Albert Einstein said that the way to prevent wars is to prepare for them. Jeanette Rankin disagreed, saying that preparation for war leads to war.
Armies always claim self-defense. They don’t like to admit to being the aggressor. It is always “the other guy” who started it. Of course, this is absurd. Somebody had to start it. But self-defense is the lie that makes aggressive wars possible by making standing armies acceptable to decent people. Has there ever been an army that did not claim that God was on its side?
You have to have a standing army, the argument goes, just in case the other guy attacks. And the other guy uses the same argument against you. It works both ways. “Standing armies,” said Immanuel Kant, “are the cause of aggressive wars.” Armies created under the guise of defense very easily become offensive armies, without even realizing it. All it takes is a little fear-mongering propaganda.
Once you have a standing army, somebody is going to want to use it. Aggressive elements within the armed state will try to use it for their own ends. Has there ever been an army that was not used? Name one. Noam Chomsky said, “States are violent to the extent that they are powerful.” All that power has to go somewhere. Once you have an all-powerful standing army, who or what is to keep it in check?
Armies are about killing people and destroying things. Always have been, always will be. Standing armies are like carnivorous beasts that have to kill to stay alive, to stay in fighting trim, to stay relevant. If there are no enemies, armies have to find them, or create them. Standing armies are provocative, both internally and externally. They provoke other nations to arm, and then you have an arms race. The Spanish “Civil War” was actually a rebellion of the Spanish military leadership. A case of a standing army turning against its own country.
People like to do what they have been trained to do. If you train people to kill, they will want to kill. A sailor on the carrier “Nimitz” regretted that on his last cruise he did not get a chance to drop any bombs. After all that ordnance training, what a waste not to be able to use it!
In America we hear constantly about the “Defense” Department, “defense” spending, the secretary of “defense,” etc., but isn’t this all propaganda? “Defense” spending does not defend the American homeland. It defends only the plunder of plutocrats and predatory corporations. Who are the enemies demonized so persistently in the American media? Most are freedom fighters resisting American military trespass in their neighborhoods.
What then is the answer? Clearly, a line must be drawn between offense and defense, and that line must never be crossed. Standing armies must be disbanded, because they are not defensive. How then can a nation defend itself? With diplomacy and justice and international good will, and a strictly defensive coast guard, confined to its coasts, as a backup.
There has never been a better defense than the golden rule. As Craig Nelson put it, “If everyone loves you, maybe you don’t need so many tanks.” Is this naïve? Has militarism worked? Have standing armies ever brought permanent peace? Wars are a logical outcome of a certain way of life, said A. J. Muste. If you want to stop wars you have to change that way of life.
Imperialism must be recognized and renounced. There is nothing defensive about it and there never will be. The United Irishmen, a Dublin society, agreed in 1793: “War, an occasional duty, ought never to be made an occupation. Every man should become a soldier in the defense of his rights, no man ought to continue [being] a soldier for offending the rights of others.” The trick is to know the difference. That takes critical thinking, independence of mind, an ability to detect humbug.
P.J. Sullivan is the author of three books of historical nonfiction, including “Mostly Rapscallions,” a book of satire about the jokers in history’s deck.