Skip to main content

The Military Community


ISSUE:  Winter 1973


In the mosaic of values that is Western social philosophy, war has played no small role in shaping the image of community. We are perhaps more likely to think of war as an element of antimorality and anticommunity, but the evidence is all too clear that from earliest times war and its processes have been associated with some of the most cherished of Western values: community, individuality, freedom, fraternity, and release from authorities grown tyrannous and suffocating. It would be a grave error to suppose the almost universal disaffection precipitated by America’s intervention in Vietnam to be an indication of disaffection with war generally, along with its themes, symbols, and unique attractions.

Very probably Western civilization has been, for at least three thousand years, the most war-ridden, war-dominated, and war-stimulated civilization known to us in comparative history. This is not to say that there is not much else in Western culture that proceeds from values the very opposite of military values. The strain of pacifism, of the urge to control or eradicate war, is a clear one and has been since the Good News began to spread from one tiny Christian sect to another in the ancient Roman Empire. Even though, later, Christianity could take on a great deal of military symbolism in its militance and zeal to convert, could unite with this or that nationalist-military power in secular goals, no one would wish to take from Christianity its Jesus-given message of peace. And from Christian pacifism have flowed other currents of opposition to war, other values and ends alike pledged to the holiness of peace and the evil of war.

None of this is to be doubted. There is a great deal more than war in the history of the West. Nevertheless it is fair to say, I think, that there have been more large-scale wars in Western society during the past three thousand years, more armies on the march, more battles, more lives lost, more land devastated, more civil populations terrorized, more governments destroyed and more governments established directly by war, and, in some ways of greatest importance so far as human thought is concerned, more preparations for war than in any other civilization known to us.

To say this is not to impute unique instinct for war among the many races and peoples that have migrated into Western Europe. If there is a single factor at work, it is not germ plasm but geography. The promontory that is Western Europe on the great land mass of Asia could hardly be improved upon as the setting of war. Its climate and terrain, its relative ease of access, its rich abundance of resources of every kind, and its comparative ease of life for both pastoral and agricultural peoples made Western Europe a rich prize for many a people on the move for one reason or other from the East. Contact, then conflict, of peoples was inevitable. What had been so attractive a setting for Celt, Etruscan, Greek, and Latin—quite apart from peoples long before them—was equally attractive to German and Slav. That Western Europe has been for a very long time one of the major centers of cultural achievement in world history is not to be wondered at. The migration of peoples, their varied interactions, fusions, rivalries, all made possible by terrain and climate and relative seclusion from the rest of the world, would make that almost certain.

But where peoples, cultures, economies, and politics mix, especially on so grand and persistent a scale as in Western Europe, wars are also certain. And along with wars, commemorations and celebrations of wars. In very large degree Western European literature begins in war, with the Homeric sagas and, across the Mediterranean, with the chronicles of the Hebrews. On the evidence, had there been no wars there would have been no literature, for it is only in relatively recent times that we have thought other subjects fit for poem and song. Inevitably the values most vital in war became the values most celebrated in literature and art.

These values were hardly less celebrated in history and philosophy. The fact is obvious enough in history-writing, which began in the recording of the exceptional event, with war inevitably pre-eminent. One need but think of the sacred history of the Old Testament and its numberless wars, of the account Hesiod gives us of wars among the gods and demigods, and then in due time the histories written by Herodotus and Thucydides. It was the just-beginning war between Athens and Sparta, “great and memorable above any previous war,” thought Thucydides, that provided occasion for his masterpiece and also the beginnings of historiography as we know it in the West. From that day to this, war has been the overwhelming preoccupation of Western historians-war, its conduct, its causes and consequences.

But so did philosophy begin in circumstances created largely by war. Whether we take the pre-Socratic philosophers in Greece, concerned with physical processes of strife and conflict among the elements of nature, or the post­ Socratic philosophers whose thinking marks the real beginning of social and political philosophy in the West, we are dealing with minds stimulated by the variety and change induced by war but stimulated also by some of the values of community—community lost and community sought for—which arose directly from the consequences of war. Western social philosophy has its origins, basically, in the issues created by the momentous Cleisthenean reforms-revolution is the more accurate word-at the end of the sixth century B.C. What were these issues? Overwhelmingly those of the individual’s relation to the social order and to moral values. Exposure to variety, chiefly as the consequence of war but also of trade, had given the Greek mind release from ethno­ centrism. What, among all the contrasting ways of social life and morality, asked the Greek, is the true way, the good way? No more fundamental questions have ever been asked, and from them sprang the long Western tradition of social philosophy. Even more fateful, however, than exposure to cultural variety in the Mediterranean world was the destruction of the traditional kinship order in Athens by the Cleisthenean reforms. We shall come back to this revolutionary change in Athenian society in a moment. For the moment it is enough to say that the quest for community, as the West has known it, really began with these reforms.

II

It is important first, though, to pursue briefly the relation of kinship and the military in the history of society. Two more radically different types of social order it would be hard to imagine than that founded upon the family and that founded upon the values of war. Confrontation between patriarch and warrior-chief is surely the oldest and most significant, the most fertile in consequences, of any of the confrontations of role that history records.

