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Demilitarizing the Military

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The prevailing discourse on defense and national security affairs in this country is, and long has been, dominated by the bean counters among us. They are the ones who think and talk almost exclusively in terms of budgets, programs, and weapon systems; who speak in tongues about “resetting” and “rebalancing” to demonstrate how au courant they are; who ignore or assume away more fundamental questions about military purpose, function, and use. Strategically minded visionaries, in contrast, few in number to begin with, are a critically endangered species who have little or no voice.

It is well past time we gave voice to such visionaries, where they can be found, lest we squander what, arguably, is a unique historical opportunity to reengineer America’s defense posture and transform its approach to national security affairs. Now, as never before in recent memory, we must give serious thought to reconceptualizing what the military is and what purposes it serves; redefining what the military properly does and how it properly ought to operate; reorienting the military from what it has been and done historically to what it ought to be and do in a future that needn’t be an unimaginative, counterproductive repetition of the past; reacculturating those, in uniform and out, who either know little to nothing about the military or profess to be authorities possessed of unassailable truth; and reorganizing in ways that enable dealing with circumstances and conditions as they are, not as we want them to be for bureaucratic and political reasons.

Facing Anew What Confronts Us

The place to begin is to engage in serious self-reflection and self-realization about ourselves and the governing strategic environment.

Ours is a truly postmodern age characterized by pervasive irony and the attendant need for thoroughgoing redefinition and reconceptualization on many fronts. Irony suffuses the world we face: old strengths have become new weaknesses; old advantages constitute new disadvantages; old indicators of success represent new indicators of failure; old standards of peace now constitute new forms and boundaries of war; old enemies are now new allies (and vice versa); old measures of plenty are new measures of scarcity. Definitionally, terms and concepts long considered sacrosanct and immutable now demand fundamental reconsideration – security, war, peace, aggression, intervention, sovereignty, power, victory, even the classical Principles of War, among them.

Thanks to telecommunications and transportation technologies, the dramatically shrunken planet we inhabit has become a “global battlefield” of sorts marked by an almost total convergence of the tactical and strategic domains of human endeavor. There is no action, condition, or circumstance, in other words, however seemingly obscure, however seemingly remote, that is without almost instantaneous strategic impact or consequence at many spatial and temporal removes from its point of occurrence. The tactical is the strategic, and strategic thinking therefore comes at a high premium.

The military, let us admit, is the driving force behind global militarism. The motives for militarism, though sometimes justifiable (protection and deterrence, for example), more often are far less salutary (pride, habit, copy-catting, muscle-flexing, manly manliness). Moreover, the many impediments to demilitarization, though perhaps a function of bona fide military necessity, more often reflect strategic ignorance, paradigmatic paralysis, political cowardice, and civic disinterest.  That said, the military – as an institution, as a culture, as an element and an instrument of power, as an interest group – isn’t in itself synonymous with militarism. In fact, considering the traditional imagery it projects – as a coercive instrument for managing violence – the military is the indispensable vehicle for eventually achieving demilitarization. Hold that thought: The military is the indispensable vehicle for eventually achieving demilitarization.

Contrary to the self-serving, self-deceiving rhetoric of many over the past two-plus decades, we can’t lay legitimate claim to anything approximating a true “revolution in military affairs” today. Rather are we on the cusp of a grand evolution of warfare that has taken us from an extended historical period of Hot War, dating to antiquity, in which the use of force was central to the conduct of statecraft; to the relatively compressed period of the Cold War, in which, notwithstanding major lapses in Korea and Vietnam, the defining characteristic was the non-use of force against a major, mirror-image adversary; to the current period of New War, in which non-military power and non-traditional uses of the military offer the most promise for success but must struggle for legitimacy against the forces of tradition and stagnation. This is a period that carries with it an imperative to redefine what militaries properly do. The logical extension of this evolutionary trajectory will be a heretofore unimagined future state of No War, in which militaries as we have traditionally known them will become irrelevant and obsolete, a period when the name of the game will be demilitarizing militaries, as counterintuitive as that notion may seem. Our ability to reach such a grand strategic end-state will depend in overriding measure on our willingness to embrace its desirability and feasibility.

