Militarism and the madness of war

russian tank ukraine

Militarization of society is happening today with great haste, not least reinforced by the war in Ukraine. People are caught up in the war and forced to choose sides. Speaking out against armaments is difficult, if not impossible, when there is a threatening enemy on your doorstep. But that is not the case in Denmark. Security experts have stated that there is currently no threat to Danish territory. Denmark is not directly at war, but is part of the war alliance NATO, which continuously wages wars. Most recently in a proxy war against Russia, where Ukraine is supplied with NATO weapons in an increasingly bloody war with Russia. A war where it is estimated that there are over 100,000 dead and wounded. If you speak for peace negotiations and a ceasefire, you can be shamed as being naive. Russia must be defeated, and leftists are using rhetoric that should be foreign to them, given the long tradition of anti-war activities and anti-militarism.

War contains all dimensions, economic, political and not least psychological. In war, the perception of the enemy is influenced by many factors. There may be a conflict that has been unresolved for years and has almost taken on a life of its own. With growing accusations and enmity which means cutting off dialogue and digging mental trenches, not least mentally. The neighbor becomes an enemy and is seen as a threat, and a lack of knowledge and understanding of conflict resolution can mean that the political forces that rely on military solutions gain increased influence. The Yugoslavian wars are a terrifying example. More funds are allocated for military rearmament, usually always under the heading that it is for defense and not for attack. Lack of dialogue means that it becomes more difficult to counter false information and propaganda, as the trench-like thinking develops. The danger of such a development has been recognized by the great powers when it comes to nuclear weapons, which is why we have seen agreements on ongoing dialogue and ceilings on the number of nuclear weapons – to limit the risk of an inferno and the annihilation of humanity. But even in this area we have seen major powers cancel agreements so the world has actually become a more dangerous place. We have had a cold war between the superpowers the USA and the Soviet Union, and what was hoped to be a period of peace has now been replaced by a new cold war, with rearmament growing enormously.

Cold War

There is talk of a new cold war, but one might ask, did the Cold War really end? Was it not an illusion, as Magdoff and Sweezy (1994) once wrote? The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989-90, so you could say that for the Russians the Cold War ended. There was talk of the peace dividend, which should benefit everyone. But that was not the case for the United States, which steadily increased its military budgets. It is said that the West won the Cold War, while the Soviet Union played a central role in the hot World War II in defeating Nazism. But the West and the United States in particular had also since the Russian Revolution in 1917 been keen to get rid of communism, an ideology about a society organized on non-capitalist principles. The accelerated arms race helped break the Soviet Union, but why continue rearmament?

After the end of the Cold War, the United States had the world’s largest military apparatus, and understood itself as the world’s leading superpower. What the US is still regards itself and what US strategic plans clearly shows. The military and the military industry had become a power factor with colossal political influence. But the Cold War was also about fighting societies that were not organized on the basis of ‘free’ market principles.

In other words, other systems, and this is repeated in today’s talk of “system competition”, where it is especially China that is named as the enemy of the West and the USA. But Russia came also into the firing line, after the government in Moscow broke partially with Yeltsin’s neoliberal line, and is leading a more nationalistic course both politically and economically.

Magdoff and Sweezy’s point is that it is “probably not the end of communist history in today’s world. Capitalism has never been as pervasive and powerful as it is now. But at the same time characterized by uncontrollable crises and disasters. It is an explosive mix that is everywhere and is polarizing societies like never before. And at the lower levels, always present in the capitalist organism but largely dormant in recent years, the communist virus will come alive in unexpected ways and places. Don’t think for a minute that those in the driver’s seat of the capitalist powers are not aware of what is happening or are prepared to deal with it in the only way they know how, namely with bare military force. For them, the Cold War, which ended four years ago, was nothing more than the latest round in a struggle that will continue as long as capitalism endures”.

Militarism and the militarization of societies is a consequence of this system, and it affects us all through increased propaganda and psychological warfare both internally and externally.

Militarism and Capitalism

Militarism is a concept that seems to have disappeared from the vocabulary of socialists, which is sad and dangerous, since the allure to join the war parties is great when the drums of war are booming. This is shown by the painful historical experiences, not least at the outbreak of the First World War. The almost reverential celebration of the military can be seen everywhere where armaments have become part of the economic system of capitalism. Today it is spreading globally, not least through NATO’s new strategy, where they stand ready to intervene anywhere on the globe. But also in growth in Russia and China, which are considered by the USA/NATO as enemies and system competitors. Arms races are like an infectious disease that spreads. Danish security policy adapts to this development, and there is talk of emergency forces that must be ready to be sent out. A development that is based on political decisions in both NATO and the EU. As a consequence of this, a so-called “national compromise” has been implemented with an enormous growth in the military budget.

