The state and militarism after 11 September

IssueJune - August 2002
Feature by Ekkehart Krippendorff

People in the fields of international relations and peace research may have read a lot of polemics against - and are thus revisionist of - the historically and systematically argued thesis of the intrinsic, symbiotic relationship between state formations and the military.

This theory (to which this author has devoted a great part of his academic work) states, in short, that the formation of the modern (nation-)state in the 17th century - at the conclusion of the devastating 30 Years War - was, in essence, a historical re-organisation of rule and domination, based on military structures, values, and reproductive needs.

The new territorial state with all its baroque rationality, efficiency, bureaucracy and symbolism was - and continues to be - the mantle covering the iron skeleton of professionally organised standing armies. It thus follows that wars are “made” by states - and not by “the people”, and do not represent an outlet for collective aggressive instincts. Neither do wars “break out”, they are prepared, planned, and decided by the political classes, groups, and/or individuals as instruments of policies (that these people often need and require popular support is secondary - though the fact that such support can also be used to overcome internal contradictions, with their appeal to “national unity” - is not secondary).

Large-scale gang warfare

In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War - a war which is sometimes seen as the last (and obviously the most extreme) form of state confrontation - it was claimed that this 350-year-old historical pattern had come to an end. The spread of violence and civil wars, of ethnic massacres and the disintegration of states was - and is - interpreted as the end of the state-military symbiosis.

Many scholars and analysts began to see this process as a secular phenomenon: these wars were no longer wars in the historically dominant pattern and structure, rather they were seen as a form of large-scale gang warfare, originating not from the state but from the very collapse of state authority: A kind of emancipation of violence from politics - the possession of arms and the organisation of loyal followers around crude ethnic or religious ideologies, became a career for uprooted, jobless young men and a profitable way of life (for example in west Africa, in Ethiopia or Somalia).

The term “military” - when used to describe the activities of these warlords from the southern fringe of Russia to Afghanistan and the Balkans - became almost a misnomer, the perversion of the type of armed forces we had known in Europe and many other cultures, because the established state militaries operated with certain ethical standards and values - all variations of the medieval notion of “chivalry”. Analysts were now looking back with nostalgia to the teachings of Clausewitz - (the influential 19th Century military thinker and author of On War) who had attempted to discipline the military and to establish, normatively, the primacy of politics over warfare, to define wars as an instrument of politics, as a well-circumscribed means to specific ends.

Same ol, same ol

So, do we need to create new categories to enable our understanding of the current violence following the declaration of “war against terrorism”? This is not an academic exercise, because all strategies to oppose violence and war, if they are to have a minimum chance of success, depend on us having an adequate understanding of what exactly we are opposing; goodwill, good intentions, and morally correct attitudes, do not suffice and don't translate into action. My answer to this question about categories is twofold: we are confronted with a historically new situation, but at the same time we also observe the return to an old pattern.

What is new is the inability of relatively young states (for example, some of the African, CIS, and Yugoslav states) to integrate their armed forces into a political body and to create a political and ideological loyalty or state identity. In some cases, it was only, or mainly, the well-organised, well-paid, privileged army who identified with their states - and fought, for very plausible material reasons, against the dissolution of their states. In other cases the military could not care less about any political purpose or project and fought purely for themselves like the gangs in Liberia.

For the military to fight for their socio-economic privileges within a given state - if need be by way of a coup détat, Latin American style - now seems a rather old-fashioned pattern and not typical for most post-colonial new state formations, even if we do have some important examples of military coups, notably those in large countries such as Pakistan or Burma. The case of Afghanistan - independently of “9/11” - is a case in point: even though it has had a lengthy historical identity, the Afghan state of the 1970s and '80s disintegrated into military factions of rivalling warlords, mobilising tribal loyalties against each other.

Its not just nation-states!

In short: the “march of history” towards a presumed “end” did not travel in the direction of the territorial nation-state as the only modern form of political organisation. In fact, the US itself experienced - during the lost decades - a slow and subtle, barely noticeable erosion of national loyalties and political identity, expressing itself largely through not voting, non-participation in politics, widespread cynicism towards the political class, privatisation, consumerism, and disinterest in the public domain.

