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The European Military Model And Its Discontents

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One laments the nihilistic insanity of suicide bombers, but not of uniformed Joint Chiefs of USA or other nuclear powers, with the same suicidal doctrines. Their self belief may not kill scores like a suicide bomber, but millions writes Daanish Mustafa.

At King’s College, London we offer an MA in Geopolitics, Territory and Security, which tends to attract some of the finest students interested in geopolitics, political geography, security and boundary studies. Talking to one such brilliant student, who is also ex-Australian Navy, the other day, I was struck by something. He said that the modern European style militaries have evolved into gigantic bureaucracies, where unimaginative conformity is rewarded, and creativity strictly controlled. His view was that we need to dispense with this model, going forward. The model may have been successful in colonial wars against less well organized indigenous militias, but in the modern world the model is way past its sell by date. I was somewhat taken aback by the radical thought and pointed to the power projection capabilities that the US military, for example, afforded that country. His counter point was a question; how many wars, not battles, have the modern Western militaries won in the past 80 years? And how is that power projection going for them these days, anyway? I could not think of one, from Korea, to Vietnam to the Gulf Wars. Even Falklands was a lucky break, which proved the rule. The Israeli military too, may have won an engagement of 1967, but hasn’t won any war since, despite field victories. In fact, it may very well have made the Jewish state a demographic fiction through its victories—but that’s another matter.

The point merits contemplation. Why, in a neo-liberal world, where bureaucracies are frowned upon as emblematic of old school state socialism, the military and corporate bureaucracies are above reproach? It always surprised me in the United States, for example, where the conservatives would holler that it is wrong, wasteful and socialistic for the state and its bureaucracy to take care of sick, the elderly, the weak, the environment, or education or of anything positive. But it was perfectly fine for the state and its largest bureaucracy to bomb other countries, to kill people and to send young men to be killed and maimed. The cognitive disconnect was just stupefying.

In the modern world, state militaries ranged against each other is increasingly a rarity. It is however a rarity that continues to rest upon a set of geopolitical myths and a dogged allegiance to those myths—not the least of which are a set of theories like: Heartland Theory, Domino Theory, Finlandization, geographical pivots, and shatterbelt theories to name a few. Much of the contemporary academic research and thinking in the field of geopolitics has quite successfully debunked many of these geographical myths, one of which, my mentor Ken Hewitt has ably described as the ‘most dangerous piece of atlas gazing nonsense’. But it is precisely that atlas gazing nonsense, that is the intellectual propellant for contemporary military thinking. And it is that thinking that eventually ends up generating a reality of its own—from our very own ‘Strategic Depth’, to American Hemispheric Defence Doctrines, to Shatterbelt informing Israeli expansionism, to the Vietnam war fuelled by the Domino Theory. The contemporary military bureaucracies take on these dubious theories as their raison d’etre, and are structurally incapable of critically re-evaluating them.

Nuclear calculus similarly as above is premised upon a set of intellectual fantasies predicated upon rational choice, and prisoners’ dilemma/game theory, for example. They too generate a set of fancy sounding terms like escalation dominance, strategic ambivalence, tactical nuclear wars, throw weights, MERVs etc, which upon closer inspection are nothing short of complete absurdities. But again, those very terms make boy men, mostly populating the world’s militaries, feel like really grown up and clever. But if it were just them feeling clever, it would be alright. The scary part is that their toys can kill millions, including their delusions that nuclear wars are fightable or even winnable. One laments the nihilistic insanity of suicide bombers, but not of uniformed Joint Chiefs of USA or other nuclear powers, with the same suicidal doctrines. Their self belief may not kill scores like a suicide bomber, but millions.

But the most insidious of the effects of the colonial military model’s imposition in the global South has been, the illusion of modernity that all colonial militaries tend to have vis-à-vis their own societies. Hence the bloody civilian syndrome, that many in Pakistan are too painfully familiar with. Incredible destructive power of modern weaponry put in the hands of an insular bureaucracy, with its deeply engrained sense of superiority, has meant disaster for the global South.

The military, corporate and conservative alliance, to the disadvantage of the working class and poor, women and minorities is such a common occurrence in the world, that it could easily be declared a law. Something has to give.

It is time that the crates on this one Western export to the rest of the world are opened and the goods examined for what they are. If the question is about military victories and efficacy, then the medieval militia style peasant armies were no less efficacious. The Mughal emperor Shahjehan’s armies were engaged in simultaneously three campaigns at a given time: in present day Uzbekistan, Deccan and Bengal. A territory the size and range of three thousand miles. Few contemporary militaries could match that range. So, it’s not that the present model is inherently superior.

The critique of the European style militaries notwithstanding, the upshot is that today human security is an outcome of multiple factors and not just hardnosed military defence. Climate change, poverty, water, health, pandemics, internal strife are much bigger threats, for which the military has no answers or training, despite laying claim to disproportionate amount of national resources. To be able to ensure compliance where the cost of non-compliance is a firing squad, doesn’t make one a management genius, but many military men think that it does.

Geopolitics is no longer just done by superannuated mostly white men—increasingly brown and black too, somewhere else. Geopolitics are increasingly enacted by ordinary men and women, through their activism on ethnic, linguistic, political economic or environmental issues. The colonial state model has to either adapt to the newer more variegated reality or it will paint itself into irrelevance. Alliances with neoliberal global capital may provide temporary relief, but will not address the fundamental contradictions of political life. I leave with an anecdote which may help think of the type of changes the modern military bureaucracies could undertake.

My father, a military man himself was commanding an anti-aircraft battery on Azad Pattan bridge in Azad Kashmir in the 1965 war. He tells me, to maintain morale and sanity, he would authorize short home leaves of 2-3 days for men under his command, even though all leaves were cancelled. Especially since it didn’t pose any operational challenges to him. The Azad Pattan bridge that he was defending was also closed between 5:00pm and 5:00 am with scores of civilians at times stranded on either side. With the left over ration of the men on leave he would feed the travellers who had to spend the night on the bridge. He is from Azad Kashmir. A native son, was a compassionate commander who took care of his men and the people he was to defend, instead of surrendering to the logic of the bureaucracy he was forced into. Perhaps, more compassionate, and socially embedded military models are the call of the future?


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Naya Daur