The American James M. Cypher (2022) defines militarism as follows: “It constitutes a social institution with ideas and actions, e.g. patriotism, as well as military forces and arms manufacturers. Militarism is both an ideology and a national policy, which is exercised through the state apparatus. They are mutually dependent and influence each other”. Cypher describes 3 forms of militarism, based on the United States:

  • Military Keynesianism is a policy where military production helps to keep capitalism’s economy running and counteract stagnation. It creates capital, employment and new technologies.
  • Global neoliberal militarism is a development where neoliberal forces support as much as possible privatization of the military, e.g. using mercenaries. Along with a readiness to intervene wherever nations challenge US/NATO hegemony.
  • Corporate militarism where arms-producing groups earn mega profits through long-term contacts with the state.

War becomes everyday life

War can develop into a kind of quicksand, where a war continues even though attempts at peace negotiations are made for years. The war can become everyday life, as Frederikke Bruhn Jacobsen states to the Danish daily newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad (2022) in an article about peace agreements:

“The longer a war lasts, the easier it becomes to live in. Peace fades away and eventually becomes something new that you have to enter into. It becomes something that is hard to believe in and imagine. It also becomes everyday that people die. Sacrificing life becomes a matter of course more than a tragic event. Unfortunately, consideration for human life is not a consideration that weighs particularly heavily when the war is underway.

Not to mention the huge war economy being built up. A lot goes down in a war, but there is also big money at stake. The black market is growing, and other forces are controlling the economy. Their interest is to maintain the war, not end it.”

War seduces and gives meaning, especially when sacrifices are made and we fight for “our values” against others. Propaganda for war is gaining strength, and people of peace who advocate dialogue, conflict resolution and negotiation are shamed as naive and accused of doing the enemy’s business. War becomes an alluring elixir, and the military, which is after all a minority in society, gains enormous status and space in the media. War also becomes a nationalist narrative where we must stand together behind our soldiers. Relatives who lose sons can even stand up and say it was worth it. There is therefore some psychological slippage, which means that you distance yourself more and more from a peace solution, as a dynamic has been set in motion which is not easy to slow down again.

But can you have dialogue with an enemy you hate? Some mental blocks to talking to the enemy develop, and voices for the enemy to be totally defeated develop. That the Allies during World War II worked for the total defeat of Nazism, which was a criminal organization, we can all support. When the Nazis were forced to sign an unconditional surrender at Karlshorst, Berlin, the world erupted in jubilation. But most wars can be avoided if peace brokers intervene in time with disarmament agreements and conflict resolution, so that open and prolonged war is avoided. Arms production for export and profit must be banned, and only the right to build a national defense must be accepted. War is closely associated with capitalism and imperialism, with the conquest and control of territories, markets and raw materials. Prevention means that you have to talk to others and use diplomacy and rely on the UN pact, which was concluded on the basis of the painful experiences of the Second World War. A UN which at that historical time, however, did not do away with colonialism, which would later trigger national liberation wars.

Frederikke Bruhn Jacobsen(2022) states that “you cannot talk enough with your enemy during a war. One must always make sure to also have a diplomatic strategy. The biggest obstacle to peace is the lack of trust between the parties. When you create a story about the war, you also create an image of the enemy, and that image of the enemy grows as contact dwindles,” she says. “That’s why dialogue is so important. When you walk into a room and see a human instead of the monster you’ve built up, you get closer to each other. If you want peace, you have to do everything to keep the parties on the negotiating track, even if things don’t go well”.

