The Weakness of National Military Strength

News Abroad

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Lawrence Wittner's Confronting the Bomb During 2008, the nations of the world spent nearly $1.5 trillion on their military forces.  That is what has been reported by the highly-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which noted that the five biggest spenders were the United States ($607 billion), China ($85 billion), France ($66 billion), Britain ($65 billion), and Russia ($59 billion).  Adjusted for inflation, the total represents an increase of 45 percent in military expenditures over the past decade.

And so the game of national military "defense" continues, despite clear indications of its negative consequences.

One consequence is a vast diversion of national resources from meeting basic human needs.  As President Dwight Eisenhower stated in 1953:  "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

Another consequence is the undermining of democracy.  In the eighteenth century, America's "founding fathers" were deeply troubled by the prospect of "Caesarism"—the rise of military strongmen who would seize power and stamp out democratic government.  Since then, there have been plenty of military takeovers, and not only in the distant past.  Among the most notorious of the modern military officers who overthrew democratic governments and set up bloody dictatorships were Franco in Spain, Somoza in Nicaragua, Batista in Cuba, Mobutu in the Congo, Papadopoulos in Greece, Suharto in Indonesia, and Pinochet in Chile.  One of the most repressive regimes in power today was established by Burma's military officers.  Only this June, a military coup ousted the democratically-elected president of Honduras.

The most obvious weakness of national military preparedness is that it often fails to protect nations from the war and destruction it is supposed to prevent.  Despite high levels of military might, nations have been fighting wars for centuries, bringing them to the brink of ruin.  Of what value was it to the nations fighting World War I that, in the prewar years, they had been armed to the teeth?  Did their weaponry avert war?  Might it not even have encouraged that conflict?  Was victory in the great "War to End War" that much better than defeat? 

Or take the experience of Germany and Japan, two nations that had embarked on rapid military buildups in the 1930s and, then, suffered almost total disaster (human and material) during World War II.  By contrast, during the Cold War, when they stayed on the sidelines—keeping military expenditures low and their troops out of combat—they thrived and prospered.  Indeed, it could be said that the real victors in the Cold War were the Germans and the Japanese!

And what about the United States, the world's top spender on the military since the end of World War II?  Has this nation experienced "peace through strength"?  The reality is that, since 1945, it has been continuously at war, either hot or Cold.  Furthermore, despite the vast resources, including the lives of millions of Americans, devoted to U.S. national defense, the nation's leaders now tell us that it is more threatened than ever.  If it is, one is forced to ask:  Of what value were the trillions of dollars of post-1945 military spending?  Certainly the overdeveloped U.S. military machine—by far the most powerful in the world—did nothing to safeguard the nation against the terrorist attack in 2001 that took almost 3,000 lives and was conducted by nineteen men armed only with box-cutters.  Why is all this military might not doing a better job of protecting us?

The fundamental reason is that what one nation views as defending its vital interests is viewed by other nations as threatening their vital interests.  The result is frequently a sense of national insecurity, a growing arms race, and—in many cases—war.  Terrorist groups, too, are often motivated by a sense of grievance against heavily-armed nations, especially when those nations establish overseas military bases and occupation regimes on their soil.

This fact that national military buildups promote violent conflict has been recognized for years by intelligent citizens and by many government officials.  Consequently, there have been modest moves toward establishing a collective security approach to world affairs.  These include the development of the League of Nations and the United Nations.  But national governments—especially those of the larger countries—have resisted giving up more than a very small portion of their sovereignty to international institutions.  Although they pay lip service to the United Nations, they put their faith (and money) in national military might.  And this keeps us running endlessly on a treadmill, ever anxious about our national security, as military expenditures rise year by year.

Isn't it time for a different approach?     

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 9/23/2009

It's basic math: Japanese deaths in the entirety of WWII were about one-fifth of the total population. That's immensely destructive, but it's nowhere near half.

Per Fagereng - 9/22/2009

Are you saying that a battle between hunter-gatherers that kills, say, half of each group is relatively more destructive than, say, Hiroshima or the Holocaust?

I find that hard to believe.

Jordan B. Goldstein - 9/22/2009

The notion that hunter-gatherer societies did not war is fallacious. Anthropological studies have shown that Hunter-Gatherer/ Tribal Warfare actually is much more destructive in terms of relative size than contemporary or civilized warfare. Civilization actually has curbed man's violent impulses, not the other way around. Refer to "War Before Civilization" by Lawrence Keeley for more information.

Per Fagereng - 9/21/2009

Who says we will survive? Us organisms might survive, but I don't think the United States will. It will go the way of Rome. For a lot of its people, the fall of Rome was a blessing.

It's been said that hunter-gatherers didn't kill each other. That began with agriculture and what passes for civilization.

Billy E Karlinsey - 9/21/2009

I do not call it a military coup that ousted the democratically-elected president of Honduras, as military were acting on orders from other parts of the government behave, because the president was trying to skirt the election laws.

John D. Beatty - 9/21/2009

You want an escape from biology, from the struggle of all organisms to survive.

Good luck with that. Just because you can build a cathedral doesn't mean you're immune to attack from the rats that live there.

CHRIS Babeouf - 9/21/2009

The nation state and the Capitalist system are 'heritage' forms of social organization. Their various defects become public with the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century the defects become critical. In the twenty first century terminal. The question for humans collectively is this. Can we create a point of departure? The armaments expenditure
and the large scale use of recreational drugs suggests hopes aren't high.