On The Brink

History and present trends suggest militarism is in decline,
but it remains a dangerous presence

One of the articles in Is Militarism Fading? (IC#20)
Originally published in Winter 1989 on page 12
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

here has been a lot of good news in the past year or so – from the INF treaty, to the cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war, even to talk of ending the Cold War. But does this really mean that peace is breaking out? The world is full of conflicting signals. For example, world-wide military spending is at an all time high of almost $1 trillion and 1987 marked an all time high in the number of active wars. You could use today’s headlines to argue either way, that militarism is fading or gaining.

To get a better understanding, and to find out where the long term trends are heading, we will have to go much deeper than the headlines.


Militarism is a complex cultural pattern involving an entire constellation of beliefs, behaviors, institutions and supporting conditions. Its starting point is the belief that force rules. Militarism applies this belief to intergroup relations, whether between groups within a society or between societies. The enthusiastic militarist says that the rule of force is legitimate, either because God or history is on his side or simply because he is strong. The reluctant militarist bemoans the rule of force but claims there is no other way.

Yet there is more to militarism than just the use of force. To get at this larger whole it will help to go back to how militarism began. Conflict has undoubtedly always been part of the human condition, as has physical combat. Militarism, however, is a fairly recent invention that first developed about 5000 to 6000 years ago. You may remember (see IC #12) that up until about 10,000 years ago, all human groups were tribal hunters and gatherers. Then, starting in the Middle East, people began to evolve gathering into gardening, and more slowly, hunting into herding. Eventually a more settled existence began to develop for the gardeners, and with it the development of towns and the elaboration of various crafts. One of the striking characteristics of early agricultural towns (e.g. Catal Huyuk, an 8000 year old town in Turkey) is that they show no signs of defenses or warfare. It was, in that sense, a golden age.

But it didn’t last. At some point the growing wealth and diversity of the first agricultural societies made possible two inventions: banditry and bureaucracy. It is unlikely we will ever know just how banditry began, but a plausible scenario goes like this: The start of agriculture did not mean the end of hunting. Both within agricultural communities and in surrounding nonagricultural cultures, hunting continued to be an important activity. Over time, however, as agriculture brought on a human population explosion, game grew scarcer and the role of hunting diminished. Cultures still based on hunting had to move into more remote territories, and the hunters in the farming communities became fewer and less important.

Under this stress, someone with the kind of skills that hunting requires figured out that it would be easier to hunt people (or rather their wealth) than animals. Intergroup stealing had certainly gone on for ritual and symbolic purposes between hunting and gathering tribes, as we know from more recent tribal groups, but it took agriculture to make theft a viable economic strategy, for one of the big differences between agriculture and hunting and gathering is that agriculture produces storable and therefore stealable wealth. Eventually, some clever bandit decided that it would be even easier to herd people rather than hunt them, so he and his assistants set themselves up as rulers of their prey. This was the beginning of militarism; but for it to really flower, it needed another step.

Unlike banditry, which developed at the edge of the new agricultural civilization, bureaucracy grew out of its center. The social organization of the first communities appears to have been just as tribal as the hunting and gathering groups they developed from. But with time and population growth, the life of these communities grew more complex than the old tribal systems could handle. Specialized systems of organization and governance were both supportable and needed, and bureaucracy was the result. The priesthood was probably the first to develop this social invention since they had the most free time and talent, and the loosest ties to kinship systems. The first true cities appear to have been governed by priesthoods that had figured out how to go beyond the organizational limits of the tribe.

What happens when you mix banditry and bureaucracy? You get the military. You get a human organization that can be much larger and more flexible than kinship systems would permit, and that is devoted to the principle that force rules.

You also get an activity that can exploit some powerful psychological drives and patterns – the urge to compensate for a sense of weakness by dominating someone else, and the urge to shield yourself from your own dark side by creating an image of "the enemy" who is the embodiment of evil.

Militarism is thus based on three components: its belief that the use of force is legitimate, its economic ability to concentrate wealth, and its role as an outlet for deep psychological forces.

With the blending of these factors, history starts to be dominated by the warlord and his unabashed militarism. His goal is simple: to conquer and dominate by force as much as he can, to use the military as the basic means for gaining both wealth from and power over other people.