The space we occupy in the overall landscape of war should be a matter of more than passing note. On the continuum that separates wars of necessity from wars of choice, all our experience since World War II (Korea being the lone possible exception) has placed us clearly and unequivocally at the latter end of the continuum. On the continuum that separates total war from what we might characterize as stable peace, we have straddled a midpoint between limited war (Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan) and “violent peace” (Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya). The space we occupy in this landscape has two central distinguishing features. The first is asymmetry (the undeviating preference of the adversaries we face to engage in strategic jujutsu by creating imbalances in capabilities, strategy, tactics, and culture to thereby turn our strengths into weaknesses and their weaknesses into strengths). The second, more significantly, is unwinnability. Douglas MacArthur famously said, “There is no substitute for victory.” Today there is no possibility of victory.

We are totally, if cluelessly, captive of a deeply ingrained, reflexive, distinctly American way of war that we persist in practicing, regardless of circumstance, to impose what we want – organizationally, doctrinally, and technologically – on what we get – situationally, geographically, and culturally. Its defining characteristics are two: killing people and breaking things. Period. But it is regularly abetted by our tendencies to talk necessity and urgency, but to practice choice and expediency; to beat up on little guys and avoid big guys; to talk self-defense, but practice aggression; to talk strategic, but practice the political and tactical; to exercise executive prerogative whenever possible, while involving Congress and the public only when necessary; to practice unilateralism whenever possible and multilateralism only when necessary (and then only as a convenient means, not an essential end).

Our prevailing frame of intellectual reference, finally – and the attendant biases that both reflect and inhibit our thinking (or non-thinking) – is one in which defense dominates security, military power dominates non-military power, wars of choice dominate wars of necessity (in reality, though not in rhetoric), warfighting dominates war prevention and peacemaking, tactics dominates strategy, unilateralism dominates multilateralism, conventional capabilities dominate unconventional capabilities, high-intensity solutions dominate low-intensity solutions, technology dominates doctrine and force structure, high-technology dominates appropriate technology, means dominate ends, and logistics dominates operations.

Overcoming Self-Imposed Misconception and Untruth

It isn’t enough, though, simply to acknowledge the foregoing without, at the same time, fully facing up to the many deep-seated misconceptions and canonical untruths that have thus far escaped our assiduous scrutiny and reflection.

Defense isn’t equivalent to, nor even necessarily the heart and soul of, security. Providing for the common defense is merely one of the precepts – the strategic aims – enumerated in America’s security credo, the Preamble to the Constitution. We dare not assume, therefore, that providing for defense ipso facto produces security. Rather, where providing for defense is purchased at the expense of these other aims – where it creates or feeds injustice, foments civil unrest, diminishes the general welfare, infringes on civil liberties, or aggravates tensions, instability, and militarism, for example – it produces insecurity in place of security.

We assume at our peril that the divinely ordained, supernal purpose of the military is to prepare for and wage war. Rather should we embrace the notion that the purpose of the military is – or ought to be – to secure and preserve peace, a purpose that calls for a military distinctly different than one designed for war.

Preparing for and waging war, in fact, can no longer – if ever it could – produce true peace. Warmaking is capable only of producing more war, while only peacemaking and peacekeeping can produce bona fide enduring peace – the absence of violence as a preferred method for dispute resolution, plus the presence of justice as a prevailing condition (that feeds propensities for violence).

The military’s proper role must not, by any means, be thought of merely as serving the state or the regime in power. Rather must we now acknowledge that the military exists to serve the higher purposes of society and even humanity.

The politically inspired rhetoric about having a strong military as a sine qua non is trite, simplistic, and counterproductive. What we ought to want is a capable military – one that can successfully accomplish whatever it is called upon to do and, more to the point, whatever it ought to be called upon to do. Power is a reflection of both the capabilities at one’s disposal and the will to employ those capabilities. During the Cold War, the accretion of capabilities for the purpose of tacit threatmaking – against a foe more like us than unlike us – was the name of the game. Today, successful performance in the interest of galvanizing and sustaining public will – against foes more unlike us than like us – is the name of the game.

