The Disease of Militarism
If mankind survives its current militaristic phase – we're speaking of the past 6000 years or so – the time will come when children will read in history books that in the dark past, great sums of public money were spent by the world's nations in trying to destroy each other and to kill each others' citizens. School children will need to look up such words as "military," "army," and "warship" in an encyclopedia to understand what they mean, and they will read with astonishment – perhaps with disbelief – of the paralyzing disease of militarism that infected the human race until the 21st century.
War and militarism represent a disease of the current juvenile phase of human civilization. We may be ready to grow out of it, but it will take citizen commitment.
At least we would like them to read that this madness ended in this century. But it won't end by itself. It won't end until we begin to think of war and violence as primitive and totally unacceptable ways of solving conflicts, and to realize that we've lived through a period in human history when the human species was infected with a social-psychological disease, an epidemic paranoia that caused every nation to arm itself against its neighbors, and too often, to strike out against its neighbors. Our future world, if our civilization is to survive, must be one in which this disease is only a bad memory.
But let me not assume that the reader is with me in the hope that we may or should rid ourselves of war. This is not a universal opinion. In a recent course I attended on the history of warfare the instructor (a retired Army colonel) offered the opinion that war is the natural endgame following diplomatic failure (Clausewitz); war is inevitable and at times even beneficial. "What would take the place of war?" he asked rhetorically, gesturing to suggest that nothing could. The instructor was wrong about war being inevitable, but his point can't be dismissed out of hand. He's certainly right that historically there have not been adequate international mechanisms for resolution of conflict, but the suggestion that this is the natural order of things, and that the problem of war can't and won't be solved by a maturing civilization, is defeatist. But – why should we banish militarism and war? The easy and obvious answer is the horror and destruction, the death and suffering that it brings. But equally, we need to rid ourselves of this albatross of self-generated and unnecessary "problems" that stem from our own immaturity, in order to concentrate our effort and resources on solving our many real and critical problems that threaten to overcome us, and to move toward a world community of general wellbeing, cooperation, and peace, which remains the (official) goal of the United Nations.
How do we as citizens bring about that future? We can't wait for our politicians to find the solution; we've tried that for centuries, while they have started war after war. But we know that our politicians, while they may not be competent leaders, are – at least in "democratic" countries – avid followers of opinion polls. We, the people, need to make militarism unfashionable and unacceptable for politicians. The time has come for us, the people, to understand militarism as the outrageous, useless waste that it truly is, and to make that point forcefully to our politicians. Military expenditures represent the greatest waste of economic resources throughout the world. In many "third world" countries, where much of the population is starving for lack of resources to provide food, a large percentage of the country's budget, resources that could and should feed and house millions, is given over to building and maintaining military forces. In most cases, no external threat from neighboring states exists; in fact it's likely that only a small fraction of world-wide military spending is related to any plausible external threat.
So what will motivate leaders of the hundred countries where hunger and social misery is the predominant condition to abandon profligate military spending in favor of addressing their pressing social problems? What will convince the poorer countries that peaceful relations among each other is the best way to boost the living standard of their people? It's easy for those of us in Europe and America to smugly say, "Look to us as models! America has successfully federated 50 states, with inhabitants of every color, creed, and nationality who have lived in relative peace with one another for 150 years. And Europe is now showing how to unite in peace a continent of vastly different countries, each with its unique culture and language. Surely these models can be of use elsewhere in the world, to get us on the path to peace."
Yes, these can be models, but let's remember that although Europe has recently taken successful steps toward peace, and is enjoying for the first time in recorded history sixty years of relative peace, Europe has also been the source of much of the world's misery over the past several centuries. Their war-weary search for peace comes only after the ways of war have played out to the brink of annihilation. It took that, two thousand years of war, for the major states of Europe – like Japan – to finally learn that attempting national aggrandizement through coveting their neighbor's land is a self-destructive path. And America, though a useful model in many ways, is certainly no model for disarmament, or recently even for international cooperation. So must "less developed" nations go down the path trod by Europe, so that peace and international cooperation only can come after ultimate war-weariness sets in, following generations of wanton killing? Or must they go the way of America, feeling (and acting out) a need to be the most heavily armed nation in the neighborhood? Or will they find a more mature and sensible way to lasting peace? In urging demilitarization on these countries, we're asking them to show far more maturity than has been demonstrated by America and Europe.
