Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 May 2011

Why Do We Need Armed Forces?

Two Changes that Raise the Question
The Nuclear Deterrent
Changes in Government
So What Are Armed Forces Good for, Anyway?


There are times in world history when we can ask fundamental questions and expect serious answers.

When Louis XIV of France declared, “L’etat c’est moi!” (“I am the state”), the French people asked “why?” Why should the French (or anyone else) tolerate a system of government that lets a vain, stupid, selfish and cruel tyrant succeed a wise and benevolent leader, simply because of death and heredity? Why shouldn’t ordinary people, who must suffer a leader, have a say in who he is?

We humans are still trying to answer that question. Today we have at least three contending answers: (1) English-style parliamentary democracy, (2) American-style two-party democracy; and (3) a Chinese- or Japanese-style bureaucratic state, based on the consensus-seeking, decades-long meritocratic struggle of would-be leaders up the ladders of a huge party apparatus. Right now, models (1) and (3) appear to be leading the pack, but the tale is not yet fully told.

For most of human history, the question “why do we need armed forces?” would have seemed foolish. The answer was obvious: because others have them and, if we don’t, they will invade us, take our land and wealth, and kill or enslave us. End of discussion.

Human nature hasn’t changed. There are still people who would like to conquer, rob, oppress, kill and enslave others. Perhaps there always will be. But two other things have changed dramatically during and since the twentieth century, one technological and one sociopolitical. This essay explores those changes and attempts to answer the question “Why do we need armed forces?” in the modern world.

Two Changes that Raise the Question

If you had asked the question “Why do we need armed forces?” at any time before the end of World War II, you would have evoked howls of derision. And you would have deserved them. Virtually every war in history started when the leader of one state or army decided it would be useful to have the land, location, resources, or wealth of a neighbor and set out to take it by force.

That was true even of the most recent, greatest spasm of war: World War II. Germany wanted “Lebensraum,” or living space, plus better seaports. Japan—an island nation with few natural resources but wood—wanted more space and more resources. Both felt they had been excluded from (1) the joys of colonial exploitation by history and (2) full participation in the coming global economy, Germany by reparations for its role in World War I and Japan by the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and racial discrimination.

Today we know the grievances that motivated World War II because it is the most recent. But basically the same story had repeated itself since the dawn of history. One nation wanted what another had, justified that want with moral or historical grievances, felt it was strong enough to take what it wanted, and tried. That, any informed realist would have said, is why we need armed forces.

But two things have changed since World War II. One was immediate, but its effects are just beginning to be understood. The other was a much slower change, still in progress, but equally decisive in the long run. The first was the nuclear age, and the second was (and is) a gradual, global transition from rule by single leaders (nearly always men) to rule by consensus.

The Nuclear Deterrent

I have written a long essay on the historical and logical consequences of the nuclear age for warfare, and I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to make and elaborate two points.

First, since nuclear weapons fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, there has been no major armed conflict among major powers anywhere in the world.

There have been limited conflicts inside third countries—wars by proxy, if you will. These include: (1) the Korean War, a civil war in which the US and China took part directly; (2) the Vietnam War, another civil war, in which the US participated directly and China and the Soviet Union by proxy; and (3) the first war in Afghanistan, in which the Soviet Union participated directly and the US, NATO powers and some Arabian countries by proxy.

The very names of these wars reflect their geographical limitations. But these limited conflicts, in part by proxy, should not obscure an essential truth. Over 65 years have now elapsed since 1945. If you take the decade-longer time period immediately preceding, from 1870 to 1945, you can count at least five major conflicts between major powers fighting on their own territory: (1) the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), (2) the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), (3) the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), (4) World War I (1914-1919), and (5) World War II (1939-1945). If you count the Sino-Japanese part of World War II, which some historians call the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), that makes six.

Furthermore, during this entire period the nature of war had been changing for the worse. The Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II were on the path to “total war” in which large civilian populations were fair game. The end result was the feared nuclear holocaust that never came (but almost did in October 1962), in which the vast majority of US and Soviet populations were targets and would have been slaughtered in any mistake. There is even credible evidence that our entire species might have perished in an irrational act of self-extinction.

Not surprisingly, the notion of “total war” with nuclear weapons became too sui-genocidal for rational people to accept, no matter how greedy and selfish they might be. As a result, we have had no major armed conflict involving major powers fighting on their own territory since 1945. The increasingly nasty progression of imperial wars that had characterized the period 1870 through 1945 stopped as if turned off by some celestial switch.

