The Military: What is it Good for?

26 November 2011

Our topic this week is the military.  And we’re asking “What is it good for?”     Let me start out by granting the obvious.   Though a few of my most  left-leaning friends  think we could do entirely without any sort of military,  there  has never been and will never be a vast and populous nation like ours without armed services.  But even if we take it as a given that any nation, especially a nation that wants to be a significant player on the world stage, is going to have a military of some sort, that still leaves lots of questions open.   Here are just a few of them.   Exactly what sort of military should we have -- a compact military, adequate for homeland defense and little else or a large and robust force, capable of projecting power around the globe?  Who should serve in the military?  Should all able-bodied citizens be compelled to serve?  Or should the burdens of service be left to volunteers?   To whom should the military be accountable, and how, exactly, can it be held to account? And do we civilians owe our military leaders a high degree of deference?

It seems to me that we face something of a Goldilocks problem.  If the military is too big and powerful, if civilian authorities show it too much respect, then there's a real danger of militarism. But if the military is too small, if it has too little influence over decision making by civilian leaders, that too can lead to disaster.   We need a military that’s not too big and influential, not too small and voiceless, but one that's just the right size.   That strikes just the right balance between deference and accountability

Now striking that delicate balance is no doubt a job  some wise policy-maker.  And you may wonder what a couple of philosophers like John and I are doing worrying about the military and its role in public life.  Even  Plato, who was  a fan of philosopher kings, never advocated that philosophers should be come generals.   All kidding aside thought, the answer is that we citizens, collectively, whether were philosophers or non-philosophers,   need to be the ones to  decide about the proper role, size, composition and degree of accountability of the armed services goes to the very heart of our democracy.  Are  we going to be a society where the military functions as an instrument of will of the people at large or a society where the it functions as a special class unto itself, with its own agenda, answering to no one except perhaps a narrow civilian elite? If we are to remain a true a democracy, we can’t afford to leave these questions to the military, nor even just to our elected leaders.  We all have a vital stake in them.   And as philosophers, it’s our job to dig deep and uncover the fundamental issues and assumptions which inform, or ought to inform, our collective decisions about the nature and role of the military.

Here's a provocative idea that we'll get into on the show, no doubt.   One  way to make people fully own up to the stake we all have in this issue might be to bring back the draft.  That’s because if military service were compulsory and universal the general population might certainly feel a more visceral personal stake in deciding what use the military is put to.   That alone might make it a lot harder for politicians and generals to persuade us to spend our treasure and spill our blood on fool’s errands in the first place.   That’s part of what drove Nixon to end the draft.  He ended the draft not because he was a liberal do-gooder, but because he wanted a freer hand to conduct the war in Vietnam as he pleased.  He cynically realized that if it’s potentially my blood, or the blood of my loved ones that's going to be spilled, then I'm going to stand up and make my voice heard, if I think it's being spilled in vain.  But if it's only the blood of the already-willing that’s being spilled, there's bound to be less hue and cry against it.   You see something like the same dynamic in the contemporary military and its relation to the public.  As this interesting New York Times article points out,  we’ve been at war for ten years, but the people at large feel almost no stake in what’s happening, because of the ever increasing gulf between the military and the general public.

I suspect that the idea of bringing back the draft is probably a non-starter in contemporary America.  And one might think that, Nixon’s self-interested political calculations aside, having an army of the willing seems like a good thing, not a bad thing.  For example, sometimes a nation may legitimately have to wage a war of morally ambiguous character, in which a clean and decisive outcome is far from assured.  Why should we force unwilling conscripts to fight and die in such a war, one might reasonably ask.

My answer is to that challenge turns on the notion of  shared burdens.  Sometime you have to share in the burdens of nationhood, even if you don’t want to.  Nobody likes to pay taxes, but we don’t say "tax only the willing."  Same with military service.   Plus, sometimes the willing aren’t really so willing after all.   You don’t see all that many wealthy or upper-middle-class kids, with elite educations and great jobs, willing to be on active duty.

 I freely admit that I haven't said close to the last word on the matter.  There are host of complicated issues to talk about here.    And to make our discussions more fruitful, we're joined by Pulitzer prize-winning historian, David Kennedy, author of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War.   David brings a broad historical perspective to the discussion. 