Demilitarization must above all satisfy a country's need for security in its region, its "neighborhood". A country feels the need to maintain a strong military force to the degree that it feels threatened in its neighborhood. Any country, before agreeing to reduce armaments in a step toward demilitarization, must be convinced that appropriate reductions will be carried out across the entire neighborhood. But neighborhoods border other neighborhoods. Where Angola, for example, might be happy with a disarmament agreement with its neighbors Namibia, Zambia, and the Congo, the latter will only agree to this if it can get the same from the rest of its neighbors, such as Sudan. And so forth, so that disarmament in Angola can only be achieved once Israel has an agreement with Syria, for example. And not even then, because by this same "domino effect" disarmament needs world-wide agreement. Therefore, efforts at demilitarization cannot be successfully initiated within local international neighborhoods, though these will be of great importance for regional agreements and dispute resolution. But the impetus for effective demilitarization must begin "at the top"; that is, with the leadership of the great and powerful nations whose military might and arms production and sales drive and support much of the military activities of smaller nations. In other words, it must begin with the United States, the European Union, and Russia, and it must begin with the citizens of these countries prodding and educating their politicians, and speaking at the ballot box.
It is finally time for the United Nations to get serious about demilitarization. The fact that, after sixty years of supposed commitment to disarmament, nearly all the UN member states are still arming themselves against their fellow members – with whom they have pledged, through the UN charter, not to go to war – illustrates the level of wisdom of national leaders. Their deadly game of us arming against our neighbor, who then arms against us, reminds us of schoolyard fights among twelve-year-olds. So illogical, so juvenile, so self-destructive that it would be beyond belief that mature adults can behave in that fashion, were it not for the indisputable evidence of history showing that our leaders have done just that. They have consistently demonstrated the level of wisdom of quarrelsome sub-teens.
It is not my aim here to outline mechanisms or structures for world demilitarization, but rather to give a small push to the idea that we should regard war as a stupid, abhorrent, and juvenile act. However, a few words about what will be needed to bring about the end of war may be in order:
I suggested above that there are, after all, lessons that the world may draw from the American and European experiences. The United States makes a convenient model of an aggregation of states where interstate law has operated successfully for more than two centuries. The U.S. is not simply a country; it is a federation of fifty states which retain a great deal of sovereignty in their internal affairs. This model should also be applicable to nations which are not currently federated. The question to ask is: Why have these fifty states not gone to war against one another? (Excepting, of course, the Civil War that discussed the issue of slavery in the 1860s.) Why has the large state of Texas not attacked any of its smaller neighbors, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico? Why has California not tried to conquer Nevada, Arizona, or Oregon? There have been plenty of contentious issues among these states, which might have led to war under different circumstances. These are questions no American ordinarily thinks about, and that points to a key fact: The very thought of war among these states is inapplicable; it simply doesn't occur to the citizens or politicians of these states. They feel no threat from neighboring states, and they harbor no designs on their neighbors. The underlying fact is of course that there is acknowledgement of an overriding authority – judicial, legislative, and military – to which all these states have pledged their allegiance and their subservience. So how do we make use of this example to reduce military threats around the world?
The use of military force stems from the lack of any satisfactory alternative, in particular from the lack of international law with universal adherence. The solution to this problem, as in the federated United States, is to institute regional agreements and/or law, to which all parties in the region will declare their adherence, and to establish an international, regional or wider, power with sufficient authority to enforce compliance with such agreement or law. At the moment, only the United Nations has any hope of being that focus, working both with the great military powers to provide leadership, and within regions to establish a structure of enforceable agreements designed to lead to the end of warfare. If we are to achieve the end of war we therefore need to work through the UN. But I don't need to mention the light years that lie between the UN of today and the UN that will some day be able to achieve anything so meaningful. But I think we must try.
(A later follow-up essay on this topic is here.)