That switch was the nuclear deterrent, and we are still coming to grips with its consequences. We just beginning to understand that nuclear weapons are not offensive weapons because their first use will cause either: (a) utter annihilation of the first user’s society or (b), in the worst case, utter annihilation of our entire human species.

Slowly, by degrees, the world’s armed forces and civilian leaders are coming to understand this truth. They ken that nuclear weapons are effective defenses, but not aggressive weapons. They are now beginning to view the development, construction, maintenance and care of nuclear weapons for possible aggressive purposes (or for a first strike) as an enormous waste of time, money, resources and talent, not to mention an extraordinary threat to a clean and safe environment.

China and France are the clearest thinkers here. With its huge population, China never considered maintaining more than a small nuclear arsenal to deter direct aggression against its territory. France, with its much smaller population, developed an independent nuclear “Force de Frappe” (“Strike Force”) for similar purposes. Only the US and the Soviet Union (now Russia), in a paroxysm of mutual paranoia, manufactured world-destroying quantities of nuclear weapons—a bit of insanity from which they are now slowly recovering, under the Start II Treaty.

The simple fact is that no nation needs more than a few dozen nuclear weapons, plus the means to deliver them, to deter direct attacks on its territory. Anyone who doubts this point has only to visit the Peace Museum in Hiroshima to be convinced. And the Japanese, who have every right and motivation to tell their story, should remind us all constantly, lest we forget.

Changes in Government

We humans learn slowly. Often it takes us decades or centuries to see effects and their causes unfolding right under our noses.

So it is with government. Although less dramatic than the advent of nuclear weapons, global changes in government since World War II have been no less revolutionary, especially insofar as concerns the risks of major wars.

If you looked at the world in 1945, you could easily justify a good despond. The two most powerful military tyrannies in human history—Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—had just been defeated. Stalin and his Terror ruled Russia and its imperial dominions with more “totalitarian” oppression than Louis XIV ever could have imagined. China was splintered and ruled largely by ruthless warlords. It was about to be unified by Mao, who would duplicate Stalinist Terror there and later (in the “Great Leap Forward”) add an element of irrational capriciousness worthy of Nero. Decaying colonial empires and ancient dynasties ruled much of the rest of the world with varying degrees of stupidity and oppression. India’s promise lay dormant in the failing grip of a decaying and increasingly inept British Empire.

Today, a mere 65 years later, the global picture is infinitely brighter. Germany and Japan are model democracies, running orderly and productive societies as the world’s fourth and third largest economies, respectively (excluding the EU as a whole). Europe, although the locus of much of the worst warfare from 1870 to 1945, is at peace, democratic and productive, albeit with some economic difficulties. China, a unified, highly successful bureaucratic state, has become the world’s second-largest economy. Britain and Russia have abandoned their empires, and Russia has adopted a form of democracy and assured a worthy successor (Medvedyev) to its most effective leader (Putin) since Peter the Great. The Islamic world is awakening from a half a millennium of slumber and its idle imperial dreams. Even large parts of Africa are emerging from varying degrees of tyranny and oppression into the sunlight of democratic or effective collective rule.

With so many examples of improvement to study, we can begin to assess what makes good government. It doesn’t, as we Americans often insist, require “democracy,” whatever that means. In fact, our own present national troubles may soon show conclusively that a two-party “democracy” is not better than single-party rule.

The really key ingredients for successful government appear over and over again, in societies with vastly different histories and cultures. The first and most important is limitations on the personal power of individuals, in both time and extent.

Not only does absolute power corrupt absolutely, as Lord Acton observed. Most people, including political leaders, don’t get better as they age. They age like eggs, not wine.

Mao, for example, was a great military leader and the unifier of modern China. If he had stepped down after performing his historic role, as George Washington did, he would have remained one of human history’s greatest leaders. Instead, he made himself the last emperor of China. With deficient understanding of economics, business and peacetime necessities, he set China’s economic development back decades and taught its people to become slaves. Whatever you may think of China’s current leaders, they have been systematically but cautiously unwinding Mao’s worst mistakes, while worshipping his memory. They’ve been doing that since Deng Xiaoping.

To me, the most important features of China’s current government are: (1) collective rule, and (2) term limitations. China’s highest ruling body is a nine-member committee called the Plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee. China’s president and prime minister are sitting members, as are their expected successors.

