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Sunday, April 7, 2019


Let me pose for discussion a question that has interested me deeply for sixty years, and to which I do not even now have a satisfactory answer:  What should be the military policy and associated level and composition of military forces of the United States?  Among the questions that must be answered to address this issue are the following, by no means exhaustive:

Should the United States maintain a standing Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps?  If so, should its mission be to defend the territorial United States from attack, to protect American citizens abroad, to defend American investments abroad, to intervene for humanitarian reasons in genocidal slaughters wherever they occur, to maintain some constellation of foreign forces in some area of the world, to advance and expand America’s sphere of influence, to seek world hegemony?  If the United States should maintain a standing military force, how big should it be?  Should it include nuclear weapons?  Should it be a volunteer force or a force maintained by conscription?   Should American station forces overseas?  If so, where, in what numbers, for what purposes?  If not, why not?  Should America have allies with whom it has mutual defense treaties?  If so, which ones, and why?

Why do I raise these questions?  First, because they are clearly questions of the very first importance, to which I do not have clear, settled, carefully thought through answers.  And second, because I find it tiresome and unhelpful to limit my comments on military policy to variations on the complaint that America has dirty hands and cannot claim the moral high ground when it comes to the use of military force.  I am sure such observations are satisfyingly shocking when uttered at family gatherings or town meetings, but they really do not constitute any sort of answer to the questions posed above.

The only people I have ever met who had clear answers to these questions and furthermore whom I could respect were the pacifist Quakers with whom I formed an alliance of convenience in the old days when I was fighting for General and Complete Nuclear Disarmament.  The Quakers were proponents of Unilateral Disarmament, and when asked how they would respond if Russia attacked America, they said that it would be better to be defeated or killed than to fight.  I didn’t agree, but they meant it, and I respected them for it.  Besides, they formed a sizeable portion of the tiny Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and I did not think it wise to insist on doctrinal purity.

Look.  Suppose you were in charge.  Would you want to maintain a military force that would be capable of intervening abroad to avert a genocide?  I am not asking whether we can trust the present American administration, or any former administration, Democratic or Republican, to intervene wisely.  That is a cheap and easy question.  The answer is no.  I am asking whether, if someone you totally trust were in charge [you yourself, Noam Chomsky, I don’t care], would you want America to maintain a standing Army capable of intervening on a moment’s notice for any purpose of which you totally approved?

Should the United States maintain a nuclear arsenal and associated delivery systems in order to deter other nuclear powers from launching an obliterating First Strike?  If so, who should have authority to launch it?  In what way, and with what military goal? 

In Brunei, homosexual activity is now punishable by death by stoning.  Should the United States intervene militarily to save the life of a gay or lesbian American citizen seized and prosecuted there?  What about an American permanent resident who is not a citizen?  What about a subject of the Sultan of Brunei?

And so forth and so on.  These are all real questions which the people elected to control the government of the United States have been answering for my entire life.  A very large part of the budget of the federal government is devoted to implementing their answers.  It seems to me that I ought at least to know how I answer these questions, even though what I think will have no noticeable effect on what gets done.

What do you think?


Tom Hickey said...

Well, as a fellow philosopher, I would have to respond that this is a philosophical question rather than a scientific one. I actually almost did my dissertation on it, but as interesting as it is, I decided in was a can of worms, since it would have to pass muster with three reader who probably would have different assumptions that were also redlines in their world view.

Ultimately, philosophy as a rational exercise rests in key assumptions. As a grad student in a department that emphasized history of philosophy and pluralism, I was puzzled that the professors never argued with each other. I asked on of them why that was since it would be instructive for the students. He said, Oh, we did that some time ago and argued each other back to our foundational assumptions and agreed to disagree.

This is a paradox of liberalism. Pluralism and tolerance lead to relativism of foundations. I have concluded that liberalism and traditionalism need to be combined to address this. The traditional way of dealing with foundations issues is either dogmatically by appealing to authority, which, of course, is ruled out in liberal societies, or else being guided by the wise of the past, which involves its own issues.

