In most Western democracies, the government’s near-monopoly on organized violence is implied, not explicit. The average American is only reminded of the state’s ability to use force when they see a police car on the street. In some European nations, citizens may encounter paramilitaries with police power – the French gendarmerie, the Italian carabinieri, and so on. But unless crime or civil unrest is at hand, the average person can safely assume that armed government forces will not interfere with their livelihood.
In remarks which were ill-thought out and possibly indicative of declining mental acuity, President Joe Biden seemed to change this threat from implicit to explicit. A speech on gun rights restrictions turned into an opportunity to remind Americans that their government has access to combat aircraft and weapons of mass destruction – and that anyone attempting to resist government authority would have to find ways to counter both.
Mocking the idea of armed citizens standing up to government force – and predicting the failure of such an effort – is a favorite, common, and long-time practice of American establishment political commentators. These are often the same commentators who described the largely unarmed January 6 Capitol riot as an existential threat to America. Fortunately, the United States’ incompetent track record on everything from domestic deployments to overseas engagements to defense policy suggests that an actual campaign against American citizens would end poorly.
Let’s start with the American state’s use of military force at home. In the last fifty years, the use of armed troops has mostly resulted in incidents like the Kent State shootings, the Waco massacre, and the Hurricane Katrina gun confiscations. In most cases, there was a significant public backlash. America’s general officer corps might be turning increasingly politicized, but few high-ranking officers would rather go to war against their own country than retire to a lucrative defense industry job or a comfortable think tank board seat.
Next, let’s take a look at how the United States military has fared internationally. In Vietnam, American forces won most conventional engagements against the North Vietnamese Army, but were unable to overcome the Viet Cong, a militia made up of peasants with surplus small arms. In Afghanistan, American troops failed to fully stamp out the Taliban and its sympathizers, and the insurgent group is now retaking entire districts with great speed and little resistance as American forces withdraw.
Even if the political establishment could muster the will to see a domestic conflict through, the military force that would wage it would be hampered by a long-time decline in human capital. Officers are becoming less smart: a 2015 study of Marine officer test scores showed a significant drop since 1980. The Army is considering waiving low scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a general knowledge test, for some recruits.
The military’s own research also finds that large numbers of servicemembers are unmotivated and pessimistic about what they do: in 2015, Army surveys found that nearly 50 percent of Soldiers felt unsatisfied or not committed to their jobs, while more than 50 percent said they rarely expected good things to happen to them. Besides, these people often own guns and want to protect the nation, not act as domestic police; they aren’t likely to be effective in a violent and demoralizing campaign against their friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens.
But problems with the quality of troops are almost a non-issue compared to the systemic incompetence plaguing the Department of Defense. President Biden suggested that an anti-government movement would need fighter jets. Meanwhile, the military has been trying to field a new fighter – the F-35 Lightning – since 2006. To date, the program has cost more than $428 billion, and the aircraft still suffers from hundreds of design flaws. Worse, the Air Force and Marine Corps may send aircraft that are only a few years old to the scrapyard because they can’t be fixed. All the while, the fighter’s developer Lockheed Martin has routinely engaged in wasteful and potentially fraudulent behavior.
Other pricy projects that were also once viewed as cutting-edge, like the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, are also in trouble: four of the ships, two of which have been in service for less than a decade, are being decommissioned due to design issues and lack of a clear mission. Boondoggles like the F-35 and LCS call into question the government’s ability to execute any sort of defense policy competently, and this certainly includes President Biden’s fantasy domestic crackdown.
It’s concerning that a Western government is entertaining the idea of deploying military force – not just riot troops but weapons designed to level cities – against its own population. Rhetoric like this is rarely a good sign for regime stability and legitimacy. Fortunately for those who take President Biden’s comments seriously, the American people appear to be safe for now, if recent history is any judge.
Gregory D. Rohrbough, J.D. is a longtime activist on issues such as labor abuse and human trafficking. He is a former Director of Government Relations for the Meredith Advocacy Group and a former Director of Communications for the National Right To Work Committee. His work has been published by National Review Online, Real Clear Policy, and Issues & Insights.