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Militarism Marches On

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

History of Militarism: Romance and Realities of a Profession. By Alfred Vagts. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $4.75.

The most stimulating hypothesis in Dr. Alfred Vagts’s thick and astringent “History of Militarism” is his implicit theory of the fusion and eventual identification of the ruling and military classes. He holds that when you have an oligarchy and a standing army, your young aristocrats tend to become officers and your successful soldiers seep into the aristocracy, that with the passage of time the two elements become synthesized, and that military institutions and ways come to dominate civilian life. Because of this tendency militarism has persisted in the face of changing governmental forms and has survived the evolutionary processes of the art of war.

That such an hypothesis can be valid is a matter to be recognized by all of us in the light of everyday knowledge. It is, however, obviously elastic and can be stretched to a remarkable extent. There are several places in his book where Dr. Vagts forgets his theory’s modulus and his own sense of humor. In spite of his disclaimers, he is eager to find the militarist in the soldier. The petulance, stupidity, or personal ambition of many a general easily becomes transmuted in his pages into militarism. And in a transparent desire to discern at least some militarism in the United States, he pillories what was probably the soundest and most far-reaching of General Pershing’s World War decisions—his recognition that American soldiers would fight successfully only in an American army.

But in spite of an occasional scornful and sweeping commitment to the contrary, I do not believe that Dr. Vagts really thinks that your family is infected with the virus of militarism if you had a grandfather and he served under Lee, or if your daughter marries a second lieutenant. As a convinced and professional liberal, Dr. Vagts reserves the weight of his condemnation for the world’s totalitarian states. Here, certainly, conditions favor the application of his theory. External enemies seem to be a necessity for the establishment and maintenance of authoritarian rule. Initially these foes can be vague, almost undefined; but there ensues inevitably a period of delimitation and definition, and sooner or later, in place of enemies there emerges the enemy of the state. In this process the importance of the fighting forces grows apace, and eventually military considerations dominate statecraft, economy, and social institutions. Again, it must be recognized that while totalitarian states seem to come into being under dictators, the dictator himself is essentially the leader of a party or, if you will, a gang. This party is really a new ruling class, unsure of itself and at heart appalled at its responsibilities. The solidity, cohesion, and conservatism of the armed forces have an irresistible appeal to the new authoritarian hierarchy; it seeks not merely control of the army and navy but also an identification with the fighting services and with their interests.

I think, however, that I can phrase the totalitarians’ rebuttal of this charge. They will point out that they come to power through propaganda, not through force, and that during the process the military are usually indifferent, sometimes latently hostile toward them. For this much they can quote chapter and verse from Dr. Vagts’s History. “We admit,” they will go on to say, “that there is danger of militarism in our programs. But what about the large number of less complex countries in both hemispheres which lapsed into out-and-out military dictatorships subsequent to the World War? We may erect a facade of militarism on our totalitarianism, but are we not better than the men who are placing a facade of totalitarianism on their fundamental militarism? Militarism is with us a tendency; with these others it is a law of existence. They, not we, are the ones you should attack.”

But such an argument is at best a plea in extenuation. The fact remains that Dr. Vagts’s formula, derived from the years, seems to be only too painfully true today. It is all so apt that you must regret that he has refrained from plumbing the future. Still, his reticence is understandable. In the last analysis, he has portrayed, not the course of events, but the survival of a state of mind. He has been forced to derive his material not so much from records of happenings as from statements of what men have thought, often from what others have thought they thought. That is task enough; it is a little presumptuous to suggest that he add to his burdens the weighty mantle of a seer.


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