Is Military Capability a Component of Security?

By Anatol Rapoport | 1985-09-01 12:00:00

THERE HAVE BEEN SHARP differences of opinion expressed here by people of good will who share a common ground. The participants, who certainly desire to advance the cause of peace, seem to share an assumption -- that security includes a military component. Opinions differ as to what type of military component best enhances security, but everyone agrees that "defence" is the only justifiable rationale for military capability.

If we do not question the basic usefulness of military capability for defence, then all the other arguments we have heard about "security" make some sense: On this common ground, a constructive debate is possible, within which expertise counts. For instance, agreements can be reached as to what constitutes "parity" through talk about weapons technologies, logistics, and the like. Appeals can be made to objective criteria. Calculations can be checked. These are the ingredients of a constructive debate.

In general, where both good will and common ground exist, debate can be constructive. But in this case, I must question where this constructive debate leads. I reject the assumption that military cap ability is a necessary component of security today. On the contrary, I submit that the growth of military capabilities is the chief source of insecurity. In fact, since World War II, all the ministries of war have become ministries of defence. Unfortunately, military capability remains associated with security in the minds of most people because of images carried over from days when they bore some relationship to reality. For example, security may have been enhanced by military capability in the system of sovereign European states that emerged at the close of the Thirty Years' War - at least if by "security" we mean the "national interests" of those states.

Actually, "national interests" were nothing more than the ambitions of princes. Some of their ambitions were grandiose (e.g. strivings for glory and conquest) and some were modest (e.g. securing what was held), but to attain all of them, a military establishment was vital. The concerns of ordinary people -- to protect self and loved ones from the elements, from hunger, disease, and indignities -- were not involved. International politics turned on dynastic considerations, control of territory and alliances -- none of which related to the daily lives of ordinary people.

To be sure, with the rise of patriotism and nationalism in the nineteenth century, the concept of "national interest" was "democratized." Broad publics came to identify with the ambitions of their ruling élites. And, although historical experience showed otherwise, it was possible to believe that a war could be fought for something that made sense to a sizeable part of the nation states' populations.

This belief reached the zenith of credibility in World War II, when it appeared that only armed might could check the onslaught of states bent on enslaving large portions of humanity. That experience deepened in mass consciousness the belief that armed might is essential to "defence" and "security." The idea persists, though it is no longer anchored in reality.

None of the old aims are worth a war fought with modern weapons of total destruction: not conquest of territory, not trade monopolies, not the imposition of an ideology, not the enslavement of a population. The material costs of modern war vastly exceed any possible material benefits. Even ideological benefits are not possible: Since the Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, no war has successfully imposed any ideology (e.g. a religion).

But these arguments are superfluous; the war planners know and would even admit all this. Only one rationale for war potential remains: defence. But defence against what? Standard answer: defence against an attack that would likely befall a country that lacked military power.

But an attack to what end? In the days when conquest of territory meant acquiring docile labor power, this aim was understandable. Does it make sense today? One hears of the "takeover," say, of Western Europe by the Soviet Union. Just what specifically would such a "takeover" entail? I am not asking for a glib answer, but for a credible scenario of concrete operations, backed by practical logistics. How would countries "taken over" be governed? And what would be the advantage of governing them with all the problems that subjugation entails-as compared with cooperation in mutual trade, cultural exchange, and the like? Why does not the United States "take over" Canada or, for that matter, Mexico? It can be argued, of course, that the United States already dominates Canada economically. But what would a large military capability avail Canada in resisting this sort of domination?

None of the hypothetical aims of an offensive war bear scrutiny today. Such aims are invoked for one purpose only-to provide a rationale for military establishments, to make military and geopolitical expertise relevant. A "defensive" war is explained by saying that the military capability of the adversary is a "threat." Why and under what circumstances the adversary would use that capability remains vague. In the thinking that dominates international politics, that the adversary intends to use military cap ability has always been axiomatic. It remains axiomatic.

The rationale of military preparedness makes sense only in the sphere of "pure" military thinking. That is the complex of concepts, assumptions, technical expertise, and strategic calculations that is generated by the theory and practice of war itself, quite unrelated to anything outside that realm.

In military thought, an adversary -- real or hypothetical -- is a given. It is not necessary to establish that he is indeed an adversary, much less why he is an adversary, any more than it is necessary to raise such questions in the theory and practice of chess. In complex, civilized societies, certain work imperatives are divorced from all other aspects of life. There is plenty to occupy people's attention, to use their energy, and to nurture their self-esteem within these imperatives. Things are not different in the world of defence. This world includes, of course, not only people in uniform, but also the entire infrastructure of science and technology-of institutes, enterprises, educational institutions, and so on-where activities converge on the final product, the modern war machine.

