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Toward Redefining the Military

by Albert D. Biderman - 1971

To achieve a viable national service, we must eliminate death-dealing as the basic definitional purpose of the military. Instead, the uniformed forces should be regarded as a capability for dealing with national emergencies requiring large-scale logistical and human resources, as well as for handling certain routine functions that are natural side-products of a large operational force.

The gist of my proposal can be stated briefly and simply: Be it moved that the qualifying word "armed" be stricken from the designation of the forces of the United States. This single step suggests important opportunities for national service.

To achieve a viable national service, we must eliminate death-dealing as the basic definitional purpose of the military. Instead, the uniformed forces should be regarded as a capability for dealing with national emergencies requiring large-scale logistical and human resources, as well as for handling certain routine functions that are natural side-products of a large operational force.

The capacity to cope with violent threats to our national existence and to international order would, of course, continue to be a primary function of the national forces. A radically broadened conception of these forces, however, would contribute greater rationality to how they went about countering violence. It would modify, in particular, the present tendency to equate military capability solely with the magnitude of the casualties inflicted on an opponent. The change proposed would also give more explicit recognition to society's actual dependence on its military for performing many purely civil functions. But more than that, it would also assist the military in purging itself of many anachronistic features that derive from its being an organization which glorifies violence, while existing in a society which increasingly abominates violence. It would reduce other pathologies as well, which stem from the nonconsummatory activities of most of its members --i.e. their almost exclusive engagement in standby and practice activities rather than in real achievement.

With the word "armed" no longer definitional of their nature and function, the forces of the United States would be able to fulfill more rationally the many roles they actually do play. It would also permit them to assume additional constructive missions for the nation. I would like to sketch what these functions might be; what is involved in this redefinition of "military" and of "forces"; why the idea of national service might be pursued better by conferring broader roles on the uniformed services than by creating new special-purpose organizations that would further constrict the roles the military plays in our national existence; why, in a structural-functional sense, the definition I am proposing for the military institution is more accurate than the recent tendency to think increasingly of the military only in terms of its people-killing functions.

The present discussion involves some restatement of ideas I presented at a 1966 Conference on the Draft1 and at a previous National Service conference, but I will try to add to these early statements, rather than repeat them. There will be risk of leaving out some of the considerations quite important to my thesis for those who did not read or hear these earlier presentations or for those who did and found them easily forgettable.

Reversing the Trend We must begin to reverse the trend toward thinking of the military exclusively in terms of its death-dealing functions. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to need large forces to counter violent threats to our national integrity and to international order. I believe, however, that we can have more effective and rational capabilities for such eventualities if we adopt a broad concept of national forces than if we continue to restrict our conceptions of "what is military" to progressively narrower specialization in death and destruction.

There are two sides to this proposal. One involves changing the conception of how our external defense may be ensured, including our participation in multilateral efforts. For the control and deterrence of violent force, there can be greater reliance on counterforces other than ability to wreak even greater violence. The obsession with the military's people-killing functions has subverted the legitimacy not only of the armed forces as a form of national service but also the very national purposes they serve.

The challenge, then, is to restore the idea of working for the national defense and contributing to the maintenance of a peaceful, thuggery-free international order as high purposes for youth. Success depends upon a fundamental reform of the very concept of national forces. Society can no longer sustain an institution which makes systematic violence a central and sacred goal—which is so specialized to the people-killing business that it tends to convert any crisis into a test of the relative abilities of opposing forces to destroy people and property.

The other side of this transformation involves recognizing, restoring, and conferring positive domestic functions that should be performed by a transmuted national force structure.

While the changes to which I point are not immediately realizable, I do not believe they necessarily belong in the realm of remote, utopianistic futurism. On the contrary, I think that forces in our national situation make it likely that there will be developments in the direction I am proposing during the next two decades. My discussion could probably be cast as well in a predictive as in a prescriptive mood.

