The military

from Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984); this is the revised 1990 version.
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Superficially, military forces are a prime root of war. They are responsible for fighting, the organised use of force against human and technological opposition. Without military forces, there would be no war as currently conceived.

At a deeper level, military forces may seem to be a consequence of the war system, namely as agents of ruling groups. Modern military forces are mobilised by the state, as a defence of the interests of state elites against external and internal enemies. Without addressing the dominant social interests in the state, a focus on eliminating the military alone is quite inadequate.

But although military forces do indeed serve the interests of the state, the military is not purely a tool. Military personnel, and especially military elites (the officer corps) have their own special interests. Military elites will not sit by idly while state power is dissolved or transferred to interests seen as hostile to military interests. The many military regimes around the world testify to the potential semi-independent political role of military forces. Military forces may serve state interests, but this is often contingent on state interests serving military interests. The state and the military support each other, and they need to be addressed both separately and jointly.

Even in societies where military forces are overtly subordinate to civilian elites, military perspectives and interests can penetrate deeply into a society's fabric. This process of militarisation has been especially noticeable in industrialised countries since World War Two. Since then, 'peacetime' military spending has provided a rationale for continuing state intervention into economies and for the turning of industrial and professional efforts toward military priorities.

Bureaucracy can be seen as a root of war because it facilitates the maintenance of elite power and smashes or pre-empts non-hierarchical and self-reliant forms of human interaction. The military is bureaucratic in form, and indeed in many ways is a pioneer and model bureaucracy. Thus the military is closely intertwined with the state and bureaucracy, two other key roots of war. In addition, as described in the following chapters, the military is strongly interconnected with patriarchy and with science and technology.

The close connection between the military, bureaucracy and state is shown by the revolutionary role sometimes played by military elites. Ellen Kay Trimberger in Revolution from Above has analysed several instances in which a revolution (a forcible alteration of class forces) has been implemented by military elites acting as state administrators. She uses the examples of Japan beginning in 1868, Turkey in the 1920s, Egypt under Nasser since 1952 and Peru under the generals since 1968. In each case military bureaucrats, having captured state power without mobilisation of the populace, proceeded to destroy the power of the dominant economic class, such as the aristocracy.

There are several conditions necessary for revolutions to be sponsored from the top ranks of military administration. The military must be independent of the class controlling the means of production, and key members of the military must be politicised and cohesive. The revolution from above is a response to nationalist movements from below demanding an end to national humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. And there must be opportunities in the international system for moves to increase national autonomy.

'Revolution from above' by military bureaucrats can only occur when both the military and the civilian state administration are highly bureaucratised. The military elites undertake their revolutionary course in order to create the conditions for successful national economic development which had been held back by conservative ruling forces. The revolutionary state bureaucrats are forced to take the economic initiative and overcome the initial problems of capital accumulation and creation of an economic infrastructure before private capital enters the scene. Because mass mobilisation of the populace is not undertaken, the revolutionary administrators undertake some form of capitalist development, and also end up integrating themselves with the capitalist class.

The phenomenon of revolution from above does not in itself provide many insights for grassroots struggle. But it does point out the close connections between the military, bureaucracy and the state, and suggests that the role of the military is not always as subordinate as normally conceived.


Internally, military forces are bureaucratic in form, with a strict hierarchy and division of labour, rigid rules and duties. The function of military forces is to be able to use organised violence against opponents, usually seen as similarly organised. Because killing of other humans is not readily undertaken by many people in modern societies, military recruits undergo extensive training, indoctrination and isolation in a military environment. The key to military performance is unquestioning obedience to orders, which again has much in common with non-military bureaucracies.

Military forces use violence as the ultimate defence of state interests, and not surprisingly the ultimate sanction against internal resistance in armed forces is also violent: imprisonment or even execution. Military forces even more than other bureaucracies are similar to authoritarian states in their denial of the right or opportunity to dissent, in their demand for obedience and in their use of reprisals against recalcitrant subjects.

The composition of armed forces embodies particular social values. In many countries, the officer corps has been drawn disproportionately from privileged classes. Within the military the officer corps is a politically aware stratum. Both by origin and by hierarchical position, the officer corps tends to be a strong supporter of state political systems based on authoritarian principles, similar in nature to the military itself. By contrast, the military rank and file are more often working class in origin, and are structurally removed from political activity.