Comments (18)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 26, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Ken Taylor,

Ken Taylor,
There is so much unchallenged in this essay, particularly from a philosopher. But perhaps the most impressive unchallenged statement is this: "...there has never been and will never be a vast and populous nation like ours without armed services." From the host of show dedicated to "questioning everything" this is quite impressive. Instead of supposing that what we seek is the "goldilocks" military - not too big, not too small, not too many wars, not neither the folly of too few wars, not too much torture, nor too little torture, not too many bombs, but neither too few bombs - one should be looking at the comparing the costs of a military versus the benefits of a military. Also, consider a different view from yours - that a military is at the very best a necessary evil, and therefore consider how far we could go in de-militarizing our society and economy to our benefit - how close could we come to the ideal of a demilitarized society?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 26, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Well fear was what JFK was

Well fear was what JFK was trying to stop before the US went into Vietnam. He would walk into meetings, see a bunch of war commanders itching for a job to do and he would just walk out in disgust. And I'm with him on that school of thought.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, November 26, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

This one is going to raise a

This one is going to raise a plethora of issues and a triple gaggle of opinions, pro and con. I have never had much affection for anything military. But, then again, there is reality: staring us right in the face. Reality is the existence of forces that would undermine the freedoms we pride ourselves upon. Reality is the history of warfare, the Hitlers; Mussolinis; Stalins and their kin who sought world domination. We cannot 'have it both ways'; therefore we must have an effective and persuasive military establishment. Or as Ted Nugent has advocated: Peace Through Superior Firepower.
Despots and would-be despots only understand rule by violence. So, unless we wish to place ourselves at the mercies of the bad guys (not a viable alternative, seems to me), we must continue to do what we have always done, militarily. There are no do-overs and the world will always be essentially greedy. An Army special ops buddy of mine used to say: never apologize; it's a sign of weakness. The same may be said of nations that lack effective and persuasive military establishments. Sorry, folks. It is just the way it is.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, November 26, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Vitas here,

Vitas here,
Oh, the military is a useful thing.
I still agree with my old UC Philosophy Prof, Tussman, that the military virtues ( loyalty, bravery, service, sacrifice etc.) are, well, virtuous. But ten years in the military taught me that top ranked career military long for glory and would love the opportunity to become another McArthur or Patton and perhaps eventually, like ike, be President. Peace is the last priority of the military, and, apparently, of our current Federal Government as well.
But I suppose our nuclear arsenal --still thousands of warheads---gives some assurance that we won't be invaded by --somebody (the Chinese?). Though, of course we still could be blown to nuclear hell by the Russians or the Chinese---there have been some close calls due to technical malfunction and false information and who knows what future coo-coo birds may yet come to roost in the high offices of nuclear powers generally?---might Pakistan push the button if it felt a national threat from the US? Already some in the US have argued we should deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. In any case, the nuclear genie is unlikely to re-bottle.
All of which means, I think, that the world is still nutty enough (including the US) that we need a military for defense; we need defense from other's nuttyness in reaction to our nuttyness.
It is not enough to say that the world needs to de-militarize---yes, we do---it's just that there's no trust yet------even if desire were high, and it is not---so we must also say that until there is such trust a US army is needed to defend.
Some argue that our ability to defend the US from direct invasion is greatly diminished since Rumsfeld made the US military more a playtoy of corporations to "project" American corporate greed around the world. If the Chinese invaded the US could we halt it? Or would we just push the nuclear button and there goes the whole American/ Asian hemisphere?
All this, I think, must be included when you think of the US military.
Until we, the world's folk, have sentiments and institutions of peace that are stronger than the institutions of greed and hate and political ambition and blind nationalist jingoism---there will be military defense. Does the world need it? No. Only petty, selfish, distrusful and untrustworthy, ignorant, foolish and unevolved nation -states need such a military---but that pretty much includes everybody. Maybe the world will outgrow the nation-state as it did the city-state and become one. Or maybe one nation will conquer the rest to form one government-- as the abundance of such conquerors in history would suggest, or perhaps some kind of elaborate military coup will subdue the globe.
An army for territorial defense then would be unecessary, perhaps. But then again there is nothing like a war with---somebody--- to patriotically boost dismal popularity polls and boost corporate profits. Yes, the military has many uses.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, November 27, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

WAR

WAR
War must be stopped; it should not be facilitated, it needs to be prevented. The only enlightened position is to require that the effort currently put into enabling wars be put into preventing wars ? let?s try that for a change.
How to start? Who should serve in the military in a democracy at war? No war is worth undertaking by a democracy unless those who advocate it (in our case, the Congress and the Executive) are willing to die for the cause, and willing to have their children die for the cause. Not just ?willing? but actually do it. Why weren?t Bush?s daughters in combat? And Obama?s daughters? And all the congresspersons? and they themselves? No ?ifs, ands or buts,? no ?it?s a volunteer army? (in a democracy, there should be no distinction when the war is conducted on behalf of the nation). Serving in the wars they create should be one of the responsibilities in return for getting all the perks of being a federal representative.
All soldiers should be paid a minimum of $200,000 per year. Anyone actually disabled in war should be given $2 million, and the family of anyone killed in war should receive $5 million.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 27, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Damned if we do; doomed if we

Damned if we do; doomed if we don't. Ockham's razor or the sword of Damocles? Always do what you have always done and always get what you have always got. But, you just can't stop. Not even if you want to...
Historionic Effect? Could be. Hey, Heisenberg---come back and talk to us about uncertainty, please?