Thus China makes any important decision, including any decision to go to war, by a consensus, if not unanimity, of nine people, not one. And among those people will be China’s two highest leaders and their designated successors. So the same people who might have to clean up a mess will have a role in any decision to make it. What a good idea!

China’s term limitations are equally important. Although apparently not enshrined in written law, China’s Communist Party has a tradition that its top leaders (president and prime minister) change every ten years, i.e., with every second five-year plan.

That’s just two years longer than our own constitutional limit of two four-year presidential terms. Even more important, each of China’s two top leaders serves an “apprenticeship” on the Central Committee before assuming his top office. So each has at least five years—often ten—to learn the ropes, or for the Committee to change its mind and appoint others if he doesn’t measure up during the “apprenticeship.” In comparison, consider this table showing the relative experience of a number of our presidents.

Russia today has perhaps the most precarious governmental system of any major power. It is a democracy in constitutional form, but the Kremlin largely controls it. Top leaders have effective power to pressure elected representatives, appoint regional governors, and control the electronic media.

In addition, Vladimir Putin sidestepped constitutional term limits on the presidency by securing his own election as prime minister. His anointment of Dmitrii Medvedyev, a lawyer and rule-of-law advocate, as his successor as president is promising, but longer-term plans for succession are unclear. All in all, the future of Russia’s government in practice, as distinguished from theory, is far less clear, stable and predictable than China’s. (No doubt Russia has similar qualms about us as it considers the prospects, however remote, of people like Sarah Palin or Donald Trump holding the “Football” with the secret codes to our thousands of strategic nuclear weapons. Thus does truth that is stranger than fiction provide fodder for continuing mutual paranoia.)

Outside of Russia and China, every other major power in the world today enjoys a true constitutional democracy with term-limited top leaders. Brazil, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea (South), and Spain do. So do smaller powers that have varying degrees of global economic importance: Argentina, Australia, Chile, Ireland, Israel, Portugal, Thailand, Turkey and New Zealand, for example. Vietnam is following in China’s footsteps on the path of carefully managed capitalism, under the leadership of a misnamed “Communist” party.

The second key element of good government is information. Absolute freedom of speech, as under our First Amendment, is not absolutely necessary. Some control of information may be permissible and even helpful, especially in curtailing local gangsterism and inter-ethnic violence. But citizens, lower levels of government and especially local and regional leaders have to know what is going on in their own country and the rest of the world in order to make wise decisions. Therefore freedom of speech and information, at least to some degree, is essential to good government.

Here again, progress in the last 65 years has been enormous. All of the constitutional democracies named above have virtually complete freedom of speech. China tolerates the Internet and nearly complete freedom of commercial and business speech. But it limits speech that its leaders deem “political,” and they construe that term far too broadly. Russia largely controls the electronic media from the Kremlin by various means, but it allows virtually complete freedom in its printed press (which unfortunately only intellectuals read much). Al Jazeera has introduced British-style professional reporting to Arabia and much of the Islamic world.

All in all, the news media have freedom approaching the ideal in almost every society with significant military or economic impact worldwide, except for North Korea and China. The Internet has much assisted and vastly accelerated this process. This is good.

What does all this mean for the likelihood of war? Plenty. Almost all the great wars of the last two centuries bear the stamp of an individual leader, usually a tyrant of one form or another. Napoleon invaded Russia twice. The German Kaiser bears much responsibility for World War I, Hitler almost sole responsibility for the greatest war in Europe, and Tojo for Japan’s wars (and atrocities) in the Pacific. Stalin made vassal states of most of Eastern Europe but was smart enough not to start a major war with major powers. Mao did much the same with North Korea and Vietnam, but again was smart enough not to start a major war with major powers.

Conventional wisdom holds that democracies don’t start wars. But that’s not precisely true. We Americans invaded Iraq with no rational justification, other than to depose the tyrant Saddam. We also invaded Afghanistan with scant justification (9/11) and extended the war far beyond that justification, in both extent and time. Argentina started a war with Britain over the Falklands, but it did so under the rule of the Galtieri military junta, which had seized power in a coup d’etat.

Rather than say that democracies don’t start wars, it’s more accurate to say that the worst and most needless wars in human history were the creations of individual leaders, mostly tyrants, who had few checks and balances on their power and no term limits. The German Kaiser, Hitler and Tojo certainly fit that mold.

It’s hard to see anything of the sort happening today. It is inconceivable, for example, that China’s nine-member Plenum, with rotating leadership every ten years, would start a major war of its own initiative. In fact, China’s Plenum—with its collective decision-making and ten-year “apprenticeship” for top leaders—is probably the most conservative, cautious and stable ruling body in any country anywhere in the world, with the best guarantee of experienced group leadership. Given China’s minimal participation in war since World War II and its own revolution—only in countries very close to its borders—and the utter absence of any Chinese invasion of peaceful neighbors (Korea and Vietnam were in civil war), major Chinese military adventures are highly improbable.

As for Russia, now that its Cold-War bluster is gone, it seems as averse to war as is appropriate for the nation that suffered the most from it in World War II. Its 2008 invasion of Georgia was brief and limited, lasting only weeks, and has not been repeated. Russia seems to have learned its lesson in Afghanistan, just as we are learning our lesson there and have learned it in Iraq. Major powers, with term-limited and collective governments, just don’t seem to have the appetite for war that imperial tyrants used to have.

So What Are Armed Forces Good for, Anyway?

In two ways our present epoch is unique in human history. Previously, every new military technology tempted civilian leaders to war. From the ancient Greeks with their early version of napalm, to the twentieth-century German and Japanese war machines, foolish leaders often thought that a technological edge would let them take, without much pain, what was not theirs.

But nuclear weapons are the ultimate technology of war. There is no way to “improve” upon complete annihilation. So the answer to any current improvement in military technology runs along the following lines:
“You may have faster and stealthier planes than I. But if you start a war with me, I will turn all or at least several of your big cities into radioactive rubble, uninhabitable for decades or centuries.”
That argument is hard for any rational leader to reject. A few dozen missiles in silos or (better yet) hidden under the sea in constantly moving submarines, can provide unanswerable deterrence to invasion.

And leaders, with the possible exceptions of the Kims and Robert Mugabe, are indeeed getting more and more rational. The global spread of democracy is not the only cause. Collective leadership and term limits, as in Russia and China, insure rational leadership whether or not the results can be characterized as fully democratic.

Under these circumstances, the chief traditional role of armed forces—protecting the homeland—has become virtually obsolete. So what then are armed forces good for? Do we still need them, and, if so, why and what for?

For the first time in human history, these are no longer stupid questions. They deserve thoughtful answers. But before attempting to answer them, we must explore the values of armed forces and their troops.

In an increasingly secular, business-oriented and wealth-obsessed world, the primary value of armed forces may not be their weapons or military power, but their culture. That culture is unique in several respects.

First, no other institution in the modern world expects its participants to risk their lives, and often lay them down, instantly on orders from superiors. That spirit of obedience, selflessness and self-sacrifice is utterly unique and uniquely invaluable.

Hand-in-hand with that spirit is a sense of discipline.

Much of the squalor and horror of our modern world arises from the fact that there are no longer many, if any, lines that people won’t cross. Politicians lie like thieves, justifying their falsehoods with a quest for power, the lame excuse that “others do it,” or a generally lax disregard for truth. The media quote them as if they were oracles, on the theory that even lies are “news,” and what looks like news sells. Venerable financial institutions swindle and gamble with complete abandon, justifying their moral laxity and crimes with specious claims of “shareholder value.” Lawyers twist the truth in public fora and private tribunals, justifying their dishonesty with the call of “zealous advocacy.” Everywhere, in almost every profession, it seems, truth, honor and integrity have become malleable.

Every profession but one, that is. Death is still final and can’t be “spun.” So the military, which is set up to deal with death, still instills respect for truth and duty, however painful and inconvenient they may be.

Troops do lie. After all, they are human. But when their lies become known they are demoted or punished, and they expect demotion or punishment. No other institution in our society—not organized religion, not government, and certainly not business or corporations—honors these basic human values so deeply in rhetoric and in practice.

Besides self-sacrifice and discipline, military institutions have one other extremely practical value. Because they have a clear chain of command and enforce complete obedience, they can work fast.

When disaster strikes, when people and machines need to move far and fast to make a bad situation better, there is no substitute for military training, discipline and self-sacrifice. That fact became clear in Japan’s recent unprecedented earthquake, tsunami and consequent nuclear meltdown. Corporate “leadership” under Tepco was slow, inefficient and lame. Japan’s government was little better. Real leadership in the first few weeks came from Japan’s own self-defense forces and what little help from the US military Japan’s government would allow.

In natural disaster after natural disaster worldwide, military forces—especially our own—have proved themselves the only institution equal to the task. Our own military saved the day (what was left of it) in the drowning of New Orleans, the great BP Oil Spill, and the devastating earthquakes in Pakistan and off Sumatra.