Much has been said about the profit motive as a factor in this world. It does probably count in societies where profit is basic to social activities, but its existence is not crucial. In both capitalist and socialist modern societies, professional competence is a powerful motivation, for both ambitious and selflessly dedicated practitioners. Experts seem unable to reevaluate their work on the modern war machine if it would devalue their expertise. Instead, they share persistent delusions about the centrality of war and the technical expertise needed to wage it.

In human affairs, many delusions are integral parts of social reality. Thus it is not unrealistic to say that the United States and the Soviet Union are adversaries. They are, but only because the decision makers and the defence professionals on both sides take it for granted and act accordingly. When two paranoiacs confront each other, both are realists.

One reason why these perceptions persist is that they provide the raison d'être for sophisticated expertise. This expertise is real enough. It stems from accumulated experience with battles and campaigns, logistics and geopolitics, knowledge of conditions under which one or the other side is likely to have an "advantage" and ways of counteracting it, as well as ways of seeing through deceptions, and so on. Expertise is driven to ever higher levels of sophistication.

These considerations of sophisticated experts comprise the whole content of arms control negotiations. People of good will hope to eliminate the deception routinely practiced when adversarial experts negotiate, but until such a Utopia is attained, "security" will still be defined within the paradigm of military thought. Its

axiom is that neither the intentions nor the preferences, but the capabilities of the adversary should be taken into account when designing a system of security. "Parity" will still be regarded as a synonym of "fairness" and elaborate pro visions will be made to preserve it. Experts will still count divisions and compare calibers of guns, assuming that an "advantage" of one side over the other will inevitably induce the stronger side to attack.

This military conclusion has diffused into political thought and dominates international affairs. The key words in discussions of security -- such as "deterrence," "defence," "stability" -- are used with military meanings. Hut when we shift our attention to nonmilitary spheres of life, these words have no such meanings. Defence? Whom do military establishments defend? In antiquity, when pillage was an attractive war aim, armies defended the populations of their countries from marauders. The same was true in World War II, when Germany went on a murderous rampage. But throughout most of the modern era, this was seldom so.

Military defence has only one meaning. A defence establishment is concerned with defending itself-that is, its own potential in comparison to other defence establishments. Nowhere except in the absurd projects of civil defence against nuclear attack is there any mention of defending populations. Instead, the word "defence" has become a public relations ploy. It has become difficult to sell war; this is why ministries of war have become ministries of defence.

Security? Whose security are we talking about? If increased destructive potential enhances security, one must conclude that people are more secure today than thirty years ago. Are they?

Stability? The word breathes reassurance. The stability of a system depends on negative feedbacks, which counteract disturbances by generating forces opposing the disturbances. But attempts to "restore balance" in an arms race amount to positive feedbacks: They magnify disturbances. Still, each escalation of the arms race is represented as a step toward insuring stability.

Deterrence? Deterrence is based on the supposition that the adversary is rational (i.e. will refrain from attack for fear of retaliation) but that one's own side is not rational (i.e. is determined to retaliate even in a situation where retaliation is useless except as a futile outburst of rage).

Geopolitics has always been insulated from ordinary human lives, but today the insulation is total. In his book, Weapons and Hope, Freeman Dyson addresses this insulation and tried to show how contact might be re-established. He distinguishes between warriors and victims. The warriors are those who live in the world of weapons, strategies, and geopolitics. The victims are everyone else. His aim is to create a dialogue between the two worlds.

While I applaud Dyson's efforts to anchor the geopolitics in a more concrete and human reality, I am at a loss to see how such a dialogue can begin if we include only warriors and victims. I fail to see any common ground between the warriors and the victims. Warriors are concerned with the security of weapons systems; victims must worry about what will happen to themselves and their children. The warrior expects the victim to see vital links between his own life and that of the state in which he lives - but any enlightened victim must see that these links result only from bizarre imaginations. The warriors are playing a monstrous game of strategy in which the victims figure only as "acceptable" or "unacceptable" casualties. They care no more about the victims than Louis XIV or Frederick II cared about peasants.

However, while peasants could not influence kings, ordinary people today do have some say. To be effective, they must be listened to-which means they must speak a language understood by those to whom they speak. In our day, people need intermediaries, who can speak the language of "deterrence," security," and so on. The intermediaries should try to prepare ground for future defections from the war community. We see some such defections already, and they may accelerate as the imminence of the holocaust becomes even more obvious.

Perhaps those who have attended this conference can be useful in such an enterprise by acting as intermediaries. As an initial task, they would have to make clear to both warriors and victims that the terms used in geopolitical strategy have no more relation to objective reality than did the concepts of medieval metaphysics, or the racist concepts of the Nazis, or the concepts of phrenology. Then perhaps the warriors may still come to their senses.

Rapoport's remarks were offered at a conference on European Security in May. A number of European military analysts were invited to Toronto for the meeting by Science for Peace, the organization which Rapoport serves as president. One of Canada's most eminent peace researchers, Rapoport has devoted most of his career to the study of decision-making interactions. -Ed.

Peace Magazine September 1985

Peace Magazine September 1985, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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