Without much doubt kinship is the oldest form of association known to mankind—that is, regularized, conventionalized, and culturally transmitted association. Who knows how many tens of thousands of years went by on earth with kinship—conjugal unit, clan, kindred, tribe—the exclusive form of community, with all functions necessary to human life contained in it and its dominant roles? All we know is that, without exception, wherever a people has come into our historical ken, kinship is clearly set off as the traditional form of society.

But what recurrently brings kinship into the stuff of history, into our historical consciousness, is its breakdown as the exclusive form of association within a given people or area. History, it is fair to say, begins for us where wars, migrations, and the clash of cultures are first to be found, and all of these reveal the origins of the states, empires, and world religions in the very breakup of the traditional, once-dominant patriarchal principle of the kinship community. We may epitomize the matter by saying that the conflict between patriarch and military chief is the beginning of what we think of as political history in the world.

Now, there is no intrinsic, structurally inherent reason for the erosion or collapse of kinship as the fundamental and constitutive principle of a people’s social organization. It is illusory to suppose there is any immanent, self-generating tendency for kinship to evolve to “higher” forms of social organization such as confederacy, state, or empire. When kinship breaks down or surrenders, so to speak, to other, commonly political, forms of association, there is always a reason. And this reason is, overwhelmingly, war, or the condition of necessary preparation for war as the basis of survival. For whatever else kinship is good for, however successfully it may unite religious, economic, and social functions in man’s life over very long periods of time, kinship is not a very functional structure for the needs of war.

Kinship society is based, as we know, largely upon custom and tradition, upon subordination of individuality and of impulses to change and mobility which spring from individuality to the authority of the kinship group. Hence the static quality, the consecration of what is and has been, in kinship society. Kinship organization tends to be cellular in character, really a set of concentric circles, with each—household, clan, kindred—rather autonomous, each claiming full authority over its members. Intermediation of authority is the rule. And, finally, it is ascribed status rather than achieved status that has highest recognition-the ascribed status of the elder being of course the dominant status.

When the first military association arose we cannot even guess. Suffice it to say it was, it had to be, where threat of attack from the outside or where need for attack by a people became imperative. All we can safely say is that somewhere, sometime back in the remote past, undoubtedly in some area attractive enough to have brought two or more peoples to it, propinquity brought with it conflict and collision, for whatever specific reason, and these in turn brought need for some type of association better fitted than the clan to wage effective war, better fitted for the mobility, aggressiveness, tactical flexibility, and, above all, unique leadership demanded by war. Geography set the scene; social, political, and military factors took over.

Military association—war-band, militia, army—tends everywhere, however unequally, to be highly centralized in the command of its leader, chief or general. It is command, not timeless custom and tradition, that is the crux, though of course command may itself become traditionalized over a period of time. Military communities are far more individualistic in character than kinship groups, with high premium placed upon individual prowess, irrespective of age, kinship status, or other traditional criteria, with the rewards of war going invariably to the fleetest, the most valorous, cunning, and aggressive, generally therefore to youth, rather than to the oldest, wisest, or most highly placed in the kinship community. It is not war as such but the very principles of military association which most often subordinate those of kinship, and this, as I have noted, is commonly where wars and threats of war have been intense and recurrent for long periods of time, as in the Mediterranean world and the subcontinent of Western Europe. Kinship, obviously, ill serves the needs of war. These needs call for a very different type of organization.

It is too simple to put the matter in terms of confrontation of the two types of society and the defeat of the one by the other. For a great deal of man’s history is made up of the progressive militarization and politicization of peoples once organized solely in clans and kindreds, in tribes and villages. It would be impossible to find a more vivid example of this than among Vietnamese during the past century or more. When the French entered this part of Southeast Asia in the last century they found the natives almost universally living within kinship organization and, closely adapted to it, village, caste, and religion in all of which it may be said that kinship themes and symbols were dominant. Given this form of society in the area, there was no special difficulty in French conquest, occupation, and government of the area. A relative handful of French military forces proved sufficient to conquer and then to govern. Whatever may have existed in the way of native military force was more nearly ritual than substantive. Vietnamese family, village, and religion all alike were structured to the needs of peace, not war. Thus, a single company of French soldiers was capable of holding very large areas holding a great many people.

There are many ways of describing what has happened in Vietnam since the French military first conquered it, but one of the ways, and the decisive one, is the militarization and, with this, politicization of the Vietnamese, or of a determining number at least. More and more Vietnamese soldiers, especially revolutionary-guerrilla soldiers, were produced from the ranks of those Vietnamese males the French had, once the area was thought secure and put under regular administration, taught the arts of warfare and of governmental administration to. The long-run result might have been predicted by anyone familiar with a process that has occurred many times in world history. The Vietnamese proved able, with the help of World War II, to expel the French, and this after one of the most humiliating defeats in battle French soldiers have ever known.

