One of the many books I’ve been going to get to for years has been Michael Howard’s older (1972) book The Continental Commitment: The Dilemma of British Defense Policy in the Era of the Two World Wars. I finally got it and it is very good so far. History books which are based on a lecture series are often very good, since the author is compelled to keep things simple, to assume his audience already knows the basic outline of things, to deal with themes rather than minutiae. Howard discusses the British response to an invasion scare in 1899, during which the popular press was saying that a European power (France or Germany) could, if it wanted, successfully invade Britain. The official response was interesting.
In May, the Prime Minister himself, the usually phlegmatic Lord Salisbury, warning that all the developing powers of offence on the Continent might ‘be united in one great wave to dash upon our shores,’ called for the establishment of a network of rifle clubs throughout the country.
Note that Salisbury was seriously talking about creating a better-armed citizenry as a first line of defense against an army of regular invaders. As the British were soon to find out in South Africa, the Boers, a citizen-army armed with then-modern rifles, could shoot the improperly led and trained regular British army to pieces. At least at first. So this wasn’t necessarily a bad idea.
Note the difference between those days and these. A foreign threat to Britain led to calls for citizens to take an active hand in national defense. In our day, we expect “Homeland Security” to be provided on a government-only basis. I wonder what would the response have been if President Bush had gone on TV and said this:
In this war, the front lines are everywhere and each one of us, each citizen, is personally responsible for the security of America. Terrorists can and will strike without warning. As we saw on the September 11, the only effective defense we are likely to have is the spontaneous and aggressive action of American citizens acting in the fleeting time available to stop terrorist attacks. Homeland Security cannot be the responsibility of government alone. All Americans must be alert, and prepared to act without waiting for the official authorities to arrive, to prevent or disrupt terrorist attacks. And they must not only be mentally alert, and ready to act as needed, but adequately armed. Therefore, tonight I am calling for a national concealed-carry law, so that all Americans everywhere can have the means needed to combat terrorism if needed, access to deadly force. And to make sure that the American people have the basic skills needed to safely and responsibly possess and employ deadly force, I am calling for the establishment of a network of pistol clubs throughout the country … .
It could never happen. Free people 100 years ago were not surprised to be asked to act in their own defense and in defense of their country if needed. They were not surprised to be asked to learn how to use firearms for that purpose. Now these very notions are inconceivable to most people. The civic spirit and common sense of the population has decayed. We should do what we can to turn this around. Both civic spirit and common sense will be needed to prevail in the current, ongoing war against Islamic terrorism.