The tragedy of the warlord’s emergence on the world stage, as Andrew Schmookler pointed out in The Parable of The Tribes (see IC #7 and his article in this issue), is that once one warlord succeeds, all surrounding groups are forced to either learn the ways of war to defend themselves or face being conquered. Soon the only players left are those who, enthusiastically or reluctantly, have adopted militarism as their fundamental strategy for intergroup relations.

This pattern has held sway up to the present time. It has been expressed in myriad forms by myriad cultures. Sometimes the driving force has been a single individual (like Alexander the Great), sometimes a ruling class and sometimes a whole people. Sometimes the goal has been unabashedly economic and sometimes it has been to impose a set of beliefs on the conquered. But these variations don’t matter here for they are all militarism. The 19th-century expansion of the United States over the Native Americans and Mexico, the colonial empires of various European powers, the aggressive expansions of the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe – all are expressions of the same cultural pattern.

Throughout its strong and persistent history, militarism has influenced almost every aspect of civilized culture. Most of the world’s great religions (especially the Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Hindu traditions) envision God as the "great warlord in the sky:" an absolute monarch involved in a great battle against enemies against whom he is willing to use violence. The family is spoken of as a little kingdom with the father expected to be the (hopefully benevolent) ruler. Many modern corporations and government agencies are set up like feudal empires.


Fortunately, even as central as it has been, militarism is not the whole story of civilization. There are other important cultural patterns, some old, some recent, that provide alternatives and opposition, and that increasingly are now undermining the foundations on which militarism is built.

The Rule Of Wisdom and Law * The oldest alternative to militarism is the idea that fairness and wisdom are better than force. When tribal societies needed to make group decisions or resolve some conflict, they would often turn to their elders, whose wisdom and experience was respected. This reflects an ancient tradition, much older than militarism, that disputes should be decided on their merits on the basis of commonly held principles. The little evidence that is available suggests that before the rise of militarism this approach was the norm for relations between tribes as well as within them. This tradition provides the ideals behind the rule of law.

It is important to note that, even in its ideal form, the rule of law is willing to use force. But it reserves the use of force for one purpose only: to prevent force from violating or circumventing due process. Thus the ideal role of the police is to apprehend those accused of violating laws, but neither to judge nor hurt them. The final decision, in all cases, must be made on the basis of merits and not through a test of strength.

In the past few centuries, with the development of western democracies, the rule of law has been applied to larger groups of people and with increasing care. There is much in the present system that is imperfect, but it is vastly superior to the anarchy that prevails between nations. While many have dreamt of applying the rule of law between nations, no one has yet found a way to make it work.

Ethics And Religious Values * The rule of law is a social and institutional alternative to the rule of force. Related to it is a more personal opposition to the rule of force that is, again, undoubtedly very old. During the first few thousand years of the reign of militarism this ethical opposition got little support from the religions of the day. Many of the gods in the Near Eastern, European and Central Asian traditions behaved in ways that we would surely call immoral, selfish, militaristic, and even bloodthirsty. Other religions emphasized justice, but with a stern edge and with clear distinctions between in-groups and out-groups. Yet eventually the ethical opposition to militarism gained a major boost with the development of Christianity and Buddhism since both placed great stress on the importance of applying love, forgiveness, mercy and compassion to all beings. Unfortunately, the past two thousand years clearly demonstrate that this message has not gotten through very well, even to those who claim to be followers of these religions.

Post-agricultural Economies * For most of the past 5000 years militarism has thrived because it was a successful strategy for concentrating wealth. Militarism developed in societies whose people and economy were overwhelmingly agricultural, typically more than 90%. Pre-industrial agriculture is one of the few major economic activities that can be successfully run with slave or serf labor. The work is essentially physical, unspecialized and requires little communication with the larger world. It is easy to keep the work force politically divided and to replace any that starve or are slaughtered.

Early industrialism was almost as bad, but as economies have gradually become more specialized, with a more complex division of labor, the potential role for essentially slave labor has greatly diminished. Today a modern economy requires large numbers of people:

  • who are extensively educated and not easily replaced;
  • who are in frequent communication with others;
  • who must take initiative and do high quality work.