Regarding this, I have found Meher Baba's discourse on violence and non-violence instructive. He distinguishes different types of violence and non-violence. The level of personal consciousness would determine where an individual fits in this scheme and the level of collective consciousness would determine the fit of a society. Then it becomes an empirical issue based on revealed preference and behavior. For a society, this would be cultural and institutional. Sociology and political science deals with this empirically. But in the final analysis, it is a few leaders that make the key decisions.

Non-Violence Pure and Simple
(based on Divine Love)
Here one sees all as his own Self and is beyond both friendship and enmity. Never under any circumstances does a single thought of violence enter his mind.

Non-Violence of the Brave
(based on unlimited pure love)
This applies to those who, although not one with all through actual realisation, consider no one as their enemy. They try to win over even the aggressor through Love and give up their lives by being attacked, not through fear, but through Love.

Non-Violent Violence
(based on unlimited love)
Violence done solely to defend the weak, where there is no question of self-defence or of self-motivation.

Selfless Violence
(based on limited human love)
Violence done in self-defence when one is attacked treacherously, and with no other selfish motive. For example, when one’s mother’s honour is on the point of being violated by a lustful desperado and when one defends one’s mother. Also when the motherland’s honour is at stake and it is being attacked by enemies, the nation’s selfless effort at defending the motherland is selfless violence.

(V a)
Non-Violence of the Coward
(based on unlimited weakness of character and mind)
Those who do not resist aggression because of fear and for no other reason belong to this class.

(V b)
Selfish Violence
(based on hatred and lust)
When violence is done for selfish motives by an individual or nation for power and selfish gains, etc.

Tom Hickey said...

Oops. I neglected to provide a source for the quote.

Anonymous said...

When I was young I had an answer. Now that I'm part of the geriactric generation I realize there are no real answers. Humanity is condemned to constantly revisit fundamental questions and every generation has to fight the same fight and end up with the same partial answers.

In my youth I thought the UN was the natural repository for armed forces contributed by all nations. But that was a youthful and naive view that didn't understand how deeply corrupt the UN was and has become even more so over time.

In an ideal world there would be levels of governance starting with the purely local with limited local powers organized at the level of districts, towns, counties, states, nations, and international. At the higher level all would be organized around a "federalist" principle.

Having lived into "old age" I now recognize that any governmental organization is corruptible and so they must have "limited power". A military is the ultimate power so it is difficult to allow a truly militarized force at any level. The hope is that in a federalist hierarchy the level above could step in and constrain a lower level if need be. But that leaves the highest level, the international level, the ultimate conundrum. What is to stop them?

Over the past 50 years I've retreated to the idea of an "armed citizenry" somewhat like Switzerland is presented to be, i.e. with no extra-territorial claims and purely as a defensive force but one built on citizen soldiers fully armed and deeply prepared to withstand invasion and subjection.

But of course that too is quite a bit of a dream. To succeed it requires perfection. There is no perfection in this world. Any policy, any theory, and certainly any governmental structure is going to fall short because there are always elements within and without dedicated to gnawing away and bringing down any useful and fair government. Greed abounds, evil is real, threats always exist.

So ultimately there is no answer to this question. Each generation must fight its own battles. The struggle is endless.

Anonymous said...

For anybody pondering "military force", it might be useful to read this article just published in The Intercept:

And of course, there are classic anti-war novels (especially those published after WWI) that are worthy of consideration.

Armed forces, military, and war... there is nothing easy in trying to make a "reasoned and coherent and effective" position since, as military men have always pointed out: once a war begins "the fog of war" soon descends and what may have been your intention is soon lost in the dirty business of "carrying out a war".

I guess the reason I never became an academic is because I found life and the world far too complex to paint in philosophical pictures with pretty words. I'm not against philosophizing. I just find that like most in life, those who shout the loudest usually have the least to really say and the real difficulties are in the details. Worst of all, life is a process constantly changing, evolving, adapting. Even the words we use are slippery tools. So the idea of nailing things down is a bit silly. But I applaud the effort. Just don't get too full of yourself with the belief that "fundamental questions" can truly ever be answered.

s. wallerstein said...

