100 years after the Battle of the Somme, it’s hard to see that much has been learned from the catastrophe of the Great War and the decades of slaughter that followed it. Rather than get bogged down (yet again) in specifics that invariably decline into arguments about who know more of the historical detail, I’m going to try a different approach, looking at the militarist ideology that gave us the War, and trying to articulate an anti-militarist alternative. Wikipedia offers a definition of militarism which, with the deletion of a single weasel word, seems to be entirely satisfactory and also seems to describe the dominant view of the political class, and much of the population in nearly every country in the world.

Militarism is the belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively[^1] to defend or promote national interests

Wikipedia isn’t as satisfactory (to me) on anti-militarism, so I’ll essentially reverse the definition above, and offer the following provisional definition

Anti-militarism is the belief or desire that a military expenditure should held to the minimum required to protect a country against armed attack and that, with the exception of self-defense, military power should not be used to promote national interests

I’d want to qualify this a bit, but it seems like a good starting point.

Looking first at militarism, the definition I’ve quoted would serve pretty well as a membership requirement for the US Foreign Policy Community. Within the FPC, there are lots of disagreements as to what constitutes the US National Interest. Some want to confine it to a fairly narrow notion of economic benefit – ensuring access to oil being the most prominent. Others see the US as having an interest in the promotion of human rights and democracy, support of friendly governments, or a stable world order (commonly conflated, these goals are often/usually in conflict with each other).

Still, AFAICT, there is no conflict in the FPC regarding the idea that the availability and regular use of military power to promote the national is essential. The equivalent groups in Western countries are more constrained in their means, and have fewer interests that could plausibly be promoted by unilateral use of force, but most still seem to accept the idea of militarism both as a national policy and as part of a Western alliance.

My case for anti-militarism has two main elements.

First, the consequentialist case against the discretionary use of military force is overwhelming. Wars cause huge damage and destruction and preparation for war is immensely costly. Yet it is just about impossible to find examples where a discretionary decision to go to war has produced a clear benefit for the country concerned, or even for its ruling class. Even in cases where war is initially defensive, attempts to secure war aims beyond the status quo ante have commonly led to disaster.

Second, war is (almost) inevitably criminal since it involves killing and maiming people who have done nothing personally to justify this; not only civilians, but soldiers (commonly including conscripts) obeying the lawful orders of their governments.

Having made the strong case, I’ll admit a couple of exceptions. First, although most of the above has been posed in terms of national military power, there’s nothing special in the argument that requires this. Collective self-defense by a group of nations is justified (or not) on the same grounds as national self-defense.

Second, there’s the case of “humanitarian intervention”. If the forces of a state, or a militia are engaged in murdering people on a large scale, the moral case for stopping them, if they can be stopped, is strong. The problem with this argument is that humanitarian interventions mostly fail, or lead to disasters even worse than those they were supposed to prevent. Many (not all) advocates of humanitarian intervention use dishonest arguments to avoid this, of which the epitome were the “Decent” arguments for the Iraq war to the effect that anyone who opposed a war must support Saddam.

What would an anti-militarist military policy look like? Most obviously, it would involve a drastic reduction in the capacity for “force projection”, and an acceptance that is, in general, neither possible nor desirable to dictate the outcomes of political struggles in other countries. It would also require an explicit weighing of the costs and benefits of overseas military action compared to civilian aid programs and the way in which the resources involved (including not just money, but political effort and the willingness of citizens to risk their lives in the service of their country) might be used at home.

The reversal of the burden of proof would also involve a steady reduction in military efforts justified by counterfactual hypotheticals (for example, idea that a vast naval effort is needed to ‘keep sea lanes open‘). Instead, for non-existential and currently hypothetical threats, the appropriate response is to “fix on failure”[^2], dealing with problems in the most cost-effective manner as they emerge.

After writing this, I found this excellent piece on the redemptive power of war (a huge factor in the enthusiasm with which so many entered the Great War) in the New York Times.

[^1]: The deleted word “aggressive” is doing a lot of work here. Almost no government ever admits to being aggressive. Territorial expansion is invariable represented as the restoration of historically justified borders while the overthrow of a rival government is the liberation of its oppressed people. So, no one ever has to admit to being a militarist.

[^2]: I advocated this approach, with no success, in the lead up to the Y2K fiasco.

41 thoughts on “Anti-militarism

  1. @Ikonoclast

    Ok, so it seems we’ve gotten past my “anger” and “upset” and so on and so forth. But one of these days maybe you’ll explain just how you came to attribute those things to me from what I’d written. I confess that I just don’t see it.

    Nonetheless, what you say is indeed generally “believed” by various archaeologists all of whom exhibit, to greater or lesser degree, those fundamental human attributes of ‘ignorance’ and ‘fallibility’. As for “archaeological excavations started in the 1840s”, the well known “human settlement” of Jericho has evidence of human occupancy dating back 11,000 years (ie to about 9000BCE). Did you think I introduced Catal Huyuk and Jericho for no reason ? Jericho, I might point out, though geographically proximate, is not part of the Tigris-Euphrates conjunction.

    Besides, homo sapiens (ie you and me) have existed for approximately 200,000 years. Now granted that quite a bit of that time was spent slowly building up a survival sized population (mostly in Africa it is now “believed”) and a lot of it hanging on through a serious glacial epoch until the current inter-glacial began – the ‘glacial’ period finally ended, more or less, not counting Antarctica, Canada etc, about 11700 years ago, so we’re told. What have we been up to for all that time – at least since we learned how to paint cave walls about 40,000 years ago. Does that in any way qualify as part of the millennia long process of “cradling” civilization ?

    As to my use of “culmination” versus “cradle”, well I “believe” that’s open for contention, at least in my “belief”. The Tigris-Euphrates region did indeed function as a suitable place for settlements and breeding farmable grains, domesticating animals and building more or less permanent buildings, so in that sense it was a “cradle”. But then, as we’ve agreed, so was the Indus Valley and the Yellow River and so on and so forth. But they are not the only such places on Planet Terra.

    So, to Europe – and please remember that Europe is a modern name given to a geographical area, nothing more – well: do you, or Joshua Mark know what might or might not be found if/when we ever get to having a good look at the Doggerland (ie the area now underwater and known as the Dogger Bank) which once apparently had a significant human settlement. Did you even know of that possibility Ikono ? Is it mentioned anywhere in Joshua Mark’s learned tome ? Is there any “evidence” known about it or has it just been ignored based on the “belief” that Mesopotamia was the one and only “cradle”.

    In the meantime, I remain curious as to why the earliest building, as per the Wikipedia article I quoted to you, is found in what is now called France, even though a ‘walled village’ at Jericho is much older. So many interesting questions that will continue to test our “beliefs” for a long time to come, yes ?

  2. There are many erudite comments relating today to yesterday, years and centuries past.

    From my perspective of substantical ignorance about times past, I would suggest anti-militarism needs to start within the US police force of today. I lived long enough to reach this conclusion on the basis of my observations.

  3. @GrueBleen

    Those are good points. Especially about Jericho. Doggerland is a prospect but we cannot simply assume important discoveries will occur there, though they may.

    At issue is the definition of “civilization”. I confess I was using a fairly “traditional” archeological definition meaning or implying the rise of a city-state. Such was what I had in mind and it is also suggested by the word’s etymology.

    “Etymologically, the word civilization relates to the Latin term civitas, or ”city”, which is why it sometimes refers to urban state-level societies, setting aside the nomadic people who lack a permanent settlement and those who live in settlements that are not considered urban or do not have a state-level organization. Sometimes it can be used as a label for human societies which have attained a specific degree of complexity. In a wide sense, civilization often means nearly the same thing as culture or even regional traditions including one or more separate states. In this sense, we sometimes speak of the “Aegean civilization”, “Chinese civilization”, “Egyptian civilization”, or “Mesoamerican civilization”, but each of these may include several cities or regions, for example: “Mesoamerican civilization” includes groups such as the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Aztec, and others; “Aegean civilization” includes the Minoan, Mycenaean, and other societies of the Cycladic islands and western Anatolia.” – Civilization – Definition by Cristian Violatti.

    Thus my definition relates to city-states and then states. This is a structural and complexity definition. When certain structures are in place, both built structures and social structures, with the civitas or city a key compounded structure and node, this then is civilization or “city-isation” and all that comes with it, good or bad. I don’t consider this definition of civilization to be in any way a moral definition implying moral enlightenment or superiority over other cultures. It is simply a structural and complexity definition as I said above. In that context, a place like Mesopotamia was a beginning of civilization of city-isation creating a recognisable city and city-state.

    “Cradle” is an unfortunate metaphor. In retrospect I resile from using it. That metaphor belongs to an earlier era of what one might term “imperialist” archeology. Clearly many precursor developments had to occur before the city-state arose, as you point out.

    Structure and complexity are not ipso facto “good”. I tend to think that the way the Australian aboriginals lived in the non-desert areas had much that was good about it. I leave out the desert areas only from a bias on my part that life there must have been so tough it might scarcely qualify as good on a regular basis. But there were almost certainly areas of Australia where the bush and wildlife were managed to some considerable extent by “fire-stick farming”. The aboriginals there were in the main taller, stronger and healthier than early white settlers: that is until the impact of “guns, germs and steel”. They also mocked the white way of life and preferred their own way. With a few hours per day hunting and gathering they ate better than white settlers grubbing or hard scrabbling from dawn to dusk. Given that the aboriginals lived mostly sustainably (they might have wiped out some megafauna) for roughly 40,000 years and we’ve just about trashed the place in 250 years, this is not a great tick for “civilisation” or city-isation.

  4. @Ernestine Gross

    I agree and I would go further. In the US, anti-militarism or perhaps de-militarisation needs to be applied to all levels of their society. The citizens have far too many guns. The police are too heavily weaponised. This is a knock-on effect as the police are armed right up so they can outgun civilians who have automatic weapons, sniper rifles, Kevlar vests, night vision, armor piercing rounds, “cop-killer rounds” (go through Kevlar vests) and so on. Then of course the US needs to reduce traditional military spending, overseas deployments and general military adventurism.

    The chances of the US doing any of this? I don’t know but I think I have more chance of winning money on a 1,000 to 1 long-shot at the Melbourne Cup.

  5. @Ikonoclast

    I think, Ikono, that we are now in serene (as opposed to ‘furious’) agreement. My reason for including Doggerland in the discussion is not that I expect we’ll find evidence of ‘proto-civilisation’ there but just that 1. it’s a recent discovery as such things go and 2. we can’t just ‘assume’ (ass out of u and me) that we won’t. Or, more to the point, that we have reliably discovered all such possible places on Planet Terra and no further ‘surprises’ await us.

    It really is just a bit like the discovery – over centuries – of dinosaur remains: over time, more and more remains in more and more places, including places (eg Antarctica) where we may have never expected to find them.

    I agree that “cradle” is vague, the sense in which I try to use it is with regard to places – and the Tigris-Euphrates region is most definitely one – where the necessary conditions existed for long enough for long-running settlements to arise and prosper and hence, eventually, become ‘civilisationns’ (and yes, I do know the origin of that word).

    In that sense I can think that Doggerland may have been another “cradle” without necessarily going on to be a place of “culmination” such as Mesopotamia, Indus, Yellow etc. It all depends on how much species-wide interaction humans have had and whether progress made in one place might get passed on, even if conditions changed (eg rivers dry up or change their course significantly – as happened in Mesoamerica and in India for instance) and the “cradle” dies out or is abandoned.

    The rapid, and wide – though not by any means universal – propagation of the adult age lactose tolerant genes is a case in point: the spread, for a genetic mutation, was very rapid throughout the Asia Minor/Middle east and Europe which indicates quite a significant degree of cross-peoples interaction on major levels.

    Lastly, it is, of course, somewhat difficult for such as myself to think that the human race, as a whole, might have been better off staying as hunter-gatherers – taking the Australian Aboriginals as an example. To surrender science, literature and symphonic music ? Never, I say. Incidentally, I have a memory of once reading that just prior to being screwed up by us invading whites, some aboriginal tribes in Victoria were kinda kicking off some ‘civilization cradling’ by beginning the farming of river eels and forming very permanent settlements – I’ll have to try to see if I can find a reference to that one of these days.

    And now it’s probably time to remember that all this started because of some assertion about war being just great for technological advancement such that places that engage in ongoing war develop advanced technology quickly. Which, to me, is one of those things that so very much needs qualification and variation that it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Nonetheless, a situation of rivalry driven competition based cooperation has worked well for us over time, and especially in post middle-ages Europe (including the north Americas as ‘cultural Europe’).

  6. @Ernestine Gross

    Ernestine, I mostly agree with Ikono (above) on this. What concerns me is that police forces in Australia are going through creeping militarization and that present emphasis on ‘anti-terrorism’ will exacerbate this tendency. We already have IMHO, too many instances of police shootings and we’ve seen how innocents may be harmed – eg the woman in the Lindt Café who was killed by ricochet, and the three women also wounded after police fire on a man outside the Hornsby shopping centre in Sydney.

    But how can we stop it ? I for one am a bit too old for demonstrating in the streets nowadays.

  7. @GrueBleen

    I can agree with all of that except perhaps in a couple of statements.

    “To surrender science, literature and symphonic music…” – I agree these can all be positives. Although science is a double-edged sword and we need to become a lot wiser about using it. As one writer put it, we need to put impact science (environmental science and even aspects of medicine) at least on a level with production science. The arts are something I feel strangely ambivalent about. They have become somewhat a field of cultural elitism and escapism sadly operating in service to our capitalist system. Automotive aesthetics and advertising are now too “arts” of a sort. They are pointless and even negative in our current situation (approach to limits to growth). It does no good IMO to consume the arts and entertainments (highbrow or lowbrow) and forget how to live authentically. What is the authentic life and can we even live one now? Or do we just live how the system tells us to? That troubles me.

    We have lost much too. The intricate and extensive knowledge that the aboriginals had of the environment and how to survive in it was astounding.

    The formulation “a situation of rivalry driven competition based cooperation has worked well for us over time” always calls into question who exactly is “us”?

    These are somewhat different concerns, not directly related to our discussion, and certainly I have gone off topic.

  8. @Ikonoclast

    The Yartz have been servants of the establishment ever since they succumbed to the pathology of meritocracy – not capitalism specifically. But then, I haven’t been to a Moomba Art Show in Melbourne (do they still hold one ?) for decades so I have no direct knowledge of the state of ‘people’s art’ these days. But ‘people’s music’ (aka rock’n’roll) is alive and very well.

    Who is “us” ? Well, all of “we, the people” is “us”. If you follow a sporting team, you’re one of the “us” benefitting from rivalry-driven competitive cooperation. And if you’re in science racing to publish before others can beat you to it, then you’re one of “us” that’s benefitting from rivalry driven competitive cooperation.

    “Us” is the multitude of invisible hands, and long may we all live in a blessed state of Pareto optimality fostered by the continuing successes of rivalry driven competitive cooperation. 🙂

  9. @GrueBleen

    I was alluding to John Howard’s infamous phrase “for all of us”. Noel Pearson correctly interpreted this dog whistle as “for all of us [emphasised], not you.”; pitting privileged against unprivileged and white against black.

    I am not not all implying that you are dog whistling. It’s just that my allusion was not made clear. It’s also a play on the more standard “us and them”. It’s not often that “us” is all-inclusive in political practice.

    “Rivalry driven competitive cooperation” would imply, socialistically speaking, that winners get some bragging rights but in practice share their largesse equally and where the need is. None of us could probably meet this ideal but we certainly ought to move our system more in that direction.

  10. Oops, the double negative above in sentence 1, para 2 is a typo. The double negative is not intended. Clumsy fingers and clumsy brain problems here. The second “not” is supposed to be “at”.

  11. @Ikonoclast

    Well I kinda read past your 2*neg without even noticing. What was that you said about “dumsy brain problems” ?

    No, I didn’t cotton on to your subtleties and hidden references in respect to “us”, though it indeed does always need clear interpretation. I do just mean “we, the people” or indeed “hoi polloi” if you prefer.

    My meaning attached to “rivalry-driven competitive competition” is just a tad less gracious than yours. I was basically trying to get across a message that all of the decent and lasting achievements of the human race (and a fair few that are otherwise, too) come about through cooperation, not outright conflict of any kind, armed or not. But also that a bit of “rivalry-driven competition” helps to rev up the cooperation and magnify the outcomes.

    After all, when I think of a very clear case of great technological achievement in WWII – the two bombs of Barnes-Wallis – they still needed an enormous amount of cooperation to bring about the result: detailed engineering and construction, intelligence network to know where exactly to drop them, air force teams and aeroplanes to deliver them etc etc.

    [Barnes-Wallis’s two bombs, in case your memory needs refreshing, were the ‘bouncing bomb’ which destroyed German dams and the ‘earthquake bomb’ which destroyed Hittler’s “really big cannon” that was going to be used to shell London from the French coast.]

  12. I’d rather go with a consequentialist case against war than an ethical one. Is it just me? It’s not that wars are ethical but rather that it’s going to be more reliable. When people feel under threat or even slighted they believe it is their moral duty to neutralize their perceived enemy by whatever means. Rather than trying to argue against these basic instincts, it would be more useful to present a documented cost/benefit list (of failures) and ask “What are you planning to do differently this time?”

    It is relatively easy for the Iraq push politicians to continue present (moral) arguments for the Iraq invasion, ad infinitum. However, profligacy charge is a lot harder to answer. Ideally, I’d want a set of prewar outcome scenario estimates and their immediate and long term costs for the war instigators to sign off on.

    I might have said this before, but I’m not so much anti-war as anti-stupidity.

  13. @Jim Birch

    Perhaps it’s a case of needing a two-pronged message. The moral message works for part of the electorate but not for another part. The part which puts money and unenlightened self-interest ahead of morality needs to be led into enlightened self-interest by the only message they will understand. This will be a cost-benefit analysis in economic terms. These people need to see the high costs and low returns of foreign wars laid out plainly.

    Perhaps even better would be a war tax surcharge (making the costs plain) and the requirement for a referendum, needing a 2/3rds majority to pass, to be held to approve any foreign war commitment. The Cabinet could still act immediately in the case of military bombing or invasion of home soil.

  14. @Jim Birch

    I’d rather go with a consequentialist case against war than an ethical one.

    This is pure bourgeois theory. If you do not value ethics, then those with power will work the system for best “consequences” for themselves.

    The best consequences for all is justice, liberty, and equity – these are ethics.

    In a just society – ethics determine consequences.

    In a boureois society – consequences corrupt ethics.

  15. @Ikonoclast

    Cost/benefit is a good start, Ikono, but not if it means – as is almost always the case – that the even more important aspect of risk/reward is ignored. Any rational analysis should always start with risk/reward and iff (ie if and only if) a decent reward with a reasonable chance of accomplishment is possible, then we can get into the mundanities of cost/benefit.

    However, I note that the direct and indirect death toll for WWII is considered to be of the order of 60 million (low estimate around 20 million, high estimate 80 million, median 60 million). I am intrigues as to how one would set about to frame, and then compute, a cost/benefit factor for 60 million deaths. Can you enlighten me, please.

  16. @Ivor
    Ethics are mush. Everyone claims they are ethical and their opponents aren’t. Their opponents make exactly the same claim. Different cultures have different ethics. Different social groups have different ethics. Different personality types have different ethics. Ethics are not facts about the world, they are intuitive statements about yourself and your preferences. As far as I can see this is a big problem for your simple Manichean scheme.

    Instead of obsessing about Right and Wrong it seems to me a lot more propitious to concern ourselves with the small-G good and actually total up harms, benefits and risks. You may actually find that a course of action becomes obvious but even if it doesn’t you’ll have a much clear idea about what you are up to. I think we will be much more likely to make better choices than relying on moral intuitions.

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