The Vietnam War and negotiations

The Vietnam War, in which US imperialism tried to crush the Vietnamese national liberation movement, was excessive bloody with over a million dead and unimaginable suffering. The many American soldiers who came home in body bags, and international peace work and support for Vietnam put a lot of pressure on the superpower. Many, especially on the left, have idealized the struggle of the Vietnamese, and say that it was not peace negotiations, but armed struggle that was decisive. The Vietnamese communists fought for peace and socialism against a seemingly overwhelming enemy. But they thought dialectically and did not set up an opposition between negotiations and military combat. The fight for peace was principled, and there was dialogue even during the worst acts of war on the part of the United States. The peace work helped to create support widely among the global public, and not only in relation to the anti-imperialist allies. Kapfenberger (2023) writes that over a period of 5 years there were peace negotiations in Paris between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the United States with a total of 202 regular meetings and 24 confidential discussions. On January 27, 1973, a peace agreement was signed in Paris to end the war and restore peace in Vietnam. As early as 1969, President Johnson wanted to end hostilities and start peace negotiations. But with the newly elected President Nixon, all this was rejected, and Nixon started a “war for peace”. Even during the USA’s criminal blanket bombing with B 52 bombers in North Vietnam, DNV maintained the negotiating track and diplomacy.

Antimilitarism

Militarism as a concept does not have a clear definition, but is mostly used as an expression of a system or attitudes characterized by a one-sided focus or even idealization of military means of power and authoritarian exercise of power. A society can be characterized by the military and become militarized. Not only during war, but also in times of peace. It is especially the empire of Prussia that has set an example of extreme militarism. Not only its institutions, but also as culture and ideas. Making fun of ridiculous military personnel could be severely punished, and agitation against the mistreatment of private soldiers by officers was an important part of the anti-militarism by the German Social Democrats in the pre-World War I imperial era. Journalists who criticized the military and military policies ended up in prison, and courtrooms were used as an indictment against the military. Militarism was also linked to imperialism’s colonial policy, with the German Empire participating in the pursuit of colonies in Africa. Just as it was a heavy burden on the taxpayers

A world without war was the vision for both pacifists, marxists and liberals, while realists regarded war as something external, which was a natural part of the political means. Before World War I, the social democrats were the leaders in the criticism of the authoritarian military power, and in the class struggle, in addition to the right to vote, the demand was also universal conscription, where workers with weapons could defend themselves against the standing armies of those in power. Militias of armed workers were seen as a safeguard against the despotism of the rulers and standing armies, an alternative to a military which functioned as a state within a state. Also interesting here is the Nobel Peace Prize, where Alfred Nobel instituted the prize for those who worked against standing armies. A testament which today is grossly failed by the Nobel Peace Committee, see Heffermehl (2008).

Socialists considered militarism to have a negative role with an acceptance of war, and justifying militarism was an obstacle to democratic development. Karl Liebknecht published the pamphlet ‘Militarism and antimilitarism’, which was banned in 1907 and Liebknecht sentenced to 18 months in prison. Militarism was a norm that could be used to oppress the workers and ultimately mean that soldiers took up arms against their class brothers. The military was a closed world where military discipline worked like mass hypnosis. Liebknecht introduced psychological concepts in his explanation of the military’s role in subjecting free men to a discipline, so that the military became an effective machine of violence. Liebknecht also exposed the arms industry’s role with Krupp’s bribery and lobbying. He was here ahead of his time in his analysis of the psychological factors and what we have since called the military-industrial complex (Stargardt, 1994).

But leading socialists turned against Liebknecht and now supported war appropriations in support of a national defense not least against the Russian Tsar. The propaganda for a national defense was massive, and the SPD was pushed back and split, and the German Empire became a divided country between hundreds of thousands who demonstrated for peace and hundreds of thousands who signed up for military service. The socialist peace movement was strong and could mobilize, but eventually lost to hatred, militarism and nationalism. Karl Liebknecht voted 2 Dec. 1914 as the only one in the German Reichstag against the war grants and was met with a wave of hatred. The war was an imperialist war, a war to dominate the world market. Only a peace based on the international solidarity of the working class and the freedom of the peoples could be described as a secure peace. At a time when we see a gigantic arms race and a bloody imperialist war in Ukraine, we  must declare “WAR AGAINST WAR”, as Karl Liebknecht declared in 1910, and this protest must be linked to an anti-capitalist revolution. It was a time of strong anti-militarism peace movements, i.e. a Dane, Fredrik Bajer, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1908.

Nobel’s testament

It is worth reproduce the wording, to remember when the annual awarding of the peace prize takes place. For many years there has been gross abuse. Nobel wrote that it should be given to “the one who has worked the most or best for the fraternization of peoples and the abolition or reduction of standing armies as well as the formation and spread of peace congresses” (Heffermehl, 2008).