I'd say that the U.S. should close all its military bases abroad (and give Guantanamo back to Cuba), maintain a standing army, air force, etc., to defend its own territory and only send its troops abroad if there is an international mandate for that from a broadly representative international body, for example, the UN or the European Union instead of NATO.

The U.S. has no more right to rescue its citizens who are unjustly tried or executed in Brunei than Mexico does to rescue its citizens who face the death penalty in Texas. The U.S. should learn to respect the sovereignty of other countries, which at present it does not do in the least.

Howard B said...

Dear Tom, your breakdown you shared is helpful as a guide for people who tend toward pacifism, but would you if you were an historian be able to apply that tree to historical actors, and moreover, are there real live human beings who would identify themselves with certain of those descriptions, other than assorted and odd readers of this blog, like me?

Anonymous said...

Good questions, therefore hard to answer. I am a good utilitarian and believe in the greatest good for the greatest number. Elect the best people and this will happen. PROBABLY WON'T HAPPEN. How about a prestigious study group to investigate MORAL CHOICES FOR AMERICA? I nominate Professor Wolff to chair this enormous task. Good luck!

Jerry Brown said...

Tough questions and a whole lot of them at that. If somehow I was put in charge, I would try to scale the military way back. But there would still be an Army and a Navy but much smaller. And it would be clear that the military would not be used to advance or protect corporate interests and investments around the world. Which I think would be a pretty big change all by itself.

But even so- I wouldn't have a problem with the US threatening to use military force (euphemism for 'kill people and destroy things') to try to protect our citizens from some of the injustices that you use as examples. And if some horrible, terrible injustice was obviously being done by another country upon either its own citizens or others I think we would have a moral obligation to act to try to stop that if we could.

Damn these are tough questions and I don't have good answers for them. Why did I ever start reading this blog... It's probably Tom Hickey's fault that I did- thanks Tom.

Charles Pigden said...

A foreigner's view
Should the United States maintain a standing Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps?  
Yes - self-defence is legitimate for all states which have a right to exist.
If so, should its mission be to defend the territorial United States from attack?
Should its mission be to protect American citizens abroad?
Depends on what they have been up to.
Should its mission be to defend American investments abroad?
Generally No, though one could imagine cases in which this might be legitimate.
Should its mission be to intervene for humanitarian reasons in genocidal slaughters wherever they occur?
Not ‘wherever’, not ‘whenever’ because sometimes the consequences of ‘humanitarian’ intervention can be worse than the evils they are supposed to prevent, especially as perceptions of which ‘humanitarian crises’ are morally salient is often filtered through the prism of national self-interest. BUT there are sadly genuine humanitarian crises that can only be dealt with via international intervention and when this is the case, the US like other nations has some obligation to participate.
Should its mission be to maintain some constellation of foreign forces in some area of the world?
Generally no.
Should its mission be to advance and expand America’s sphere of influence?
No - smacks of imperialism
Should its mission be to seek world hegemony?
No - that IS imperialism   
If the United States should maintain a standing military force, how big should it be?  
A lot smaller than it is.
Should it include nuclear weapons?  
A tough one. It is unrealistic to expect the US to disarm except in the context of general disarmament. But it should unconditionally reduce its arsenal to a considerable extent with an eventual view to doing conditional deals eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Also it should commit publicly to 'No first use'.
Should it be a volunteer force or a force maintained by conscription?  
The first. The US does not need a large conscript army.  The argument the other way is that elites are less likely to recklessly endanger the lives of soldiers though imperialistic adventures if those soldiers include their own sons and daughters. That may be true but it does not justify the existence of a bloated conscript army.
Should American station forces overseas?  
Sometimes to help defend allies.
If so, where, in what numbers, for what purposes? 
Sometimes to defend allies. Numbers should be much reduced. The US is a ridiculously over-armed state.
 Should America have allies with whom it has mutual defense treaties?
Yes, though it should be a lot more picky than it currently is.

Anonymous said...

As we approach the 75th anniversary of Day, it’s good to reflect back on what the world militarily looked like in the 30s.

To answer the question should we have a military...the answer is YES.

The best defense is a good offense.....

Had it not been for the USA entering WW 11, life would be quite different now.