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 society’s 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 was unconfirmed.

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 military’s 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 for this.

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 one’s 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, will vanish.

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