He will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his ploughing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots (I Sam.8:12).
The king that Samuel warned Israel of would be a taker. He would take people and property for his own use. Israel would no longer be a place where private property was sacrosanct, and even people could be confiscated by this king.
There are a number of implications springing from this. Firstly, Israel was no stranger to war. The wars of conquest under Joshua did not mean that Israel was not peace-loving, because there was a specific military task to be completed, for a time. Nor did it mean that the men of Israel would be wholly exempt from defence responsibilities. The big difference was that after the wars of conquest, Israel only possessed a militia.
So, all her men who could fight, would be occupied in their normal occupations. They would only be called away from this in times when Israel was invaded, and they would have had their own weapons, and means of support. The professional soldier would never be known in Israel.
All of this would begin to disappear with Saul. The scripture records that
…the war against the Philistines was severe all the days of Saul; and when Saul saw any mighty man or any valiant man, he attached him to his staff (I Sam.14:52).
When he “attached him to his staff,” he’d have to be paid. How? Through taxation. So, when Israel was confronted by Goliath a few chapters later, one of the incentives offered to the successful soldier who triumphed over him, was that Saul would “…make his father’s house free in Israel” (I Sam.17:25). He would be tax-free. Taxation, because of the professional nature of Saul’s army, had become an issue in Israel. Avoiding it had become desirable.
Professional armies are remarkably expensive to maintain, even in peace-time. Training men to fight is never cheap, and this is amplified with sophisticated military hardware that requires time and practice to master. And we haven’t even considered the hardware for war, like aircraft and aircraft carriers and submarines, or the extremely expensive real-estate to keep soldiers and their bases, in and around capital cities.
But there is much more than this to consider. When governments have professional soldiers, this gives them options, whereas the militia force will only serve in a time of invasion. Now, they have multitudes of men under arms who are trained and ready to kill, so they can be used as political tools by ruthless politicians, for any number of purposes.
This can mean invasion of other nations, a very common occurrence in the 20th century. If it hadn’t been for the large and well-equipped professional armies in Russia, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, France and Germany in 1914, would there have been a Great War? And any World War I historian will acknowledge that the naval arms race between Germany and Britain (which progressively escalated for over a decade) was an important component of tensions between these two nations. As A.J. P. Taylor explained,
The great armies [in 1914], accumulated to provide security and preserve the peace, carried the nations to war by their own weight.
There are other uses for professional soldiers, such as the internal suppression of undesirables or dissidents, and we see this in Saul’s day. When David fled from Saul and Ahimelech the priest was implicated in supporting him, Saul had a way of dealing with this.
By whom? Doeg the Edomite, who “struck Nob the city of the priests with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and infants; also oxen, donkeys, and sheep he struck with the edge of the sword” (I Sam.22:19).
We know about institutionalised murder with the Gestapo, or in the Soviet Union. But elsewhere? William Grigg comments:
Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. government announced its intention to “uplift and Christianize” the Filipinos, many of whom were Roman Catholics. In a speech defending this venture in murderous evangelism, Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota assured Filipinos that “We come as ministering angels, not as despots.”
After independence-seeking Filipino partisans displayed their ingratitude toward their “liberators,” American military commanders appointed Colonel Jacob Smith, a decorated veteran of Wounded Knee, to bring his distinctive brand of enlightenment to the archipelago.
“I want no prisoners,” Smith ordered his troops as they descended on one village. “I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better you will please me.” He commanded his troops to obliterate the village, kill everyone over the age of ten, and reduce the surrounding countryside into “a howling wilderness.”
Smith was court-martialed after the war – not for mass murder of civilians, mind you, but for “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” His sentence was to be “admonished by the reviewing authority” – that is, to receive a brief lecture in the courtroom.
The evil outcomes when nations have professional soldiers, just keep on coming. The soldiers become expendable for the “cause of freedom.” That means the whims and fancies of political leaders who have something to prove overseas. Think of Viet Nam for the United States: 1965-1975, 58,000 dead soldiers, and a lost war. Sorry about that.
Your dead son left behind grieving siblings and parents, a wife and children? That’s really just too bad, but he “died for freedom and honour.” You should be consoled by that happy thought. Whose freedom and honour? Not too sure about that.
Soldiers prey upon civilians. It’s normal, and women especially, who get raped. Why did Herod order that baby boys in Israel be executed (Mat.2:16-18)? Because he could.
Soldiers kill their own, accidently or intentionally.
King Saul’s era shows that professional armies (with or without conscription) are government tools of abuse, either of other nations, or their own people. And even if they never seem to harm anyone, they are a frightful drain on the taxpayer. No nation ever needs them, and will be better off without them.
If a nation is concerned for its defence and wants to be able to vigorously defend itself, the answer is the militia. Lightly trained and always armed, a militia is a great deterrence against an invader. It is all that any nation needs.