The Historic Moment

by John McMurtry, Department of Philosophy, University of Guelph, Ontario

The military system has always existed to impose one party’s will on another’s by threat or acts of collective homicide, and always to enforce claims over social wealth of some kind. It has been so deep a pattern of determining the geography of the human species, its habitat and its forms of life that it has been assumed as unavoidable across millenia — even by such revolutionary and anti-conventionalist thinkers as Karl Marx or, at the other end of the historical-cultural spectrum, Lao Tzu. But we now live in an historic moment with no precedent. A world empire, the USSR, has unilaterally initiated a reverse-field policy of demilitarizing state relations of power, however long its geo-political context may permit it to persist. Meanwhile, in the remainder of the industrialized world, the military program for conflict resolution seems less and less believed in by those not in the military command. An indication of this historic change of attitude is to be found in Western public opinion polls over the last decade. In the United States where threat of armed attack has long been a cornerstone of national culture, those supporting national armament reduction increased from 7% in January 1981 to 74% in January 1990.1 On the other side of the now dismantled iron curtain, the demilitarization of Central Europe has been declared as state policy by the governments of both Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and there have been continuous major unilateral reductions by the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in tanks, weapons developments and nuclear testing since the end of 1988, without any clear limit to the long-term extent of this world-block disarmament project.

In complement to this increasingly public rejection of social death-threat as a test of rightness in international disputes, has emerged an increasingly generalizable correlation between demilitarized economy and economic success. This has shown itself most dramatically in the increasing productive supremacy of the German and Japanese economies, which were benignly stripped of their militaries by unconditional defeat in the Second World War. The same lesson has been conversely revealed in the Soviet Union’s economically ruinous armaments competition with the United States since 1945, which itself has suffered a precipitous decline in its relative productive position in the world in correspondence to its devotion of social resources to military buildup.2

A long-term historical pattern is unfolding. Armed force has been traditionally exalted in the world’s major cultures as the gods’, Yahweh’s, Isanagi’s, Allah’s or the Christ’s way of demonstrating collective virtue. But now national self-proving by capacity to obliterate other societies seems ever more widely repudiated. Are we now at the end of the second millenium on the verge of overcoming the problem of war itself? According to transcontinental statesman and political theorist Milovan Djilas: ‘We are now witnessing the total absence of war, the most dramatic movement in the history of mankind.3

Reality is less congenial. An arresting symptom of the military system’s continued hold on the structure of civilization is that despite the dramatic public turn of public opinion towards national armaments reduction in the United States, and despite the cumulative commitment of its former world adversary over several years to no longer conduct external affairs by force of arms, the United States government proposed in its first budget after the collapse of Warsaw Pact regimes in East Europe to increase its military spending to over $300,000,000,000 a year, almost $1,000,000,000 dollars a day. At the same time, under fact-evasive proclamations of ‘peace dividends’ and ’50% cuts’ it proposed to introduce new short-range 400 and 1000 kilometer nuclear weapons to strike its increasingly disarmed Soviet foe, demanded that its former enemy in East Germany become not neutral but a subordinate military ally, and continued to conceive armaments reductions as a means whereby to achieve armaments modernization. (In the words of Secretary of State James Baker, ‘Our force modernization and arms control efforts reinforce each other’.) In all this, the US was loyally supported by the rest of the industrialized West. The idea of an autonomous military program with little relation to the changing realities of the world did not arise. Elsewhere, military regimes and rebel forces long armed and financed by the US in the third world on the grounds of turning back a globally advancing communist adversary, continued to be armed and financed with or without the existence of the ‘Soviet menace’ by which this military assistance had always been justified. In South and Central America, the Middle East and East and Southeast Asia, these forces, and others, continued to employ their increasingly high-tech weapons against unarmed peoples with the rate of genocides, ethnocides and extinctions of tribal and ethnic groups persisting without notable abatement. In this way, the military monster remained very much alive despite claims of a ‘total absence of war’, with in fact a vastly escalated relative power of its ascendant Western command to impose its will on whoever might resist it. There are now, ironically with ‘the end of the Cold War’, fewer deterrents than before on global armed force capacities to terrorize people in the third-world places where people have suffered the most from military oppression since World War II.

