Until the end of the eighteenth century one of the most important developments in warfare, apart from the invention of gunpowder and the adoption of firearms, had ‘been the superseding of feudal military organisation by professional, mercenary, troops’. By the end of the fifteenth century the diffused feudal nobility of Europe had discovered, to their cost, that professional soldiers, who fought for pay alone and were personally loyal to the sovereign, were far more reliable than the hastily recruited and poorly trained and motivated feudal armies they relied on. These ‘professional’ or centrally controlled ‘royal’ armies could, moreover, be sent to keep order at home or wage war abroad with little fear of external factors affecting morale or their fighting qualities. Relatively free, therefore, from popular or subordinate influences, the sovereigns of Europe could wage wars with limited resources for limited objectives and negotiate peace on a compromise basis when those objectives were either attained or appeared unobtainable.
This freedom to wage limited war at will changed dramatically, however, following the success of the French Revolution in 1789. The democratic ideal had grown rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It had been accompanied by the rise of nationalism and the industrialisation of war, all of which contributed to the birth of the myth of the ‘nation in arms’. It was a concept of the army as an instrument of popular rather than state power. Each and every citizen of the nation state was obliged to give ‘unquestioning support’ for any war effort. The waging of war, for the first time in modern history, required legitimacy, a popular support that could only be justified on grounds of moral principles or national survival — the ‘Just War’. Gone were the days when wars could be fought for limited economic, political or territorial objectives according to the arbitrary whims of the executive.
Conversely, with the advent of ‘popular’ or ‘revolutionary’ government, war ceased to be merely an instrument for implementing the policy decisions and defending the foreign interests of the ruling elite by ‘other means’. As the Committee of Public Safety and, later, Pitt and Napoleon discovered, war and the accompanying militarisation of society proved to be an invaluable device for maximising the power of the state and stabilising the economy. It mobilised and unified the domestic population in support of aggressive policies against alleged foreign or internal enemies, and provided a strain-reducing mechanism by intimidating or persuading dissidents, particularly those among the influential strata, to abandon or call a truce to political opposition in the interests of ‘national security’.
In 1919 the American journalist Randolph Bourne wrote one of the clearest descriptions of this process, one that is worth quoting at length:
War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate co-operation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals who lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties; the minorities are either intimidate into silence, or brought slowly round by a subtle process of persuasion… [But] in general, the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating in the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not be produced through any other agency than war. Loyalty — or mystic devotion to the State — becomes the major imagined human value. Other values, such as artistic creation, beauty, the enhancement of life, are instantly and almost unanimously sacrificed.
War — or at least modern war waged by a democratic republic against a powerful enemy — seems to achieve for a nation almost all that the most inflamed political idealist could desire. Citizens are no longer indifferent to their Government, but each cell of the ‘ body politic is brimming with life and activity. We are at last on the way to full realisation of that collective community in which each individual somehow contains the virtue of the whole. In a nation at war, every citizen identifies himself with the whole, and feels immensely strengthened in that identification. The purpose and desire of the collective community live in each person who throws himself wholeheartedly into the cause of war. The impeding distinction between society and the individual is almost blotted out. At war, the individual becomes almost identical with his society. He achieves a superb self-assurance, an intuition of the rightness of all his ideas and emotions, so that in the suppression of heretics he is invincibly strong; he feels behind him all the power of the collective community. The individual as a social being in war seems to have achieved almost his apotheosis.’ (Randolph Bourne: Selected Writings, New York, 1977, p. 361)
By the early twentieth century the growth of industrialisation and the economic integration of modern society made it increasingly difficult to mobilise for war other than on an extensive basis. This, in turn, led inexorably to the idea of total war, i.e. total mobilisation for unlimited objectives — including the total destruction or unconditional surrender of the enemy.
The idea of total war that accompanied ‘the nation in arms’ led, logically, to the view that within the belligerent countries there could be no such thing as a ‘non-combatant’. It also undermined the concept of ‘neutrals’ outside the enemy countries. The aphorism ‘who is not with me is against me’ became an axiom. It also became virtually impossible to compromise sufficiently to obtain more limited goals that would permit a negotiated peace. With the ‘national good’ at stake, all sides now insisted on ‘total’ victory. The phrase ‘negotiated peace’ itself became synonymous with treachery. The popular basis of support for war demands that it be called ‘just’, and also demanded high popular morale, a morale that might easily be damaged if the people were to hear that the government was negotiating peace in the midst or heavy fighting.