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, November 27, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

War?

War?
What a telling question.
That you and others question war at all only tells me just how terribly far you and we and they and US still have to go for peace.
Peace,
=
MJA
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, November 28, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Neuman tells us how it is:

Neuman tells us how it is: always do what you've always done...etc. Mirugai takes the holistic approach: get rid of war, one way or another... Historionic effect says it is way too late to get out of that corner into which we have painted ourselves. Many people (thinkers and those whose don't) would agree that war is an expensive way to settle differences. But we are what we are because of all contingencies we have faced over several millenia. History never lets us forget, and seldom lets us forgive---though we may avow otherwise. Stephen Hawking asked a poignant question in his A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME: If we can see the past, why can we not see the future? His question is, of course, based on physics, quanta, relativity and the like. My thought was less sophisticated because I know little of Hawking's discipline: We can see the past because it has already happened. We can only see INTO the future, based upon our OEOs* and the notion that that which has happened will happen again. The notion of seeing the future appears to depend on how fast someone can travel and that speed must exceed the speed of light. But nothing CAN exceed the speed of light---can it? So where are we left? Right here, I assert. Always doing what we have always done---always getting what we have always gotten. It is interesting how the aspect of complexity (see: Stuart Kauffman) can be overcome by the aspect of simplicity. As Clint Eastwood said in one of the Dirty Harry movies: ...man's got to know his limitations. Sure.
(* OEOs: observations, experiences and opinions)

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I wish I had heard this

I wish I had heard this broadcast live. As a retired Army officer and current ROTC instructor, I think it is an important thought piece. And it is a question that the military profession alone cannot decide.
First of all, do we need a military? We can dream of a world of total peace, but no philosophical position that fails to take human nature into account is worth pursuing, because one cannot live it out. Human nature is basically selfish, and this translates into national nature - whether of nation-states, or ethnic groups, or any other grouping. Neutrality is possible - but only if surrounding belligerents allow it (Switzerland's neutrality has been successful for the past five centuries, however Holland's has failed twice just in the 20th century). For us, even if the US completely disarmed, our potential power is too great to be ignored - no would-be world conqueror could afford to leave us alone. So not having a military is only a viable option if we are willing to accept the consequences - being conquered or destroyed from the outside.
The US military today is large and formidable. We are the only nation on earth with significant power projection capability, so we face no risk of invasion. Only Russia, China, and India could even hit us with a nuclear strike, and only Russia has a large enough arsenal to actually destroy us - China has maybe twenty missiles, India less. How large and formidable should we then be? Should we focus just on what we need to defend ourselves, or does our great power and wealth entail greater responsibility than that? I take the latter position - just as a wealthy person bears more responsibility than just building his own mansion, and a strong person bears some responsibility toward protecting the weak, so we bear some responsibility to help where we can, which includes things like standing by our allies, including militarily. We must choose between letting whatever happens happen, or deciding to be a force for peace and justice. And we must therefore choose how much responsibility to take on, each and every day, to balance between what we "can" do and the risks of "imperial overstretch" (to borrow a term from Mr. Kennedy's book "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers").
It is a mistake to think that peace is the natural order of things, and war is some kind of evil aberration. This mistake in thinking leads people to think that we will naturally have peace as long as we don't actively start a war. It is nonsense. Peace has to be worked for and actively maintained, and those who refuse to pay that price end up with war, which is costlier still. It is equally a mistake to think that war is the ultimate evil, and peace is always better. This is a VERY recent idea historically, but it is wrong. Some peace is not worth maintaining - for example, a "peace" that leaves groups like al Qaeda with a nation-sized safe haven and base to launch attacks at will, or a "peace" that would have left Europe swallowed up the Nazis. Sometimes war is the better alternative .

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, December 2, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

War is better altenative?

