With the horrific police lynching of George Floyd, militarism has been freshly perceived as a universal affliction, a planetary tragedy. In America, young whites and blacks march mostly peacefully together, only to come face to face with nightsticks, pepper spray, and tear gas. In Delhi a Christian father and son are arrested by the police for violating curfew and end up tortured and dead. In places like the Philippines and Brazil, mass extra-judicial police killings continue unabated.
Militarism—the use of overwhelming force as a first resort—rarely works, either as an instrument of domestic control or as an international system of security. It may help power and wealth succeed in temporarily pacifying the unruly poor, but it does nothing to strengthen the web of equal opportunity that lessens the need for control in the first place. It has not built democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan. Chinese militarism cannot contain the desire for freedom in the hearts of the citizens of Hong Kong or Taiwan. Russian militarists, Iranian militarists, Syrian militarists will not be able to control the democratic aspirations of their own citizens. Israeli militarism will never resolve the conflict with Palestine. And on the nuclear level, a militaristic arms race continues unchecked, toward an apocalypse that no one wants, a conflagration that will burn millions of men, women and children to ash and leave no victors.
The militarism of international armed forces has much in common with domestic police militarism. Only the scale is different. The extent of America’s global military reach is impossible for the average civilian to comprehend. We have had almost zero debate about what size our military ought to be in a world of limited resources, including open discussion of the strategic usefulness—or uselessness—of nuclear weapons. This just doesn’t come up, even in entire Presidential campaigns, let alone debates. That very silence shouts the extent to which militarism’s infection may have weakened us. Pentagon accountants are apparently unable to plumb the mysterious depths of their own budgets. The juggernaut rolls on, unopposed except by a peace movement which, while robust, remains too small.
The curtain was drawn back upon the naked face of “law and order,” for all to see that it was often crude, selective, malign, corrupt with power for its own sake, systemically unfair.
No one would argue that soldiers and the police do not sometimes exemplify duty, courage, and sacrifice. But in a more enlightened world, the police would be trained and equipped to put emphasis on tactics that de-escalate violence rather than to use violence to preserve an artificial and unjust “law and order” that only applies to certain people. If the armed forces of nations were motivated by the same spirit of de-escalation and not control or conquest, there would be all the more opportunity for heroic courage. There have been situations, like ending the Bosnian war, where diplomacy backed by military force seemed essential to the decision-makers, just as there have been failures to intervene where loss of life could have been prevented, like the Rwandan genocide. Peacemaking is a high calling, blessed by the sages of the world’s religions.
With the horrific video of the murder of George Floyd, something cracked open around the world. The curtain was drawn back upon the naked face of “law and order,” for all to see that it was often crude, selective, malign, corrupt with power for its own sake, systemically unfair. The violent militarism of police forces all across our country unleashed upon mostly peaceful protesters rubbed our noses in something usually more distant and abstract, especially for white people.
Militarism has always been rationalized by the ancient Roman bromide: if you want peace, prepare for war. With the deaths of George Floyd and too many others, this has become a deeply questionable notion. Are the trillions presently pouring into weapons systems like the Lockheed Joint Strike Fighter, or the renewal of our nuclear arsenal, really the best way to strengthen our nation and overcome the perpetuation of racist injustice? Doesn’t our renewed strength lie in diverting some of those bottomless resources into schools, hospitals, Medicare for all, free college for all, mass transit, putting people to work on infrastructure renewal, and conversion to sustainable energy sources? That kind of shift would encompass reparations that would benefit everyone, not just those whom our violent history has deprived of the blessings of liberty. Such movement toward an equal-opportunity society would ultimately make the demanding work of the police far less difficult, as well as making America stronger internationally. If you want peace, prepare for peace.
Protesters are not only pulling down statues of generals and statesmen because they abetted a racist political system. The statues are also the symbolic embodiment of militarism, in all its hollow mythic glory, a militarism which suffuses our civic culture, visible in the millions of guns we own.
Militarism is found in the rhetoric of all those, from the president to Rush Limbaugh, who push a joyless, simplistic us-and-them worldview that tries to negate the existential reality that we are in this together, all challenged to acknowledge our interdependence and steward the life-support system that sustains us. For this great task, militarism is obsolete.