For it is surely a general fact worth our notice that the world’s most powerful and wealthy military bloc, which is controlled by perhaps a fraction of one per cent of the globe’s population, has continued to develop its capacities of violence, while the rest of the world’s peoples who might oppose its cumulative demands for natural resources, interest payments, markets and obedient labour-power have been ever more relatively disempowered. The academy’s debates on equality, welfare and theories of choice do not appear to apply to such a situation. One looks in vain for any analysis that does. Even at the most general level of analysis of the military institution, its logic and its structure of rule, we find a learned culture of silence. Since the military establishments of countries can also direct their capacities to organize terror against their own populations and indeed are now widely so deployed across the world,4 it may be unwise to be sanguine about the current windfall of world military supremacy to Western powers remaining ‘ours’. It could be deployed against us too if we happen by opposition to be identified as ‘enemies’ by those in command of allied armed forces. The short of it is that dramatically new and unprecedented openings towards world peace and disarmament just prior to 2000 — the unilateral breaking of the imperial sword by one superpower, the great movement towards demilitarization in Europe, the escalating public preference for arms reductions reaching even to the United States — have also dialectically loosed new and unprecedented possibilities of military oppression. For as the superpower conflict declines, the freedom of maneuver of one superpower has been enhanced. For example, while the Soviet Union, whose xpansionist policies of armed force’ have been u ed to justify United States military interventions in Central America, was dramatically reducing its a med force personnel outside its borders, military forces armed and financed by the United States were a the same time escalating their killings of unarmed civilians in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Columbia. Between October and November of 1989 in El Salvador, for example, civili n assassinations by US-supported security forces increased from 83 to 1767.5 Within the next montiji, Panama was invaded by US forces in violation of reiona1 and international law, and US-sponsored military interventions persisted or escalated in Afghanistan and Kampuchea where Soviet or Soviet-allied troops had completed promised withdrawals. There is an unseen pattern to all this. The compulsions of the military program we conceptualize as defence operate independently of external threat, and are apt to become more dangerous as the enemy they are said to defend us against ceases to exist.

1 New York Times and CBS News poll, reported by The Toronto Star, January 30, 1990, p. 114. ^

2 John Kenneth Galbraith has pointed out that the research and development budget of the US Department of Defense ($40 billion a year) and of the defence-related Department of Energy and National Aeronautics and Space Administration ($5 billion a year) approximately trebles all other US research and development expenditures ($15 billion a year). (These figures were given in a speech at the University of Guelph, Canada, and reported in The Globe and Mail Report on Business, April 14, 1990, B2). Seymour Melman and Lloyd J. Dumas have reported that ‘from 1947 to 1989, the US has diverted to military purposes resources whose value exceeded the fixed reproducible, tangible wealth of the entire civilian economy’. . They also report that ‘every year since 1951, the new capital made available to the Defense Department has exceeded the combined net profits of all US corporations’ (p. 523). the US’s relative decline as an economic power, for example from being the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation from 1980 to 1987, is attributed to this military spending, a pattern of decline that has been plotted as well in Paul Kennedy’s well-known comparative study, _The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1988). ^

3 Milovan Djilas, ‘A New Form of Dictatorship: An Interview’, Telos, No. 80 (Summer 1989), 126. ^

4 In 1988, there were 111 military conflicts in the world, but less than 10 per cent were fights between states. 99 of the 111 were by state armed forces against real or imagined rebels, half against indigenous peoples. (Peter Wallensteen, ed., States in Armed Conflict 1988, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Report No. 30, July 1989). State militaries have great resources to devote to such wars, currently more than the total income of half the world’s population (Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures (Washington, D.C.: World Priorities, 1989). ^

5 The Human Rights Commission of El Salvador, Vol. 6: No. 1 (February 1990) 4-5. ^

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