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“A parade like the one in France”: A Reflection on Militarism Today

“A parade like the one in France”: A Reflection on Militarism Today
PARIS - American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines lead the annual Bastille Day military parade down the Champs-Elysees in Paris, July 14, 2017. Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro

According to The Washington Post, US President Donald Trump has asked the Department of Defense to plan for a military parade later this year. The date is yet to be set, but it is likely to be either July 4 or Veterans Day on November 11. The place would be Pennsylvania Avenue, of course — “America’s Main Street” — which just happens to be the location of Trump International Hotel.

The president specifically wants “a parade like the one in France,” meaning the Bastille Day event he attended with first lady Melania Trump last July. Touted as the largest European military parade, the Bastille Day parade is at once a cultural pageant and a showcase for the military industry — two items that have long excited Trump, but apparently nobody else. DC officials, veterans, and military parade experts have all derided the idea.

On one level, the story is utterly unsurprising. One regular political commentator in The Post called it “Trump’s biggest troll yet.” On a more fundamental level, however, it is an opportunity to think about the role of militarism in politics and society, and not just in the US.

Writing in the very same Post a month after Trump’s inauguration, Cambridge historian Stephen Wertheim called the new president a “militarist.” Wertheim helpfully defined militarism as “the excessive use and veneration of force for political ends, or even for its own sake, extending at times to full military control of the state,” while correctly noting that this was as American as apple pie.

Certainly, the word itself is not as it used to be. A quick perusal of Google Books Ngram Viewer puts it as entering the vernacular sometime in the nineteenth century, first in Spanish, then in French, Italian and Russian, then in English and German, with the usage peaking sometime during and after World War II in each case save for Russian where the zenith appears to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, in some other languages, such as Hebrew, the word appears to have an entirely different trajectory.

Among scholars, militarism appears to have seen better days, too. A case in point is Critical Security Studies (CSS), an inter-disciplinary subfield that actually specializes in the study of “the excessive use and veneration of force for political ends”? In an article published in the new special issue of Security Dialogue on militarism edited by Anna Stravianakis and Maria Stern, Bryan Mabee and I analyzed the content of CSS scholarship in textbooks and journals — Security Dialogue included — and found little recent research on the subject. Rather than focusing directly on the continued relevance of the military as a key institution of power, the theoretical and analytical focus of CSS has tended to concern itself with other issues.

Our main argument in this article is that scholars would benefit from reading up on militarism in the context of historical sociology. There, the conceptual debate revolves around two basic questions:  how fundamental is militarism to political and social life? And how do we situate our conceptualizations of militarism in historical context? We think that this perspective can illuminate not only different manifestations of militarism today, but also their historical trajectories, and their inter-relationships. To that end, we identify four ideal types of militarism.

Nation-statist militarism is the default (“normal”) setting for militarism in international and global life, characterized by some form of civilian control over the armed forces and a state-led economic and social mobilization of “destructive” forces. Trump’s constant ballyhooing of martial values is an example.

Civil society militarism still derives from a pronounced statism, but thrives on deliberately blurred lines between soldiers and civilians: it is the use of organized military violence in pursuit of social goals that is “state-supported, but not state-led.” For example, the Mexico–United States border control ecology, especially in the current Trump era, cannot be understood without an analysis of the so-called vigilante groups who use military hardware and tactics (drones and small planes engaged in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations), and military culture (camouflage outfits, command structure) to “monitor the border.” The ongoing “refugee crisis” (a.k.a. the humanitarian crisis or the crisis of being a refugee) in Europe has witnessed similar developments, as have assorted “anti-crime,” “counterterrorism,” and “counterinsurgency” operations in the contemporary Philippines, the Sahel, or South Asia.

Neoliberal militarism refers to the configuration of social forces and social relations in which military mobilization is achieved at once through the framework of socioeconomic liberalization and through the formal division between (professional) soldiers and civilians. The relevant developments are not simply the marketization of defence procurement and of personnel management, but also the rise of private military actors, the privatization and corporatization of military logistics, and the “streamlining” (Trump’s word) of transactions in the international arms market. The neoliberal imagination of freedom and fluidity are key to all of these developments. Russian activities in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are arguably predicated on the strategy of expanding the number of clients keen to be more closely integrated in a global military-industrial complex centred on Moscow.

Exceptionalist militarism, our last ideal type, is one that CSS scholars will in fact immediately recognize as a key facet of securitization. This militarism arises in situations when “normal” politics is suspended for “security” reasons. To return to the Trump example one last time, recall his notorious “Muslim ban” on 27 January 2017. The US president signed this executive order during the swearing-in ceremony for the new defence secretary, James Mattis, at the Pentagon, in a press room adorned with military symbols (including an oversized Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military decoration), and alongside an order to increase military spending.

Indeed, not only is it important to think about militarism, but also to continue to diversify how we look at it in the context of much larger dynamics of power.

The article is based on a post published at Security Dialogue Author’s Blog on 5 February 2018.

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