Finally, there is tradition. No society can exist without roots. Based as they are on combat and human mortality, armed forces’ roots are narrow. But they are deep. Military institutions keep the best traditions of many societies alive, things like personal discipline, honor, duty, truth and self-sacrifice. According to his autobiography, it was these things that attracted Colin Powell to military service at an early age.


World-historical developments have created an opportunity and an enigma. The traditional role of our armed forces is protecting the homeland. But we don’t need armed forces for that any more. A small number of nuclear weapons is sufficient to deter conventional war. And anyway conventional invasion—of any major power, including us—is far less likely today than at any time in human history.

So armed forces’ traditional role is beginning to look superfluous.

Not only is this point true in theory. We also recognize it in practice. In the US, we have created and staffed the Department of Homeland Security to recognize and deal with threats posed by terrorists and other non-state actors. According to news reports, we have spent over one trillion dollars on homeland security since 9/11. Only a fraction of that expense went to conventional armed forces.

On the other hand, we have these wonderful institutions called our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. They instill invaluable culture in the youth of an increasingly selfish, self-centered and morally dissipated society. As many in the media constantly remind us, our troops represent the best among us, although they are often paid the least and most abused.

So what do we do with these unique resources?

We certainly can and should downsize their hardware. World War II and the Cold War are not coming back. So we can dispense with the latest, greatest fighter planes, more aircraft carriers, amphibious landing craft and other high-tech marvels and divert their much-needed money into our industrial infrastructure, education and general economic revival. All we really need to secure our homeland are our nuclear deterrent, which we should keep operational but small, a small but potent force of unmanned aerial vehicles, and stealthy means of delivering our modern ninjas on their secret missions. We could probably make do quite well with one-third our current personnel and one-fifth our current budget.

But what about all the people and institutions comprising our armed forces? What about those young men and women, superbly disciplined and trained and imbued with a spirit of honor, cooperation and self-sacrifice? What are we to do with them?

Are we to pay them to spend their time idle, in barracks, waiting for a balloon that never goes up? Are we to dismiss them en masse into a commercial world that neither needs nor understands their unique values? Or are we to find other missions for them, more noble and useful than risking their lives and killing primitives in far-away places, that will preserve their unique values and do some good in the real world, as distinguished from the world of paranoid fantasy?

These questions should torment every politician and policy maker who cares about our nation and social progress in the world. Our official timetables have us out of Iraq by the end of this year and out of Afghanistan in another three. Barring totally unforeseen catastrophes, neither our budget nor our people will support any new foreign military adventures, unless they are indisputably necessary for our national survival. That “unless” is unlikely.

So what, if anything, do we do with our troops, especially those who have made a career out of military service? Do we throw them out on the street and upon the tender mercies of an ailing economy, thereby exacerbating unemployment? Or do we try to preserve their value and their unique culture by finding them a new mission, one which will both help our ailing economy and have a genuine impact on the world that is, not the one that was?

Several new missions are possible. Our armed forces could: (1) build schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure here and abroad; (2) respond to natural disasters; (3) teach professionalism and other military values to foreign forces; (4) decommission surplus nuclear weapons and obsolete nuclear power plants under conditions of military security and (if necessary) secrecy; (5) expand the international scope of commerce and the Internet by building roads, fiber optic networks, and microwave and cell-phone towers; and (6) perform peace-keeping roles for, as part of, or in place of NATO and UN forces.

Two generations ago, almost every American political leader had served in our armed forces. Today, only a tiny fraction has. The difference is palpable.

Civilian leaders who have never served in the armed forces have a difficult time making good decisions on military matters. They expect too much of the military. They misunderstand its mission and its limitations. They don’t know how to work with military leaders. And, most of all, they have no personal conception of the horrors of war or the suffering of troops and civilians in wartime.

They therefore can lose our troops’ respect and make terrible mistakes. Dick Cheney is the worst example, but every one of our three most recent presidents lacks military experience (unless you count Dubya’s ducking the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard).

In addition to reducing unemployment and preserving a unique institution, finding useful work for our armed forces in what looks like an extended time of peace might motivate future politicians to consider a stint in the armed forces as part of their early careers. That service might restore the role of citizen-soldier that made every democracy work since Greece and Rome. It might also keep our civilian leaders from drifting into errors of foreign policy that personal and real military experience might have avoided.

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