The transformation of the military into broader national service rests upon a perception of continuing need for such forces taken together with increasing inability to sustain a military establishment on the prevailing moral, ideological, political, and economic bases. It seems unlikely that our military requirements will be drastically reduced in the future no matter how much we curb our own tendencies toward military adventurism. Nuclear standoff immobilizes the ability of Great Powers and grand alliances to impose by massive threat a stable order among the multiplying small powers, as well as among subnational and cross-national ideological and ethnic adversaries. Barring unlikely major developments in international peacekeeping, a period of escalating mass violence seems in the cards from which national insulation will continue to remain difficult.

At the same time, however, distaste for the military calling becomes more thoroughly and intensely diffused among Americans. In periods between military crises generalized pacifism makes it progressively more difficult to legitimate standing military forces. The result is a social paradox: a consensus for maintaining a high military force level alongside an equally strong consensus that it is a loathsome institution to which one personally does not wish to contribute.

A second conflict arises because defense needs have historically justified the maintenance of a capability that has frequently been used to meet society's other critical requirements. During the recent era of war and cold war, we have gradually come to subordinate national collective purposes to national defense. But these collective purposes remain inherent requirements in their own right. While I fear we may lose our sensitivity to the very existence of public needs as we move from a cold war economy, these public needs, in the long run, will become more visible and pressing. Indeed, as society grows more interdependent, complex, mobile, and highly articulated, these public needs will require proportionately greater provision. For meeting many such needs, an organization having many of the military's characteristics is required.

Given the prevailing intellectual temper, the orientation of this paper is fundamentally outrageous. It presumes that things have gone awry in precisely the opposite way from that presumed by most political observers.

  • At a time when the near-universal complaint is the stifling of the individual by society, this paper presumes the problems of the day stem mainly from a loss of the sense of collective purpose.
  • At a time when the military is regarded as the basic source of evil in society, this paper looks to the military institution as an embodiment of some of those abstract forms of good that are sought through proposals for a system of national service.
  • At a time when a president representing our "conservative" political party joins in the cry for "power to the people" of those too radical to cohere in any political party—and all mean thereby a reemphasis on the most local-istic of interests and strivings—this paper presumes the modern era demands ever more that we attend to interests that transcend localities; that the people can have power to deal with the problems and crises of the day only by action in national, and, indeed, international concert.
  • At a time when freedom is denied ever more purely in terms of doing one's own thing -- whether in the sense of the mystical psychology of selfhood and self-actualization or in the hedonistic sense of the economists and the swingers—this paper presumes that freedom, selfhood, self-actualization, and happiness are dependent for each on our collective state and common fate; that they depend upon our ability to count on others to act in accordance with our common (political) decisions with regard to what must be done to enhance that collective state and protect that common fate.

In one key regard, however, my thesis is consistent with today's intellectual temper. Things have gotten out of joint because we so long and so exclusively hooked our national sense of collective purpose to national military power— to ends involving war and ingenuously immoral equivalents of war. It is a platitude that war is the easiest means of forging a national consensus for collective action. For thirty years, the need to defeat alien powers seen as embodying all evil, or at least to keep them from imposing their evil ways upon us, has served so well to organize national effort toward all manner of national collective needs and common purposes that we have forgotten that these are needs and purposes in their own right that have to be served. Whether the common purpose has been to build transportation systems, educate the young, develop our sciences, handle great natural disasters, cope with the crises of a multi-racial society, or reach for the stars, war or the cold war or the national defense provided the legitimation of the national action. Collective goals which could not be met by the divine hand of the market, the town meeting, the benefactions of repentant robber barons or by any other means but large-scale collective organization and action were all approachable as means—as national resources needed for national defense. Our people became "manpower resources" and our land "environmental resources."

Now, suddenly as historical things go, war and defense no longer can serve as the basic legitimation of national action. In tracing how this came to be, I venture, as a major thesis of this paper, that warfare indeed may not be tenable for the long run even as the fundamental justification of the military institution.

Military necessity served so long and so well as the ultimate justifier of all our common purposes that we have a very dim and confused understanding of what such purposes are. One reason that national service is wedded so closely to the military in the historical context in which it currently arises is that the military is the principal organization in our society which has unapologetically a collectivistic value orientation. Almost everything else is so thoroughly dominated by the individualistic orientation that distinctions between the collective and the private have become fuzzy. The military helps bring to mind the kinds of collective values which no dint of effort on the part of economists can make intelligible merely as "externalities"—which remain collective objects only because of imperfections of the market system or other devices for the calculation of cost and benefit which hinder their assignment to individuals.

