On the eve of America’s massive escalation of its war in Vietnam, Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979, German philosopher, known as the father of the “New Left”) warned it about submitting to “a defence that deforms the defenders and that which they defend”. Marcuse’s polemic focused on a growing militarisation of society and individual consciousness. He saw a peculiar danger facing American modernity from the potent mix of prosperity and militarisation, from consumerism at home and imperialism abroad.
The words were written in 1964, and were neither the first nor the last warning that America’s commitment to underwrite global order had produced a dangerously overdeveloped military apparatus. In fact, America’s stint as a superpower with global commitments has been accompanied by a steady drumbeat of dissident voices that have warned about the growing danger from the militarisation of America’s state and society.
The most famous early warning came from Dwight Eisenhower, three days before the end of his Presidency, when in a remarkable speech he warned of the “grave implications” of the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry”.
“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military industrial complex,” he said, explaining that the “very structure of our society” was at stake.
Nor is America the only country that holds out lessons of the damage that an overdeveloped military apparatus can inflict upon its host society. The rapid bursts of industrialisation that Germany and Japan saw in the decades before and after World War I were also spearheaded by a military establishment. In both cases, the industrialisation was accompanied by a growing belligerence towards their neighbors, by the emergence of a political will to subordinate all social institutions and human consciousness to the needs and demands of the military. Eventually, the growth trajectories of both these countries carried them into disastrous wars the scars of which are visible on their faces to this day.
I don’t know whether the advance of German and Japanese industry was accompanied by any dissident voices warning about the disastrous stakes involved in subordinating all of society to martial virtues. Common sense says there must have been voices of reason trying to calm the turbocharged march into great power rivalry. And hindsight tells us they were eventually proved right.
Examples of overdeveloped military institutions are not hard to find in our time. And in every such case — and I challenge you dear reader to find me an exception — such overdeveloped military ambitions have taken their own society down a path of extreme destruction, of extreme degradation of human consciousness, of complicity in great crimes, of a public culture commanded by paranoia and deluded symbols and false arrogance, of the virtual enslavement of the populace in the clutches of poverty, disease and ignorance, towards “a community of dreadful fear and hate” as Eisenhower warned.
In short, every such defence has “deformed the defenders and that which they defend”.
But great power rivalries are not the only crucible where such militarised monstrosities are forged. Regional rivalries can get the job done just as well. Nor does one have to be a great industrialised power to harbour such ambitions of arms and glory. Poor countries have their own peculiar strengths in such endeavours.
Pakistan has had an overdeveloped military establishment for many decades now, but an important turning point marks the evolution of its growing dominance over state and society. In the sixties, our concept of any ‘strategic defence’ could be summed up in two phrases: “the defence of the East lies in the West” and “waiting for the Seventh Fleet”.
The thinking at the time was that any attack on the Eastern wing would be countered by opening a front on the West, forcing the enemy to fight on two fronts. Secondly, the thinking took as an article of faith that being an ally of the superpower meant that its armed might would always come to our defense.
Of course the 1971 war proved that both these elements of our defence were deluded, to say the least, and the country paid the price through a disastrous and blood-soaked dismemberment, a humiliating defeat that saw the post-war world’s first successful separatist movement and the first ever “humanitarian military intervention” by any country.
The security establishment that dragged the country into this disaster spent the next decade licking its wounds and nursing its pride back to health until the 1980s, when geography and history conspired to bequeath unto it a new set of implements with which to resurrect its search for a ‘strategic defence’. The nuclear weapons programme made its most meaningful advances under the cover provided by the Afghan war, and the machine of covert war that plies its deadly craft with the use of irregular militias was assembled during this time.
Today, more than three decades later, both these tools of our ‘defence’ hang like a millstone around our necks. Today we remain stubbornly stuck in a ‘defence’ that we embraced decades ago, and that “defence” is deforming us and the homeland we seek to defend. Thanks to the military’s misguided stewardship, Jinnah’s Pakistan has already been cut into two. Today it is a breeding ground for dreadful fear and hate, an isolated pariah that happily gives safe harbor to the world’s deadliest criminals and ideologies while flaunting the will of the world community.
A degradation of mind and body has accompanied our growing reliance on this ‘defence’. Our school textbooks have been injected with hate and apocryphal tales to sustain the requirements of this ‘defence’, and the memory of our founding fathers — Jinnah and Iqbal — has been desecrated to make it fit the mould of militarised nationalism. Our hospitals are starved of resources, our public schools turned into grazing grounds for herds while fiscal resources are ploughed in unknown quantities into an opaque and unaccountable military budget. From our politics to our economy, to the minds of our children and the classrooms in which they are taught — no area of our society has escaped the footprint of this defence, which has deformed us and that which we defend.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 19th, 2012.