War is better altenative?
OMG!!!
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, December 5, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Michael: in some cases, it

Michael: in some cases, it clearly is. Do you really believe it would be "better" to just allow the Nazis to rule Europe, and maybe have had time to wipe out all the Jews, Gypsies, Poles, et al? Or to leave al-Qaeda running around unchecked in Afghanistan, and perhaps have three or four 9/11s by now? Or maybe the Israelis should just allow the surrounding Arabs to exterminate them - which they've tried to do several times? Would that be "better?"
Again, don't make the mistake of believing that peace is the natural order of things, and war is some kind of aberration. War is just as natural a state of affairs, and peace does not maintain itself. Only those willing to do the work and pay the price will have peace. History demonstrates that one of those prices is being strong enough to make potential aggressors think twice.
Which brings us back to the original question - what is a military good for? The answers are: 1) to prevent aggression; 2) to defeat aggression should it occur; 3) thereby to maintain the liberty of the American people (and often as not, other people too); 4) in accordance with our oath, to ensure the protection of the Constitution; 5) to provide the capability to stop some really bad things happening around the world (genocide and the like). Examples abound of the military doing all of these things, when no other institution could have done the same.
Unless someone out there can show me an actual example of unilateral disarmament leading to peace? Or any disarmament regime of any kind leading to peace? Or an disarmed nation that remained free?
Philosophy is a wonderful thing, but a philosophical position that cannot function in the real world is useless.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I think our Dept. of Defense

I think our Dept. of Defense should be renamed the dept of Offense and then done away with.
Today our President ended the war in Iraq, the war we started.
We are responsible for the invasion, destruction, and injuries and deaths of well over 100,000 Iraqi people and their country.
Is it a day to celebrate Nathan, or a day to say we are sorry?
=
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, December 25, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

The invasion of Iraq was

The invasion of Iraq was unjust, and we do owe an apology there. The Dept of Defense did not start that war, though, the President did, as he was allowed to by a Congress that has abdicated its war powers responsibilities in the interest of avoiding blame.
One instance, however, does not make your case. If the United States had no military capability, there would be no United States. If the democracies had no military capability, there would be no democracy. Would that be a good thing?
In the real world there are people, organizations, even nations, that hate us, that dream of our destruction, and that covet what we have. There is no evidence to suggest that if we unilaterally disarmed, they would suddenly forget about us. Five thousand years of human history suggest quite the opposite.
So the question remains: if we did not have the means to protect ourselves militarily, what means would you propose we use? If we did not have the means to protect our allies militarily, what would you place in its stead? If we did not have the military means to deter aggression, what means would you use? If we gave up the military means to stop genocides, police peace agreements, even respond to natural disasters, what capacity would you put in its place that could do all those things?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 2, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Maybe I am wrong Nathan to

Maybe I am wrong Nathan to think this Way, but I would rather be totally defenseless than be responsible as an American, as we the people of the United States are responsible for the horrific deaths, injuries and destructions we have caused and are causing to the innocent peoples of other countries all around the world, and all in the name of Democracy. I Nathan would rather have none.
To Peace,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 5, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Mike: there are many kinds of

Mike: there are many kinds of Peace, not all of them good. We don't feel it directly, because of where we are, but most of the world operates on a very different set of rules than we experience here in the US. In most of the world, "he who kicks the most ass makes the rules." I've seen some of these places with my own eyes, so I know beyond doubt that I would not want to live in that world, that I would not want anyone else to live in that world, that I do not want my children to end up living in that world. Which means protecting them, and the democracy that keeps our world from becoming that world. You may not think democracy is worth that much, but I'm not sure if you've seen the parts of the world that don't have it. I have. Democracy, even at the price we've paid for it, is a bargain.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 9, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I think America kicks the

I think America kicks the most ass don't we?
And I guess we do set the rules.
We even tell other countries they can't have nukes but we have the most.
And we give them to friends when we agreed to non proliferate.
We arm the world with weapons and build up or military to stop them.
We invade other countries and call them terrorist,
But if we were ever invaded, how terrific would we be?
There is no good in war,
Unless of course you drink the cool aid.
Cheers,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Thank you Cat. Really

Thank you Cat. Really hplfeul and powerful across the cyberspace when people share their deepest Truths, and help me to expand mine. This communication is a blessing.God bless, Catrin

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

PFC US Army Infantry, i have

PFC US Army Infantry, i have never been deployed, i cant speak from first hand experience, but this is my opinion.
See the problem here in the US is that we have never been invaded so the civilians dont know what war actually is, they just think its the higher ups getting bored and "having some fun." They dont understand how most of the Iraqi people thank us for what we did, they dont understand how bad the oppressive governments are, i mean for god's sake, Saddam and his kid tortured and killed the entire Iraqi soccer team because they lost a game, do you really think the Iraqi people would rather we hadnt invaded, and would rather have Saddam back?
People need to stop being naive ignorant fools and see both sides of the story before you speak, and yes i do believe that some wars are unjust and some just happened because of the higher ups, in the most part they are for good reasons and do good.

 
 
 

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