This was not, as one might assume, entirely comfortable to a political class which could thus rule more easily, with less interference and less democratic control. There was, in the US, an outspoken liberal-left opposition to the more narrow-minded, crude and, last but not least, military, strategies with the respective defence expenditures of a world hegemony in the interest of corporate big business, oil being not the least important among them. And a historical heritage of civil liberties was, and remains, a potential obstacle to all long-range fantasies of strengthening and streamlining US society internally for its new role in a world hegemony.

Historically-minded American elites have often made references to the model of the Roman Empire, as a stabilising and civilising force for a period of about three to four centuries. If they read this history correctly (and I presume some of them did), they were certainly aware of the fact that Imperial Rome had to pervert, hollow and eventually destroy the democratic institutions of this first constitutional political community, this first republic. (The speedy and sweeping reactions to “9/11” constitute an unexpectedly gigantic step into such a direction for the American Republic and polity: 11 September 2001 was used by conservative US forces, technically in much the same way as the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933, was used by the Nazis to dismantle the Weimar constitution with the “Empowering Act”, ten days after this attack.)

Writing blank cheques

This, then, is the return to the old pattern of military-state relationships following the events of 11 September: not only were US citizens united behind the flag, they were induced to give a blank cheque to a government which is in the hands of a particularly crude and unsophisticated faction of its political class, sacrificing almost without hesitation, and certainly without debate or opposition, civil rights and civil liberties, the greatest achievements of almost 250 years of history.

Not only did they give a free rein in a qualitative jump in the militarisation of their foreign policies - thus returning to the old pattern and structures of “Modern State Formation” - but the European allies followed suit, blindly, and without even a brief moment spent thinking about the possible consequences of their unconditional solidarity.

The European Union had (and still has) a chance of not becoming a militarised “world power player”, and of developing a political identity, different not only from the US federal state super-power, but also from its own bloody and self-destructive military history. This was supposed to be the lesson of history which needed to be learned, when a united Europe was dreamt of - and slowly conceived - after World War II.

Even though alarming signals that the military would become the second pillar of strength in a “United Europe” have been detected for many years (the first pillar being economic interests), after 11 September the militarisation of European policy, the so-called “defence and security identity”, has become official doctrine, together with new security legislation directed against the citizens of all member states and attempts at discouraging the democratisation of their political institutions.

War has become thinkable again, in fact, while this Europe was created precisely as an answer to its own history of wars, the political classes want their Europe to become a war-faring political actor, a Europe defined in foreign policy by its military capacities.

This would not be “our” Europe, the civilised, cultured, humanistic Europe, the Europe of literature and music, of philosophy and the arts, the Europe of the enlightenment which gave birth to the idea of universal human rights and a political project called Eternal Peace (a philosophical text written by Immanuel Kant in 1795), which is based upon the premise of human reason as the opposite to violence and war.

Means and ends

The military is not - and never has been - a technically neutral means towards specific political ends (as Clausewitz wanted it to be), it lives by its own dynamics and logic. But if it were to be considered as a means only, then one should know: in any society the means by which it deals with its problems, solves its conflicts, deals with governments and the governed, define its profile and identity. “The way is the goal”, to put it into a common phrase.

That thinking also applies to the armed forces when used as a means in resolving conflict. Wherever arms are being used in an attempt to solve socio-political or any other conflicts, the results will be compromised and conditioned by their very violence. A peaceful society on the other hand - national or international - can only be achieved or attempted to be built by peaceful means.

If 11 September continues to be used as a primary factor in pushing towards the build-up of a European military capacity, then a European State emerging from it will be a monster. If we do not want to give up the historical chance and project of a political Europe, then we have to conceptualise it as de-centralised and de-militarised, because its greatest asset is its cultural pluralism. It is this culture, indeed this pluralism of cultures, that should be recognised as an enormous, non-militarist, political resource.

Topics: Anti-militarism