What a different set of circumstances prevailed in 1961 when American military intervention began to escalate! Now, it was not a nation of householders, villagers, and religionaries alone that the American forces encountered, but one that had also some of the finest soldiers-and with equipment to match-to be found anywhere in the world. Obviously, I am not concerned here with the diplomatic aspects of Vietnam, nor with any of the political, ideological, and moral issues involved in this tragic episode in American history. I am concerned only with the point that in Vietnam, as in so many other places in world history through the ages, initial defeat of a kinship-structured society by military organization was followed by a militarization of that society that in the long run led to the kind of political organization Vietnam has known since World War II, divided though this political organization has been almost from the beginning. And the extraordinarily different experience American soldiers have had in combat with North Vietnamese, when contrasted with that of French soldiers more than a century ago, can be reduced, basically, to the militarization of the Vietnamese, to the appearance of military organization among them side by side with traditional types of social organization but dominant in every crucial respect.

What relatively tiny Vietnam illustrates can be seen on a far vaster scale in China where also defeat and final expulsion of the Westerner and his influence were accomplished by the development within China, among Chinese, of a degree of military power that traditional, clan- and village-based China had hardly known. We take nothing away from the genius of Mao and his lieutenants, or from the Communist ideology on the basis of which they fought, when we observe that apart from militarization combined with revolution the new China could hardly have materialized. Nor, apart from the persisting influence of the army and, most important, of military symbolism and its union with revolutionary symbolism, could much if any of that radical transformation of Chinese society have taken place during the past generation that looms up today as one of the most important political facts of our century.

China, taken over the several thousand years of its recorded history, is as good a case as could possibly be found of the profound linkage between kinship and the values of peace. In no major civilization known in history have the values of war been as consistently and widely disliked and disparaged as in Chinese culture. Religion, literature, art, industry, and agriculture, all testified by their character to the ascendancy of the kinship tie and of those ties—village community and guild predominantly—which were formed in the very image of the kinship relation.

All of this, as we know, was radically changed once the West found its way to China by sea, and, with its superior technology and its ingrained military-aggressive values, commenced the work of destruction of China’s isolation and, in fast-accelerating degrees, its traditional, kinship-rooted social order. It is to take nothing away from economic imperatives in all this to say that the military force of the West was decisive. What followed, of course, was a time of troubles, manifest in war, especially civil war, that was not really terminated until Mao’s armies won out and began their work of revolutionary militarization of Chinese society.

III

I referred above to the momentous effects of the Cleisthenean reforms just prior to what is very probably the most creative century Western civilization has yet known: the fifth century B.C. Its achievements in literature, the arts, and philosophy need no retelling here. Nowhere else in history, so far as we know, has such diverse genius flourished so concentratedly and with such lasting effect upon an entire civilization for twenty-five hundred years afterward. It is well to remember that this century began and ended in two of the best-known wars in Western history: the first, victorious, against the Persians; the second, involving defeat and humiliation, against the Spartans. In between these two wars lay a host of minor military actions by the Athenians and also, not to be overlooked, incessant military preparations and commemorations. Athens, by any ordinary reckoning, was not only a highly politicized society in the fifth century, it was also deeply military; not as military, to be sure, as Sparta and certain other of the Greek states, but very much involved nevertheless with armies, navies, and their commanders.

The greatness that was the Athenian polis arose in the first instance, as I have noted above, in the Cleisthenean reforms, which were themselves generated largely by military needs. The traditional Athenian kinship society—organized for so many centuries, even millennia, in tribes, phratries, kindreds, and household groups—had become manifestly unable to cope with economic and military problems which had themselves in large degree been created by Athenian explorations, colonizations, and commercial thrusts, all inevitably charged with military implications to the structure of society at home. There is much we do not know about the various efforts that had been made for a century or more prior to Cleisthenes, the most notable effort being that of Solon, to reorganize Athenian society, but we know enough to be sure that not until the core of the problem was grasped, and this by Cleisthenes, did any success, that is, lasting success, reward the efforts. And the core was kinship; the structuring of a society in kinship terms in the presence of rising, spreading demands for a society at once more mobile, individualistic, and centralized in power than anything that could be attained within the diffuse, tradition-based, particularized social order the Athenians had known so long.

One need but grasp the few principal elements of the Cleisthenean reforms to be aware instantly of how thoroughgoing, how radical these reforms were and how deeply motivated they were by objectives which were military in foundation. There were the abolition of the ancient tribes and the creation of new ones by Cleisthenes, each symbolized and given eponymous identity by some earlier military hero; there was the vital reorganization of Athens in territorial terms, with the deme the central unit, the indispensable context henceforth of both political and military participation in public life; there was the new individualization of Athenian society flowing from the fateful concept of citizenship, with the role of citizen to be henceforth the dominant role in the lives of all those in free status; and there was, finally, the new structure of power in Athenian society, no longer diffuse and plural from its kindred- and household-roots but now at once centralized and rooted in the entirety of the new political order.

All of this is well enough known to readers of Greek history. What is often overlooked is the signal confrontation between the values of war and politics on the one hand, on the other, the persisting and ineradicable values of the ancient kinship order, displaced from the sources of effective power in the political community but anything but forgot­ ten in the mind and culture of Athens. In very large degree that preoccupation with kinship, with family line, and with the nobilities and basenesses of storied lineages we find in Athenian drama in the fifth century B.C. is a reflection of the still deeply-rooted fascination with kinship in the minds of all Athenians. And with the legal, historic base of kinship authority destroyed by Cleisthenean reform, it was only a matter of time until a great deal of the remaining social, cultural, and psychological value of kinship eroded away, resulting, as we know, in that unstable, feverish individualism, itself the other side of the same coin that had centralization of power written on it, but, alas, centralization that proved increasingly tenuous, short-lived, and corrupt in the hands that held it.

