Martial and Civil Culture

Every government has as much of a duty to avoid war as a ship's captain has to avoid a shipwreck. -- Guy de Maupassant

Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Thomas Hobbes

Antithetical Values of Martial and Civil Society

In Idle Theory, the principal means by which human idleness is increased is through the innovation of new tools, new moral codes, new laws, and new forms of government. But such innovations take time. Indeed they take centuries. In fact, they take thousands of years.

Some people couldn't wait that long. And the only way in which they could increase their idleness was at the expense of others, by robbing them or enslaving them - as, for example, did the Spartans when they fought, defeated, and enslaved their Messenian neighbours.

And such has been the slow pace of technological innovation throughout history, the consequence has been that war and conquest and plunder and enslavement became institutionalised as the principal route to wealth and leisure. And as it became institutionalised, it also was glamorized, as conquering generals paraded their booty and captives in triumph.

Along with institutionalised war, there came an accompanying martial culture, in which young men were taught to fight, and trained to be strong, courageous, obedient, and disciplined. And they were fed on tales of legendary battles, heroic fighters, famous generals.

And the result has been that far more technological innovation has gone into weapons and warfighting than has gone into the tools and techniques of everyday life. As has been pointed out elsewhere, a Roman from the time of the Republic would recognize our 21st century brick houses with their tiled roofs and wooden doors, our plates and cups and tables, our bread and our wine. But he would not recognize our gunpowder, rifles, machine guns, missiles, jet fighters, aircraft carriers, or nuclear weapons.

This failure to develop labour-saving technology in everyday life was a natural consequence of martial culture. If the aim of war was to offload the burden of everyday work onto others, nobody was much interested in ways of lightening the burden of that work. A slave population that was not kept busy was one in which the seeds of revolt could germinate. Rather than have slaves idle, it must have been at times necessary to invent work for them to do, simply to keep them busy.

A culture of war is also incompatible not only with innovation in everyday life, but also with trade. For war is nothing but large scale theft, vandalism, murder, enslavement, and rape. And thieves, murderers, vandals, and rapists are intolerable in a civil society, peacefully trading tools, keeping promises, obeying laws and observing customs. And martial culture, which is the celebration of theft and murder, of deception and dishonesty, is fundamentally antithetical to a civilian culture in which men trade rather than steal from each other, obey laws rather than trample over them, and deal honestly with each other rather than dupe one another.

Martial culture brings stasis. There is little innovation of tools and techniques (except as apply to war and weapons), and a diminution of trade in tools and technologies. Therefore the overall idleness of human society does not increase, but is instead redistributed by force of arms, one people robbing and enslaving another. If anything, the devastations of war, and the requirement to build defences against attack, result in an overall decrease in human idleness. And when otherwise peaceful people, who use innovation and invention to increase their idleness, are required to build defences and train soldiers, they also come to be enmeshed by martial culture.

Also martial society must be structured in a chain of command, with superiors and subordinates. But civil society must tend towards a general equality, devoid of rank.

It should not be said that martial culture desires war for its own sake. The goals of martial society are the same as those of civil society - a life of leisure. For, as Aristotle said, the object of war is peace. It is simply that the methods by which martial and civil cultures seek to attain that goal are radically different, and quite antithetical.

Therefore societies which attempt to mix civil and martial culture are in some degree schizophrenic - with, as it were, dual personalities - on the one hand enjoining citizens to respect life and obey law, while on the other hand training soldiers to kill and destroy. And such societies may shift abruptly from value system to the other, like Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde.

If war has historically been the means by which one people has increased its idleness at the expense of another, then it follows that in the most idle societies, this motive must vanish. Increasing idleness means that the costs of war outweigh the gains. Therefore, with increasing human idleness, war is likely to diminish.

Of course, there may be other causes for war. Ideological or religious differences and disagreements may spill into violent confrontation, and all-out war. But such wars grow from intellectual deficiency: ideas cannot be defeated by weapons, but only by better ideas. To resort to violence as a means of resolving an intellectual dispute is to merely demonstrate poverty of intellect.

