Democratic Militarism in the 21st Century

Michael Kocsis

November, 2017

U.S. Army Soldier on patrol with Afghan soldiers in 2010

U.S. Army Soldier on patrol with Afghan soldiers in 2010


In a speech U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower delivered on his way out of office in January 1961, he sketched out what he saw as a vicious force in the democratic world that over time could undermine democratic institutions and increase the frequency of war. He said a dangerous new fusion of military capability with industrial supremacy could thrust democracies thoughtlessly into armed conflict.

The “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry,” Eisenhower said, has produced potential “for the disastrous rise of misplaced power”. We must “never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”

Eisenhower gave the process a memorable name. He called it the “military-industrial complex”. We can employ an easier term: militarism, a social dynamic that can spin a society into the danger zone, drawing strength away from otherwise benign forms of power and pushing the society toward collective violence. If not resisted, militarism leads to military aggression.

Judging by the influence his doctrine has had over these last several decades, many people are alert to Eisenhower’s warning. I would suggest that even if the military-industrial complex still figures centrally in the minds of people who prize international peace, the rise of cultural and political forms of militarism threatens peace in a way that is elusive but far more menacing.

Across the Western democracies, a new warrior mindset reveals itself in nuanced ways. We see a continuing profusion of weaponry in domestic society, the most familiar example being military technology in the hands of police. It is not exceptional nowadays to see armoured personnel carriers or police with heavy firearms confronting political protestors. Less obvious, at least in media representations, is the number of heavy weapons in the hands of recreationalists and mass shooters alike.

More striking than the weaponry itself is how democratic citizens become virtual warriors every day in our computer games, feature films, and sporting events. It may seem fanciful to link video games, sporting competitions and militaristic impulses in Western culture. But the normalization of war in everyday customs of democratic society is exactly what we need to reflect on.

Every new generation of war-inspired games takes a step toward framing war as an activity that can be thrilling, virtuous, and fun. No one would deny that pro football, that great American pastime, is a contest won and lost by brute strength on the field of battle. A few decades ago, only audiences at the Super Bowl experienced the spectacle of air fighter flyovers; nowadays it is common for a display of air power to be at sporting events or patriotic celebrations.

In these and other ways, a modern mentality of war making permeates the habits and traditions of Western society. It blinds us to the horrors that we know war brings. It ought to seem bizarre that militaries retain prominence in a period of peace and abundance. We should find it striking that armed forces have grown continually throughout this post-WWII “great peace.”

As is generally the case, cultural attitudes echo into political institutions. For much of modern history, the power to wage war was considered legitimate only in desperate existential circumstances. Today, democratic assemblies around the world watch indifferently as war powers centralize in executive branches where they are gathered together by Presidents or Prime Ministers who reserve for themselves the right to deploy deadly force.

The tendancies I am ascribing to the democratic world may strike some readers as nothing more than isolated strands in an unthinkably complex mosaic. Even if they are separate, the forms of militarism I have outlined are part of a social mindset that grips the Western world in the early 21st century. They reflect deep impulses, meaningful elements in the Western way of life. They are accepted, if not widely celebrated, by much the world’s democratic citizenry.

Militarism by this cultural and political understanding has intensified considerably since the end of WWII. Although cannot know where it will lead us, it seems mistaken to lay blame at the feet of industry alone. For even as industrial elites design and manufacture ever more deadly weapons, the weapons they build are ultimately placed in the hands of public officials who acquire authority to use them from citizens. We possess the means and the authority to assume control of these developments.    

Eisenhower of course was both a U.S. President and a Commander of Allied Forces in WWII. So perhaps he can be excused for concluding that business elites are catalysts of militarism. If he was with us today, Eisenhower may have experienced disillusionment at the cultural and political militarism of our century. With his presidential powers, and with his war experience, Eisenhower may have tried to steer Western society along a peaceful path. With the ingrained character of the collective tendencies sketched above, however, it seems difficult to visualize the path of peace. It is hard to imagine how to quell the growth of militarism in the Western world.

The one safeguard Eisenhower mentioned in his 1961 speech, his antidote to the military-industrial complex, was renewed commitment to democratic values. He called forth an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” that might “compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with peaceful methods and goals”. It would seem that the challenge we face in the decades ahead is that citizens of powerful Western democracies are loyal supporters of our militarized culture. For many of us, the era of alert and knowledgeable citizens seems like an artefact of the past.