It was Thucydides who first referred to the condition as stasis, a word epitomizing endemic fragmentation and conflict within the social order. But it was Plato who responded most brilliantly to the setting. “The Republic” is his political­military answer, set in the beguiling terms of the ideal community, to the condition of combined social fragmentation, rootless individualism, and moral anarchy that he and many another Athenian thought to be the now-hateful essence of their beloved Athens. We should not allow the eloquence, poetic in intensity, or the powerful moralization of thinking to be found in Plato to distract us from what is basic in “The Republic.” This is a degree of centralization of authority, of regimentation of life, and militarization of theme not excelled in any work since in Western thought. Plato is the political-military intellectual par excellence. Those who have lightly ascribed his interest in order to nostalgia for pre­Cleisthenean Athens with its supremacy of kinship and the kind of tradition that springs from kinship have simply not paid attention to the issues involved. These are, first and last, issues generated by conflict between the traditional order and all that pertains to it on the one hand and, on the other, the centralized, collectivized military-political order that we would today call totalitarian.

We may justify Plato’s community as we like, and my intent here is in no way censorious. Plato is very probably the most powerful mind, on the written evidence, the West has produced, “The Republic” very probably the most influential single book. To an astonishing degree we live to the present moment in an intellectual and moral environment generated in the first instance by Plato. That he may have been dedicated to the individual, his inner freedom and his tranquillity in society, I do not question any more than I would question the genuineness of his devotion to justice. I am stating only—and there is no originality or novelty, really, in the statement—that at the bottom of Plato’s politics is a conception of society modeled basically on the military, and that it is the panoply of military virtues that is in many ways the most distinctive aspect of Plato’s politics and morality.

Nor is the conflict between kinship and war limited to ancient Greece. It is one of the recurrent features of Western history. We see it in Rome when Augustus sounded the death knell for the traditional Republic, itself based upon the kinship power but rendered weak and spastic by the incessant warfare of the two centuries preceding the rise of the Empire. We see it again in the early modern Western world when the so-largely kinship-based traditional society that underlay medieval culture and thought, with its profusion of intermediate associations and authorities, its localisms, and overwhelming emphasis upon personal rather than territorial ties, succumbed to the forces responsible for the modern military-national state.

As we know, this did not take place overnight or without powerful counter-struggle from not only the church and the whole assemblage of feudal authorities, but also from clan and kindred, guild, monastery, and many another type of association or community that was modeled upon the personal and patriarchal character of kinship. If the process of defeat of kinship and triumph of political power took place earlier in England and France than other parts of Europe, it was in very large part because of royal monopoly of the new artillery that destroyed for once and all possibility of serious opposition of monarchy. But sooner or later kinship society and its related structures of village community and guild retreated everywhere in the West before the basically military principles of centralization and territorialization of political power. A great deal of the constitutional history of modern Europe, with its claims of “rights” and “liberties” supposedly based upon a law higher than that of monarchical and national law, has its origins in efforts in the first instance to preserve the associational rights which did in fact precede the advent of the military-political state.

IV

The basic appeal of war in human society, especially Western society, is, I am convinced, at once cultural, social, psychological, and moral. Geography, historical contact of peoples, and simple presence of military professional, whether legionary, knight, or modern soldier, are not enough to account for a phenomenon as steadily recurrent, as deeply based in value and symbol, as inseparable from institutional and intellectual history, as war and the military community have been for several thousand years in the West. We dislike war but cannot bear to be without the profoundest attributes of war. William James, in his “The Moral Equivalent of War,” got at some of this three-quarters of a century ago, but there is more to the matter than James saw or wrote. In what follows I shall list, with briefest commentary, some of the attributes which have made war virtually necessary-in the functionalist sense-in the West. The reader must be forewarned that some of these are in effect contradictory; but that does not lessen the appeal of a given incentive at a given time.

Change. Whether or not there is an actual instinct for change, for new experience, in the human being, there is no doubt that it can at times be welcome to most persons. And change, in normal circumstances, is rare, much rarer than we might suppose from living in the change-ridden nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the West. Save only in times of crisis and catastrophe, of collision and mixture of cultures, the consequences usually, as we have seen, of migration and war, conventionalization, routinization, and fixity have tended to be the normal in human behavior. When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change! This quotation from a great English statesman will serve admirably as a generalization for human history. No one familiar with the role of the rebel, the heretic, and the deviant in most of man’s history will doubt the immense power of tradition and of persistence in society and of the monumental difficulties encountered by the genius, the prophet, or the individual simply seeking escape from the stifling atmosphere that tradition and conformity can sometimes lead to.

And yet, for all the difficulties put in the way of change by the functional character of human behavior, for all the stress upon conformity and convention, there is every reason to believe that change—if only in the sense of variety, new experience, fresh observation, and release from the fetters of habit and custom-is welcome to many persons from time to time. Here, plainly, is where war can be, despite its tragedies and devastations, attractive to those of buoyant, innovative, or venturesome nature eager to find relief from boredom.