The shift from limited wars with limited objectives fought with the yeomanry — local voluntary militias recruited from among the middling-rich peasantry (the cavalry at Peterloo included these, who were apparently encouraged to hack away to reduce the number of paupers and hence reduce the poor tax) — and professional, mercenary, troops to total wars of economic attrition with unlimited objectives fought with conscript national armies — effectively a ‘blood tax’— had far-reaching consequences. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants and between belligerents and neutrals was one area that became blurred and ultimately undistinguishable. International law, which had developed with the emergence of the independent nation states, made much of these distinctions. Since Grotius wrote De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625) the convention had been that non-combatants had extensive rights to preserve their ways of life as much as possible during periods of warfare; neutrals had similar rights. In return, strict duties to remain both non-combatant and neutral rested on these ‘outsiders’. With the totalisation of war these conventions began to break down. During 1914-18 they virtually disappeared altogether. The result was that, increasingly, the mass armies of both sides, to a greater or lesser extent, indulged in wholesale violations of existing international law.
The historian Carroll Quigley makes the interesting point (Tragedy and Hope, New York, 1966) that because of the different nature of the armies of the two power blocs — one professional, the other a mass conscript army — on the whole these violations were more extensive (although less widely publicised) on the part of the Entente than on the part of the Central Powers: ‘The Germans still maintained the older traditions of a professional army, and their position, both as an invader and as a “Central Power” with limited manpower and economic resources, made it to their advantage to maintain the distinction between combatant and non-combatant and between belligerent and neutral. If they could have maintained the former distinction, they would have had to fight the enemy army and not the enemy civilian population and, once the former was defeated, would have had little to fear from the latter, which could have been controlled by a minimum of troops.’ If they could have maintained the distinction between belligerent and neutral, it would have been impossible to blockade Germany, since basic supplies could have been imported through neutral countries. It was for this reason that Moltke changed Schlieffen’s original plans for an attack on France through Holland and Belgium alone to an attack through Belgium alone. Neutral Holland was to remain as a channel of supply for civilian goods. This was possible because international law made a distinction between war goods, which could be declared contraband, and civilian goods (including food), which could not be so declared. Also, the German war plans called for a short, decisive war against the enemy armed forces, and they neither expected nor desired a total economic mobilisation or even a total military mobilisation, since these might disrupt the existing social and political structure in Germany. For these reasons, Germany made no plans for industrial or economic mobilisation, for a long war, or for withstanding a blockade, and hoped to mobilise a smaller proportion than its enemies.
The failure of the Schlieffen plan showed the error of these ideas. Not only did the prospect of a long war make economic mobilisation necessary, but also the occupation of Belgium showed that national feeling made the distinction between combatant and non-combatant academic. When Belgian civilians shot at German soldiers, the latter took civilian hostages and effected reprisals on civilians. These German actions were publicised by the British as ‘atrocities’ and violations of international law (which they were), while the Belgian civilian snipers were presented as loyal patriots — although their actions were just as clearly violations of international law and, as such, justified German reaction. These ‘atrocities’ were, in turn, seized on by the British to justify their own violations of international law. As early as 24 August 1914 they were treating food as contraband and interfering with neutral shipments of food to Europe. On 5 November 1914 they declared the whole North Atlantic from Scotland to Iceland a ‘war zone’, saturated it with mines and ordered all ships going to the Baltic, Scandinavia, or the Netherlands to go through the English Channel, where they were stopped, searched, and much of their cargoes seized, even when the cargoes could not be declared contraband under existing international law. In reprisal, on 18 February 1915, the Germans declared the Channel a ‘war zone’ and announced that their submarines would sink shipping in that area, and ordered shipping for the Baltic ports to use the northern route. The United States, which rejected a Scandinavian invitation to protest against the British war zone, protested against the German war zone and insisted that American lives and property were under American protection even when travelling on armed belligerent ships in this war zone.
The German high command, rooted in a time when armies and conditions were different, had tried to carry on the legal and conventional niceties. Their ultimate abandonment of these on the grounds that their enemies had already abandoned them made matters worse, because if neutrals became belligerents and noncombatants became combatants, Germany and her allies would suffer much more than Britain and her allies. In the final analysis this is why the distinctions were destroyed; but beneath all legal questions was the ominous fact that war, by becoming total made neutrality and peace almost impossible.