Military elites also strongly oppose participation of women and gays, especially in key roles such as officers or combat soldiers. This opposition stems from the links between masculinity and violence and, more deeply, between patriarchy and the military.

Because of the military's rigid bureaucratic structure and because of its relative isolation from other social forces, the military is an intensely conservative structure. This is well illustrated by its reluctance to adopt technological innovations of demonstrated effectiveness. For example, European armies were very slow to adopt the machine gun in spite of its years of proven effectiveness in colonial wars. The reason for this conservatism is that introducing weapons systems also requires internal social change in areas such as corps organisation, training, battlefield tactics and command structures. Changes that adversely affect particular bureaucratic empires in the military are resisted most of all. Fundamental changes in military organisation or doctrine often require outside intervention, for example by civilian political elites.

Another reason for the conservatism of military forces is that most of them are at war only a small fraction of time, and in between wars there is no 'marketplace' test of the current doctrines. Internal conservatism is one reason why militaries are notorious for being prepared to fight the previous war.

Although military forces remain strongly hierarchical, repressive, conservative, sexist and heterosexist, there are two forces in particular which are modifying the internal dynamics of the military. One is the increasing technological content of modern war. Instead of being mainly composed of fighting troops, military forces are structured around systems of advanced technology. For every fighter pilot there are 10 or 20 other workers providing maintenance, planning logistics, organising provisions and so forth. Along with sophisticated technology have come many workers in specialised occupations, including engineers, technicians, mechanics, computer programmers, accountants and filing clerks. To utilise this personnel effectively, the traditional military hierarchy with its demand for unquestioning obedience to commands and use of repression is much less appropriate. The trend is away from coercion and towards organisational and manipulative techniques of control more characteristic of civilian bureaucracies.

The other force promoting changes in military forces towards civilian bureaucracy comes from soldiers who refuse to be submissive. This refusal stems from the breakdown of traditional social structures which inculcated authoritarian and submissive attitudes, including the church, authoritarian employment situations, rigid schooling and the patriarchal family. These traditional structures are collapsing between the extension of state power and bureaucratic modes of organisation on the one hand and the rise of movements for liberation from oppression on the other, including the labour movement, feminism and the gay movement. Life is less and less organised on the basis of physical coercion and a requirement for blind obedience to authority, and more on bureaucratic lines of hierarchy, division of labour, rules and proper procedures, all legitimised on the basis of alleged efficiency and technical merit. These changes affect personal interactions, families, schools and workplaces, and can hardly leave military forces untouched.

Lawrence Radine in his book The Taming of the Troops: Social Control in the United States Army describes the shift from coercive to manipulative controls. The new brand of manipulative controls demand the skills of psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, lawyers and correctional therapists. Techniques involve questionnaires and surveys to detect and screen out dissidents, cooperation and talking about problems with soldiers, making token concessions, particularising opposition to reformable peripheral issues, and transfers of dissidents. Behavioural science is used to study what makes people fight, which has been found to be concrete necessity and commitment to a small reference group, not ideological commitment. This knowledge is used to organise training and deployment of troops.

While the military is adopting many methods from civilian bureaucracies, it is also true that the military is pioneering methods of sophisticated, non-coercive control. Radine suggests that because of this the army can be seen as a 'vanguard bureaucracy.'

The internal characteristics of the military have implications beyond the life of soldiers. The very way the military is organised has a major impact on the nature of the society in which it exists. A thought-provoking treatment of this is Stanislav Andreski's book Military Organization and Society.

One of Andreski's important findings, backed by evidence from numerous societies, is that a higher level of participation by a society's population in military forces tends to reduce structured inequality (called stratification) in the society. Thus stratification is likely to be lower with high participation guerrilla warfare than with low participation conventional forces. This finding reinforces the idea that modern military forces, with low participation due to professionalism and specialised training for modern weapons systems, are intimately associated with the existence and power of political and economic elite groups. Another implication is that the introduction of social defence, which by its nature requires high levels of participation, will tend to reduce stratification. This would be doubly beneficial. Stratification is associated with inequality, exploitation and injustice, and also at the level of state power with the requirement for military forces to defend elite interests.