Boredom is, as we know, a problem for man; it has proved one of the byproducts of a central nervous system as highly developed as man’s is. Ritual, drink, drugs, and sex are all means for escaping the monotony of so much of human existence—especially in times before the twentieth century with its consciously built-in diversions and releases from boredom. Now, war can be a wonderful means of release of the buoyant and assertive individual from the tyranny of tradition, from what Walter Bagehot called the cake of custom, and from the gnawing, even agonizing, boredom that must always beset the energetic or creative in conditions of stationary culture. If even in our day the phenomenon of the bored individual, especially among the young, turning for release to combat and violence if not to drink or drugs, is a not uncommon one, it is easy enough to imagine the lure of war in earlier ages. One thinks of the horrors of the Civil War battlefields in America, the known horrors, but also of the unending line of the young and the bored, as well as of the patriotic, reaching from the American village to those battlefields. It was always thus, we may be certain.

War, then, is opportunity for change of existence, and passion for this change can burn strongly in a great many of us from time to time. If loss of life is a possible consequence, well, that is but one risk as against abundant and guaranteed gains. And no one lives forever! How much better, in any event, the quick and possibly heroic ending of one’s life than the inching away through tedious old age and senility. War, in sum, breaks down social walls, releases individuals from the monotony of the traditional, the tyranny of the predictable, and sets up the possibility of new experience and change.

Progress. I refer to notable advances in level or quality of human culture and to significant improvements in standards of social organization. Such advances and improvements have nothing to do with any built-in trajectory of development for a people, and they are not the consequences of genetic fusion of racial stocks, as some of our biological and physical scientists continue to believe. Spurts of progress in culture are the results of fusion of idea-systems, of mixture of values, and of the stimulus to individual creativity so often occasioned by such fusions and mixtures. It is characteristically where peoples meet, repeatedly and diversely, that we find the major settings of intellectual and cultural progress in history, as in Athens during the fifth century B.C., Rome in the first century, Paris in the twelfth century, London in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and so on. There is nothing linear or continuous about progress; it is always to be found in spurts, with definite, ascertainable conditions.

Like it or not, war has been the commonest occasion in history for these spurts and for the fusions of values and idea-systems which underlie them. I do not deny that peaceful migration, trade, and commerce have also brought peoples together, with creative results on occasion. But such is the power of conservatism in kinship and traditional society, such is the tendency of this society to confine the individual and to punish deviations from tradition, that for the most part simple migration and commerce are not enough. They are too easily contained within the structure of kinship and tradition. This is why we are so often obliged to look to the kinds of crisis generated by war alone for explanation of the signal release of individuals during spurts of cultural progress. What we have just noted about the dependence of much change in history upon war holds equally for cultural advance: the kind of advance we find in the so-called golden ages. The great fifth century B.C. in Athens began and ended in major wars, and there was not a year in between when the Athenians were not profoundly occupied by the needs of war. Yet this century was, as we know, very probably the greatest single century of creative efflorescence known to mankind. The same forces which liberated soldiers and politicians also liberated—in each instance from fettering convention and use and wont—the great artists and philosophers of the century, who were much freer to brave the hazards of novelty in their works in time of crisis than they normally would have been.

Particularly impressive is the historical record on relation of technical inventions to war. If invention is indeed mothered by necessity, then military necessity is supreme, for when else is survival so closely and so often wedded to the inventive faculty, a faculty always difficult to stir? No one acquainted with the uneven history of inventions in technology can be blind to the high correlation between periods of invention and periods of war. If even in our invention-oriented technology today in the West, war is indisputably the greatest stimulator and accelerator of technological invention, it is easy enough to imagine the role of war in earlier times.

Nor, finally, can we overlook the high correlation between war and the adoption of social measures intended to ameliorate poverty, discrimination, illiteracy, and inequity in the social order. Each of America’s great wars has been associated with adoption of such measures at home—for the short­ run purpose, no doubt, of welding the people into greater unity through greater participation in society’s distribution of its wealth but with the long-run consequences to be seen in continuing the social security systems, improvements of education, and civil rights measures begun under the crisis conditions of war. It is probable that far more of the social gains prized today in Western populations have been the direct result in the first instance of the needs of war than of the ideology of socialism or social democracy—though, as I shall note shortly, there is a close relation between war and socialism.

Community. Human nature seemingly cannot tolerate a moral and social vacuum; hence the abiding quest for community, kinship, political, military or other. One of war’s greatest functions is the sense of community it gives to those on each side. This is as true of civil population in time of war as of those linked closely in military combat. What the English philosopher, L. P. Jacks, called “the spiritual peace that war brings” is well known in history. At a stroke, the ordinary factionalisms, the gnawing conflicts and competitions of the market place, and the ideological divisions of politics become muted, even dissolved. In their place is the kind of moral and social and political community that war can bring to a population engaged upon some kind of mission or crusade. Millions of Americans and Europeans learned of this kind of community during the two world wars of this century. The effect of war can be, and has been, to endow with welcome meaning or purpose activities that all too easily come in ordinary times to seem lacking in either meaning, morality, or purpose.