When discussing citizen armies it is important to distinguish, however, between the voluntary instrumental phase of the ‘people in arms’ and the later, institutional and coercive, phase of the ‘conscript’ levée en masse. Traditionally, voluntary citizen militias have played crucial roles in revolutionary moments throughout history, usually against professional and mercenary standing armies. The American and French revolutions provide the first useful modern examples of such revolutionary militias. Unfortunately, they have also played and continue to play crucial roles in reactionary moments as well, especially when motivated by religion and clan/tribalism (Islamist, Protestant, etc.), racism and ideology (US ‘patriot’ militias such as the Minutemen, The Covenant, etc.). Effectively, however, all armed bodies, including those of organised labour*, are prone to some degree of breakdown because of external political circumstances and internal social (class) divisions.
* I’m thinking here in particular about the CNT leadership’s arbitrary decision in July 1936 to join the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, the role of the CNT Defence Committee and the leadership of some of the CNT militia columns — NOT the Iron– or Durruti columns whose organisational structures were as directly democratic as was possible given the complex circumstances of war and counter-revolution.
In France, from 1789 onward, armed citizen volunteers provided the backbone first for the French National Guard in 1790 and then the ‘Volunteers of ’91’. By 1792 this had been transformed by the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety from a defensive instrument into an aggressive militarist institution. ‘The rapidity of its formation was remarkable,’ wrote Geoffrey Best, ‘but its explanation was simple enough: it enabled the bourgeoisie to overawe opponents of its revolution, to maintain order and protect property by its own means and in entirely its own way, and it corresponded to a stirring theme of revolutionary rhetoric: men of public spirit in arms to promote the good cause and protect it.’ (War and Society in Revolutionary Europe, 1770-1870, London, 1982)
The process was repeated in every revolutionary situation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the Ukraine, in 1918, the local peasantry, in revolt against the Brest Litovsk Treaty by means of which the Bolshevik leadership had sold them out to German occupation, called for ‘egalitarian mobilisation’ of the local population, with villages and townships voluntarily providing soldiers to defend communities. The local Ukrainian militia units later merged into the Makhnovist Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine to fight both the White interventionists and Trotsky’s Red Army, which was attempting to impose Bolshevik hegemony over the revolution. Makhno’s army was organised on three basic principles: voluntary enlistment, the electoral principle with all officers and commanders elected by all units, and self-discipline, with disciplinary rules being drawn up by soldier committees and approved by all units. These rules were rigorously observed on the basis of individual responsibility and awareness of the possible results of poor discipline on fellow soldiers and the revolutionary movement in general. Similarly, in Spain during the Civil War spontaneously organised workers militia units decisively defeated the military rebellion throughout most of Spain. In Britain, also, the threat of German invasion led to the spontaneous creation of the ‘local defence volunteers’ as a popular defence force with a democratic spirit and style that brought it into conflict with the Regular Army and the War Office. Like the Spanish militias, the Home Guard as it became known when eventually brought under War Office control, was usually based on the workplace. The units chose their own officers and more often than not had to find their own weapons
The reasons for the ultimate collapse of the revolutionary process, military defeat or co-option of citizen militias into the state apparatus are complex, but the one clear lesson which does emerge from the examples of popular citizens’ militia movements examined is that although ‘the people in arms’ may win the war, it is the ‘popular army’ which loses the revolution. In other words, social revolutions, the diffusion or devolution of power into basic economic and social units such as factories and geographic communities, are made by people pursuing particular social purposes of their own. Wars, on the other hand, are fought by states for institutional purposes distinct from those of the people. The trick is to convert a domestic social revolution into a national war of liberation. The creation of a dual power or a revolutionary situation — centralised state power against autonomous local revolutionary committees; professional army versus citizen militia — creates an unbearable tension which can only be overcome by confrontation between the state (or those who wish to constitute or reconstitute it) and the people, a clearly dangerous move during a revolutionary period where state power has effectively collapsed, or integration — the creation of a ‘citizen army’ to defend the idealised concept of the ‘nation state’. After the decisive victory of the National Liberation Front, North Vietnamese army armoured columns, anticipating possible armed opposition from their own allies, raced down the country into Saigon to secure it for the communist takeover.