The Mafias of Standing Armies

The historical pre-eminence of martial culture throughout history has always resulted in the beggarment of everybody. The cycle of continual murder and theft only brought continual poverty and destruction. Given the prolonged and debilitating dominance of martial culture, it must be the constant attempt of civil culture to erode, supplant, and suppress martial culture. For it is only by invention and innovation, rather than conquest and plunder, than the idleness of all is increased.

The existence of standing armies in civil societies is, very often, a response to the potential threat posed by the existence of such armies elsewhere. The existence of a standing army in one country must prompt its neighbours to maintain equivalent countervailing forces. But none of these societies actually benefit from this arrangement.

Instead, a standing army has the character of a mafia, running a protection racket. It is only the members of the armed forces, in time of peace, who indolently benefit from this arrangement. And such forces must always have an interest in exaggerating any threat, or even entirely inventing such threats, in order to maintain or increase their funding. It is even necessary for such armed forces to periodically fight wars, if only to demonstrate the need to retain them - much as firefighters occasionally start fires so as to prove the need for a fire service.

And armies that were originally formed purely for defensive purposes may easily metamorphose into aggressive forces. And, furthermore, a standing army can even turn upon and suppress the civil society that supports it, rolling its tanks onto the streets, toppling its elected officials, and imposing martial law.

Such standing armies, much like any mafia, pose threats and impose burdens upon civil society. It is therefore in the interest of civil society to minimize the size of such armies, and if possible suppress them, just as they would act to suppress a mafia.

The Extinction of Predators

In Idle Theory's biological speculations, plants are powered by solar energy, and grazers are powered by the energy stored in plants, and predators are powered by the energy stored in grazers. Although predators have often been regarded as at the 'top' of the food chain - with, for example, the lion as the 'king' of the beasts - the reality is one not of power, but rather of dependence. Predators depend upon grazers, and grazers depend on plants. Any fall in plant numbers has effects upon grazer populations, and this in turn has effects on predator populations. In any extinction event, it is likely that many plants will survive, some grazers, and no predators. And this is simply because the further down the chain of dependency any life form resides, the more tenuous and uncertain are its chances of survival.

In human affairs, civil societies in which men make and trade useful tools, within a framework of ethical rules and codified laws, correspond to the grazers of the natural world. And martial societies, which prey upon civil societies, robbing and enslaving them, correspond to the predators of the natural world. And although the goals of both societies are the same - the increase of their idleness -, the methods they use are completely different, and totally antithetical. For, while from the point of view of martial societies, civil societies represent only so many plump and mouth-watering prizes, from the point of view of civil societies, martial societies are merely so many bands of thieves and murderers.

And, in the long run of human history, although these bands of thieves, with their hierarchical power structures and codes of honour, may exist and reproduce for ages, in the long run their fate is that of extinction. In some profound crisis of human affairs, they will go the way of all predators.

For civil society is always acting to eradicate its predators. It must always act to suppress thieves and murderers, just as it hunts down wolves and tigers. And just as it must act to suppress thieves and murderers, so also it must act to suppress standing armies and militias. For civil society has no need of armies and weapons in its everyday activities. Such armies, even if entirely inactive, only impose burdens upon them, and bring them no benefits. Instead, civil societies should retain the residual ability to mobilize society to act in concert, and the technological capability to produce and use weapons (or whatever tools may be needed) in the face of external threat. The divisions and battalions of standing armies should be disbanded, their weapons sold as scrap metal, the command structure from generals down to private soldiers dissolved, their medals and battle honours forgotten, and the entire martial culture suppressed. And the resultant residual ministry of defence should consist at most of one or two people who know how to make and shoot rifles, and how to rapidly organize civil society in a state of emergency.

In some ways, something like this state of affairs may naturally evolve. When military power produces weapons of such power that their use threatens the very survival of life on this planet, such weapons are practically useless, and wars can only be fought with a reduced armoury. At the same time, civil disorders that might once have been suppressed by cavalry charges come to be controlled with water cannon, tear gas, and rubber bullets. In a perverse way, having arrived at a maximum of development, military power begins to minimize itself. Once military thinkers begin to include moral and economic calculations, derived from civil society, they must regularly seek to minimize casualties and reduce damage, and aim for bloodless victories in phantom wars. Perfect wolves never hunt and kill anything.

Related: The evolution of the military  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 12 June 2003