Moral values untested, unchallenged by evil, can easily become stale and flat. One of the great appeals of war in the modern world especially has been its capacity to effect moral crusades on the grand scale, with the enemy seen, or made to appear, as the embodiment of evil and the challenger of all that is good. It was the French Revolution that first moralized in large terms military operations. For attack upon or defense against the nations surrounding France could and did seem suffused with a transcendent morality, one that was rooted in the goals of the French Revolution and the people. No one who has experienced the major wars of this century will have forgotten the mobilization of moral community as well as of armies in these wars. Again it is important to be reminded of the extremely unrepresentative character of America’s war in Vietnam. Better to use the position of Israel in the hostile Middle East, with all that is involved morally, psychologically, and socially, as a paradigm of war’s capacity for creating moral community.

So is community a vital aspect of the military group itself. I learned this directly in World War II. No one could have disliked war, our intervention in that war, or the intrinsic character of military life more than I did. Three years as an enlisted soldier in the Pacific did not much change these sentiments toward war. But there was hardly a moment during that period when I was not conscious of the intensity of the ties among soldiers, especially those in combat units. Formal studies of combat have documented what soldiers have known from the beginning of history, that armies tend to fight on these ties more than anything else when it comes to the actual rigors of combat. The announced objectives of a war may be of greatest interest to the people and press at home. These were of little if any interest to soldiers in World War II, so far as I could see; what mattered was the intimacy and cohesion soldiers knew in their squads, platoons, and companies. To be separated, even briefly, from one’s outfit was to know the feeling of isolation with peculiar intensity.

Our major values—love, protection, courage, honor, loyalty among them—were all nourished in the small contexts of human association originally: family, neighborhood, small community. For individuals who find the search in our large­ scale society today for these contexts and values a difficult and frustrating one, the experience of war and its community known at first hand in the squad or platoon can be a memorable one. Not a little of what the French call nostalgie de la guerre is based precisely upon this poignant sense of community gained in war and community lost in peace.

Revolution. War is by very nature revolutionary in its impact upon a people. How could it be otherwise? Its values, or rather those of the military units fighting the war, are antithetical in the extreme to the values of kinship-based society with its consecration of tradition, conventionality, and of age or seniority. Everything that makes for the breaking of the cake of custom and the weakening of social walls also makes, as we have noted, for the release of energetic, talented, and ambitious individuals, usually young. Youth rises faster in circumstances of crisis than in ordinary circumstances. So do other elements of a population: intellectual, economic, social, and ethnic. What we call the secularization of culture is a common phenomenon in war time; moral rigidities are loosened and the line between good and bad becomes ever more indistinct.

Hence the appeal of war to revolutionaries-the successful ones at any rate. It was Lenin, well before the onset of World War I, who expressed most brilliantly this appeal in his famous attack on the pacifism of certain German Marxists and in his declaration that wars are virtually made to be turned into revolutions. But the affinity between war and revolution had long been known. The Jacobins were superb at exploiting war in the name of revolution and revolution in the name of war. Marx and Engels were both keen and motivated students of war and its strategies and tactics. From Trotsky and his Red Army right down to Mao and Chou En-lai today in China the uniform of the revolutionist is the uniform of the soldier, and vice versa. Napoleon showed to the whole world what could be accomplished by troops marching under the banner of the Revolution in France.

After all, so many of the basic values of war and revolution are identical. In each there is the legitimization of violence, the effort to bring about important moral and social objectives (this is true in most modern wars, at least), the overthrow of some hated enemy order, and the setting up of a new order. Even the underlying social psychology is much alike in war and revolution: the appeal to youth and to youth’s values, the sense of honor in the soldier’s or revolutionist’s role that cannot be found in ordinary civil society, the common fascination with strategy and tactics, the emphasis upon loyalty and common devotion to cause, the sense of closeness in the ranks, and, perhaps above all, the union of absolute discipline with belief in worthiness of the cause.

There is also a common sense of communism between war and revolution, between the war state and the revolutionary order. Max Weber tells us that the idea of communism was born in the military association. “The primeval way of creating trained troops—ever ready to strike, and allowing themselves to be disciplined—was warrior-communism.” In the primitive war band, not in the primitive kinship community, lay the first and practical expression of “from each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” The first assaults in ancient Rome upon the traditional patria potestas, which was basically the authority of the corporate family over its members and all their property, came from military leaders, beginning with Gaius Marius and continuing fatefully through the Caesars, in the name of soldiers understandably resentful of taking themselves and their booty back to fall under the traditional authority of the family. Whether we think of imperial Rome as a quasi-socialism or a state capitalism, there is no question but that its far-reaching social bureaucracy, its vast system of welfare to the masses, had its beginnings in military assault on traditional society.

There is much in common between the militarist and the revolutionist in the view each takes of traditional civil society, its privileges, immunities, and conventionalized authorities. To both mentalities this society, especially in its modern capitalist form, can seem egoistic, venal, destructively competitive, often corrupt, and fettered by hierarchy unearned. Careful reading of the memoirs of great soldiers would reveal, I am sure, as much distaste for all of this as one finds in the memoirs of revolutionists. It is no wonder either that there has so often been the bond of affection between great soldiers and the masses in history, for the mass can generally take greater comfort in the absolute commands of generals than in the privilege-freighted laws of assemblies and legislatures.

