Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/June 1895/The Spirit of Militarism



IN the Principles of Sociology (Volume I) Herbert Spencer draws a sharp and clear distinction between two types of society—the militant and the industrial. Leaving out of consideration the analogy between the animal and the social organism in the development of the various systems—the regulating, the sustaining, and the distributing it will be readily conceded that from the view of sociology the last of these two types—the industrial—stands highest in the scale of development as implying voluntary co-operation among the members of the organization with more of individual liberty; while the first, the militant type, implying compulsory co-operation under a more or less despotic military government with less of individual liberty, is decidedly nearer to the early predatory state. Mr. Spencer also shows how social metamorphoses take place. Especially interesting to note is the transformation or retrogression of the industrial type, partially developed during years of peace, into the militant type when war once more occurs.

Of all the illustrations which might be gathered from history, ancient and modern, as exhibiting this social transformation, Mr. Spencer considers that furnished by England in more recent years the most striking, because the industrial type here was further developed than anywhere else, owing in a great measure to the long era of peace which commenced in 1815. But the usurpation of power by Louis Napoleon in France caused a great change. England soon found herself involved in actual wars, one after the other. The threatening attitudes of neighboring nations alone were sufficient to develop a similar one at home for the sake of defense. A structure for defense, however, is also available for the purpose of offense, and reasons for extending the empire never being scarce, England entered upon an era of aggressive warfare in various parts of the world. This, what Mr. Spencer calls a revival of the predatory spirit, was naturally accompanied by a return toward the militant type in the institutions generally—that is to say, "the extension of centralized administration and of compulsory regulation."

If Mr. Spencer were now to rewrite the Principles of Sociology, there can be no doubt that he would find in the United States an illustration scarcely less striking. Most of what he tells us of the changes in England is a matter of history here. That the immediate result of the late war of rebellion was a tendency of the military officialism to take the place of civil officialism no one will deny; and though it may, perhaps, not be said that we have military heads of all the various departments, still, the disposition to fill all administrative offices with military chieftains, so strong immediately after the war, was in the same line—the result being "a style of administration which asserts authority more and regards individual claims less." At the same time, the revival of the predatory spirit in regard to external affairs has been clearly discernible here too; for although the sin of aggressive warfare on weaker or barbarous nations can not be laid at the door of our Government, the constant cry for coast defenses and for the strengthening and increasing of army and navy are clear indications of the same spirit. But what chiefly must strike us as familiar facts are these: The spirit of sanitary dictation and the usurpation of exclusive privileges by certain professions (prominent among them the medical); poor-law, and we may add tramp-law, administration in various parts of the Union; the demand for municipal distribution of water, gas, and coal, as well as for governmental ownership of railroads and telegraphs; the ever-increasing influence of "a coercive philanthropy" invoking state power to improve people's conduct, etc.; in short, the strong impetus imparted to the socialistic tendency of modern times is nothing but that same military spirit clamoring for the right of the state, or the commonwealth if you please, to regulate the private affairs of the citizen in every department of life.

That this tendency is a real one, with roots deep down in the economic conditions of the masses, it would be useless to deny. Whether it as such is a healthful one, to be hailed with delight and encouraged, is another question—a question that does not come within the scope of this article; but as far as it is animated with the spirit of militarism it may well cause us alarm and misgivings. What shall we say, for example, of the movement, now fairly under way in the State of New York, to establish throughout the country a system of military drill in the public schools and colleges? At a time when so much is heard about Germany groaning under its military system, rigorously maintained by its young war lord, this announcement ought to be well calculated to make every unassuming, liberty-loving American rub his eyes in wonder and ask whether he is dreaming or not. Many there are, no doubt, who will look upon it with a smile as a mere fad, perhaps good-naturedly regard it as a means toward the improvement of the general deportment and physical conditions of the young. But if they for a moment will consider the source from which it springs and carefully weigh the reasons with which it is launched forth, it surely must take a more serious aspect. The fact alone that it originated in G. A. R. circles, is backed and indorsed by certain high military dignitaries, civil functionaries, and legal authorities ought to arouse a suspicion in the ordinary citizen of a supposed free industrial country. It is, however, when we examine the arguments in its favor by some of these high military and legal authorities that its real essence, its military and retrogressive spirit, becomes clear.

In the first place, there is the usual soldier's argument that "if ever an occasion should arise when a call to arms should again be sounded, those to respond (having been trained in the schools to military tactics and to the use of arms) would be tenfold more efficient than were, at first, the brave boys of '61 and '62, who mostly went to the war practically undrilled." To this it only needs to be said that, the business of the professional soldier being to kill, it also becomes part of his business to find or devise new occasions for the exercise of his professional duties. It is significant of the extreme plight in which the military authorities find themselves in this respect that the gentleman, an officer of high rank, who gave utterance to the above warning could find no other possible occasion for the call to arms than "the anarchistic and socialistic forces tending to undermine our democratic republican government." Whatever influence, therefore, he may exert on the timid and the unthinking, to the philosophical, the trained minds, who recognize that these anarchistic and socialistic forces are the natural effects of real causes in our industrial and political conditions, to these his suggestions will have the weight of the professional soldier's pleading for his own existence and no more.

