The Broken Staff-The (In)Effectiveness of Militia

The United States has always had a ‘militia legend’, one that has affected certain thinking for a while now. The romance of the citizen picking up his rifle and going off holds sway in er…. certain corners. So I figured that an examination is in order. The topic is a fascinating one.

The Original Militia

Don’t take it from me, take it from George Washington.

“To place any dependence upon militia, is assuredly resting upon a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender scenes of domestic like; unaccustomed to the din of arms; totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill; which, being followed by a want of confidence in themselves; when opposed to troops regularly trained, disciplined, and appointed; superior in knowledge and superior in arms; makes them timid and ready to fly from their own shadows”.

Enough said. I trust he’d know what he was talking about. The militia legend held sway, with disastrous results (along with the normal issues of starting from nothing, one must add) in the War of 1812 and American Civil War. There’s a very good reason why, in the Root reforms, one of the top priorities was obliterating the traditional militia system in favor of what would become the modern National Guard. And those were at least state-based and had more organizing heft than the stereotypical fantasy militia.

Later Militia

Since I’d intended this to be about policy in peacetime, including wartime desperation formations seems a little off. Nonetheless, they cannot be excluded. I’m not mentioning the Soviet milita in the early part of the Eastern Front. They were lavishly equipped for desperation formations, their arsenals boasting artillery and sometimes even tanks. What is more interesting and relevant is the far less successful German Volkssturm.

The Volkssturm’s origin can be traced not only to the delusional desperation of the late war, but also to Martin Bormann’s desire to have his own army (A desire that manifested itself frequently in the squabbling leadership, and led to everything from the SS to the Luftwaffe Field Divisions).

Former Volkssturm commander Hans Kissel gives a highly mixed account of their performance. Kissel and later scholar David Yelton are in general agreement-the Volkssturm were largely worthless in the western front, but fought more feroiciously and achieved several local successes in the East. The reasons range from more personal motivation to fight the Soviets to -crucially- better integration with the rest of the Wehrmacht.

For a more modern milita, raised and equipped in peacetime, the 1993 Light OPFOR documents describe what could be considered a ‘template’.

Districts, depending on their population/population centers, may or may not be able to constitute a brigade-sized militia force; many districts will have, at most, a battalion. These forces may or may not act as an integrated force. Regardless of militia size, every village, farm cooperative, or factory has a militia formation, manned in wartime by the workers and peasants, over-age reservists, medically-retired soldiers, women, and young men not yet old enough for military service. The militia conducts point defense of its own villages and towns, air ambushes, and performs reconnaissance and small raids in support of the overall national resistance to invaders.

Other described uses for the theoretical OPFOR militia in conventional warfare include:

  • General rear-area security, especially as gap-fillers for forces deployed elsewhere.
  • “Logistical Support” (aka grunt work)
  • Partisan operations against invading forces that have bypassed them crucially.

However, the main use is as point defense in tight terrain (especially urban areas). Very little is expected of them, especially tactically. Even for unconventional war, bypassed/stay behind soldiers with full training are preferred. Furthermore, they are integrated into the national command structure and with existing operations, and the best performance comes with the best coordination.

The Legend

Now, I have read far too many bad novels. So I’ve seen this too many times. I know the drill.

  • Conflating lightly equipped infantry with light infantry. The latter requires extra-specialized training, is useful only in certain areas, and tends to take unsustainable casualties in the process. The Korean War, likely the most successful large-scale use of light infantry, still shows their weaknesses as well as strengths.
  • Conflating irregulars creating an unfavorable strategic/political situation (which has happened in everything from the American Revolution to Vietnam) with them being able to constantly win tactically. This does happen, but the conventional opponent holds all the cards and wins more often than not. It’s ironic that two major works that ultimately avert this are on opposite ideological and realism poles, but still share the same hard truth-the right-wing original Red Dawn has its ludicrous invasion and irregulars far more successful than they have any right to be. The hard-left Battle of Algiers is a reenactment of a real and then-recent conflict. But both have their individual heroes eliminated when the enemy brings out the big guns.
  • The grim reality of a guerilla war where extreme personal sacrifice is required and the fighters realize they are at the bottom of the combat food chain is replaced with the image of the RIFLEMEN with their marksmanship and inexplicable fieldcraft move them to victory against (insert strawman here). And I’m not even getting into the weak link-the handwaving of the command and coordination. The bottom-up FREE MEN banding together cliche stands as the antithesis of the top-down auxiliary.

Now, to be fair, there is a work that illustrates what happens when large, uncoordinated groups with nothing in common save a vague general goal rise up. That piece of fiction is-Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. The wave of scattered, disorganized ‘fronts’ were an inspiration of the classic mockery, and while the specific zeitgeists may have changed, the same problems have not.

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