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Nidhi Eoseewong: What’s the point of having a military?

To question “What’s the point of having a military?” will certainly cause a problem. The problem, however, does not belong to those who are high-ranking soldiers. They might have a problem but it is minor. Even if we consider bribes from weapons transactions, it’s still a minor problem.    

The great bulk of money in military enterprises is spent not on salaries or allowances for soldiers but mostly paid to the companies which sell weapons and services to the military. This is one of the most significant production lines in the modern world, employing millions of workers and earning annual profits greater than the annual budget of most countries in the world. These profits are shared among the stakeholders and the governments of their countries.

Assuming that we couldn’t find a satisfactory answer to the question “What’s the point of having a military?” and that all the militaries in the world were removed, these enterprises would have to stop. All countries would need to change their economic strategy and transfer all of their capital and labour into other competitive industries. Some might go bankrupt but other industries would surely not provide them as huge a profit as the military industry can. 

This is obviously a problem but every coin has two sides. 

Back in the late Ayutthaya era, if we asked people at that time “What’s the point of having a military?” the rulers would answer that it was necessary to organize work and armed defence within the feudal system. They never perceived the military as a security guard at their boundaries because their military was the same as their serfs who were not specialized in warfare. During war, those civilian serfs would be included in the army as armed serfs.  

In other words, unlike European and Japanese society, Thailand never had a class or group which could claim to be a professional army. Actually, to claim that medieval knights or Samurais constituted professional armies is somehow a misleading statement. These people never thought that they had to work in exchange of food and money like the farmers, who did not have any honour, had to do. The knights and Samurais would contribute their combat skills only to serve their lords for honour and loyalty and their fighting skill was an honour in itself, not a way of earning a living. Knights and Samurais are categorized as a military “class”. The reason why I use the word “”class” is that this status could be inherited by their offspring, and Thai society, like many societies around the world, never had this kind of class.  

Apart from European and Japanese society, there are other kinds of military class. In some societies, the rulers trained their civilian serfs to be able to fight and eventually become a permanent armed force. The offspring of these serfs would also become a permanent armed force for their rulers. 

In tribal societies, confrontation is strongly related to the hunting-gathering way of life. They need military escorts to their hunting areas, cattle fields and even in the mating season. Therefore, boys in these societies are raised to become an armed force for their tribes. For example, they have to learn to ride a horse from when they were toddlers. As a result, all men in a tribal society are able to fight. We cannot, however, fully claim that they are a military class since they are only herdsmen with combat skills.  

I portray military classes in various societies just to prove that the “military” that we perceive nowadays is very newly constructed. A professional army is a product of modern society where states do not belong to kings or a single individual anymore, but instead belong to every citizen of the country. The responsibility to protect the country, therefore, belongs to every individual in society.  

This idea emerged first in the era after the French Revolution and helped France survive invasion by the great European powers at that time, including Austria, Prussia and England. Those great powers, which still recruited serfs from the feudal system into their armies, were unable to fight against France which used a volunteer civilian army who would not fight for anyone except the nation they belonged to.

Nationalism brought about a new form of permanent armed force – the national regular armed force -- and became the modern military that we know nowadays. This kind of armed force, unlike former ones, emerges not only during war time but is always on duty. The high-ranking soldiers who are the core of the military remain the same persons while lower-ranking soldiers will change depending on volunteering and recruitment periods. Modern states have a greater ability to extract taxes and resources than feudal states, which allows them to have huge and well-trained armed forces at their command.  

Most countries never had this kind of armed force before. They only had a minor force charged with guarding their rulers. In the case of Thailand, the military we perceive nowadays emerged in the era of King Rama 5 when we turned (and were forced to turn) into a modern state. A “soldier”, in the sense of someone who regularly works in the army, is a very new concept. Therefore, to question “what’s the point of having a military” is a very simple question.  

The reason why modern warfare causes massive damage and casualties is not only because of its highly destructive weapons but also because the confrontation is between national armed forces which are far larger than previous versions.

Having a military is a nation-state’s imperative as it is the key to the monopolization of violence. The big problem, however, is “Who owns the military?”. Theoretically, the military is under the control of the civilian government as it is part of the state apparatus.    

But in reality, in a newly emerging state lacking an established supreme power such as parliament, a dominant party or a religious organization, the military usually places itself as “a state within a state”, pursuing its own economic interests, honour and political power. It usually uses outlawed and barbaric methods to force other political groups to yield and follow its will. Alternatively, it will cooperate with influential political actors and share the profits, such as with presidents Marcos of the Philippines and Suharto of Indonesia. The military takes a percentage in the form of national budget and bribes and sends its officers to run civilian affairs from the local to the national level. 

From this aspect, it is very understandable why the military in various countries oppose two major developments in their countries – one is democratization, and the other is nationalism – because these developments create the sense that the nation belongs equally to every individual.  As long as this sense of belonging has not yet emerged, the true nation will never be established no matter how much the military keep talking about nationalism.   

Furthermore, in the worst case scenario, the protection of sovereignty, which is the main duty of the military, could possibly end in war. War brings tremendous damage to both winner and loser, thus humanity tries to create mechanisms to prevent war, but these mechanisms, however, rarely succeed. To illustrate, the Peace of Westphalia established the principle of equal sovereignty among all European states and subsequently created the balance of power within the region in order to make it difficult for war to occur. But western European wars still occurred in even more severe forms, as they were wars between the alliances of two super powers. 

Despite a number of failures, the successful outcome is considerable. From the Peace of Westphalia to present day, international mechanisms have developed to a very advanced stage. Apart from the United Nations, regional and economic integration at different levels such as with ASEAN, the EU and NAFTA, minimize the chance of war. Even if it happens, the scale will not expand to the level of mass war. 

Under this kind of international order, the question “What’s the point of having a military?” becomes even more reasonable. Possibly, the military is just like a button at the end of a sleeve which has no function at all. In other words, it’s just a traditional remnant from the past.

If a military is necessary to securing national sovereignty, it needs a total reformation in terms of scale, organization, mechanism and line of command in order to adapt to international mechanisms and deal with modern warfare which has become increasingly more complicated. 

The question “What’s the point of having a military?” hence becomes a prominent question of the era. One should remember that the military of any country, plus their weapons industries and services, are so extravagant that it could cause civilian governments to collapse, as they do not have enough budget to take care of their people.    

Without a military, everyone could go to bed with a full belly. Without a military, we would have enough money to improve our basic healthcare infrastructure. Without a military, everyone could access education no matter how old they are. Without a military, the world could reduce the greenhouse gas effect ten years earlier than expected. Without a military, we would be able to totally eliminate all epidemic diseases from the world. Without a military, the world would further develop mechanisms to prevent war in more effective ways. Without a military, to summarize, our lives would be much better off.  

Let’s start questioning “What’s the point of having a military?” and make it everyone’s catchword. Let’s find the most reasonable answer to the question together and not let anyone dominate the answer. 

The article was first published in Thai on Matichon Online on 13 January 2016 and translated into English by Kornkritch Somjittranukit