But the burden of argument in favor of this proposed military training of our boys and young men is that it will make them better citizens of this free country—that "a vote in the hands of a man who has been taught to love his country, and to recognize the value of obedience to law, and to toe out and hold his chin up by military instruction, is a safe vote for the country." And here Germany is called upon to furnish an illustration of the cherished object. It is seriously asserted that the military system there is worth far more than it costs, for the reason that the young men there, through the several years of military drill and discipline, are made "efficient citizens for all the duties and emergencies of life."

It would seem strange indeed that in a country as young as this, with its Revolutionary antecedents, the sophistry of such arguments should not be apparent to every one at first sight, did we not know that very few appreciate the fact that in all ages it is disobedience rather than obedience to existing laws which has made progress possible; that each age or generation, yes, each new decade, has its own requirements; as the poet says, "must have new men to determine its liberty." If love for country means the obedience to civil and political law which a military discipline inculcates, then let us have less of it. One need not be a student of history to see the results of that kind of loyalty. Already now practical men may be heard every day discussing absurd laws with their far-reaching results; but they will add that a law must be respected at any cost until it is repealed, and as it does not come within their province to repeal it, the law remains, a menace to the liberties and happiness of the people. What must we expect, then, when every one shall have been trained into a military—that is, blind—obedience?

And here it may be well to ask, What is law, that we should cultivate this filial spirit toward it? Let it be understood that the common law, that by mutual consent established respect for life and property, is not here under consideration. The industrial type of society, where voluntary association is the rule, owes its growth to the comparative absence of military discipline, and it is just such a state of society where we find the respect for common law best developed. Statute law, then, is what we have to consider. Is this the spontaneous expression of the will of the people or of the best elements among us? Hardly ever. Now, whether it is the will of one or a few, enforced upon the rest through intimidation or strength of arms, etc., or whether it is the will of that always uncertain quantity, the majority, enforced by hook or by crook upon the so-called minority, why should it be held as something inviolable or something holy? Even if we were to take the most optimistic view of law, should regard it as the expression of our own will, "the voice of the whole people," we would by no means be in duty bound to cherish it as something inviolable. That we erred yesterday is no reason why we should continue the error to-day. Or, to leave error out of the question, if we at a former occasion acted according to the light given us then, so, with the increased experience of to-day, let us act according to our present light and disregard what under this must be incomplete or inadequate. Some will here undoubtedly interject the popular notion that in a supposed free country the people have it in their power to repeal useless laws whenever they choose; the facts do not seem to bear out the statement, but, let that be as it may, as already hinted at, the inculcation in the minds of the young of military obedience to law must certainly make the chances for repeal more and more hopeless.

Now, what do they mean, they who seriously argue that if we are to preserve our free institutions we must rear a generation of men "who have a wholesome respect for discipline, a habit of obedience together with an enduring love for flag and country which can not be uprooted by every passing storm of modern isms"? What do they mean by saying that a vote in the hands of such is a safe vote for the country? In the mouth of Emperor Wilhelm such words and sentiments are perfectly consistent: his power lies in the obedience of his subjects. But free institutions and a servile spirit can never go hand in hand. Free institutions can only be maintained by the eternal vigilance of the individual men and women, whose power of deciding between right and wrong is strengthened by free play and exercise. Change, ceaseless change, is the essence of life in superorganic as well as in organic bodies. Evolution and dissolution, growth and decay—this is the immutable order everywhere. If freedom and liberty are dependent on institutions, then clearly these must be changeable, for, once they become fixed and stagnant, freedom to act is out of the question. If this be not so, what is the meaning of "a vote in the hand of a freeman"? And what is the meaning of many of our symbols of liberty? At the harbor of New York city was erected the Statue of Liberty as "a pharos light to the weak endeavor." Could this mean simply that the citizens basking in its light should cultivate a submissive obedience to what once was decreed as best for them? Was it not rather intended as a reminder of the fact that liberty can only thrive with a distrust toward the old and a spirit ever ready to adapt itself to the new?

The promoters of this movement can only have this in view: The desirability of securing for our country a population of well-drilled subjects whose business shall be, not so much "to reason why" as it shall be "to do and die"—"to toe out and hold their chins up" when orders are given. When we remember how largely, already now, legislation is dictated by concentrated capital or by various interests intrenched behind governmental protection, how it is influenced by religious or superstitious prejudices; when we remember how conservative these controlling forces from their very nature must be toward everything that modern science, speculative and experimental, teaches, then the reactionary spirit of the movement becomes startlingly clear, and then, perhaps, will we understand the poet, who, speaking for the Goddess of Liberty, said:

"I am a threat to oppression's sin.
And a pharos light to the weak endeavor.
Mine is the love that men may win,
But lost—it is lost forever!"