The experience of the past few decades has made it very clear, even to totalitarian governments like those in China and the Soviet Union, that internal militarism (as in the Chinese Cultural Revolution) is a disaster for such a modern economy.

The modern economy has also made possible new strategies for concentrating wealth (like industrialism and the banking system) and controlling the masses (like manipulative public relations). The success of these alternatives has made militarism less essential to those in power.

In addition, industrial economies, because of all the complex interconnected systems they depend on, are much easier to destroy and much harder to rebuild than agricultural economies. At the same time, modern technology has produced weapons, both nuclear and conventional, that are much more destructive than the sword and the spear. (The increased destructiveness and viciousness of modern warfare is emphasized by the steady increase in the civilian proportion of war-related deaths: about 50% up through the 1960s, 73% in the 70s, and so far 85% in the 80s [Sivard, p. 28].) As a result, modern economies have much to lose and little to gain in economic terms by waging war with each other. They are in fact so vulnerable that they have to be seriously concerned about attacks from tiny groups of terrorists.


Since World War II, the economic and technological trends undermining militarism have been accelerating. As a result, no major country has been able to gain substantial wealth through military conquest. The chances of even winning a war that you start (much less gaining from it) have been declining, with starters having won only 39% of the wars during the 20th century and only 11% so far in the 1980s.

All of the economic success stories (such as Europe, Japan, Korea, and even lately China) have come from investing in the economy, not the military. Internally, both economic success (as in Korea and Taiwan) and failure (as in China and the USSR) have led to a loosening of authoritarian and totalitarian control.

As an expression of these trends, warfare has changed its focus. From 1700 through 1945, most wars and war deaths were direct conflicts between major powers and took place in Europe. Since 1945, there have been no direct military conflicts between major powers. Nuclear weapons and vulnerable societies have made it too dangerous.

Even great power/small power conflicts, like Vietnam and Afghanistan, have provided powerful examples of the failure of modern militarism. In both cases, massive force from a military superpower was not able to produce victory. In this sense, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are now finally catching up to the Europeans, whose colonialism began waning even before World War II because it simply wasn’t worth the costs.

In recent decades essentially all wars have been in the Third World. Most of these wars have been in agricultural societies and 70% have pitted artificially created post-colonial central governments against indigenous cultures who live within the old colonial boundaries and want their own independence. The superpowers have exacerbated these conflicts, but our self-important obsession with East-West rivalry has blinded us to the underlying fact that most of these Third World wars are simply preindustrial empire building by one ethnic group over others. If they wanted to, the industrialized countries could vastly reduce this Third World violence.


The broad-scale trends are very hopeful. The history of the 20th century shows that militarism doesn’t pay, and if present economic trends continue it will become even more of a liability. Its crucial practical justification is gone. If history were a smooth progression and if people and governments always behaved rationally, we could confidently proclaim militarism dead.

Unfortunately, neither history nor humans are that reliable. The world today is in a very fragile state (see IC #19). The natural environment is under great stress and growing less supportive of human activity. Economies all over the world are in shaky conditions. Many of today’s youth around the world are growing up in brutalizing conditions. In the industrialized countries, and especially in the U.S., many people are afraid of the future and resistant to change. All of this social and psychological fragileness is embedded in a world society that is armed to the teeth and is saturated with images and stories that glamorize the "righteous" use of force. The danger of a psychotic outburst of militarism is very great.

The world is now like the victim of a great trauma who must find the psychological way back to normalcy even after the "objective" danger has passed. The articles that follow explore how we can return to sanity by such routes as developing alternative defense policies and redirecting the energy of the warrior. We hope you will find them healing and useful. The next few decades could bring militarism to an end as fully as slavery ended over a century ago. But it won’t happen unless we are now willing, with courage, creativity and compassion, to act.


World Military and Social Expenditures 1987-88, Ruth Leger Sivard, World Priorities, Box 25140, Washington, DC 20007.

"Third World War: The global conflict over the rights of indigenous nations," Bernard Nietschmann, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Sept 1987, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.

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