Crisis Functions For the foreseeable future, the major form of national service will continue to be in the military. There seems scant prospect of any diminution of the role of violence in human affairs; indeed, present world conditions suggest the reverse. One can predict with some confidence that the United States will continue to maintain large armed forces.

But developments have been taking place which have reduced the ability of these forces to serve the functions of national service that the military has performed in the past. To reiterate, this is the trend toward thinking of the military ever more exclusively in terms of its death-dealing functions. Traditionally, nations have relied on their military forces for many functions in addition to those of warfare. They were used for any grand purposes requiring large, nationally-supported, and organized capabilities. We still rely on our military forces— either federal or the National Guard—for coping with all manner of large-scale emergencies.

While in theory, Civil Defense, the American Red Cross, and other voluntary agencies, as well as neighbors helping one another, are the ways in which we cope with disaster situations, in actuality when the emergency becomes truly large-scale, it is only in the military that we really have the capabilities of readily available men, machines, and organization. The manner in which the military is used on such occasions is not ideal because there is only a partially explicit (and a decreasing) recognition of its nonwarfare functions. The tendency exists for the military to deal with civil crises in a largely ad hoc manner. There is limited specific training and little specific provision of equipment or plans.

To be sure, the large civil component of the Corps of Engineers of the Army stands. It is regularly seen as an anomaly in the Defense Department, however, and only the tastiness of its pork blocks the regular proposals made to turn over its functions to a purely civilian agency. The key justification for retaining the Corps' civil functions within the defense establishment is that only the experience it continually gains in the performance of these functions allows it to have the capacity to execute the major feats of construction it has regularly performed in wartime.

This rationale is difficult to gainsay. No doubt it is true that the military's phenomenal engineering and logistical accomplishments in recent wars could not have been achieved had the engineers been restricted to military housekeeping and dry-run practice in peacetime. But if this rationale holds for the Corps of Engineers and the restricted civil functions it performs, it would, it seems, also hold for many other branches of the service that do not have explicitly recognized civil missions.

The rest of the military generally must rely on simulated activities for developing the skills, testing the organization and the man^machine fits that gain actual real-world employment during war. (Perhaps this is one reason why the housekeeping components tend to become overdeveloped.) Even in the case of these components, however, the resulting expertise and capability derived from continual performance of real work is not ideally suited for transfer to emergency conditions. They become adapted, as does the system, to the static situation of garrison forces and must be wrenched into altogether different shape to meet the demands of supporting forces in the field.

Concrete Activities As an immediate step, we can build on a role of the military that traditionally has high legitimacy. We must multiply manifold the commitment of our forces to coping with natural disasters and other major emergencies, such as, electric power failures, mass events, transportation breakdowns, emerging or perceived ecological crises, etc. This presumes a much more explicit definition of the military's role in such situations than now exists.

The growing size, complexity, interdependence, and geographic concentration of our society multiplies the disaster potential of natural and man-caused disturbances. We need corresponding elevations of the capacity to handle them. Dealing with recurrent emergency situations, both domestic and international, should be accepted as a major and routine function of the forces of the United States.

Thus in place of costly dry-run activities, why not substitute, insofar as possible, services of concrete and immediate social value? For example, replace much of the bombing practice with forest fire fighting. The experience for the Air Force from a military standpoint would be as useful. Present aircraft sensing equipment could be adapted or supplemented to allow penetration of the vast smoke screens under which forest fires now proceed unchecked to consume thousands of acres of literally priceless land annually.

Anyone who viewed the recent television documentary on a forest fire would have noted how reminiscent the operation was to a military campaign. It was an air-ground operation; the ground fire fighters acted like troops and were organized into small disciplined units; and the aircraft used for fighting the blaze were often as not converted military machines.