The obsession with missile weaponry and the nuclear stalemate that meant that neither side could win had pervasive consequences in all aspects of life in the late twentieth century. Above all, it gave rise to a race between the two superpowers to outdo each other in the application of science and rationality to weapons. In terms of military organisation, this has led to the development of ever more expensive and sophisticated weapons systems (such as drones and the Strategic Defence Initiative), which in turn demanded such highly developed skills from the operators of these systems that the mass armies of temporarily drafted citizen-soldiers of the nineteenth century and of the ‘armed hordes’ of both World Wars have now become obsolete— theoretically anyway!
One of the consequences of the growth of this army of specialists, which General de Gaulle foresaw in 1934 (The Army of the Future), is to destroy the first of the three basic presumptions of liberal democracy. These three bases are (1) that citizens are relatively equal in factual power; (2) that citizens have relatively equal access to the information needed to make a government’s decisions; and (3) that citizens have a psychological readiness to accept majority rule in return for those civil rights which, it believes, will permit any minority to work to build itself up to become a majority.
Just as weapons development has destroyed the first of these bases, so secrecy, security considerations, and the growing complexity of everyday life have served to undermine the second of these, equal access to information. The third, which was always the weakest of the three, is still in the stage of relative vitality and relative acceptability that it had in the nineteenth century, but is in much greater danger from the threat of outside forces, notably the changes in the other two bases, plus the greatest danger today from external war or from domestic economic breakdown.
Increasingly, in the 21st century, the manager/expert has come to replace the capitalist in controlling the economic system, just as they are replacing the elected representative within the liberal democratic parliamentary system. Planning is steadily replacing laissez faire in the relationships between both systems. It may not be single or unified, but it still will be planning, in which the main framework and operational forces of the system will be established and limited by the experts on the governmental side; then the experts within the big units on the economic side will do their planning within the established limitations of neoliberal, free-for-all, fuck-the-weakest marketisation of everything. The facade of choice and freedom may survive for the ordinary individual in that they may be free to make a choice between two or more political groups and switch their economic support from one large unit to another. In general, however, the freedom and choice of individuals will be controlled within very narrow alternatives by the fact they will be digitized as denizens from birth (as opposed to citizens) and followed, as a number, through their educational training, military or other public service, tax contributions, health and medical requirements, until final retirement and death benefits.
To a large extent the alienated nature of our prevalent military organisation is a reflection of the values of the society in which we live. As the ordinary individual who is not an expert, skilled professional soldier or top management executive, becomes of less personal concern to the State, their contacts with the State become less direct and take place increasingly through privatised as opposed to public intermediaries. We have come full circle to a neo-feudal structure in which we are repeating yet again the instrumental/institutional cycle of history. From an army of citizen soldiers inspired by the democratic ideal whose sole function was to defend society and its values, we have shifted, under the aegis of the ‘nation state’, to an army of highly trained, professional, mercenary fighting men, recruited from among a technocratic elite, for whom defence has become an abstract theory fatally confused with the smooth functioning of the army and state as distinct and separate ends in themselves.
French premier Georges Clemenceau is alleged to have remarked that ‘war is far too important to ever be entrusted to soldiers.’ He might well have added that everything, particularly our civil liberties, are too important to be trusted to professional experts, politicians as well as soldiers, because every organisation of such professionals and every established organisation ultimately becomes a vested-interest institution more concerned with efforts to perpetuate itself or advance its own interests than to achieve the purpose society expects of it. If freedom is to be defended or justice advanced by organised violence it can only be by ensuring that, as in citizens’ militias, the armed forces remain part of society, not the domain of a professional military elite subject to the vagaries of power politics, class justice or vested interest.
Tom Wintringham, an ex-communist commander of the International Brigades in Spain and a key figure behind the Home Guard Training School at Osterley Park, in outer London during WW2, summed up the democratic view that successful defence against aggression is only possible by advancing the cause of the people on the home front:
The future of the Home Guard is to be recognised as democracy’s answer, and an effective answer, to the Nazi technique of aggression. If we choose only to copy totalitarian methods we shall never catch up or surpass the Nazis. But if we set free and mobilise the initiative of our people in a democratic way, in a way similar to that in which this defensive army of volunteers was raised and trained, I believe we shall find and develop ways of taking the offensive also, new methods of war, which the Nazis are doomed by their ideas and their organisation never to be able to understand or copy. (Picture Post (London), 17 May 1941)