Andreski says many empires have been created by exclusive possession of superior armaments or tactics. Collapse of the empire through loss of the monopoly is less common, since conquered peoples are usually disarmed and made helpless. States founded on conquest usually disintegrate through loss of cohesion of the ruling stratum, or as a result of outside attack.

These insights have two immediate implications. First, social defence is a good preventative to the formation of empires, since exclusive possession of techniques of nonviolent resistance is not feasible. Second, breaking monopolies on current weapons is important to oppose centralised political power backed by military forces. But for the antiwar movement, breaking weapons monopolies does not mean spreading the weapons but spreading knowledge of how people can dismantle them: preparing for people's disarmament.

Andreski treats many other topics of significance, such as subordination and hierarchy in society and the military, and the relation of war to the extent of government regulation. Andreski's analysis contains many insights of potential use in antiwar action, and is certainly more useful in this regard than the vast bulk of military sociology.

Why then has Andreski's material had no impact on antiwar strategy? One reason is that Andreski's writing is academic. He offers no hints on how to apply his insights in order to change society from the grassroots. Most antiwar activists do not delve into military sociology at all, partly because most antiwar activists have no intention or method for transforming military organisation. Furthermore, Andreski is a social theorist who is seen as relatively conservative, and hence is not likely to appeal to the antiwar movement theorists who usually favour left-wing analyses. This is regrettable, in my opinion. In developing an antiwar strategy, insights are needed from whatever source available. It is for antiwar theorists and activists to decide how to interpret, adapt and use these insights.

Military forces have two main roles in society: defence of the state against foreign military threat and defence of the state against internal challenge. Almost all treatments of military issues, including those by the antiwar movement, concern defence against external enemies. Yet the role of the military in defending the state internally warrants equal attention by antiwar activists. By supporting state power internally, the military protects the position and power of elite groups which not only help perpetuate poverty, injustice and alienation, but also sustain the state system which is the backbone of the modern war system.

In earlier eras it was possible for armed uprisings to overcome the numbers and force of the army and other defenders of ruling elites. But for many decades it has been the case that such an uprising has no chance against the sophisticated weaponry used by military and police forces. With machine guns, tanks, chemical weapons, and efficient transport and communications capabilities at the disposal of the military willing to use them, armed insurrection in an industrialised society is futile, as argued by Martin Oppenheimer in The Urban Guerilla.

The only qualification to this conclusion lies in the nature of modern technology. Whereas earlier military technology (bayonets, rifles, trenches and barriers, jeeps and machine guns) could be used equally against external foes or against internal uprisings, much modern technology is suitable only for specialised purposes. Jet aircraft, submarines and long-range missiles are of little value in quelling internal disorder: their use would be unselective and hence politically counterproductive. On the other hand, there is an increasing interest by military and police forces in the 'technology of social control': disabling chemical and physical agents for crowd control, sophisticated surveillance techniques, and methods to break the resistance of prisoners. For example, the British army has developed and tested much social control technology in Northern Ireland.

What does all this reveal? It is clear that, even on purely pragmatic grounds, the road to social revolution in industrialised countries cannot be by armed struggle. Beyond this, there is not a lot to be gained by studying the technology of war, except in the important area of learning about the relation of technological systems to the social organisation of the military and the state. A technological system brings with it a social organisation, as in the case of weapons platforms such as the aircraft carrier.

The military and revolution

Military forces are a key element in the war system, and are a prime obstacle to abolishing war. But as I have noted, the role of the military in defending the state against internal challenges is just as important. By restraining social change towards a more just, equal and participatory society, military forces help perpetuate the social, political and economic structures which underlie war and many other social problems.

Considering the key role of the military in potentially blocking fundamental social transformation, it is disappointing that there have been few organised efforts to confront military structures, or even theoretical perspectives on how to abolish the military. Most social movements simply accept the military as part of the nature of things. They may assume that the military is kept under control by political elites. State socialists, for example, do not aim to abolish military forces, but rather prefer to retain them, but under the control of a state apparatus run by the communist party. Social activists also commonly assume that military forces are essential for defence against external threats, which in turn is based on the assumption of the persistence of the state system.

