The Smallest Army Imaginable

C. Douglas Lummis, a former US Marine stationed on Okinawa, is the author of Radical Democracy and is a Japan Focus associate. He taught at Tsuda College. This is an excerpted version of a longer article written for Alternatives in 2006 and which appeared in The Asia-Pacific Journal in 2010.

In 1931, on his way to the London Round Table Conference, Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a Reuters correspondent what his program was.  He responded by writing out a brief, vivid sketch of “the India of my dreams.” Such an India, he said, would be free, would belong to all its people, would have no high and low classes, no discrimination against women, no intoxicants and “the smallest army imaginable.” (1)

The last phrase presents a puzzle:  What is the smallest military imaginable?  But the fact that it presents a puzzle is also puzzling.  For what is so unimaginable about no military at all?  The question is not rhetorical, for most people do find the no-military option unimaginable.  It is easy enough to pray for peace, to petition and demonstrate for peace, or to imagine oneself as a perfectly pacifist non-killer.  It is harder to imagine a state with no military.

One of the few places where this option is clearly and forcefully stated is in Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution.  People who first hear about this article often respond by insisting that the words can’t mean what they say.  It is, after all, an axiom of politics that states have militaries.  This axiom is presumed to hold despite the fact that there exist today 13 countries with no military forces and no military alliances. (2)

“Zero” is easy enough to imagine; what is it that makes it so hard for us to imagine “zero military”?  Perhaps one reason is that the things the military is trained to do, and does, are so awful that it is essential to us to believe that they are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, and that to allow any hint of a doubt about that to enter our consciousness is unsettling.  Moreover, if you start talking about the possibility of zero military you are treated as one who has stepped out of the realm of reality.  You risk being called a crank, a dreamer, a peacenik, a wimp or (God help us!) a “Gandhian.”

One might counter that it is natural not to imagine zero military, because what constrains our imagination is the force of reality itself.  The idea is simply irrational and unrealistic, and not worth thinking about.  But I am convinced that just the opposite is true:  this failure of our imagination prevents us from seeing reality; it conceals from us the truth of our situation.  It is only when we accept Gandhi’s implicit challenge and carry his “smallest military imaginable” to its extreme conclusion that we can begin truly to think about what the military means in our lives.

Japan’s post-war Constitution does carry the challenge to its extreme conclusion; its Article 9 imagines the military altogether out of existence.

Article 9:  Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as any other war potential, will never be maintained.  The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Taken by itself, Article 9 is a fascinating, bold, lucidly written statement of a new principle of international politics, and a new concept of “the state” itself.  Note that this is not an “appeal” for peace, such appeals being a dime a dozen.  It does not say that the Government should avoid war insofar as possible, or that it should try as hard as it can to seek peaceful solutions.  Rather, the Japanese Constitution is written on the principle of sovereignty of the people.  In the Preamble to the previous Meiji Constitution, the grammatical subject is “I,” that is, the Meiji Emperor; the Constitution which follows is often described as his “gift”; in fact it is his command.  In the present Constitution this “I” is replaced by “we,” that is, the Japanese people, which means that it takes the form of a command by the people to the government.  It sets out the powers that the government has, and the powers it does not have.  Article 9 says the government does not have the power to make war, threaten war, or make preparations for war.  Therefore, the government does not have those powers.  As a legal instrument, it is clear and absolute.  The problem is that, as a practical matter, it is enveloped in layer upon layer of hypocrisy.  Its formulators, or some of them – members of the post-war U.S. Occupation and of the then Japanese government – may have believed in Article 9 sincerely enough to get it written down, but never enough to have it carried out….

But how is it possible that they could have been sincere at all?  Article 9 utterly violates the common sense of politics and political science.  How could a group of practical politicians and military people have offered this as a serious proposal?
There are several possible answers to that question.

First, one might, at least tentatively, try taking the authors at their word.  It is important to recall the historical moment, and the geographical place, where this Constitution was written.  This was immediately after the end of World War II, in Tokyo, a city that had been flattened and burned by the U.S terror bombings.  It is said that you could stand in the center of Tokyo and see the horizon in every direction….

The Japanese Government, for its part, also did not see the Constitution as leaving the state without military protection; rather it assumed that this protection would now be the responsibility of the United States.  Then in 1950, with the beginning of the Korean War, The Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) ordered the Japanese Government to form a paramilitary “Police Reserve,” which was the seed out of which the present Self-Defense Forces eventually grew.  In 1952, when the Peace Treaty was signed and Japan again became an independent country, the Japan–U.S. Security Treaty was stipulated as a condition (you want independence, you accept the U.S. bases and a subordinate position within the alliance), and has remained in effect to this day.  So the experiment proposed in the Constitution, that Japan abandon the method of protecting national security with military force and instead seek to protect itself with peace diplomacy, has never been attempted.

But there is a third major actor in the story:  the Japanese public.  At the time the Constitution was proposed, opinion polls showed that it was supported by 85% of the people.  Huge rallies were held to celebrate it, and the newspapers were filled with favorable letters.  No one could have predicted this in, say, 1944.  Everything written about Japan up to the end of the war saw Japanese society as militaristic to the core.  Some observers could find hardly anything in it besides Bushido, the alleged samurai spirit.  Partly this was a failure of these observers to look closely enough, and showed their inability to distinguish culture from government-imposed ideology.  Still, I think this counts as one of the great acts of collective will in history, in which a people fully mobilized for war makes a decision to turn about 180 degrees and strike out in a new direction….

Within Japanese society there has been formed a body of Article 9 believers, people who, insofar as they oppose both the Self Defense Forces (as unconstitutional) and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty (as providing for the continuation of the U.S. occupation), can be said to be sincere in their belief in Article 9. This may be the largest collection of people in the world today who, when they think of “the smallest military imaginable”, immediately imagine no military at all.  And in Japan generally, six decades without war has produced a kind of “peace common sense”, so that even among people who wouldn’t dream of becoming political activists, not going to war is seen as most ordinary.  This in contrast to countries (like my own) where every generation has its war, and everyone has friends, neighbors and relatives who have gone off to foreign countries, killed people, and returned home (or not).  Whether or not one considers the ideas of this Japanese peace culture to be correct, its existence is a fact, and it does act as a peace force in the world….


(1) The Hindustani Times, 5 Sept., 1931. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Electronic Book version, New Delhi: Publications Division, v. 53, p. 312.  In citations below, the Collected Works will be referred to as CW.

(2) The countries are, Costa Rica, Dominica, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Mauritius, Maldives, Monaco, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, San Marino, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Panama.

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Arnold Shcherban - 2/10/2010

"In undeclared worldwide war"?
As far as I remember the both most recent US goverments declared that war quite openly and unmistakably.
But are "we"...?
You, on the other hand, sound like religious apocalyptic sage (aka - American militarist) and that's the mostly established fact pertaining to issue in question.

Vernon Clayson - 2/1/2010

Kumbayah, flower power, peace, a dream of a better world, sure, Mr. Lummis, that'll work. Did your Far East experience include introduction to some Oriental philosophy that mellowed you out? Better you consider some Plato platitudes, he said "Only the dead have seen the end of war." Some other philosopher said "To attain peace, prepare for war." We are in an undeclared worldwide war with an implacable enemy, now is no time to embrace philosophies that ancient Orientals devised to deal with neighboring tribes. And Genghis Khan surely didn't follow flower power policies.

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