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Traditionally, militarism is a behavior or condition in which states resort quickly to the use of their armed forces in response to international or domestic threats or go to great lengths to mobilize people and resources for war. Militarism is also the belief that military responses are usually the best ones, and that the military is the most important institution in the state. However, militarism has different connotations depending on the era and field of scholarship. The traditional meaning of militarism is common in much of the standard international-relations literature and histories of Great Power wars. In feminist analyses, intellectual and cultural histories, or “bottomup” historical accounts, militarism is a factor of inequality or an aspect of cultural hegemony. In the comparative politics field, militarism usually refers to interventionism in politics.
War has been the object of criticism since the time of the ancient Chinese, Hebrews, and Greeks, yet the term militarism did not come into common usage in the West until the latter half of the nineteenth century. As war-making became industrialized, and as states took on more and more nonmilitary functions, such as building economic infrastructure or providing social services, a growing chorus of political leaders and intellectuals began attributing war and social ills to militarism. These critics, often from a liberal or Marxist perspective, considered a state militaristic if its leaders dedicated a great deal of the government budget to the armed forces, employed a large proportion of the populace in the military or in military-related industries, and encouraged a martial spirit among its subjects. These antimilitarists worried that training so many in the methods of organized violence, along with arms races and naval competition, only increased the likelihood of war. All of those resources and people used up in the armed forces only meant less for dealing with the challenges and victims of drastic economic and social change. Moreover, given its authoritarian structure, a powerful military may be inimical to democracy. Militarism, then, from the start has been a pejorative term.
Twentieth-century Germany and Japan are oft-cited cases of militarism. Germany twice attempted to gain regional hegemony over Europe by force of arms—from 1914 to 1919 under the kaiser and the military, and from 1939 to 1945 under Adolf Hitler’s (1889–1945) fascist regime. Japan’s military government made a bloody bid for empire in Asia from 1931 to 1945. To attempt ambitious expansion, these two countries harnessed their economies and citizens to war-making, as well as the resources and peoples of captured lands. In doing so they wreaked staggering, irreparable harm on millions of people. Hence, for those who attribute—rightly or wrongly— these wars to militarism, the term is not just a pejorative, it is a pathology. For those averse to war on principle, such as strict pacifists, states are inherently militaristic.
When states mobilize for war, they depend on taxation, recruitment, and coercion to get enough resources and people to pay for and staff their armed forces. States must also convince their subjects of the necessity of preparing for or actually going to war. This is an aspect of state militarism particularly important in democracies. Watching the German Weimar republic crumble in the 1930s, or the U.S. government expand its security powers as it geared up for the cold war, or the impact of constant war or preparation for war on Israel’s democracy, social scientists have long worried that war-making and accompanying militarism might weaken democratic government. Some scholars have envisioned a grim “garrison state” in which experts on violence have more power than elected officials, and in which national security becomes more important than the safety, liberties, and rights of citizens. U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) worried about this possibility. Just before leaving office in 1961, this former general warned the nation to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” oddly anticipating the critique of American and European antiwar and student movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, or the later “nuclear freeze” movement in the 1980s. Other scholars have debated this thesis, arguing that democracy by its nature has hindered militarism and prevented the rise of garrison states, even in places with large militaries, such as the United States.
President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was not worried about garrison states, but he did blame war on militarism. In his famous Fourteen Points speech before the U.S. Congress in 1918, he argued that only through transparent diplomacy, mutual security agreements, and disarmament could the world hope to diminish the causes of war. Others have since then kept this liberal banner flying. Since 1957, for example, the interdisciplinary Journal of Conflict Resolution has been publishing research on military affairs and international relations, theorizing the conditions of war and peace. Other groups have compiled data on military employment and spending, armament levels, and the number and scope of armed conflicts to measure levels of militarism. Scholars in Sweden established the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 1966 and began publishing its annual yearbook on armaments, disarmament, and international security in 1969. A similar series, World Military and Social Expenditures, has been published since 1974.
Reactions to militaristic behavior or ideology are also easily found in literature and other arts. Erich Maria Remarque’s (1898–1970) novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) remains a trenchant account of World War I (1914–1918) and of the militaristic creed underlying the violence. Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1974) painting Guernica (1937) was an angry reaction to the Nazi German bombing of the city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), and it attributed the tragedy in part to militaristic elements in Spanish culture. The painting later became a symbolic reference for movements against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1957–1975) and the U.S. war in Iraq that began in 2003. In the Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) films Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), the military is but a step away from fascism. Kubrick’s soldiers and officers, in facing dehumanizing treatment or the dehumanization of the enemy, run the risk of psychosis, if they are not already psychotic.
Not all studies link militarism to the state and warmaking. Some see a predominant military and martial spirit as products of civil society or culture, or of particular social groups. The indicators of militarism, or “militarization” some insist, are the same, but its cause lies more in socialization or cultural institutions than in state officials. In short, civilians are to blame for militarism, not the state or its soldiers.
With postmodernism and the cultural turn in the social sciences, another variant of militarism has appeared. In some scholarship, militarism is not about war-making per se, but the replication of military organization and values in the society at large—not just to increase the capacity to wage war, but for some ulterior purpose, such as to maintain social order, promote economic development, or further national integration. This “social” militarism may be said to exist in nations in which the military is the primary institution responsible for integrating diverse ethnic populations, for training workers, or for spearheading colonization and other development projects. Some scholars also employ this definition to argue that the spread of military organization and values into society contributes to patriarchy, elitism, or other forms of social inequality.
A fourth kind of militarism appears in the field of comparative politics in the developing world. Militarism in this field often means military interventionism in politics, and social scientists are typically concerned with the amount of independence the armed forces has from civilian rule, the level of socioeconomic segregation (that is, how many more material benefits and privileges the military receives in comparison to civilians), and the number of responsibilities the armed forces have beyond national defense. As the military’s independence, benefits, and responsibilities increase, so too does the likelihood of militaristic behavior or attitudes. The greater the military’s stake in politics, the greater its willingness and ability to intervene in politics, whether through backroom pressure or a dramatic coup.
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- Eisenhower, Dwight 1961. Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961. http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/farewell.htm.
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