No one will miss either the fact that all of the socialisms on large scale we have known in the twentieth century have been military-nationalist socialisms, their leaders taking pride in the military tunic and making incessant use of military nomenclature and symbolism in all domestic affairs. Without war none of the major socialisms of our time would have come into existence, and without the military—more accurately, militarization of society—none could have survived for very long.

Heroes. Not least among the attractions of war is its peculiar capacity to make heroes. This is much truer of the West than of most other civilizations we know about, but it is fast becoming true of the whole world, of traditionally pacific China as well as of the Western world. The almost perfect hero is the individual whose distinction has been achieved in war and revolution. Caesar, Cromwell, George Washington, Napoleon come to mind as seemingly deathless hero-names. To ask layman or historical scholar for a list of the greatest American presidents is to come up invariably with Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, war presidents all. If there were a single instance of an American president notable only for achievements in time of peace whose name appeared on the list of our greatest presidents, we might take some comfort. Coolidge, whom we are steadily discovering to have been an extraordinarily strong and dedicated president in matters of individual freedom and rights, for whom belligerence of any kind was as repugnant as ostentation, who presided over a period of great economic prosperity and equally great cultural efflorescence, will never, alas, make any list of American hero-presidents. He surely would, had he, rather than Wilson or FDR, been in the White House at the outbreak of war.

No civilization or community can do without heroes, but there are not very many spheres of activity which seem to yield mass heroes. Literature, scholarship, and science have in the past had their due proportion of great creators who attained heroic stature in society at large. To this day Shakespeare, Goethe, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and a few others can be said to have the status of heroes in our civilization. Yet the dimensions of this heroic status are narrower, I think, in popular regard than is the case with military or revolutionary heroes. Worse, in our age of mass literature, scholarship, and science, with thousands working where only a tiny handful did once, it is unlikely that individual heroes will often emerge again from the mass. We have become so inured by now to science and technology, their vast and constant budgets, their immense apparatuses of equipment and human beings, and their occupation of social space, that the difficulty will be to keep science and technology from seeming banal and anti-heroic. It is a sad but true fact that the moon­landings have produced no lasting heroes.

Neither does the economic sphere produce heroes, or at least for very long. There was a short time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the names of Rothschild, Morgan, Rockefeller, Ford had close to heroic status in Western, especially American, households. Hero-worship of the business man probably reached its peak during the Coolidge administration in America. But that ended abruptly with the Depression, and I see little evidence, even during the astonishing business prosperity and national affluence we have known since World War II that any heroism will again emerge from the ranks of business men. Between the heroic and the economic there has been fundamental opposition, it would appear, since the beginnings of human history, and however much we may relish and depend upon the contributions of the economic sphere, there is little of the hero­making in these contributions and their protagonists. For some time now the names of Rockefeller, Ford, Harriman, et al. have been primarily associated with political, eleemosynary, and diplomatic achievement, not business, as was once briefly the case with these names.

Sports offer far more in the way of the conditions of mass heroism than business, science, technology, or scholarship. Only a fool would deny that sports, especially baseball and football, have yielded us heroes in America who can be said to rival seriously our military-political heroes. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, and Bobby Jones are but a few of the pantheon; even after half a century these names possess all their old magic on the populace, young and old. So far as the black community in America is concerned, I think we have to place the names of Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Joe Louis, and Jim Brown up very close to the one or two authentic heroes produced by the civil rights struggle. All the blacks need now is a genuine military hero, and their nation is fully formed!

I am inclined to think that professional sports in America takes more of the load off the attractions of war and its attributes than any other single non-military sphere of American society. Teams are combat units and, as we know, there is a great deal in common between the sacrifices, loyalties, and sensations of close intimacy to be found on the athletic team and what has existed for many thousands of years in military groups. Anyone who hates war has to dread the day when athletics, amateur or professional, loses its present capacity for mobilizing aggressive forces on the field and for thrilling mass audiences. In much the same way that war and militarism have had, throughout history, the capacity for dissolving economic, political, and ethnic enmities at home, so do professional sports seem to have this capacity today. Whether, however, professional sports can survive its present headlong rush into commercialization remains to be seen. No one ever became a hero through publicized signing of fat contracts.

Intellectuals. As war and the political state became institutionalized in the West, there grew up a class of individuals devoted to both in much the same way that clerics have been devoted to church and religion. We can properly call this class the intellectuals of the West: Sophists of ancient Athens, lawyers in the Roman Empire, the humanists of the Renaissance, the philosophes in eighteenth-century France, and an ever-widening stream of the like-minded pouring today into the great capitals of the world. Not artists, scholars, scientists, or literary creators primarily, they have always exemplified, and do today, the passion for power that can be seen in the groups I have just mentioned; passion for power and fascination with its properties and with those political leaders who most dramatically hold power.

The affinity between war and politics that goes back, as I have suggested in this essay, to the beginnings of each in history is not to be missed in the lives and works of so many professional intellectuals. Politics is power, and war, as we know, is the extension of politics through other means. It is during time of war that the greatest opportunities lie in the centralized uses of political power and in the mobilization of politics against the kinds of social authority and privilege, against the whole hierarchy of intermediate associations in the social order, and against religious, economic, and other traditional values that the class of intellectuals in the West has almost uniformly detested. This class has always shown profound affection for patrie as against church, family, or local community, and this affection is as conspicuous today as ever it was among Sophists, Renaissance humanists, or eighteenth-century philosophes. The linkage I have cited between war and revolution in their respective histories in the West and other parts of the world is not absent in the minds of the intellectual class, in many ways the most neglected single force in Western social and cultural history.

