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Obedience to Orders, Part 3: A Response to Paul Maini, VMI Alumni Association


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Reader ResponsesJacob Hornberger vs. the BrassJacob Hornberger’s VMI Valedictory Addresss [1972]

To: Mr. Paul Maini
Executive Vice President
VMI Alumni Association

Dear Mr. Maini:

My associates here at The Future of Freedom Foundation have been sent a copy of your critical email to a Col. Hudgins of the U.S. Military Academy in response to my article “Obedience to Orders, Part 1 and Part 2,” and they have forwarded your email to me. In the email you “extend a sincere apology to the Cadets and Graduates of the USMA at West Point for the insulting, ridiculous, reprehensible, and bizarre statements” that I made in my article.

Unfortunately, however, you failed to point out exactly which parts of my article you found to be “insulting, ridiculous, reprehensible, and bizarre.” Here were the important points that I made:

1. The Virginia Military Institute generally produces officers of a higher caliber than the professional military academies.

To explain why this is true requires not only an examination into the specific mission of the Institute but also an examination into the founding principles of our nation and how modern-day Americans have abandoned those principles. It is in the context of that examination that we are able to ascertain why VMI officers are, by and large, better than the officers from the professional military academies.

Our country was founded on the principles of individual liberty, free markets, and constitutionally limited government. Our Founders believed that the greatest threat to their liberty lay not with foreign regimes but rather with their own federal government. That in fact was the reason they used the Constitution to bring the federal government into existence — as a means to control its power.

Our Founders and ancestors also understood that among the greatest threats to their liberty and well-being was a standing army — that is, an enormous military machine within their midst, albeit composed of citizens from their own country. The reason they feared such an army is that they understood that historically such armies had inevitably been used by political rulers to oppress their own citizenry.

Consider, for example, the words of Virginian James Madison:

A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

Sam Adams put it this way:

And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress … to raise standing armies, unless necessary for the defense of the United States.

Henry St. George Tucker, in Blackstone’s 1768 Commentaries on the Laws of England, stated,

Wherever standing armies are kept up, and when the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.

Virginian Patrick Henry pointed out the dangers to the citizenry of a powerful standing military army:

A standing army we shall have, also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny; and how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment?

This is how the Commonwealth of Virginia put it when Virginians ratified the Constitution in 1788:

That standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the Community will admit; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to and governed by the Civil power.

Virginia was not the only state that held this sentiment. The Declaration of Rights issued by the Representatives of the State of North Carolina made the same point:

That the people have a Right to bear Arms for the Defence of the State, and as Standing Armies in Time of Peace are dangerous to Liberty, they ought not to be kept up, and that the military should be kept under strict Subordination to, and governed by the Civil Power.

The Pennsylvania Convention put it this way:

As standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to and be governed by the civil power.

The U.S. State Department’s own website correctly describes the convictions of our Founders regarding standing armies:

Wrenching memories of the Old World lingered in the 13 original English colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America, giving rise to deep opposition to the maintenance of a standing army in time of peace. All too often the standing armies of Europe were regarded as, at best, a rationale for imposing high taxes, and, at worst, a means to control the civilian population and extort its wealth.

Thus, the reason that our Founders so deeply abhorred standing armies was simple. They loved liberty, and they understood what all too many modern-day Americans unfortunately do not understand: that a standing army is inimical to liberty.

That is in fact one of the principal reasons that the British colonists in America took up arms against their own government, as Roy G. Weatherup observed in his excellent article “Standing Armies and Armed Citizens: An Historical Analysis of the Second Amendment”:

[The Declaration of Independence] listed the colonists’ grievances, including the presence of standing armies, subordination of civil to military power, use of foreign mercenary soldiers, quartering of troops, and the use of the royal prerogative to suspend laws and charters. All of these legal actions resulted from reliance on standing armies in place of the militia.

Moreover, as William S. Fields and David T. Hardy point out in their excellent article, “The Third Amendment and the Issue of the Maintenance of Standing Armies: A Legal History”, the deep antipathy that the Founders had toward standing armies followed a long tradition among the British people of opposing the standing armies of their king:

The experience of the early Middle Ages had instilled in the English people a deep aversion to the professional army, which they came to associate with oppressive taxes, and physical abuses of their persons and property (and corresponding fondness for their traditional institution the militia). This development was to have a profound effect on the development of civil rights in both England and the American colonies…. During the seventeenth century, problems associated with the involuntary quartering of soldiers and the maintenance of standing armies became crucial issues propelling the English nation toward civil war.

Since our Founders opposed standing armies, did that mean that they believed that the nation should go defenseless? On the contrary, the defense of the nation was based on “the militia,” which meant not a quasi government army (i.e., National Guard or Reserves) but rather ordinary men within civil society who would be ready and capable in times of deepest peril to come to the aid of their country. But their vision of defense was just that — true defense, not military adventures thousands of miles away from home.

This concept of the “citizen-soldier” actually stretches back all the way to ancient times, as Gregory F. Rehmke pointed out in his article “Property Rights and Law Among the Ancient Greeks

Early Greek cities supported no standing armies, battle strategies were minimal, and casualties in these conflicts were usually light. The citizen infantries or hoplites were the key defensive forces for both city and countryside.

Thus, the military bedrock of our nation’s founding was the concept of the “citizen-soldier” — the man who lives an ordinary life in civil society but who is ready and capable of fighting to defend his land if such ever became the case. As Eldridge Gerry put it in 1789,

What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty.

What was different about the citizen-soldier and the professional soldier serving in standing armies? In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), the famous British political commentator Mary Wollstonecraft summed up the sentiments of our Founders regarding soldiers who serve in standing armies:

Standing armies can never consist of resolute, robust men; they may be well-disciplined machines, but they will seldom contain men under the influence of strong passions, or with very vigorous faculties. And as for any depth of understanding, I will venture to affirm that it is as rarely to be found in the army as amongst women; and the cause, I maintain, is the same. It may be further observed that officers are also particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule. Like the fair sex, the business of their lives is gallantry…. The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have, from reflection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. The consequence is natural; satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority. (Emphasis added.)

Wollstonecraft’s observation regarding the blind obedience to authority that afflicts those who serve in standing armies was echoed by a member of the British House of Commons during the late 18th century:

I have always been, and always shall be against a standing army of any kind; to me it is a terrible thing, whether under that of a parliamentary, or any other designation; a standing army is still a standing army by whatever name it is called; they are a body of men distinct from the body of the people; they are governed by different laws, and blind obedience, and an entire submission to the orders of their commanding officer, is their only principle; the nations around us, sir, are already enslaved, and have been enslaved by those very means; by means of their standing armies they have every one lost their liberties; it is indeed impossible that the liberties of the people in any country can be preserved where a numerous standing army is kept up. Shall we then take our measures from the example of our neighbours? No, sir, on the contrary, from their misfortunes we ought to learn to avoid those rocks upon which they have split.

Besides, sir, we know the passions of men, we know how dangerous it is to trust the best of men with too much power. Where was a braver army than that under Jul. Caesar? Where was there ever an army that had served their country more faithfully? That army was commanded generally by the best citizens of Rome, by men of great fortune and figure in their country, yet that army enslaved their country. The affections of the soldiers towards their country, the honor and integrity of the under officers, are not to be depended on. By the military law the administration of justice is so quick, and the punishment so severe, that neither the officer nor soldier dare dispute the orders of his supreme commander; he must not consult his own inclination. If an officer were commanded to pull his own father out of this house, he must do it; he dares not disobey; immediate death would be the sure consequence of the least grumbling.

Olden days, you might say? Well, does anyone honestly believe that human nature has significantly changed since our nation’s founding nearly 230 years ago, especially given that it didn’t change one iota from the time of the Roman Empire to the founding of the American Republic?

How many officers in America’s standing army have said “No” to the president’s order to arrest and incarcerate American citizens in military brigs for the rest of their lives, prohibited from ever again communicating with family, friends, or attorney? Or to the president’s newly found power to order the killing of American citizens abroad solely on the basis of his certification that they are “terrorists”?

Indeed, how many soldiers in our modern-day standing army have refused to participate in a war against Iraq that lacks the constitutionally required declaration of war from Congress, a phenomenon especially interesting given that approximately 30 percent of the American people oppose the war? How many Catholic soldiers in our standing army opted out even after the Pope made it very clear that anyone who wages this war would ultimately have to answer to God for the killings?

No, Mr. Maini, human nature has not changed one iota since 2,000 years ago, when all-powerful Roman legions were roaming the world, waging deadly and destructive wars of liberation while, at the same time, oppressing their own people back home with high taxes and ever-increasing rules and regulations, instilling constant fear among the citizenry that the barbarians were at the gates, and of course condemning and executing innocent people without even the semblance of due process of law.

And that brings us to the founding and guiding principles of the Virginia Military Institute — the principles that distinguish our institution from those of the professional military academies — the principles that make our graduates better military officers.

The difference between the two institutions is quite simple: the vision of VMI, founded in 1839 — just a few years after our nation’s founding — is the exact same vision that guided our Founders — the vision of the citizen-soldier.

The vision of the professional military academies, on the other hand, is based on the production of the professional soldier who is trained to spend his entire professional career in the modern-day standing army — the type of institution against which our Founders recoiled.

Here’s the mission of the Virginia Military Institute, as taken from its catalog:

Therefore, it is the mission of the Virginia Military Institute to produce educated and honorable men and women, prepared for varied work of civil life, imbued with love of learning, confident in the functions and attitudes of leadership, possessing a high sense of public service, advocates of the American Democracy and free enterprise system, and ready as citizen-soldiers to defend their country in time of national peril. VMI combines the studies of a full college curriculum within a framework of military discipline that emphasizes honor, integrity, and responsibility….

Undergirding all aspects of cadet life is the VMI Honor Code, to which all cadets subscribe. VMI’s unique educational system develops leaders for all walks of life: business, industry, public service, education, the professions, and the military….

While the military program is an important part of the overall VMI experience, it is only one of several functions of the Institute. The VMI program is specifically designed to produce leaders for peace or war. The Institute’s program has been based for more than 162 years on the concept of the ‘citizen-soldier,’ an individual prepared to take his or her place in civilian life but ready to respond as a military leader in times of national emergency.

That vision, Mr. Maini, is what distinguishes the VMI graduate from those of the professional military academies. It’s what makes us different from them. It’s what imbues us with a sense of independent thinking — of reason — of mind — of critical thinking — of conscience as compared with the blind obedience to authority that historically has come from those whose training and education is devoted to serving in a standing army.

The citizen-soldier lives his life in ordinary civil society — lawyers, doctors, taxi drivers, merchants, repairmen, construction workers, and all the rest. He lives his life in a market economy in which he must, by necessity, learn to serve others by producing what others want and need. In civil society and the market economy, the individual learns to serve, not command.

Yet, in the event of invasion of his homeland, the citizen-soldier knows how to fight. He knows how to lead. And he’s ready and willing to do so, at least when the war truly involves the defense of his homeland as opposed to its being waged thousands of miles away from home. When the war is over, he returns to civil society, outside the control of the military (unlike soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves).

Compare that with the professional soldier in a standing army who spends his entire professional life in a system of command and control. It is a system that by its very nature depends on giving orders and taking orders and making and obeying an infinite number of rules and regulations. In fact, it would be difficult to find a more perfect embodiment of a socialist, command-and-control, top-down system than the military. And those who fail to submit to such a system are invariably and inevitably, one way or another, grinded out of the system.

The difference between civil society and the market economy, on the one hand, and military society and command and control, on the other, is the difference between day and night.

I repeat: That’s what distinguishes the VMI graduate from the graduate of the professional military academies. And contrary to what those within America’s standing army might suggest, it is a positive difference, not a negative one.

After all, Mr. Maini, ask yourself: How many citizen soldiers would have had the following cavalier attitude about killing innocent civilians that was expressed by a member of America’s standing army during the president’s foreign war against Iraq, as reported by the March 29 issue of the New York Times: “I’m sorry but the chick was in the way. We dropped a few civilians, but what do you do?”

Our Founders detested the militarist traditions from which they had escaped and against which they had rebelled. They hated standing armies. They hated the foreign wars which British and European rulers had used standing armies to wage. They hated the taxes and spending and controls that came with those standing armies.

As John Quincy Adams said to the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4, 1821, America “does not go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

Our Founders fully understood and embraced the words of Virginian James Madison:

Of all the enemies to liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.

Permit me to refer you to the following excellent articles on why VMI’s concept of the citizen-soldier is infinitely preferable to the “Old Europe” concept of standing armies against which our ancestors escaped and rebelled:

Standing Armies Stand in the Way of Freedom,” by Michael Peirce: “At the point where we surrendered our national defense to ‘professionals’ we thrust our remaining freedoms into the willing hands of those State functionaries we all purport to despise so much.”

Standing Armies, Political Mischief,” by Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr. at LewRockwell.com: “America was born in love of liberty and opposition to a standing army. The two go together.”

An Outline of the History of Libertarian Thought,” published by The Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University: “Men such as Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and John Taylor opposed the ratification of the Constitution which created a standing army (which would consume taxes and could be used to create a new tyranny).”

Reviving the Second Amendment,” by Robert A. Levy of the Cato Institute: “Turning to historical analysis, the Fifth Circuit noted anti-federalists demanded three major changes before ratifying the Constitution: First, they insisted on a Bill of Rights. Second, they wanted to authorize states to arm the militia. Third, they wished to eliminate federal power to maintain a standing army.”

An Interview with Stephen P. Halbrook,” posted at LewRockwell.com: “America’s Founding Fathers recognized that standing armies were dangerous to liberty because such armies oppressed the population domestically and engaged in wars of imperialist aggression.”

It Takes a Militia,” by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, published by The Reason Foundation: “The Framers of our Constitution had a fear of standing armies, and of governments backed by them, that one legal scholar calls ‘almost hysterical.’ A standing army of professionals, they were sure, would eventually do one of two things: agitate for foreign military adventures to keep itself employed, or turn against its civilian masters to create a military dictatorship. To these two political threats they added a third, moral danger: that citizens used to relying on professionals for the defense of their liberties would come to take their freedom lightly.”

2. The U.S. government is engaged in the torture and mistreatment of POWs and criminal suspects, and it is the duty of military officers to oppose such wrongful conduct.

Again, Mr. Maini, since your email failed to point out exactly which part of my article you found “insulting, ridiculous, reprehensible, and bizarre,” it is impossible for me to know exactly what I need to address.

When the Arab press began publishing photos and videos of American GIs taken captive in Iraq, President Bush immediately said, “The people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals.” His comments were echoed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “It’s illegal to do things to POWs that are humiliating to those prisoners.”

Both Bush and Rumsfeld are right on that point: It is in fact a war crime to torture or mistreat a POW. To that I would add that it’s a common-law crime to torture or mistreat a criminal suspect.

Permit me to share with you just a few articles that delve into the torture and mistreatment of POWs and criminal suspects by our own government (you can find a lot more on the Internet):

Rules of War Apply to Us Too,” by Robyn E. Blumner — St. Petersburg Times.

Guantanamo example may hurt POWs,” by Ivan Roman — Orlando Sentinel.

Hypocrisy In U.S. Demands That Call For Respect Of Geneva Conventions” – Dar Al-Hayat.

U.S., Too, May be Guilty of War Crimes,” by Marie Cocco — Washington Post.

Afghan Prisoners Beaten to Death at US Military Interrogation Base,” by Duncan Campbell — London Guardian.

One Rule for Them,” by George Monbiot – London Guardian.

Double Standards,” by Jamie Fellner – Human Rights Watch.

Terror and Torture,” by Hendrik Hertzberg – The New Yorker.

Questioning Terror Suspects in a Dark and Surreal World,” by Don Van Natta Jr. – New York Times.

Preaching, Not Practice on POWs,” by Dan Moffett – Palm Beach Post.

Going It Alone for Convenience, Not Conviction,” by Jonathan Freedland – Sydney Morning Herald.

No Double Standard for POWs” – Amnesty International.

U.S. Accused of Hypocrisy on Human Rights” by Andrew Gumbel – London Independent.

Handling of Terror Suspects Undermines U.S. on Rights of POWs,” by Frank Davies – Knight Ridder.

Now, Mr. Maini, are you saying that it’s “insulting, ridiculous, reprehensible, and bizarre” to suggest that the U.S. government is engaged in the torture and mistreatment of POWs and criminal suspects? Or are you saying that my contention that VMI officers are less likely to obey unlawful or immoral orders than officers from the professional academies is “insulting, ridiculous, reprehensible, and bizarre”? Or are you saying that any opposition to the U.S. government’s torture and mistreatment of POWs and criminal suspects is “insulting, ridiculous, reprehensible, and bizarre”?

How do you explain the homicides of two POWs in the custody of the U.S. military in Afghanistan? Or the “rendition” of prisoners to other countries so that they can do the torture instead? Or the photograph that was released showing POW John Walker Lindh naked, bound to a gurney, and blindfolded? Or the mistreatment of POWs and criminal suspects in Cuba? Or the refusal to let independent inspectors visit the Cuban compound?

Indeed, Mr. Maini, why in the world has the U.S. government taken those people to Cuba instead of bringing them to the United States, as was done with many POWs during World War II?

The answer is a very simple one: so that our standing army could avoid the application of our Constitution and the jurisdiction of our Supreme Court. There’s no other reason. What better evidence is there of the contempt that our standing army has for our supreme law of the land than that? Think about it: our nation’s standing army is doing all it can to avoid having to operate under the constraints of our Constitution and the judicial branch of our government, even going so far as to base its prisoners under the jurisdiction of Fidel Castro, as the Supreme Court recently noted.

Can you honestly suggest that our Founders were wrong or misguided in warning us about the dangers of a standing army?

How many soldiers in the standing army, including the West Point officers who populate the Pentagon, have opposed any of this? How many, including retired U.S. Army General and current U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, have written op-eds in the New York Times saying, “This is not what America is all about. It’s got to stop.”? How many officers from the military academies serving in the Pentagon have said “No”?

The VMI Alumni Association

I spent four years at VMI, just as you did, Mr. Maini. And I’ve got a diploma that has been hanging on my wall for umpteen years that earned me the right to mention that I’m a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute in any article I write.

You in turn have the right to disagree with anything I write and to mention that you also are a graduate of the Institute.

But what gives you the right to condemn me or anything I write in your official capacity as a representative of the VMI Alumni Association, especially given that both my articles (and now this one) were given over to the praise of VMI alumni? It would seem that such conduct would ordinarily fall outside the mission statement of the Association. Was a vote taken of the alumni before you sent out your email on behalf of the Association? If so, I certainly never received a ballot. And if a vote was taken, it would have been nice to have been notified in advance so that I could have had some input on whether the Alumni Association should officially involve itself in a matter such as this. Or have we come to the point where the U.S. government’s new policy of condemnation without giving the accused a chance to be heard is now to be applied to all aspects of civil society?

It goes without saying that my decision to dedicate my life to advancing libertarianism goes against the socialist, interventionist, militarist, and imperialist vision that now guides our nation. But if you can show me how any article of the more than 2,000 articles on the website of The Future of Freedom Foundation, which I founded 13 years ago with the mission of restoring the principles of liberty, free markets, and constitutionally limited government that guided the Founders of our nation, violates any principle advocated by VMI in its mission statement or in its catalog, I’d be most grateful.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was 17 years old, I recall reading the VMI catalog as I was considering applying for admission to the Institute. While I don’t recall the exact words, they were similar to what is found in the current VMI catalog, including the following goals that the Institute strives to inculcate in each and every student: “the ability to think critically” and “a commitment to ethical inquiry and standards of integrity.” Pardon me for taking those words seriously, but if it’s all the same to you, I shall continue striving to fulfill those objectives.

Jacob G. Hornberger
President, The Future of Freedom Foundation
VMI Class of 1972

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Reader ResponsesJacob Hornberger vs. the BrassJacob Hornberger’s VMI Valedictory Addresss [1972]

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.