Militarism and Modern Society

By Townshend, Charles | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview
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Militarism and Modern Society


Townshend, Charles, The Wilson Quarterly


In 1793, Year I of the French Republic, the town of St. Quentin in Picardy changed the name of one of its streets from rue Ste. Catherine to rue Grenadier Malfuson. Malfuson was a "soldier of liberty," one of the volunteers of 1792, who had died in battle around Lille. To name a street after one of the menu peuple, the people of no importance, was in 18th-century France a truly astonishing, revolutionary gesture. Critics of the Revolution might contend that it was an empty one, but its symbolic force cannot be easily set aside. Alongside thousands of parallel happenings, local, national, and international, it gave form to a general sense of decisive transition. The mobilization of the people for war seemed to lie at the heart of this epochal change. It promised a wholly new relationship between armed forces and societies: "democracy in arms" in the shape of huge "citizen armies" raised by universal military service.

The link between modern society and large-scale armed forces has, since the French Revolution, seemed plain, but it has never been straightforward. Indeed, to many it has always seemed paradoxical, if not actually perverse. Modernization has been thought of as a comprehensive, final shift, driven by industrialization and signaled by the triumph of secularization, literacy, and democracy--in short, the civic culture. Amidst this progress, war was seen by most 19th-century liberals as a barbaric survival, doomed to eventual extinction. According to this view, democratizing the institutions of war, above all, armies, should have been a prelude to their fairly rapid disappearance. William Gladstone, who served as his nation's prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894, voiced the dominant English view tersely when he insisted that "a standing army can never be turned into a moral institution." His countryman, Richard Cobden, leading spirit of the 19th-century "Manchester School" of free-market economists, held that unless universal disarmament was achieved, military establishments would cripple the economy. There could be "no necessary or logical end to their increase, for the progress of scientific knowledge will lead to constant increase of expenditure. There is no limit but the limit of taxation."

In more optimistic moods, progressives hoped that the liberalization of political institutions would lay to rest the ancient specter of militarism. But Cobden's most pessimistic prediction was borne out. Armies simply grew larger and more expensive (and taxation went beyond any limit Cobden could have imagined), while war became more comprehensive and destructive. And the phenomenon of Napoleon Bonaparte--"la revolution, c'est moi"--seemed to drive the stake of militarism into the heart of the liberal transformation. Napoleon's adventurism added a modern twist, "Bonapartism," to the ancient threat of military domination under classical labels such as praetorianism and Caesarism. Its impact--melodramatically etched by Beethoven furiously eliminating his dedication to Napoleon from the Eroica symphony--was all the greater because of the aesthetic power of the pristine myth of popular mobilization that preceded it. The sense of liberation generated by the early victories of the French revolutionary armies reached beyond France itself. The psychological turning point was the militarily indecisive engagement (often called a cannonade rather than a battle) at Valmy in September 1792, when the Austrian and Prussian armies, confronted by the massed French forces, abandoned their march on Paris and their attempt to restore the French monarchy. One of the civilian spectators, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe--not only the outstanding German writer of modern times but also the administrator of a small city-state--told his countrymen: "From this place and this time forth commences a new era in the history of the world."

Valmy was proof that ordinary people could make up in commitment what they lacked in experience.

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