Reconsidering Militarism

by Clark Hanjian
(Rev. 02/10/2014)
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Militarism pervades our lives. We humans devote a substantial portion of our resources, attention, spirit, and labor to this endeavor. Regardless of where we live, what we do for work, or what we believe, we are in the thick of it. Since we invest so much in militarism, we should, from time to time, evaluate how well it serves us.

What Is Militarism?

It’s difficult to have a useful conversation about militarism without first clarifying what we mean by the word. In regard to dictionary definitions, the word military refers to soldiers, arms, armed forces, and war. The word militarism refers to the systems, beliefs, goals, and rationale which support military endeavors. Militarism has many facets, but three characteristics are essential.

First, militarism is a system for protecting our own interests. This is militarism’s core purpose. Even when there is talk of protecting the interests of others, it is commonly understood that we wield military force, ultimately, when our own interests are at stake.

Second, militarism is a system dependent on many institutions. While military forces are the face and hands of militarism, many other institutions constitute the mind, heart, and soul. Militarism could not exist without support from politics, commerce, religion, academics, science, media, and entertainment.

Third, militarism is a system dependent on tools of coercion and harm. Remove these tools, and militarism no longer exists. (For example, when military forces conduct disaster relief, with no thought of coercion or harm, such work falls outside the scope of militarism.) Although militarism has many tools at its disposal, the tools of coercion and harm are prerequisites.

In short, we can say that militarism is institutionalized self-interest, dependent on tools of coercion and harm.

Why Do We Support Militarism?

Because we invest heavily in militarism, it is in our interest to be very clear about what we get in return. Our reasons for supporting militarism boil down to these:

• We believe that militarism is critical to our survival. We all need food, water, shelter, and the conditions for general health, safety, and freedom. Militarism is our premier plan to ensure that we get these essentials.

• We believe that the more resources we control, the more likely it is that we will be satisfied. Militarism is our ultimate tool to achieve satisfaction.

• We believe that militarism is a relatively quick means of resolving conflicts. Our interests are typically tied to short-term calendars (the next business opportunity, the next election, etc.), so we are not inclined to invest in solutions that we know will span many years.

• We believe that the mere threat of coercion and harm is a useful tool for building respectful, stable, and sustainable relations.

• When others get in the way of our interests, we believe that an act of coercion has the potential to resolve the conflict. We believe that forcing others to act against their will can be a useful tool for setting things right.

• When others get in the way of our interests, we believe that an act of harm has the potential to resolve the conflict. We believe that retaliation, punishment, and elimination can be useful tools for setting things right.

• Nonmilitary approaches to conflict resolution involve substantial uncertainty. We cannot design a cooperative resolution unless we give genuine attention to the interests of the adversary. This openness leads down an unpredictable path. We believe that militarism offers better certainty.

• We believe that militarism serves our financial interests by providing employment and education to some and wealth to a few.

• We believe that militarism is good for building our sense of community. We feel that by wielding tools of coercion and harm, we strengthen our identity and self-esteem.

• We believe that military activity is inherently honorable, and that warriors are, by definition, heroes.

• We believe that military attacks deserve military responses. An eye for an eye is how we teach others a lesson. A tooth for a tooth is how we maintain our self-respect.

• Militarism is our tradition. While there are a multitude of ways to respond to conflict and acts of malice, we believe that our warrior tradition deserves high regard due to its extensive history.

• We believe that militarism incorporates the highest callings of our various religious and ethical traditions.

One is unlikely to subscribe to all of the above reasons for supporting militarism, but these are the reasons that we generally put forth.

What Are the Costs of Militarism?

At first glance, our devotion to militarism seems reasonable. We see a system that promises to keep us safe and secure. We see opportunities for education, employment, and wealth. And we see a way to protect valued customs and beliefs.

If militarism delivered such benefits, our investment might make sense. But the daily news and the record of history report different results: conflicts persist, safety is elusive, resources are depleted, our environment is undermined, individuals are hurt, communities are damaged, and the human spirit suffers. A small portion of the world’s population certainly enjoys some benefits from militarism but, on balance, we all suffer greatly from its costs. These include:

Financial Resources: When we think about the costs of militarism, we tend to focus on the national military budget and the significant taxes we pay to support it. These financial resources, while substantial, are only the beginning of what we contribute.

Natural Resources: As a global community, we also devote much of our land, fuel, water, minerals, and other natural resources to militarism.

