“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” – Sun Tzu, Chinese general and strategist, c.500B.C.
There are some questions floating out there, which are generally considered as “no-brainers” – questions that appear so basic, that everyone just assumes that they know the answer, when in fact their understanding of the question is merely superficial, at best. Questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” for example – the correct answer is simple, but many people are unable to formulate the correct response.
Which brings us to the title of this article.
Why do armies (military forces, really) exist? At first glance, the possible answers appear to be self-evident. For many people, their nations create and maintain military forces to defend the country and its peoples. However, their neighbors may see the same nation’s military forces as everything from brutal police enforcers to mercenary enforcers for large business interests.
In fact, that last idea formed part of a statement from Smedley D. Butler, Major General, USMC (ret.), in a speech he gave in 1933. Butler had, in fact, seen monumental levels of corruption in 33-odd years of military service in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He had fought in numerous wars and interventions during those 3+ decades, from Mexico to Central America and the Caribbean, to France in World War One, and in the Far East.
“It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.” – Smedley D. Butler, 1933
He was not incorrect.
Likewise, many people point to the opposite extreme, best exemplified in the South American nations of Argentina and Chile, from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, where those nation’s armies were used primarily as heavy muscle to back up the nominally anti-Communist actions of brutal and irretrievably corrupt military junta’s.
Throughout history, from the time of the savagery of the Assyrians, to the rationalizations for the 1990-91 looting expedition of Saddam Hussein (some of which, if we are being honest, were valid), and beyond, military forces have been used to grab everything from gold, crops and women, to industrial plant equipment and raw materials, despite that inevitably becoming an ultimately losing proposition.
And it is no secret that military forces are extremely expensive, even when military leadership, governments and economists manage to carefully balance military budgets (an almost unheard of event, on a par with finding an actual herd of unicorns). This is because – for the reasons just outlined above, among others – military forces are a net drain on their parent economies, as they can never produce enough economic output to balance the expenditure necessary to create, organize, equip, train and maintain them.
“Raising a host of a hundred thousand men and marching them great distances entails heavy loss on the people and a drain on the resources of the State. The daily expenditure will amount to a thousand ounces of silver. There will be commotion at home and abroad, and men will drop down exhausted on the highways. As many as seven hundred thousand families will be impeded in their labor.” – Sun Tzu
And yet, the rule remains: military forces are necessary for a society to maintain, because whatever other uses militaries are put to, there is always someone on the other side of the river/mountain/ocean that wants a piece of what you have, and is not willing to negotiate for it.
There is, however, a trap inherent in all military forces, that being the breathtaking feel of the power and majesty of command. That is not hyperbole – it is very frighteningly real. “Drunk on power” is not an empty statement. The knowledge of having the ability to wield the power of literal life and death over hundreds, thousands, millions – or more – people can be more intoxicating than any mere chemical action.
People with that particular failing also believe that they are smart enough to disregard Sun Tzu.
“To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” – Sun Tzu
That is not “paranoia” – that is history…and History does not care whether you believe it or not.
So, where does this leave us?
“We, the People” – of whatever nation – need military forces. Despite the dangers of armed forces having the monopoly of violence within their borders (which, ignorant arguments to the contrary, is the entire purpose of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment), the People, as a whole, need an organized, well-trained and well-equipped force to protect them. Like any tool in a home, like any kind of vehicle, device or machine, the object itself is just an object – it is inanimate, and has no mind of its own. The “good” or “evil” actions that tool is used for, is solely the responsibility of those putting it to use.
It is responsibility of the citizens of a nation to hold their governments accountable when their military forces are misused…because if they don’t try, they have no right to complain: You, the Citizen, are paying for your military forces. Even if you have never been in a military force, if you think you have a say in how your country operates, you need to inform yourself about “things military”, in general, and your country’s military in particular.
That’s part of what is known as “adulting”.
“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” – George Washington, First Annual Address to Both Houses of Congress, Friday, January 8, 1790