In one respect, though, the battle against the forest fire differed from the battles against human enemies televised during the same week. The meagerness of the fire fighting forces and the obsolesence of their equipment in relation to the magnitude of the task could not pass unnoticed. Small helicopters were attempting to deal with the fire by spilling water from 400-gallon buckets dangling by a cable from their underbelly—almost like spitting into a fireplace. The fire was eventually contained by drops of chemical from flying tankers after consuming 17,000 acres. But these were not the great, monstrous-bellied behemoths used in the SAC refueling fleet even a decade ago, nor the versatile giants employed for air supply operations currently in Vietnam, but rather converted bombers of antique vintage.

Were we to make even a half-hearted effort to mobilize the capabilities our military forces possess on a standby basis for dropping things from the air and for coordinated air and ground operations, I suspect that we might be able to end the menace of uncontrolled forest fires.2

To do this, and many other tasks, there will be a need to overcome the objection about the competition of the military with private enterprise—in this case, the entrepreneurs who have converted World War II bombers for contract fire fighting work. Since the close of World War II, the capability of our military to supply air transportation for important (and not so important) public functions has been cut back repeatedly in response to protests from commercial aviation interests. We must reintroduce the idea that military flying proficiency be devoted as much as possible to useful governmental purposes. Examples of services which could be provided are air ambulance services to highly specialized treatment centers for specific rare diseases and continual air reconnaissance to provide governmental jurisdictions at all levels with all manner of information about their environment.

The recent Los Angeles earthquake brought some glimmering of consciousness to America that catastrophes are not only possible, they are a certain part of our national future. While the individual Californian can resign himself to taking his chances of losing everything in an earthquake—there is little he can do about it—it makes much less sense for us to act this way collectively. There is a national neurosis of denial behavior involved in ignoring that at any time a large proportion of our population and resources may be wiped out by a sudden give of the San Andreas fault or that vast metropolitan areas may be engulfed by a tidal wave.

Organizing to cope with these threats involves not merely developing a capacity for post-disaster services far beyond that which we now have, but also, were we to approach these threats as we do those perceived from foreign powers, massive efforts toward preventive measures. We need the equivalent of intelligence, that is, geological and engineering data on earthquake phenomena, the equivalent of fortifications, and a priority program for earthquake-proofing those structural features of our coastal states that represent the greatest potential hazards.

A few civil emergency activities of the military have gained a degree of institutionalization. The hay lifts to blizzard-starved cattle are a fairly regular occurrence -- as I write, 25,000 bales of hay are being kicked out of military aircraft over Kansas.

But the perfection of the mechanism of contract has reduced vastly the reliance of government on the military to support its civil activities. The telephone company has largely displaced the Signal Corps, for example. The roles of the uniformed services in explorations and cartography, environmental public health, and remote area transport are relatively smaller now than at any other time in our history.

My proposal would reverse the trend toward complete civilianization of the uniformed, civil purpose forces, such as the Public Health Service, Coast Guard, Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Corps of Engineers. The importance of avoiding a narrowly commercial viewpoint as the oceans loom larger as the next frontier of human society suggests a much broader role for our sea forces, for example.

Foreign Employments Our military might very well perform emergency civil functions more outside our borders. In fact, some regularization of these functions has taken place. Each ambassador, for instance, receives a contingency fund which he can use to make-an immediate commitment for an emergency relief operation by U.S. Armed Forces, should a natural disaster strike the country.

A good deal of the early impetus for these foreign programs came from the psychological operations conceptions of the Cold War. Programs were implemented to cement popular and elite opinion to our side in the Cold War conflict. In addition to a number of major aero-medical relief operations in natural disasters, these Cold War operations brought about such highly touted psychological warfare successes as the Mecca airlift in the early 1950s for stranded Muslim pilgrims. Perhaps the decline of Cold War competition may partially account for the relatively meager response to the recent disasters in Pakistan and Latin America.

The Berlin airlift of 1948-49 provides a major example in recent times of the nonviolent employment of military forces in dealing with an international crisis. The world climate is becoming increasingly less hospitable to having the armed forces of foreign countries operating in one's own territory. The effect appears to be a curtailment of the magnitude of disaster relief capabilities that are mobilized when crises now strike smaller and poorer countries. My proposal to eliminate violence functions as the defining criterion of the military and to establish clearly its multi-emergency purposes might help offset this development. Ideally, emergency forces for international deployment would be organized on international lines. An initial step toward facilitating the creation of international forces resides in the move toward eliminating violence as their essential hallmark.