Although there is a lack of specifically focussed social action aimed at the eventual elimination of military forces, many valuable insights are to be had by studying revolutions, especially those which have involved the collapse of armies. To my mind the most valuable study for this purpose is Katherine Chorley's book Armies and the Art of Revolution. Using a careful and systematic historical analysis, but without excess detail, Chorley has itemised, documented and highlighted the best strategies both for the forces of revolution and for those of reaction.

Chorley is primarily concerned with revolutions which are fairly quick takeovers of state power, and for which violence is a potential tool for the revolutionaries. Nevertheless, her analysis gives a good feel for revolutionary strategy, and many of her insights can be applied to nonviolent strategies for challenging the roots of war.

Chorley's studies of revolution, including the French and Russian revolutions, for example, show the vital necessity of winning over at least part of the military to attain revolutionary success. Social transformation requires transformation of the military. This cannot be achieved by confronting the army on its own terms. Technology has weighted the scale in favour of the professional army against volunteers. Insurrections cannot succeed against a unified military force. To succeed, the revolutionaries must break down the unity of the army by political means, by weakening the commitment and morale of the soldiers.

Military forces are not socially indivisible or ideologically coherent. There is diversity, especially between ranks. The officer corps is usually aligned with more conservative social groups. For a government to maintain its control, it must maintain the good will of the officer corps. For a revolution from the right, serving the interests of established elites, support from the officer corps is all that is required. For a revolution from the left, which means attacking existing elite interests, a disintegration of the military rank and file is required, since the officer corps never supports a left revolution. (Left-wing military coups are usually carried out by junior officers.)

There is diversity within as well as between ranks. Individual soldiers can become dissatisfied. Usually discontent in the army arises from practical grievances: unpleasant duties, petty harassment, arbitrary orders. These grievances need to be reinforced by a political analysis of the nature of the military system and the ends for which it is used. Opposition within the military can be stimulated both by inside organisers and also by contact with outsiders.

Contact with outsiders is vital in promoting the disintegration of military forces in a revolutionary situation. The aim of contact is to break down the military isolation and win over wavering soldiers to the revolutionary cause. This in short is fraternisation. The alternative strategy of opposing military forces by 'revolutionary' forces, namely guerrilla warfare or violent urban insurrection, tends by comparison to unify the established army rather than dissolve it.

During the French Revolution, soldiers were normally billeted in homes of local people. Therefore the soldiers were exposed to the currents of social and political unrest that swept through the community. It is now common practice to house soldiers in barracks or otherwise separate them from the general community. In the case of the 1871 Paris Commune, the commander of the army withdrew the troops from Paris. In the countryside away from the revolutionary infection, the troops were disciplined and stiffened, and then were led to Paris to bloodily smash the Commune. These examples show the importance of fraternisation.

Although grievances always exist in military forces, usually they are an insufficient basis for bringing about any degree of disintegration. A good chance for revolution often is provided by war, especially unsuccessful war, which puts armies under enormous strain. The Russian Revolution was made possible by the virtual collapse of the Russian army in World War One. Similarly, the Paris Commune was made possible by the defeat of the French army by the Prussians.

The impossibility of revolution without politically undermining the military, the importance of fraternisation, the disintegrating effect of unsuccessful war: these are a few of the many insights which Chorley's analysis provides. Many of these ideas can be readily used or adapted in developing a strategy for elimination of the military as a root of war. Fraternisation for example is a standard method of nonviolent action.

Other findings by Chorley are less easy to translate to a strategy for nonviolent revolution. For example, she says that organisers of revolutionary armies have found that discipline and efficiency are not compatible with certain types of equality, and that in defending a revolution against serious attack an army must be organised, trained and commanded by normal military methods. These points suggest to me that whatever efforts are made to organise military forces to reflect the popular will, even the most enlightened revolutionary government will be unable to use organised violence in a way in keeping with democratic precepts.

