and laws for war. The extent to which these can be taken as such gets into a serious discussion of hermeneutics that is way beyond the scope of this review. And the same goes for the author’s statements about a civil society “restricted by God’s law” with “civil justice according to God’s law,” although I may be reading too much into them. But at least, unlike proponents of just war theory, McDurmon actually grounds his views in Scripture.

The best part of this short book is actually not in the expressly biblical part 1, but in the more historical part 2.

McDurmon sees the first truly world war as the Seven Years War, known in America as the French and Indian War. He faults George Washington for “ambling into the frontier seeking glory as a military agent for the British public-private partnership, the Ohio company.”

McDurmon provides an interesting and informative account of Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. He assails the two Militia Acts of 1792. He sees Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and violations of civil liberties as built on “the extra powers created by Hamilton and Washington in that old Militia Act of 1792.”

McDurmon maintains that “virtually every one of the biblical principles of war” was completely trampled from “Washington’s appearance on the scene of American history” until just the beginning of the Civil War. He views “the most important military sin” of that misnamed conflict to be “Sherman’s and Sheridan’s doctrine and practices of scorched earth and total war.” These generals’ “constant activism to increase the powers of the central standing army, to abolish the local militia system, and their eagerness to employ the national army in more creative ways stateside” are “neglected pieces of history.”

One creative way the Army was employed was to exterminate the Indians. McDurmon quotes Sherman’s Hitleresque remark on the “pacification” of the Indians as “the final solution of the Indian problem.” As Sherman wrote to Grant: “During an assault, the soldiers cannot pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age.”

After discussing the U.S. subjugation of Hawaii and the barbarism of U.S. troops in the Philippines after Spanish-American War, McDurmon discusses the “final metamorphoses of the American military into a full standing army largely at the behest of an imperialistic corporate-federal state” in his analysis of the Militia Acts of 1903 and 1908 and the National Defense Act of 1916. The Army went from “something closer to a biblical model” to “the epitome of a centralized warfare State, empire-ready, standing army, funded by a large general treasury.”

McDurmon quotes Martin van Creveld to reinforce his statement that war has perennially “been the greatest centralizing mechanism to achieve the Total State.” He cites Robert Nisbet on how “Americans came to accept the centralized power despite the social damage, loss of freedom, and destruction of the love of neighbor.” The author views the Welfare State as “the direct result of War and of the lasting social effects of War.” Indeed, “Wilson’s temporary War State became FDR’s Welfare State.” I was not aware of this powerful statement McDurmon quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville: “All men of military genius are fond of centralization, which increases their strength; and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war, which compels nations to combine all their powers in the hands of the government.”

McDurmon closes part 2 with his modern take on Sun Tzu’s dictum that all warfare is based on deception:

Governments, you see, must continually lie to prosecute war: deceive the enemy for advantage, yes; but also lie to its own people about the need for war in the first place. They will life about the cost of the war, the bloodiness of the war, the long-term plans for war, and the extent of war.

In part 3 McDurmon offers some practical steps to liberty:

  • Don’t join the current standing armed forces.
  • Don’t support political candidates who have militaristic or imperial agendas.
  • If you own a business, don’t contract with the military unless you are absolutely sure the military is not using the technology, products, or services you provide for the purposes of unjust wars.
  • For consumers, try as much as possible to avoid patronizing companies that contribute to such wars.

And for American Christians in particular:

We have to stop applauding everything the military does as if it were automatically the gleam of national greatness, quit praising all soldiers all the time as sacrosanct individuals, and quit forbidding any criticism of the military as if it were the holy of holies.

I was glad to see McDurmon do something that I have done on several occasions: point out the hypocrisy of pro-war pro-lifers:

The sad fact is, too many Christians who decry the government-protected slaughter of children in the womb are way too tolerant of government-mandated slaughter of kids at nineteen or twenty, not to mention the slaughter of thousands of civilian bystanders. A consistent pro-life view will avoid this terrible oversight.

I was not glad, however, to see McDurmon venture into a brief discussion of Bible prophecy and people clinging “to military might because of their view of Israel and the end times.” He characterizes the teaching of dispensationalism and premillennialism (without mentioning them by name) as “an enormous theological delusion that leads so many to continue promoting an unbiblical view of war and the military, especially in regard to having a strong threatening presence in the Middle East.” This approach is to be expected since the author is a Reformed Christian, but as a premillennial dispensationalist I beg to differ.

There is much packed into this small book. The theological quibbles I have with the author will probably not be shared by the majority of readers. I highly recommend The Bible & War in America to Christians (and others) of all theological persuasions.

Originally posted on on August 27, 2012.