In the twentieth century, the slowness and meagerness of the response to events like the Central Peruvian earthquake in May 1970 (50,000 estimated dead), or to that in Iran two years earlier (11,500 dead), or the regular mass-killing tidal waves in East Pakistan represent inexcusable failures to translate compassion into effective international organization. The mechanisms of the League of Red Cross Societies are anachronistically inadequate. New international agreements and mechanisms are needed to permit cooperative mobilization of the only resources which exist in adequate scale and mobility for major disasters, that is, the military resources of nations.

It should be noted that military organizations possess many attributes which make them especially capable of engaging in international cooperative activities. In all nations they are organized along similar lines, they have extensive experience working in alliances, and it is presumed that they will be working in foreign lands with foreigners.

General Conception of Forces My proposal assumes that the requirements for coping with national or international emergencies are largely general. That is, that very much the same skills, equipment, organization, reconnaissance and communication that are well-adapted to warfare are also adaptable to dealing with other kinds of emergency situations. That component of all military training which is highly specific to skill in weaponry and defense is small. In the military, as elsewhere, skills develop mostly in the course of doing jobs. Many of the important skills required for effective military functioning are those involved in learning how to be a part of that large organization. An important part of socialization to the military involves developing that turn of mind which habituates young people to a milieu altogether different from what they encountered before service, in that it possesses lavish resources, including elaborate technology. I would venture that the major impact of military socialization of American males was not through the mechanism of specific skill development but rather a substitution of "thinking big" for the "thinking small" appropriate to home, school, and ordinary workplace.

To be sure, the more commonly thought of virtues conferred by basic military training are not to be ignored. The cultivation of physical fitness, the ability to live in the field, to accept with equanimity a modicum of physical hardship and the disciplines necessary for order and concert in a mass organization, knowledge of the rudiments of the treatment of injured persons are ones needed for the manpower of national forces, whatever their mission.

Society has used the military services as a principal means to make major investments in human and technological capital—investments which would have been irrational for the private sector. The aviation, communications, and information-technology "revolutions" would not now be so characterized had it not been for the joint development of technology and trained manpower by and for the military.

The growing unpopularity of the armed forces confronts society with fulfilling a social need previously met by the military, namely, providing an avenue of escape from the intolerable life situations in which some citizens inevitably become entrapped as a result of an imperfect social order. If worst came to worst, young men could go off to sea or enlist in the army without fear of pursuit. I think it an important function of national government to maintain a suitably unattractive haven to which people may escape, but the moral unattractiveness of the army for so many has rendered it no haven at all. Our social well-being suffers as the drug cult communes and the underworld increasingly become the havens for the disenchanted. One aim of national service, therefore, must be to reach and train those individuals whose needs are not being answered by school and industry.

There has yet to appear an adequate assessment of the manpower development roles the armed services have served during the past three decades. Without one, we cannot readily determine whether we will have adequate substitute mechanisms for the period ahead when this role of the military is likely to decline. The use of the armed services for their training capacities, per se, as was involved in part in the Project 100,000 concept, has something to recommend it.

The Police Analogy To some extent, my proposed functions for the military parallels some of the actual functions of the local police. At the same time, however, while my proposal envisions the military modeling itself more along the lines of police forces, we are confronted at the local level with many problems because of the insistence of police forces in modeling themselves quite inappropriately on the military. Despite the fact that dealing with illegal violence is a very minor part of their work, police forces in the United States tend to place their armed character high, if not uppermost, in defining their identity and symbolic role. In a quite literal sense, they tend to think of themselves as gens d'armes. As a consequence, they have various collective neuroticisms that stem from the bulk of their activities being out of keeping with their idealized self-definition as agents of violence. There are always moves afoot toward rationalization and humanization of the police forces by subordinating their self-association with weapons and violence.