Since Chorley's Armies and the Art of Revolution was first published in 1943, little has changed to affect her analysis. One important change is the ever greater use of modern technology in military forces, leading to a greater use of technical specialists and bureaucratic modes of organisation. In some ways specialisation reduces the areas of common experience on which fraternisation proceeds. But the move to technical specialisation and bureaucratic organisation has also decreased the role of direct coercion in maintaining social control in the military. This suggests that there will be an increasing similarity between successful grassroots strategies against bureaucracy and the military.

Another study adding force to Chorley's conclusions is D. E. H. Russell's Rebellion, Revolution, and Armed Force. Russell analysed the loyalty of the military in 14 mass rebellions: violent power struggles threatening overthrow of the regime. Some of the rebellions selected were successful, such as in Mexico in 1911, and others were unsuccessful, such as in Burma in 1954. For all successful rebellions, the established regime lost the loyalty of the armed forces (though disloyalty by itself did not guarantee a successful rebellion). The important implication is that revolutionary success does not depend only on the strength of the rebels or on the existence of social and economic 'preconditions,' but also critically on the unity of the military. Russell points out that much more study is needed to determine what factors explain and encourage military disloyalty. To do this, Russell suggests that revolutionaries should try to make soldiers identify more with them, for example by fraternisation, infiltration, minimising differences in dress, public behaviour and language, and conceiving military personnel as victims rather than exploiters. These suggestions seem just as relevant to nonviolent revolution as to violent revolution.

Grassroots strategy

A grassroots strategy to transform or abolish military forces must be part of a wider strategy for confronting bureaucracy and the state and building self-managing alternative structures. But because of the key importance of military forces in opposing fundamental social change as well as in fighting wars, it is vital to develop campaigns focussing on the military. There is so little systematised experience in doing this that here I will only outline a few areas for consideration.

Social defence

Social defence is participatory, nonhierarchical and nonviolent. Therefore, as a mode of social organisation it is fundamentally antagonistic to the military. Social defence not only provides an alternative to military defence but also mobilises people to be able to resist the military. But this in itself does not automatically weaken the cohesion of military forces. It is important to take the ideas and methods of social defence to the military, and especially to the rank and file. Partly this will be accomplished as the families and friends of soldiers pass the word on. But soldiers also need to be approached as soldiers, exposed to the ideas and to the proponents of social defence. A spinoff is that soldiers are likely to have valuable suggestions or criticisms for the advocates of social defence.


Social defence will be inevitably seen as a threat to the livelihood of soldiers, namely to their role as monopolisers of 'defence.' There need to be plans for moving from military defence to social defence. Conversion of the military will not be attractive to soldiers unless their livelihoods and dignities are protected. An attractive conversion plan will go a long way towards weakening military antagonism to social defence. A conversion plan can also be the basis for campaigns to transform and eliminate the military. Involvement by the military rank and file in developing such a plan would be extremely valuable, although this could be a difficult enterprise to organise.


People outside the military can talk with people in the military, find out about how it operates, its strengths and weaknesses, sources of commitment and of disillusionment, recruitment, funding, political control, and ideology. People in the military can foster contact with both inside and outside critics, and also learn more about the military as a political system and its relations with society. In both cases, informal contacts, self-managing groups and networks can be used to foster interaction, critique and action.

Weaknesses of military governments

Repressive military regimes in Greece and Argentina relinquished power to civilian governments in recent decades. How did these nonviolent transfers of power come about? What was the role of torture and terror by the military rulers in strengthening or weakening the regime? What was the role of loss of legitimacy due to international setbacks such as the defeat of the Argentine government in the Falklands/Malvinas war with the British government? What was the role of violent and nonviolent opposition? Many further studies and struggles are needed to learn about the role of the military in revolution and in social control, and of the potential for grassroots social action in the face of military repression.


The weakness of the modern systems of military bureaucracy lies in their organisation: hierarchy, specialisation, and lack of mobilisation of the political support of the populace. Essentially all the goals and campaigns which are useful in transforming bureaucracies can be used in relation to militaries: building networks at the rank-and-file level, promoting self-management such as democratised command structures, and fostering individual and group self-reliance. In all these efforts to debureaucratise the military, the long-term goal of abolishing military forces needs to be built in, which means linking the debureaucratisation efforts to implementation of conversion plans and development of social defence.