America, the Militaristic? Part I

A short time ago, the London TLS (Times Literary Supplement) ran a review titled “As American as apple pie” on two books about American war literature. The review contained the opening statement that “War is one of the founding principles of the United States of America,” and it ended with the assertion that US is a “uniquely military nation.” The reviewer did not exactly say that the United States is a militaristic country, but she came close, and her statements echoed some previous imputations of American militarism. Most Americans like to think of ours as a peace-loving nation, that war and the maintenance of large standing armed forces have been thrust on us by foreign conflicts and other occasions of dire necessity.  Others, some our compatriots, point to the recurrences of American conflicts, the very large defense budget, the large and profitable domestic defense industry, the prevalence of military iconography, even to our pious regard for servicemembers and veterans, as evidence of American militarism.  

There is certainly a considerable literature on the subject of American militarism. One of the seminal works in this genre is Militarism, U.S.A. (1970), by retired Marine colonel James Donavan, with an introduction by retired general and Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup.  More recent is The New American Militarism (2005, 2013) by retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich. Bacevich cites other works like Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival and The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson. An early work on European and American militarism is A History of Militarism (1937, revised 1959) by Alfred Vagts. Vagts makes a distinction between military and militarism. The former is concerned with matters proper to military forces and to soldiers: training, tactics, the winning of wars and battles. The latter is…well, what is militarism?

Variously defined and alluded to in dictionaries and the various works on the subject, militarism is an excessive veneration of the military, of military symbols, uniforms, the martial virtues, of the army as an institution and of soldiers. It may involve the misuse of military methods in civil undertakings, like the imposing of military discipline in schools, or putting civilian bureaucrats into quasi-military uniforms. Because of the excessive regard for military methods in militaristic states, militarism often goes along with an aggressive foreign policy that favors the use of force over diplomacy.  

History offers quite a few examples of societies that were arguably militaristic. Ancient Greece, Sparta especially but not alone, was at least highly militarized: often aggressive, prizing the martial virtues above all others. The same could be said of Rome, although probably not of the Byzantine empire, which, although it could be aggressive, seemed to regard war and armies as some of life’s many tragic necessities. European medieval civilization, in which kings led armies and the aristocracy was most distinguished by skill at arms, had at least some militaristic traits. We might almost be led to conclude that a little militarism is not necessarily a bad thing, promoting certain virtues and creating strong military and even civic institutions, even a kind of societal esprit de corps.  Unfortunately, once it takes root, militarism may be hard to control.    

The poster-child of extreme modern militarism is surely Germany up through May, 1945. German militarism may have had its roots in the 30 Years War, when the German states were the hapless military playground of the rest of Europe. Even earlier than that, however, Germans had a reputation as enthusiastic soldiers and mercenaries. Poverty and strategic vulnerability may have helped to push militarism on Germany. German militarism eventually grew to absurd dimensions, until Germans were finally cured of it by two devastating defeats in the 20th century. If militarists believe that war is the ultimate measure of individuals and nations, German militarists had failed their own test, and some were perhaps finally convinced that war is not such a wonderful and ennobling experience, after all.

Next: America, the Militaristic? Part II. Causes and Cure


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