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L. Neil Smith's
Number 522, June 7, 2009

"They sense that the Age of Authority is over"

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Blast from the Past

El Neil Then and Now
L. Neil Smith: Then and Now

Radically Decentralized Defense
by L. Neil Smith

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: This item appeared originally in Reason/Frontlines in September of 1980, a few months after The Probability Broach was published. My thanks to Jeff and Suzanne Riggenback for their help putting it back in "print".]

Somehow, we always get stuck with leftovers. Just as a long history of repressive legislation has left potential libertarian office-holders with an enormous crime rate to deal with, so past incompetence has created a necessity that we assure voters concerning national security. No other issue—possibly excepting nuclear power—has so continuously absorbed our intellectual efforts (and rhetorical energies), nor so frequently threatened to divide us.

Until the 1977 national convention, the LP's policy could have been described as "quasi-conservative", suspicious toward the Soviet Union and others, reluctantly supportive of a massive deterrent machinery. In 1977, however, the party line switched to "quasi- leftist", holding communism as a paper tiger and the United States the principal villain of recent world history. Neither line has satisfied most libertarians.

Compare this with our treatment of [forced] busing [for racial balance]. Here, the LP takes a principled stance against both racism and bayonet-backed social experimentation, demanding abolition at the root of the problem: collective ownership of the school system—an entirely new slant which no other political philosophy is capable of taking. And there is no discernable controversy within the movement about it.

Our "national" defense plan needs to be as singularly appropriate. As an anarchist, I'm more than willing to substitute the term "territorial defense", meaning nothing more (and nothing less) than individual self-defense cooperatively facilitated. I am not particularly concerned with the survival of the nation-state itself, but with the lives, property, and rights of its inhabitants. I do not concede that other nation-states are no threat. If anything, I'm even more paranoid in this regard than most, as I h ate and fear every government on the planet, and wouldn't trust the least of them to leave a defenseless neighbor unmolested.

However, no stateless order can be achieved overnight. The best we can realistically hope for is a "phased withdrawal" of government from our lives, during which varying arms of the octopus will wither at varying rates. The sad truth is that the Pentagon will likely be the last government agency to evaporate, whatever we do. Yet the present defense establishment is a far greater threat to Americans than to any potential foreign enemy, proving too massive and clumsy to deal with human-scaled reality. Two mil lion-plus in uniform today must be regarded either as a titanic welfare scheme (never forgetting the industries of defense) or as an ever-ready means of controlling the civil population should the "need" be perceived by those in power.

Any intelligent security plan should depend on the libertarian virtues of individual enterprise, decentralization, and the technological superiority we can expect them to engender. In applying them to this problem, we have three categories to consider: conventional warfare, the tactical and technological ambience that persists despite Hiroshima, Werner von Braun, and Robert S. McNamara; strategic deterrence, generally taken to mean thermonuclear weaponry and its supporting hardware; and, covert attack modes, a sort of garbage can for items which fit neither previous category, but which I believe will grow in urgency as we effectively dispose of the other two.


From the American Revolution through the Vietnam war, history has demonstrated beyond debate that there is only one practical methodology for purely defensive conventional warfare: the way of the guerrilla. Accordingly, the heart of my proposal is to reduce and reorganize the present defense establishment, while increasing its legitimate efficiency. Please understand that such an undertaking would occupy no more than a tiny portion of the ongoing business of Americans; it is by no means a "national priority " or a "crash program", but simply a gradually implemented series of adjustments.

The plan's principal elements are these:

1) Withdrawal of all American troops from foreign soil and closure of all overseas bases. This would enormously reduce current expenditures and the risk of being drawn into war over some irrelevant local dispute. Such bases serve no function in guerrilla defense.

2) Combining all branches of military service into a single, cost-effective unit. This is clearly necessary, if only to reduce expensive redundancy. The Army, Navy, and Marines, for example, each maintain their own air forces! Moreover, the traditional distinctions between these entities no longer operate, and the supposed efficiency and alertness that competition normally sparks is nowhere in evidence.

It's important here to discuss the elimination of all but a single, practical military uniform for the professionals—a consideration less trivial than it may seem. It would tend to reinforce the above-mentioned unification (traditions could be preserved through distinctive hats or unit markings), and be a constant reminder that the professional soldier is performing a positive, market-oriented, division-of-labor service, exactly like beekeepers, UPS drivers, and filling station mechanics, who also wear task-specific garb.

