18. THE MILITARY
The military in a democracy has a number of roles, the most important of which
is defense against external threats. In addition, although in many countries this
responsibility is now largely symbolic, it guarantees the peaceful transfer of
power between competing electoral groups. It is only in the more formative democracies
that the military must do such things as guard polling places, and assure that
election victors can take office.
The military represents the greatest concentration of power in human society.
As such, it must be carefully controlled. It is in recognition of the threat that
the military poses, such as of a coup, that it is placed under the command of
the top elected official. Other than to safeguard the vote, or in very rare cases
to combat rebel groups (including rebellious states that are in violation of federal
law) or to provide assistance in the event of natural catastrophes, soldiers are
never used inside the country.
Ultimately, there is no definitive check on military power. The soldiers have
the guns, and they can choose to use them, against the people, at any time. It
is to balance this risk that nations limit their military to a central army (rather
than multiple independent regional forces), and also, in the U.S., that the Constitution
guarantees ordinary citizens the right to bear arms.
The power and responsibilities of the military give rise to a number of problem
areas. These must be addressed carefully for it to fill its proper place in society.
When individuals or groups have assigned roles, there is a tendency to want to
justify them: to project yourself as being important if not crucial to societys
well being. Put bluntly, the military needs wars. Soldiers and weapons are expensive.
They are a huge drag on national resources that could be used more productively
to satisfy human needs (for instance, for education and health care). Commanders
therefore have a vested interest to overstate prospective threats. For this reason,
the government must have clear guidelines for when the military will be used:
for when wars will be fought.
Traditionally, this has been limited to defense against actual attack, or when
there is a clear and present danger that such an attack is imminent. In the United
States, President Bush caused great controversy by redefining this doctrine to
justify preemptive action against only prospective threats, or where the threat
Linked to this is the issue of funding. Historically, at least in aggressor societies,
the military was the main source of government revenue, through the spoils of
conquest including coerced taxes. In modern democracies, though, this has been
replaced by taxes willingly paid. Still, military costs are so great that they
must be subject to comprehensive accounting. Again in the U.S., one defense procurement
scandal after another testifies to the difficulty of this task.
The problems with funding and accountability are exacerbated by the militarys
penchant for secrecy. Generals makes broad use of the argument that since their
work is for national defense, it should be Top Secret. The pervasive secrecy
in the military makes independent appraisal of its threat analysis and strategies
for conflict, and funding programs for troops and weapons systems, extremely difficult.
However, a democratic society must be open. Secrecy is justifiable only in the
most unusual of circumstances, mainly to protect lives that verifiably are at
risk (e.g., of intelligence sources).
Strict limits on secrecy also guard against demonstrably unethical military (and
government) behavior. For instance, secrecy is used to cover up atrocities, including
the killing of non-combatants and the use of torture.
It is common in society to separate soldiers from the general public. The stated
reason for this is to facilitate training and preparation for conflict. But, there
is another explanation as well. The need for separation is also due to the extensive
conditioning that soldiers must undergo. They must be made to lose their individuality,
and any normal sense of ethics, to turn them into people willing to kill, and
to kill on order, without questioning the order in any way or otherwise considering
its consequences. As a member of the military you are taught to accept death,
violent death, including causing it, as normal. You even win ribbons and medals
This type of conditioning is acceptable if the soldiers are directed against real
external threats. But any group so manipulated can be redirected, including against
the people of the nation. This is a precise balance. Soldiers must be trained
to kill, but they still must maintain identity and loyalty with the people, so
they do not turn their guns on them.
The military has some of the characteristics of a religion, including members
who are willing to die for their cause, and who use a disparaging term
civilians for outsiders. This is the fundamental reason why military leadership
of government is unacceptable: it is a variant on theocracy. Patriotism, to support
ones nation, is of course valid if not laudatory, but no nation, or its
leaders, is above criticism.
The historic function of the military comprised either conquest or self-defense.
It needs to conclusively cast off the first and also take a final step, to confront
the aggression of others.
The need for this change in role is now well recognized. Through participating
in multinational forces such as under the auspices of the United Nations, democratic
governments are beginning to demonstrate a willingness to become involved in disputes
that do not directly affect their national welfare. This is a monumental change
over past practice, and if it continues, and spreads to all regions, it will represent
one of the most significant historical precedents ever established. The opportunity
for any single nation to engage in the conquest of its weaker neighbors, or in
massive repression, even extermination, of all or part of its own population,
In conclusion, modern militaries have unprecedented weaponry and power. Their
strength is so great that they dominate innumerable societies, the largest of
which is China. Our goal is to create a worldwide Zone of Peace, but this will
be impossible until all the nations that use force to rule over their people renounce
such force and instead become democratic.
© Roland O. Watson 2008