The clientele of the military

 Benedict Anderson – Professor Emérito da Cornell University


From the vantage point of more than half a century, we can today see clearly that World War II drastically transformed the function of most militaries and at the same time changed their political role. It opened with the vast conquests of Hitlerʼs and Hirohitoʼs armies and ended with a huge military expansion of the territorial USSR. In the last days of the war, the US used nuclear weapons for the first and last time. For the first time in human history weapons had been created so terrible in their effects, and so ominous for the future of humanity, that they have never been used again, and developed only as a ʻdefensiveʼ, ʻlast optionʼ.

  One can look at this transformation along two axes. Every country involved in the fighting had Ministries of War; afterwards all these were renamed Ministries of Defence. This new name was not simply a hypocritical political euphemism. It reflected the process of sacralization of national territories, hastened by the huge wave of decolonizations. With a few very minor exceptions, ʻconquestʼ in the age-old manner, has become obsolete. On the contrary, many prewar ʻpowersʼ at different levels have been diminished by separatisms -USSR, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Czechoslovakia, etc etc. If ʻconquestʼ has become almost unthinkable, then what happens to militariesʼs roles and functions?

  Before going into this question, we should bear in mind one other crucial watershed represented by WW II. Already in the late 19th century, the pace of military-related technological inventions was speeding up. World War I was marked by the armed aeroplane, the submarine, tanks, poison gas, radio, complex cyphers, and so on.
But this took place in a still competitive environment between the powers. As late as 1940 newcomer Japan could build a fighter-plane (the Zero) better than those of enemy European powers. But the costs of the competition became more and more unbearable except for the giant US and USSR. And the USSR dropped out of this race by the 1970s. The crucial thing here is the break with the military mentality that dominated the thinking of the 19th century powers, using as models Prussia, France, and to a lesser extent the UK. This ‘old’ thinking said: We have to monopolize the production of weapons by our own industrialists and scientists. One could say that the ideal was a self-arming military, which was also based on citizen conscription. Today very few such armies survive. Most militaries in the world are armed primarily from the outside, from the relatively small number of states still capable of producing advanced ʻmodernʼ weapons for export or as foreign ʻaid.ʼ Unlike the 19th century’s world, today’s world is marked by a colossal transnational flow of weapons with many different levels of sophistication and cost. Obviously the US is the prime exporter.

  Since most contemporary nation-states have the idea that a good army (at least) is the true badge of nation-ness, and at the same time see less and less need for a conscript army, a curious and paradoxical situation has been emerging. Here one has to recognize that of all the comparable institutions of nation-states, militaries are the most standardized – by comparison, for example, with judicial institutions, parliaments, political parties, heads of state etc. Almost every state has its generals, colonels, majors, captains, and NCOs. In this sense the military is, institutionally, the farthest away from any idea of ʻnational uniqueness. At the same time, militaries usually take pretty seriously their role as symbols of just that national uniqueness.

  The real anomaly, however, lies elsewhere. The military as the self-perceived symbol of national independence is that the same time the most dependent on the outside world. Of course, intelligent military leaders try to diversify this dependence by dealing with, say, the US, China, Russia, Germany, France, Sweden, UK, even Israel, but the expense is very great for national budgets.

  Moreover these deals have two unlucky consequences, of which corruption is one – purchase of obsolescent weapons in exchange for commissions or bribes. The other is either a subtle manipulation by foreign powers for political ends? You want these weapons? We will give them to you free but you will have to…. or through the process of training, spare parts, reserves, or differential modernity of the arms offered. The pressures here are most visible if you look at the astonishing number of US military bases around the world. These would be impossible if most countries could produce their own weapons.

  The obverse side of the new post WW II conditions outlined above is that, intentionally or not, the classical 19th century division of labour between a ʻprofessional militaryʼ and a professional police, one for war and national defence, the other for the suppression of domestic crime has become, in many places, very blurred, especially where ʻcrimeʼ is the language used for political oppositions of various kinds. Many of the bloodiest ʻwarsʼ of the last 50 years have been at least nominally domestic, civil wars, rebellions and so forth. This was particularly the case during the Cold War, where militaries decided that Communists were not true nationals but agents of the USSR or of the CPR.

  But there are also other visible difficulties. We could, for example, look at the issue of professionalism, which almost all militaries try to practice. In English, and probably in many other languages, ʻprofessionalismʼ has two contrary meanings.

  A) If we think about professional athletes, for example, we mean outstanding players who make huge sums of money by selling their skills to cities, corporations, or mass media conglomerates. Loyalty is out of the question. We might easily think of these professionals as nomadic mercenaries, who occasionally, in the Olympics or in the World Cup, take a break to represent their nation-states. But militaries rarely think of themselves as mercenaries. 

  B)  People who use their great skills to serve, selflessly, in principle) their clients. The obvious examples are doctors (who must try to heal anyone), lawyers (who must defend anyone who is in legal trouble), professors (who must try to teach any student).  This service ethic is socially recognized by professional titles like Doctor or Professor. The professional in this sense is identified by his or her ʻclientsʼ with whom a moral bond is essential. The doctor will help even a gangster who has been shot, the lawyer will defend a well-known crook, the professor will teach lazy and unpleasant students. But these are in some way ʻclear and  personal clients,ʼ whom the professional can name very easily.

  The basic idea is ʻserviceʼ compounded by various oaths. The moral and political problem for militaries is that their ʻclientsʼ are not individuals but a series of abstractions, collective institutions, and imagined communities, which are often in conflict with one another. For example, militaries may have to choose between the basic law of the Constitution, electoral majorities, governments, the nation, the formal head of state, and so on. Generally speaking, the conditions where all these ʻclientsʼ overlap with one another, so eliminating conflict, is the exception rather than the rule. Militaries can not be blamed for this tension, as it is built into the core of the modern nation-state. But it can lead the military into different conflicts as well as  dead ends.