The preferred measure of performance for judging the military is not mere military effectiveness – acting as an instrument of force, in other words, for managing violence on behalf of the state. Rather, we ought to want a military that is strategically effective – one capable of being a bona fide instrument of power (distinguishing it from raw force) for serving the larger aims of society and humanity.

Military effectiveness doesn’t, ipso facto, produce strategic effectiveness. Military effectiveness, where it exists, actually may produce strategic ineffectiveness: where the former is disproportionately destructive, for example, or indiscriminately lethal, or exorbitantly expensive, or overly provocative and escalatory, or unduly consumptive, or environmentally damaging, or the basis for a military that is alienated from society.

We delude ourselves if we assume that the U.S. military today is militarily effective – and, therefore by extension, strategically effective. Rather, there is ample evidence to suggest that the U.S. military is, arguably perhaps, militarily ineffective – it doesn’t win wars; it certainly can’t secure peace – and, inarguably, strategically ineffective, if not strategically dysfunctional, precisely because it manifests all the aforementioned attributes.

A warfighting machine isn’t what the military intrinsically is or inevitably must be. Rather would we do well to consider redefining the military in markedly different terms: as a self-contained, self-sufficient, full-service enterprise capable of being projected over long distances and sustained for long periods of time to deal successfully with a full range of complex emergencies on their own terms. Such a military would, of necessity, take on a completely different complexion, be required to accomplish a much more robust array of tasks, project significantly different imagery, and thereby fundamentally redefine what militaries are for.

There is nothing but tradition and parochialism to support the unquestioned premise that the organic, canonical mission of the military necessarily must be warfighting. Let us seriously ask, rather, whether we would not be far better served by a military whose primary missions are peacekeeping, nation building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response. These are the missions that would produce a strategically effective military capable of responding to strategic imperatives for targeted causation management (dealing with underlying causes, not momentary symptoms), institutionalized anticipatory response (acting on conditions and circumstances before they mutate out of control), appropriate situational tailoring (dealing with situations on their own terms rather than on our terms), and comprehensive operational integration (achieving unity of effort and action in capabilities and practices).

Finally, let us dare not assume that the military we have is the one we need. The military we have, in fact, is arguably opposite in virtually every respect to the one we need for purposes of strategic effectiveness. The one we have is decidedly heavy, destructive, lethal, and blunt. The one we need should be light (and highly mobile, and readily transportable), constructive, predominantly non-lethal (thereby emphasizing disabling, disrupting, and neutralizing, rather than destroying), and precise (free from unwanted collateral effects). The one we have is combat-oriented, technology-dominant, and predominantly general purpose. The one we need should be noncombat-oriented (with support arms  taking the lead), manpower-dominant (for on-the-ground face-to-face interaction), and highly tailored (to fit geographical and cultural demands). The one we have is built entirely around being unilaterally capable (and, thereby, self-sufficient). The one we need should be multilaterally capable (highly interdependent and interoperable, even to the extent of relinquishing selected unilateral capabilities and prerogatives in the interest of multilateral unity and permanence). The one we have, whether we want it or not, whether we believe it or not, is highly provocative and escalatory. The one we need should be reassuring and deescalatory. The one we have is expensive – gluttonously so – and therefore unsustainable. The one we need should be affordable vis-à-vis other recognized strategic priorities that are claimants for strategic resources (education, healthcare, and infrastructure, for example) and, of course, sustainable in the sense of producing what we might come to call sustainable security.

For all of us, but especially for those who correctly advocate a military posture based on strategic rather than budgetary imperatives, it is important to realize that strategy isn’t just about marrying ends and means. It is, very importantly, about the effective exercise of power and, no less, the effective management of perceptions. Together, these two dimensions of strategy suggest that we give due attention to the intrinsic importance of two forms of national power that appear esoteric on their face – ideational power and inspirational power – but that actually offer payoffs of inestimable value. For a country that persists in proclaiming itself the world’s only superpower, the United States bears an obligation to lead by the strength of its ideas and the example it sets. The world should expect, and we ourselves should accept, nothing less.

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Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views he expresses are his own.

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