Furthermore, military work-clothes should be simple fatigues without hint of traditional pseudo-military pomposity. Police studies over the last decades in California and elsewhere show clearly that preoccupation with spit-and-polish discipline, besides wasting valuable person-hours, actually undermines both the combat-effectiveness of a unit and the survival chances of its individual members. Similarly, there is no further rational excuse for rituals like 4:00 A.M. bugle-blowing, obsess ive bedmaking, aimless marching, sadistic shouting, hazing, and brainwashing. We want intelligent specialists, capable of thinking for themselves.

The single element around which training revolves should be weapons expertise. Over the last century, the number of rounds expended per enemy casualty has increased logarithmically. During World War I, Americans had a reputation among German troops as fiendishly accurate sharpshooters. Today, no organization trains people to handle guns as poorly as the U.S. military, nor supplies its personnel with such miserably inadequate weapons. It is common among officers to have someone "pinch hit" if you have trou ble firing the minimal qualification scores. This must be made a severe court-martial offense for both parties.

3) Reduction in professional soldiery to training-cadre levels. Every nasty, difficult, and dangerous school in the current military curriculum would be combined into a continuous program and all personnel, regardless of age or rank, be required to graduate or retire from the service. Those few who make it through Green Beret, Ranger, and paratrooper training, qualify to use explosives, climb mountains, endure arctic, desert, and prisoner-of-war survival training—each with its own terrible attrition rate—would become charter members of a new military. The primary effect would be a reduction in forces to about 20,000 men and women, winnowed and toughened volunteers, professional killers further selected for an ability to teach their skills to others.

An integral and supremely important aspect of their training (fully as critical as weapons expertise), would be their understanding and acceptance of the libertarian principle of non-aggression—as a substitute for the irrational mystiques which have b een a very important part of traditional military life. Philosophy or not, with their numbers limited to five figures, such a force could offer no threat to civil liberties or civilian government. Few, if any, among the present Pentagon-level command would make it through the selection process. The salaries of selectees could also be increased a hundredfold without affecting the current military budget.

4) Denationalization of the militia is the intermediate end which all of the above is designed to serve. Defined in law as all able-bodied persons of arms-bearing age and physical ability, the militia under libertarian principles would be limited to willing participants. Since the central advantage of the guerrilla is intimate familiarity with his or her own territory, once the "national guard" is taken out of federal hands, it must be reorganized, not on a state-by-state basis, but county-by-county, simi lar politically and socially to volunteer fire departments. It would also train for and perform such purely civil tasks as emergency snow-removal, mountain rescue, and brushfire fighting.

The professional cadre, on the other hand, would travel around the country singly or in small groups, educating the local volunteers in the latest techniques of cooperative self-defense. The pros would find servicing 3,088 counties and county-equivalents a stimulating full-time job.

5) The next step is liquidation of all conventional "capital-intensive" military hardware. When it becomes possible to destroy a multi-million dollar cruiser with a $20,000 missile, or a multi-hundred thousand dollar tank with a three dollar hand-held rocket, it's time to stop cruising and tanking. Mortars proved far more mobile and effective in Vietnam than clumsy, crew-serviced gunnery, and were usually carried by a single individual on a bicycle. The sale of military white elephants to other countries might help capitalize our newly-forged system, based on cheaper, smaller, more effective weapons suitable for guerrilla use. The largest item would be armed hovercraft—a 250 mile-per-hour navy and cavalry combined against which submarines and tanks would be so much helpless scrap metal.

6) Domestic military bases should be eliminated except for one in each of four or five major ecological zones. Even these would be severely reduced, serving only to maintain the combat-effectiveness of the professional cadre. Present military reserves should be sold to support the program or turned over to their rightful owners where possible.

7) All gun control laws must be repealed, official weapons- registries destroyed, and weapons distributed throughout the populace. Historically, the first places taken over during invasion are local police stations, so that lists may be obtained of those who own weapons.

Assuming a Department of Defense were still functioning (collecting and spending money), arming the citizenry might require a couple of hundred billion dollars—enough to make even non-libertarians gasp in protest. I will point out that limited-government libertarians consider it a legitimate function of the State to provide for the physical security of the country, and arming individuals is by far the most efficacious means of achieving that end. These weapons would be handed over permanently (returning some fraction of what the government has stolen from people) and would be a one-shot effort, stretching out over at least a decade, and replacing vastly more expensive programs.

The government already holds vast arsenals of weapons, some dating back to the Spanish-American War. Most of the guns would have little or no application to a guerrilla-style defense system, but their sale to collectors would help fund a more effective distribution plan. Furthermore, the 11% excise tax on every gun sold in this coun try (to support wildlife conservation) would be eliminated. If uniform hardware could be agreed on by a majority of militia units, the resulting production volume would greatly lower costs.

Before going further, it is important to note some differences between this proposal and the defense system of Switzerland which it may resemble. Although participation would presuppose personal ownership of adequate weapons, membership itself would not be compulsory. Nor would it be limited to males. Nor would I consider (as Heinlein has proposed) membership to be a condition for the franchise or any other civil right. There is one thing to admire about Switzerland's system though: they haven't had to figh t a war for 400 years.

Some people may be anxious to assure the ethical and informed use of mass-distributed weapons. To any extent which it can be assured, this would be a function of the training cadre—another reason why their libertarian values must be deeply implanted. It is unfortunate that liberals—who have struggled so long to prove that the trouble with sex is not that we have the capacity, but that people must be educated in its exercise—cannot see that the same holds true for our violent capabilities.


Strategic defense, no less than conventional, is susceptible to the same principles of low-cost decentralized voluntarism. I have always opposed disarmament treaties because, at whatever level, gun control never works. Medieval knights, forbidden by their Pope to use the newly-invented crossbow, simply ignored the prohibition, thus establishing a thousand-year tradition in this area of legislation. Primarily, however, it is now too late to control nuclear weapons—they are already obsolete.

For well over a decade, the Army has possessed lasers capable of knocking down an airplane. If more powerful models do not already exist, they soon will, consigning bombers and missiles to the junkheap of military history. Linked with early-warning radar, they will, in effect, generate a "forcefield" against any merely mechanical method of attack.

Lasers suffer from atmospheric attenuation—air and water vapor tend to dissipate the beam. Not so, however, at the midflight altitudes of intercontinental missiles. A vastly-richer libertarian private sector will place permanently inhabited structures in orbit for research, communications, manufacturing, recreation—and defense. Unlike missiles, lasers can be used over and over again (greatly lowering the number of necessary installations) and, in peacetime, have numerous civilian applications.

Even the laser can be improved upon. "Particle beam weapons" employ heavier subatomic constituents and presumably suffer less attenuation. Such energy weapons offer the hope of an effective, inexpensive, non-nuclear defense—an end to three decades of the special kind of international terrorism that superpowers practice. We can take our whole atomic arsenal and dump it in the Philippine Trench.


Viruses and toxins delivered by missile or plane can be taken care of by orbiting energy weapons. But what about vials of horror brought into the country in a briefcase? It is [even] legendarily possible to create an atomic chain reaction simply by piling enough fissionables together. What if fanatics were to import components (in lead-lined briefcases) and assemble them by hand?

As unlikely as these contingencies may appear, the irony is that they may be employed precisely because a libertarian society's conventional and strategic defense are so well taken care of. Nevertheless, libertarians should resist elaborate and repressive security measures just as strongly here as with conventional and strategic defenses, until an ethical solution can be found to the problem. At present there is no adequate answer, although a lot of time and money could be spent attempting to devise one, an d worse, a good many liberties could be trampled attempting to implement it. I'd be interested to hear suggestions from readers; remember, though, you can't initiate force.


One final measure will virtually assure a total and permanent end to international hostilities: in time of war or invasion, the government must dissolve and disband, a provision which would guarantee nightmares and migraines to any potential invader. With nobody empowered to surrender, the country would have to be taken square foot by square foot. Capture Washington? Congratulations, pal, you've got a swamp in Maryland. New York? Swell, you can take over the bankruptcy proceedings! War is th e consequence of bad statemanship. If Congress faced mass unemployment as a punishment for such incompetence ...

In summary, then: withdraw overseas troops; combine all branches of service; reduce the professional military to training cadre status; denationalize the militia; liquidate all military white elephants; and arm the populace. For strategic security, rely on advanced non-nuclear technology. The principal advantage of such a program is that it will allow us to change security from a continuous ongoing crisis and debate, within both the Liberarian Party and the United States, into a simple job that can be done with, taken care of once and for all.

Then we can move on to something more important.

Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of more than 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas is currently running as a free weekly serial at

Neil is presently at work on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on What Libertarians Believe with his daughter, Rylla.

See stunning full-color graphic-novelizations of The Probability Broach and Roswell, Texas which feature the art of Scott Bieser at Dead-tree versions may be had through the publisher, or at where you will also find Phoenix Pick editions of some of Neil's earlier novels.


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