The peace movement worked in his time as today for states to create security through international agreements and cooperation – and not mistrust and rearmament. An important inspiration for Nobel was Bertha von Suttner, who among other things wrote the book “Die Waffen nieder!” in 1889 and was strongly against military and rearmament. That a dynamite manufacturer could become a supporter of peace seems paradoxical, and it is worth mention a quote from Nobel to her:

“My factories may be able to end the war before their peace congresses. When the day comes that two armies can annihilate each other in a second, all civilized armies will hesitate and send their troops home” (Heffermehl, 2008). This was before the invention and use of nuclear weapons, and has not resulted in the generals becoming unemployed. On the contrary, the military armies and the amount of weapons of mass destruction have grown tremendously. But something positive: A majority of countries in UN have outlawed nuclear weapons as illegal weapons; see the international movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons: ICAN.

Military museums and only a single peace museum

The militarization of Danish society is quite well illustrated by the many military museums we have. A peace activist has counted it to 27 military museums. Military personnel appear daily on TV also wearing uniforms, while the peace movement and peace researchers are not invited inside. The Ukraine war has whipped up a violent atmosphere, where peace activists are shamed for being Putin’s errand boys. Warning against war and its consequences has suddenly become socially subversive. A strong consensus among politicians see more arms aid as the solution, and a dangerous escalation is taking place also with increased risk of nuclear war. We have in Denmark only a single Peace Museum, which is also a place that actively works for peace through education. It is Fredsby Aalborg:

“The purpose of the association is to work for peace in the world by peaceful means – based on the UN’s Global Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions. It is our vision to develop Aalborg’s and North Jutland’s peace work within four cornerstones: Peace Activism, Peace Research, Peace Innovation and Peace Museum. Fredsby Aalborg believes in shared responsibility and that the individual citizen can make a difference. The association works for peace in the world by peaceful means, for a balanced distribution of the earth’s resources and for a sustainable development with a long perspective”.

Turbomilitarism

It is disappointing to see how anti-militarist positions have collapsed like a house of cards after the Ukraine war. Peace policy positions have been abandoned in favor of a maximalist approach to the war, where one bets that one side will win. Christopher Mott (2023) writes in a historical analysis that if one learns from recent history, this war will not end with a knock out: “Maximalists look at World War II and believe that the Ukraine war can take the same direction. But it is not like that, conflicts have continued for decades since then”. The massive rearmament decided in Germany (and Denmark) with full turbo  has raised questions from the arms industry and the politicians, what should happen when these huge grants expire (Wagner, 2022). They must of course be maintained, they believe. This means that really serious problems in society that need a solution are postponed or amplified. The escalating superpower competition means that efforts against climate change, the extinction of species, pandemics and an economy based on eternal growth and exploitation come to a standstill. Confronting this dangerous turbo-militarism must be a main task for the left and all good humanists.

Notes and links

Heffermehl Fredrik S.: Nobels Vilje, Oslo, 2008.

End of Cold War Illusions: Harry Magdoff & Paul M. Sweezy, Monthly Review. November 2022. Monthly Review | End of Cold War Illusions

Nobelpristager Fredrik Bajer: Fredrik Bajer – Facts (nobelprize.org)

James M. Cypher: The political economy of systemic US militarism. Monthly Review, april 2022.  Monthly Review, | The Political Economy of Systemic U.S. Militarism

James M. Cypher: From Military Keynesianism to Global-Neoliberal Militarism, juni 2007,

Monthly Review | From Military Keynesianism to Global-Neoliberal Militarism

Fredsaftaler: Derfor kan det være lettere at fortsætte krigen end at slutte freden | Kristeligt Dagblad, 22. juli 2022.
https://www.kristeligt-dagblad.dk/debat/fredsaftaler-derfor-kan-det-vaere-lettere-fortsaette-krigen-end-slutte-freden

Helmut Kapfenberger, Junge Welt, 27. Jan. 2023. Triumpf der Diplomatie,27.01.2023: Triumph der Diplomatie (Tageszeitung Junge Welt)

Fredsby Aalborg

Jürgen Wagner: Im Rüstungswahn. Deutschlands Zeitenwende zu Aufrüstung und Militarisierung, Papyrossa Verlag, Köln 2022. Neuerscheinung – PapyRossa Verlag

Christopher Mott: Tell me how this ends: If recent history is a guide, not with a knockout blow. Responsible Statecraft, 3 marts 2023, Tell me how this ends: If recent history is a guide, not with a knockout blow – Responsible Statecraft

John Graversgaard is a political activist from Aarhus, Denmark

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