But the neuroticism of the police force is less disabling than the pathology which I suggested in my 1968 paper affects the military. This pathology exists because the opportunity for consummating the organization's highest and most honored activity, combat, is rarely available to any of its members, particularly those highly placed in the organization. Moreover, at a time when so little of the rest of the society is prepared to accept combat as an honored calling, this pathology is especially debilitating.

The conception of national forces in which the death-dealing or people-killing function would not be central and definitional becomes entertainable for the first time in the nuclear age. The nuclear era has rendered absurd the traditional simple assumptions underlying military norms which make the power and eagerness to inflict and court death root measures of goodness. Modern weaponry has brought these assumptions to the asymptotes of absurdity. When total killing power is available, relative degrees of killing power lose their former meaning. When warfare can involve everyone in the society having to face near certainty of obliteration, the bravery of the military man loses its special meaning.

Counterviolence Forces The most important change needed to render the military a fitting and attractive vehicle for national service is to reverse its tendency to ritualize violence—to see in violence the most effective of all means for its missions; to exalt the art of "people-killing." A new military doctrine needs to be evolved around its current mission for America. That mission is to curb violence as force affecting the destiny of the United States. The military must reshape itself in the image of counterviolence and recognize that its primary role is the neutralization of violence.

Within the limits of this paper, I can only sketch the form such a doctrine would take. It involves elevation of other military capabilities to prevent the disruption of a society by the forces of violence—i.e. capabilities of supplying, communicating, organizing, shielding, and many others. In other words, reckon casualties and destruction as costs of accomplishing the military mission, rather than, as in the "body count" philosophy of the current war, the accomplishment itself.

Time was when youth could be inspired to serve the state for its power, gain, glory, and hates; to impose its gospels and expand its dominions. The archaic patriotic hymns enshrining these appeals now move few men. A new military must be built of other beliefs.

Nonetheless, for national service to be national, with anything of the sense of service of the patriotic military ethic, requires something different from charitable "good works"—helping the poor, sick, aged, juvenile, or otherwise fortunate individuals—which figure prominently in discussions of national service. Patriotism implies a different variety of self-dedication and self-subordination than altruism. There is a difference between the motivation to help people and to help a people; between serving men and serving mankind. Discipline and subordination of the individual at the core of military organization have been acceptable doctrines because the grand goals of the military are regarded as more important than the lives of those serving these goals—as in recent times soldiers have been told (whether or not they believed it) that the fate of a civilization for generations to come depended upon them.

There are, of course, revolutionary movements which attract young people eager to dedicate themselves to such grand purposes. It is commonplace to attribute the growth of such movements to the lack of acceptable expressions of such idealism within the constitutional structure of a society dedicated to an individualistic, materialistic, hedonistic ethic. The attempt to capture that idealism by borrowing military symbolism (as in the Job Corps or the Teacher Corps) for missions of less grandeur does not result in an equal appeal to the same sentiments as those tapped, at least in wartime, by military recruiters. To some degree, the ecology movement, by its claim that the very future of mankind is at stake, sets-a basis for appeals to supra-individual motives with some resemblance to the patriotic ethos. The peace movement does the same. A challenge of the times is to create organizations through which large numbers of people can be mobilized for national service, or even broader service, and which social consensus will accord the same high place militaristic patriotism has had in times past. It may be easier to adapt to such ends the one existing institution which unabashedly avows a nonindividualistic ethic than to create new ones. I urge the restoration of the military to its place as a major vehicle for national service by adapting it to the social morality and social urgencies of modern civilization.

1 Albert D. Biderman, "What is Military?" Sol Tax, ed. The Draft. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

2 Since this was written, a proposal has been advanced by six Congressmen to establish a forest fire fighting unit in the Air Force and aggressive merchandising of specially adapted aircraft has begun by at least one manufacturer. (See Washington Post, May 12, 1971).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 1, 1971, p. 47-58
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1597, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 10:37:20 AM

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About the Author
  • Albert Biderman
    Bureau of Social Science Research
    Albert D. Biderman is a sociologist currently with the Bureau of Social Science Research in Washington, D. C.
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