Chapter 1

What Is Militarisation?


The militarisation of politics and society and the proliferation of authoritarian repressive regimes are the most pressing problems confronting the developing world today. For the past several decades, the process of militarisation has been increasing in most of the countries of the world. The militarisation of politics has reduced people's participation in the decision making process to a farce. Several of the regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have frankly become military juntas, and several others are either crisis governments which call the military out of their barracks to meet an emergency or governments that depend primarily on the military and secret police to stay in power, although they are civilian in appearance.

Militarisation keeps a growing number of people under arms, increases military expenditures, threatens the life and security of people, and results in violations of human rights and the denial of justice and peace to the people. The suppression of all effective legal opposition parties and ideologies, the use of threats and violence as the major means to settle political conflicts, and the enormously increased influence of the military over civilian government, etc., constitute the hallmarks of militarised politics in most developing countries. As a result of this, military forces have increased, and the proliferation of arms and armaments have been encouraged. Military officials assume key civilian government positions. Military value systems dominate the political process. Gross human rights violations and repression continue; violence is legitimised; and the freedom of opinion is curtailed in order to safeguard the interests of the authoritarian rulers. Consequently, people are forced to live under a reign of terror and fear. The domination of military values over civilian life results in the dehumanising of people. The dreams of the people for freedom and a better life have been turned into nightmares of dehumanisation.

Militarism and Militarisation

"Militarism" and "militarisation" have been variously defined. These terms are often used with different connotations in East and West, North and South, by Marxists, liberals, and conservatives. However, most analysts would agree on one point, viz., that this has a malignant and diabolic effect on society and it has now become clearly visible as never before.

"Militarism" is generally used to convey developments paralleling such historical phenomena as Bonapartism, German imperialism, Japanese militarism, etc. Referring to the above points, Marek Thee comments that these models are inadequate for a deeper understanding and analysis of contemporary militarism, both in the Third World and in developed countries, capitalist as well as socialist contexts.1 Militarism is discussed quite often rather as a local or regional issue while its overall international aspects - its structure, dynamics, mushrooming growth, and implications, etc. - are very rarely analysed.

Historically, militarism developed as a corollary to ruling and political power. The military's role traditionally in serving the interests of the ruling classes was marked by a primary concentration of men and materials on winning specific objectives of power. Thus, the military's role was normally limited in scope, confined to one function. In addition, militarism has presented a vast array of customs, interests, prestige, actions, and thought associated with armies and wars and yet has overstepped true military purposes. In France under the Second Empire, the word and the concept of "militarism" arose in the context of political struggles.2 From that time onwards in France, in English usage after 1864, and in German usage after 1870, militarism has connoted a domination of the military man over the civilian, an undue preponderance of military demands, an emphasis on military considerations, spirit, ideals, and scales of value in the life of the State.3

In modern times, militarism has become associated primarily with great power politics, imperialism, territorial conquest, and war. The material basis for the rise of militarism in modern times was created by the imposition of military conscription by Napoleon and the parallel emergence of large national armies with a well-organised professional officer class4 that is explained in varying ways in many standard dictionaries and encyclopedias. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, defines militarism as "the spirit and tendencies characteristic of the professional soldier, the prevalence of military sentiment or ideals among people, the political condition characterised by the predominance of the military class in government or administration, the tendency to regard military efficiency as the paramount interest of the State."5 The Encyclopedia Americana defines the term as "being applied to the policy of giving exceptional emphasis to military preparedness, exalting military virtues, and relying on force in international relations."6 A Shorter Spanish Encyclopedia writes that "militarism represents the predominance of the military element in the government of the State"7 whereas the widely used West German Brocklans speaks of the term as denoting the "predominance of military forms, thought patterns, and objectives in [the] State, politics, and society."8 The [East] German MarxistichLeninistiches Worterbuchder Philosphie, on the other hand, sees it as a "reactionary and aggressive system of domination and organisation in social orders based on exploitation in which economic, social, and cultural life is subjected to a military clique which views military force, and war in particular, as the main instrument for the realisation of an aggressive policy."9 The Soviets Kaia Istoricheskaia Encyclopedia describes "militarism as a `closed system of economics, politics, and ideology' resulting in a `policy of military expansion of the exploiter State with the aim of preparing wars of conquest and of repressing the resistance of the exploited masses within that State.'"10

While analysing the historical background of modern militarism, Marek Thee says:

The term "militarism" enjoyed high currency, especially before World War I, in connection with German expansionism, the birth of imperialism, and of a labour movement opposed to war. Between the wars, militarism was associated mainly with the dictatorships and rapacious policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan. After World War II, the focus was still initially on the dangers of a revival of German and Japanese militarism. But soon, with the spread of military regimes in the Third World, attention turned to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This had been accompanied by a shift on conceptual emphasis. From the traditional preoccupation with the expansionist and bellicose aspects of militarism, concern has turned to the internal space - the systemic disruption caused by militarism. Attention has moved to governmental rigidities, repressive measures, and the seizure of civil competencies by the military.11

While describing the idea and nature of militarism, Alfred Vagts argues that:

. . . [M]ilitarism is not the opposite of pacifism; its true counterpart is civilianism. . . . It covers every system of thinking and valuing and every complex of feelings which rank military institutions and ways above the ways of civilian life, carrying military mentality and modes of acting and decision making into the civilian sphere.12

