The Military and Militarism

A major barrier to civilized, intelligent debate arises when we fail to see critical nuances, and when we lump together viewpoints that seem similar but that really have substantial differences.

An example: one of my big pet peeves is the conflation of “military” and “militarism,” as if anyone who ever put on a uniform or led people in uniform was by definition a militarist. In truth, the vast majority of people who make a career defending their countries do so with no other agenda than to keep their nation safe and try to make the world a better place.  It is a truism that nobody hates war more than a warrior: they are the most exposed to and impacted by the unrestrained horror of combat.

In fact, the greatest militarists in history were not soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines: they were politicians, pundits, demagogues, and defense contractors. Today, that list includes a broad range of the American citizenry, and even evangelicals. If you want to understand from whence cometh the American desire to wield the hammer of kinetic power, Andrew Bacevich’s superbly researched The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War points to the sources of militarism, and the average person in uniform doesn’t even figure.

Why is this important? Because when we start making the military equivalent to militarism, we undermine the legitimacy of providing for our own national defense. Militarism is a bad thing. But let us not forget that the US armed forces have stood against some of the largest sources of militarism in history. When by action or neglect you defang your military, you simply telegraph an invitation to the nearest militarist to use your country as a doormat.

Both a wise citizen and a capable statesman should stand opposed to militarism and should guard against it in themselves. But that is not the same as seeing the armed forces as a hammer and all of the worlds problems as a series of nails.

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