Military intellectuals abound in Western history, especially since the Renaissance. Leonardo was as proud of his military inventions as his works of art. Machiavelli’s “Art of War” was the real beginning of his intellectual contributions to the politics of his day. Rousseau’s primary reason for repudiating Christianity in his ideal community was Christianity’s pacifist ethic. In the civil religion alone, Rousseau argued, can there take root boundless love of patrie and willingness to die for it. It was, though, the French Revolution, with its universal conscription and its identifying of war and revolution, that brought fully into being the line of those who, with great force of intellect, have ever since served state and war as medieval clerics served Church. We tend to think of the writings of such brilliant minds as Jomini and Clausewitz as concerned merely with strategy and tactics on the battlefield. No mistake could be greater. These men, and a distinguished succession of like minds since, were concerned as much with the structure of the state and with the roots of the state in the loyalties of the people as they were with armies and their operations. Only, Clausewitz suggested, through massive reconstruction of the social and economic order, the abolition of the immunities of kinship, religion, and economy, and social class, of course, and the focusing of loyalties on the political state above all other institutions could a nation achieve the unity and the strength necessary to effective warmaking. Again, in sum, the affinity between war and social revolution.

In America the two greatest war presidents of our century associated themselves with intellectuals, drawn mostly from the universities. I refer, of course, to Wilson and Roosevelt. Under both Wilson and FDR war and the image of the armed nation spread more widely among the intellectual class than might ordinarily have been expected by those who think of intellectual and the military as inherently opposed to one another. What the intellectual is most deeply opposed to, on the evidence of the past century or two, is the business class and its economic aspirations, not politics and war and bureaucracy. The alienation of the intellectual from capitalism that has been apparent since the French Revolution has, one would judge, no foreseeable ending in our civilization. And this is in many ways the single greatest spur to military society. I do not say the intellectual likes war departments and uniformed soldiers as such; and he certainly does not like the bloodshed and illth of war. But as between banality and heroism, between bourgeoisie and political excitement, and between the aimless, pedestrian, purposeless existence of traditional society and the opportunity for crisis, challenge, and great decision that lies in every great war, the choice of the intellectuals is not hard to make. Especially when there are personalities like Napoleon, Churchill, Wilson, and FDR to serve!

It should never be forgotten that America’s intervention in Vietnam became all-out military, not under General Eisenhower, who seems to have had as little liking for academic intellectuals as for war-at-a-distance, but under the single most intellectual-surrounded political leader of modern times: John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy loved intellectuals and they loved him as they have perhaps loved no other occupant of the White House. Decision in 1961 to change America’s presence in Saigon from a few hundred advisers to nearly twenty thousand armed troops under a four-star general was made, as we know, not by a president and business- or labor-advisers but by a president and advisers overwhelmingly academic in origin and leaning. That fact needs stating and restating.

Once again let us be reminded that neither Kennedy nor his intellectual advisers liked the carnage and devastation of war or even the thought of carrying American power eight thousand miles to unseat Diem. But politics loves crisis and political intellectuals love both politics and crisis. War in distant Vietnam, despite warnings of professional soldiers like Eisenhower and MacArthur, could seem no more than a problem in political administration, to be mastered by application of the same principles that went into the production of automobiles in Detroit or baccalaureates at Harvard. As I have noted, the line is exceedingly thin between political intellectual and military intellectual, and it has been since at least the Renaissance. The Kennedy gamble might have won, and if it had, John F. Kennedy, despite a generally mediocre record in office, would surely have gone down as one of our great presidents. As it is, one cannot help noting (albeit almost unbelievingly} that far more people today would rank Kennedy a great president than, say, Coolidge. For better or worse, we live in an age in which the intellectual class is powerful, and while the great majority of its members may rally themselves to oppose so stupid and tragic a war as that in Vietnam, it would be folly to overlook the affinity between war and intellectuals that has existed in the West for a long time now.

V

“War,” wrote Randolph Bourne, “is the health of the state.” Indeed it is. Everywhere the values, symbols, allegiances, and structures of power built into the state as an institution have prospered through the impacts of war and its unique capacity for effecting change, progress, community, revolution, and overall release from boredom and banality in populations traditionally constituted. The ancient conflict between patriarch and warrior-chief, between the values of war and those of peace, and between the principles of kinship and those of the military is as real today as in the most ancient times. Given the existence of mass society in our era, the combination of centralized power and atomized populations, the shallowness of local and occupational roots, and the loss of community in the traditional spheres of kinship, locality, and religion, the lure of war would appear to be potentially great. Neither the anarchist dream of society, drawn basically from the kinship-ideal and formed of local, personal, and voluntary association, nor the traditionalist dream of society formed of family, neighborhood, religion, and locality shows much likelihood of realization in our age of great military-political powers and saturation with the values produced by such powers.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading