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.