  Second: Even in the ʻgood old days’ before WW II, it was generally known that most militaries only rarely ʻfought an enemy.ʼ Following Prussian and French models, most of the active life of a professional soldier was spent peacefully on schooling and training, which had constantly to be updated. Often parts of this schooling and training took place abroad, typically in arms-exporting countries like theUS. In this framework, promotion was typically based on academic tests and practice performance, and was very slow indeed. As soon as a war started, the criteria changed rapidly, i.e. success on the battlefield, or brilliant planning. The problem today in most sacralized countries is that war seldom happens across nation-state boundaries. What comes out of this is boredom and often intrigues along ethnic and sometimes religious lines (professionalism in principle rejects external criteria like ethnicity or religious identification).

   Typically, coups arise in crisis conditions where the professionalʻs clients are at odds with one another: the government rejects elections, the president overrules the constitution, democratic political parties divide the nation, and so on. But military regimes rarely last long (Burmais the striking exception that proves the rule !). The reason is quite simple. If the military takes power to solve domestic political strife, it faces an obvious “cul de sac”. If it solves the problems that created the crisis, why is it still in power? If it fails to solve the crisis, why is it still in power? Maybe the history of military rule inBrazi loffers a good example.

  But the really difficult problem for military regimes lies elsewhere. Standard military institutions have a very clear hierarchy. A general should be in his late 50s, a colonel in his late 40s, etc. The general gets this salary, the colonel gets a lower one, the general has a lot of experience in military matters, the colonel less, the general has graduated from College X, the colonel from Academy Y. The general has to retire at, say, 60, while the colonel who fails to make Brigadier General, must leave the army at, say, 50. Everything is thus in order. But after a serious coup this disciplined hierarchy starts to weaken internally apart. The colonel who is told to manage the National Bank will get a salary fitting for the head of a Big Bank, which is much higher than the salaries of  many generals. The lieutenant colonel put in charge of customs will get used to the bribes that customs officers usually demand. The officer put in charge of the oil monopoly of the previous government will have a lifestyle far more splashy than many of his seniors. In other words, the clean hierarchy of the precoup army is relentlessly undermined by the distribution of officers into jobs which have entirely different criteria for promotions, salaries, ʻperksʼ and so on. In effect, professionalism is undercut by the new division of labor and its rewards. This is one reason why military regimes usually don’t last very long, at least if they think of themselves as professionals.

  Two final points. Prussia and France created a new and impressive division of labour (under normal conditions) between the military and the police, one aimed externally and the other internally.  This division of labour greatly increased the prestige of the military, while the police often became detested, at least by the lower classes (from which the conscript army recruited tens of thousands of temporary soldiers).  But in the post-World II era, this theoretically clean division of labour has often become blurred.  In many countries the blur has tended to turn the military into a kind of super-police. Military intelligence expands vastly inside the country, while external intelligence tends to atrophy.  Why has this happened?    The root cause is the rapid, non-stop, and expensive development of military technology (militaries need to be as up to date as they can manage).  This endless process make it necessary for at least officers and NCOs  to obtain a high level of education, training, scientific knowledge,  computer skills,, and competence in at least one foreign language.  But this higher level of education is to varying degrees in conflict with the old nationalist idea of the citizen army and general male conscription.  In ‘advanced’ countries, conscription is virtually extinct, while even in the global South it is becoming more and more rare. Inevitably this makes the military far more remote from the nation’s youth than ever before, increases unemployment for young adult males, and weakens national solidarity.

  Second, I have tried to show that the ‘success’  of nationalism on a global scale, starting with the League of Nations and continuing with the United Nations, has been a key factor in the sacralization of national territory. The near impossibility of  military expansion of national frontiers has depleted the  military’s capacity to shine as a defender of  national sovereignty, let alone to undertake annexations of other nation-states’ terrain.  No one seriously contemplates invading Brazil or Peru, Thailand or Ghana or Estonia. So what can the military do to ‘serve its clients.’? We all know about ‘civic missions,’ where military engineers play an important role in building public works, and very useful intervention when natural disasters occur.  We are also aware of militaries contributing officers and men to various UN peace-keeping missions (where they function more like police than old-style armies). It is true that thanks to the Cold War, the Brazilian military – like many South American counterparts -, were   encouraged to  imagine that domestic armed uprisings wee being waged by people who were not real fellow-citizens, but spies and agents of International Communism.  Out of this imagination came practices against fellow-citizens and fellow-nationalists which were classically used by the police – torture, extralegal executions, etc , all of which broke the conventions of Geneva. (There is no global convention controlling police forces).  Now that ‘International Communism’ has disappeared, who should be the professional role of South American militaries who consume such large budgets?

  The danger to worry about is the decline of professionalism that one observes in many countries.  The proliferation of military business empires is a sign of a downward trend. Very often these enterprises (sometimes real monopolies) are kept because they provide militaries with non-budgetary financial resources which do not serve the citizenry, encourage corruption, expand undesirable legal immunity, and so on. 

  The tragedy that we have worried about is delineated by the very large number of UN members’ militaries who have never fought against a truly foreign nation, but have killed untold numbers of their fellow-nationals.  The military should think more, and carefully, about their honor, about their clients’ needs, and their own historical-political role over the past half-century.  Is a large and expensive Brazilian military really needed?  They ought to be concerned at the possibility that in the end they will imagine that the military’s prime client is….itself!


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