In his study Militarism: The History of an International Debate, V. R. Berghahn has analysed a particular type of militarism which existed in countries that were making a transition from an agrarian to an industrial society.13 Furthermore, this transition took place within the framework of political institutions which were autocratic and oligarchical. In those cases where representative government and a modern system of interest representation existed, they had not yet firmly established themselves. Germany and Japan in the 19th century and early 20th century offer particularly striking examples of countries experiencing rapid social and economic change which their preindustrial political systems and power structures found difficult to absorb and accommodate. While this incongruity between economic and political development created instability and tension at home, another marked feature of both countries was that they developed expansionist aspirations aiming at the establishment of formal empires by means of external aggression. In this context, Berghahn has quoted Woodrow Wilson's opinion:

Militarism does not consist of any army, nor even of the existence of a very great army. Militarism is a spirit. It is a point of view. It is a purpose. The purpose of militarism is to use armies for aggression.14

From all of these definitions and analyses, militarism can be understood as a dynamic process operating on both the national and international levels to mobilize people and resources for organised warfare and that acts in such a way as to expand the role of the military over civilian affairs. Specific characteristics will differ from country to country depending on whether its purpose is to deter invasion or attack, to engage in war with an external or internal foe, or to gain prestige and credibility within a system of alliances. Marek Thee has described these subsuming symptoms as:

. . . a rush to armaments, the growing role of the military (understood as the military establishment) in national and international affairs, the use of force as an instrument of supremacy and political power, and the increasing influence of the military in civilian affairs.15

Seen from this perspective, it can be understood that "militarisation is an extension of military influence to civilian spheres, including economic and socio-political life. The impact of `militarism' and `militarisation,' in a disguised or open form, is deeply felt in international relations and increasingly in the internal life of many nations as well."16

The consultation in Glion, Switzerland, in 1977 on militarism suggested the following working description of militarisation:

. . . [M]ilitarisation should be understood as the process whereby military values, ideology, and patterns of behaviour achieve a dominating influence on the political, social, economic, and external affairs of the State; and as a consequence, the structural, ideological, and behavioural patterns of both the society and the government are "militarised." Militarism should be seen as one of the more perturbing results of this process.17

Common to these and other definitions of militarism and militarisation are the notion of excess, of the growing encroachment of the military over civilian institutions with a concomitant decline in individual freedoms and democratic forms of decision making. Thus, it has become a dynamic condition characterised by the progressive expansion of the military sphere over civilian life.

Though there is some ambiguity in the uniformity of definitions put forward by different analysts, it is clear that militarism and militarisation are closely interrelated. To make it more clear, Jim Zwick proposes a more suitable definition which follows Marek Thee's but includes only certain aspects of military influence over civilian life, such as those which result either from direct military intervention in the people's lives and behaviour (arrests, relocations, indiscriminate warfare, etc.) or indirect structural involvement in political and economic affairs (increasing military expenditures at the expense of civilian needs, military-oriented industries, a reliance on military force in internal and external political affairs, etc). Militarisation will then denote the spread of military values (discipline and conformity, centralisation of authority, the predominance of hierarchical structures, etc.) into the mainstream of national economic and socio-political life. Militarism is distinguished as being of a more material, physical quality (the rush to arms) while militarisation is predominantly an ideological orientation, often leading to military leadership of civilian organisations and institutions.18

In the advanced capitalist countries, militarisation has manifested itself through the largeness of resources allocated for arms and the development of sophisticated new weapons. In the developing countries, it has been expressed not only in increased defence spending but also in the greater role assumed by the military in civilian affairs in order to control the dissenters and critics of the existing rulers; to suppress trade unionists, peasants and student activists; and to silence intellectuals through coercive measures.

Thus, the distinction between militarism and militarisation is that militarisation is a process and militarism is one perturbing result of it.

Militarisation is understood in the developing world context as a pervasive military presence and influence in society. It is the result of unreasonable growth in the size of the armed forces and the recentering of its traditional role from that of protecting the State against external attack and maintaining internal peace and order to being a repressive tool in maintaining an existing unpopular socio-political order.

An insidious effect of the process of militarisation is the general deterioration of human rights. A gross violation of human rights and political repression takes place continuously in the societies that have moved to authoritarianism and militarisation. Usually these repressive militarised regimes are justified by "national security" considerations and on ensuring a congenial atmosphere for "development." Human rights and political freedom come to be violated very frequently and in a more systematic way. This includes the rampant violation of the right to life and the security of persons, the prevalence of killings and extrajudicial executions or "salvaging," torture and detention without charge, the massacre of civilians, forced evacuations, the restriction of trade union activities, military harassment, and the suppression of dissenters. In the final analysis, militarisation today has become a system of thought and attitudes that places military institutions above civilian decision making processes.


  1. Marek Thee, "Militarism and Militarisation in Contemporary International Relations," Problems of Contemporary Militarisation, Asbjorn and Marek Thee (eds.) (London: Croom Helm, 1980), p. 16.
  2. Alfred Vagts, History of Militarism (New York: Meridian Books Inc., 1959), p. 2.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Marek Thee, op. cit., p. 17.
  5. The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. 6, 1978, p. 438.
  6. The Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 19 (New York, 1968), p. 59.
  7. Quoted in V. R. Berghan, Militarism: The History of an International Debate 1861-1979 (Warwickshire: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1981), p. 3.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Alfred Vagts, op. cit., p. 17.
  13. V. R. Berghahn, op. cit., p. 107.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Marek Thee, op. cit., p. 15.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Militarism and Human Rights (Geneva: Churches Commission on International Affairs-World Council of Churches, 1982), p. 5.
  18. 18 Jim Zwick, Militarism and Repression in the Philippines, Working Paper Series (Montreal: McGill University Developing Area Studies, 1982), p. 4.