Contrary to popular belief the concept of having a permanent army has not been around for long, save for brief flits in the Spartan and Roman empires. It wasn’t until about the 1600s that permanent armies became a common feature in many countries. Why is this? In his study of the history of corporations, “Life Inc.”, Douglas Rushkoff writes that “where armies and navies had for most countries consisted of temporary forces raised to wage a specific conflict, the emergence of corporations with long-term agendas now necessitated full-time professional armed forces.” In with the category of corporations are the monarchs and aristocrats that designed the first chartered corporations and the governments those corporations later came to dominate. These long-term agendas were the capturing and securing of foreign markets for exploitation: in other words, colonialism.
This had terrible consequences for the foreign markets, or in more human terms the societies being colonised. The capturing of foreign markets was a violent affair that involved first subduing the resistant population and then exploiting and impoverishing them. The relationship between colonialism and poverty is well understood.
Judging by the history of permanent armies, this hypothesis makes perfect sense. Since an institution will mainly do what it has been designed to do, unless it has been changed, then a cursory look at what armies have been used for will shed some light on the function for which they were designed.
Since their inception, the primary focus of permanent armies has been aggression: to conquer land and exploit the populations for power and profit. The countless examples include the conquering of India by many European powers from the 1600s and culminating with Britain controlling most of India by 1856; the conquest of Algeria by France in 1830; and more recently the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by the US and Britain. All of these conquests and invasions were used to steal the resources and the labour of the local populations to bring immense profits to the monarchs, corporations or governments that planned them.
Even in times where countries with permanent armies fought other armies it was almost exclusively not defence against aggression but a clash of two or more aggressions that overlapped and competed over the same land.
Permanent armies do have one other large function that is often overlooked: the squashing of internal dissent. I’m sure we all know how this works in a totalitarian state, but the ways this is used in democratic societies is often overlooked. In the United States the National Guard’s main use for many years was to break strikes, including their involvement in the Ludlow Massacre in April 1914. During the war against Vietnam, parts of the army were kept in the US to contain protests.
Looking at the history of permanent armies in capitalist societies it is not difficult to draw a conclusion about their purpose: providing corporations and governments with brute force when it is necessary for the acquisition of profit.
Whether armies are busy murdering foreigners so as to steal their land, resources and labour or crushing dissent so as to repress labour rights and keep the system going smoothly they are still fulfilling the same function. The hypothesis I draw from this is that permanent armies are servants of the state and the capitalist class. Or as Barry Sanders put it recently: “I do not separate the corporate agenda from the military agenda … each one needs the other.”
Along with the murdering of foreigners for profit and squashing calls for meaningful democracy and economic, social and cultural rights, permanent armies have another serious flaw: the destruction of the environment.
According to Barry Sanders, the author of “The Green Zone: The Environmental Cost Of Militarism”: “the [US] military, by its own admission, produced 28 billion tons of carbon [dioxide] in 2006,” which is “already higher than what the government projects for the entire nation in 2020.” I don’t know how accurate these figures are since there are no other figures to contrast them against but it is clear that the amount of pollution for all the world’s militaries would be enough to keep the world hurtling towards environmental disaster even if everything else stopped polluting.
And the amount of money that we spend on militaries is enormous. The UK government has a defense budget of £34 billion. In “Rogue States”, Noam Chomsky quotes a UNICEF report that estimates that it would only take “a quarter of the defense budgets of “developing countries”” or “10 percent of US military spending” to “ensure universal access to basic social services”.
People will say that a country needs a military for defense when it is attacked. That is true, but it does not mean that countries need permanent armies. History has shown that if a country is under attack it is not difficult to assemble an army very quickly. And guerrilla warfare has fared far better for defending a country than the country’s armies. In the recent American and British attack on Iraq the Iraqi army was defeated in less than 2 months whereas the insurgency that followed has yet to be defeated 6 years later. And the successes of the NLF (or Viet Cong) in Vietnam at defeating the massive American army and South Vietnams own government and military bear testament to the effectiveness of guerilla warfare.
Also, the more armies are stockpiled the more likely a war will be. If there were no armies there would be no war. There may be conflicts, but there would be no war as we know it now.
If we wish to create a free society we cannot tolerate organizations that’s main functions are to conquer; to support class rule and obtain profits through violence, murder and even genocide; that are capable of wreaking environmental catastrophe even if all other pollution stopped; and that we don’t even need. Those organisations are permanent armies and if we keep them we are only destroying ourselves.