You hear it all the time: armed militia groups have gathered at the capital; or, membership in right-wing militias has risen over the past four years; or, members of a Michigan militia have conspired to kidnap the state’s governor, and so on. But is that really the right term to use? I’ll be honest: I hadn’t thought about this until very recently. For years, I’ve used the term “militia” to describe armed right-wing paramilitary groups. That’s simply the term I’d always heard used. But I no longer think this is the right term—and I have my reasons.
Let’s start with this Newsweek headline: 3 Swing States at ‘Highest Risk’ for Militia Activity Leading up To and Following Presidential Election, Report Says. “Of the militias tracked throughout the study, ACLED reported that the majority were right-wing armed groups such as the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, among others,” the story reads. But … are these groups actually militias? Just what is a militia?
I grew up reading the U.S. Constitution. At one point, I had the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution memorized. Actually, I had the whole Bill of Rights memorized. My family was like that.
Here’s the Second Amendment:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
That doesn’t actually answer our question, of course. But we might remember something else: the colonists relied on militias for their defense. You remember—the British are coming! The British are coming! Each community had its own militia, and its own garrison with gunpowder. In fact, that was the genesis of Paul Revere’s ride: the British were coming to take the local militia’s gunpowder. But here’s the thing: the militias that would drill on the town square were formed and organized by the local authorities. In many cases, able-bodied men were required by law to come and drill. These weren’t groups that were formed or organized informally, like clubs. They were officially organized and sanctioned.
In fact, while many Americans may be most familiar with the term “militia” from the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution itself discusses militias at some length:
[The Congress shall have Power to] provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
[The Congress shall have Power to] provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
And then, again, here:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;
The militia is not some ad hoc thing. The militia is officially formed organized by the state. You can see this in the definition of militia included in Noah Webster’s 1828 English dictionary, the very first American English dictionary in existence.
Noah Webster, by the way, was no stranger to the U.S. Constitution: 1889, after the Constitutional Convention, Webster stumped for the new Constitution, writing letters and pamphlets in its defense. While not at the Constitutional Convention as a delegate himself, he was close friends with many of its authors.
Webster’s dictionary defines militia as:
The body of soldiers in a state enrolled for discipline, but not engaged in actual service except in emergencies; as distinguished from regular troops, whose sole occupation is war or military service. The militia of a country are the able bodied men organized into companies, regiments and brigades, with officers of all grades, and required by law to attend military exercises on certain days only, but at other times left to pursue their usual occupations.
According to Webster’s dictionary members of a militia are organized and trained and required by law to attend military exercises. They’re not just any random people who buy a gun and spend the weekend cosplaying that they’re soldiers. They’re formally organized and trained by the state so the state will have a backup military force to call up in time of need.
In fact, if Webster’s definition sounded familiar to you, it should, because we still have militias today: they’re just now called the National Guard. The term National Guard replaced the term militia in the early 1900s, when Congress began regulating state militias more thoroughly due to lessons learned in the Spanish American War of 1898.
People who want to join a militia today absolutely can—by enlisting in the National Guard. In the National Guard, they will go through boot camp, receive a rank and training for specific duties, and drill one weekend a month. These so-called “militia” groups don’t actually want that. Joining the National Guard would require them to take an oath of allegiance to their state and nation; to obey their commanders and follow orders; and to do hard work in training and drilling. I’ve had relatives in the Guard. It’s hard work. Really hard work. It’s extremely similar to being in the formal army.
It’s a lot easier—and more self-aggrandizing—to join one of these so-called “militia” groups and imagine you’re standing up to government tyranny than it is to join the National Guard and go through actual military training.
How did these groups come to claim the “militia” label? It goes back only to the early 1990s, when Ruby Ridge and the siege at Waco led individuals who believed government was encroaching on the rights of ordinary Americans to form armed groups they imagined could fight back against armed forces and police. These groups were highly skeptical of the legitimacy of the government. I should know: I attended an anti-government summer camp as a child. We didn’t drill with guns, but we heard plenty of stories celebrating those who did, and a general elevation of individual vigilantism.
This was always about a combination of cosplay and a misguided belief that ordinary civilians could fight back against a government armed with aircraft and bombs. As far as I am concerned, our freedom lies not in individual citizens purchasing AK-47s and going away for weekend target practice but in maintaining a military that is reflective of the civilian population and serves at the behest the people, and not at the pleasure of an individual leader. When I look at history, this is where the danger lies: for Rome, the trouble began when the Army was loyal no longer to Rome, but to military commanders.
But I digress.
These groups claimed the label “militia” not because they were a militia but rather because they wanted to be one. They recalled that during the War for Independence it was frequently local militias that fought the British. They claimed the label “militia” as a way to reach for a legitimacy they do not have. They are not called up by local towns and drilled on the town square by officers appointed by the town, with access to the town’s supply of gunpowder, as militias were centuries ago.
So. What are these groups, if they’re not militias? Clubs, at best. Armed vigilantes at worse. We could also use other words. But I would suggest that we stop using one word in particular: militias. Given the the legitimacy the U.S. Constitution and American history lends militias, allowing groups of right-wing gun-toters to falsely claim that label risks granting them a level of validity they do not have the right to. Simply put, they are not militias.
The number of people pointing this out is growing. Indeed, that Newsweek article I started with included an image from Getty Images with the following imported description:
Members of the Proud Boys, a gang that supports President Trump, hold a rally on September 26, 2020 in Delta Park on the edge of Portland, Oregon.
A gang. I still say they should go with club.
I’m a huge fan of journalists trying out different terminology, though, and I absolutely think they should. There’s no need for granting these groups more legitimacy or stature than they actually merit.
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