Human Resources: A large portion of the world’s labor force is directly or indirectly dedicated to supporting militarism.

Intellectual Resources: We devote much of our political creativity and attention to military affairs. More important, a large portion of the world’s academic and technical skill is committed to the service of militarism.

Spiritual Resources: Militarism works to benefit ourselves at the expense of others. Since our spiritual lives typically call us to do the opposite, we pay an inner price to maintain our support for militarism.

Suffering: The most profound cost of militarism is the great suffering it causes in our world.

- Physical and emotional suffering: To protect our various interests, we continue, generation after generation, to threaten and harm each other with weapons, confinement, coercion, torture, deceit, humiliation, and dehumanization.

- Environmental destruction: Not only do our military programs deplete us of immense quantities of energy, land, and other natural resources, they leave an immense wake of pollution and waste.

- Heightened conflict: We know that whenever we coerce or harm others, we leave them dissatisfied, hurt, angry, and vengeful. Militarism promises us security and safety, but it necessarily delivers unrest.

- Lost resources: Militarism creates a severe drain on our economic, human, intellectual, and natural resources. All of our efforts for a better society suffer from this large-scale diversion of assets.

- Social violence: Militarism has deep and historic links to racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic exploitation. It simultaneously empowers and draws power from these bitter traditions.

- Spiritual disintegration: The highest callings of most ethical and religious traditions include respect, kindness, patience, compassion, understanding, and generosity. Our hearts lean toward these practices, yet militarism pulls us in the opposite direction.

The role of militarism in our lives somehow eludes cost-benefit analysis. For most people, the benefits of militarism are doubtful and the price paid is sobering. If we were to simply assess a list of pros and cons, militarism would appear to be a poor investment.

Ten Questions

Regardless of our political inclinations, here is our dilemma: we divert a massive stream of our resources toward militarism, the benefits of this system are far from certain, militarism causes great suffering in the world, and more than a few of our reasons for perpetuating this system cause us to wince. Something is not right.

We could certainly turn away from this uncomfortable tangle, permitting the status quo to continue. Or, we could start to unravel the knot. These ten questions are a useful place to begin.

(1) How well does militarism deliver on its core promises? Are we satisfied? What is the quality of safety, security, and stability that militarism provides?

(2) What is the full range of options at our disposal for resolving conflicts? Are there less costly, less harmful, and more reliable systems than militarism for resolving conflicts?

(3) If we could expand militarism without regard for its costs or suffering, at what point would we be sufficiently militarized? What benchmarks would indicate that our interests are sufficiently protected?

(4) Do we believe that we can ensure our own well-being without ensuring the well-being of others? The observable nature of our situation is that we are all inextricably connected. If we hope to secure our food, water, and necessities for any reasonable period of time, we need to ensure that everyone else in the global community has such things as well. To the extent that we deny this connectedness, we devote our lives to defending and fighting, we miss collaborative opportunities and, ironically, we risk losing our food, water, and necessities. Is it possible that militarism is hindering, rather than improving, our quality of life?

(5) If the costs, suffering, and poor results associated with militarism are troubling, why do we not invest as heavily in nonmilitary alternatives?

(6) If we are among the relatively small portion of people who benefit financially from militarism, what would it take for us to forgo this benefit in order to ease the global burden?

(7) Is militarism our best tool for cultivating identity, self-esteem, and honor? What other ways can we, as individuals and as national communities, develop these qualities?

(8) For those of us who are inclined toward a particular religious or ethical tradition, how do our highest aspirations relate to our support of militarism? Regardless of our tradition, we are likely taught that: maintaining a kind intention is more important than maintaining a defensive stance; benefitting others is more important than benefitting the self; offering generosity is more important than possessing resources; offering patience is more important than being right; and offering compassion is more important than distancing ourselves from the suffering of others. Militarism flips these values. How do we handle this contradiction?

(9) How comfortable are we with uncertainty? What would it take for us to tolerate more uncertainty, for longer periods, in order to make space for nonmilitary approaches to conflict?

(10) When we plant apple seeds, we do not expect to see orange trees. When we employ tools of coercion and harm, should we expect to build outcomes that are fair, respectful, stable, and sustainable? How do we understand the relationship between means and ends?

Our initial attraction to militarism is certainly understandable, but the price is high, and the poor results do not match the bold promises. For our own sake, and for the sake our world, we should answer these questions with some care and precision.


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