Anglo-American Liberal Militarism and the Idea of the Citizen Soldier

By Wood, James | International Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Anglo-American Liberal Militarism and the Idea of the Citizen Soldier


Wood, James, International Journal


The rise of Anglo-German antagonism in the decade prior to the Great War has been variously ascribed to imperial rivalries between an emergent great power and an established global empire; insecurities fuelled by a dangerously escalating naval arms race; and the traditional balance-of-power foreign policy whereby 300 years of English statesmen had sought to prevent a European rival from establishing hegemony over the continent. That ideology played an important role in fanning the flames of this rivalry is generally taken for granted; while difficult or impossible to quantify, contemporary references to the clash of democratic English liberalism and autocratic Prussian militarism are too widespread for their influence to be dismissed. Michael Howard has even suggested that the "mood of 1914" may deserve primacy in explaining the events of that year, for "if one does read Bernhardi or von der Goltz or Trietschke; or Frederic Harrison and Seeley...or if one explores further and reads the pre-war editorials and the speeches at prize-givings and the pamphlets; or soaks oneself in the military literature of the period; one learns far more about the causes of the First World War than in a lifetime of reading diplomatic documents."1

To the modern observer, references to the incompatibility of English liberalism and German militarism may seem ironic or even perverse given the size of the crowds that formed outside recruiting offices throughout Britain and the Dominions in August 1914. In the British Isles, more than 750,000 volunteered for service by the end of September and 2.5 million by the winter of 1916. Coupled with the fact that few saw anything even remotely militaristic about their countrymen clamouring for war, this is often attributed to the growth of an invasive strain of popular nationalism and jingoistic imperialism that had taken root in "democracy's garden" during the latter half of the igth century, crowding out the more pacific tendencies of traditional English liberalism.2

It is due to Samuel Huntington's contribution that we are able to consider whether the mood of 1914 was a subversion of Cobden and Bright liberalism, or rather its wartime counterpart.3 In The Soldier and the State (1957), Huntington concluded that the wars of liberal democracies are predisposed to developing into crusades, a sentiment that also lay at the heart of Eisenhower's warning on the eve of the Normandy invasion that "hell hath no fury" to compare with that of an aroused democracy. It is the purpose of this essay to discuss how igth-century liberalism helped condition the response of the Anglo-American nations to the First World War, including the tendency for liberal faith in the capacity of free men to reason to become the foundation for its wartime counterpart-faith in the capacity of citizen soldiers. It will outline how selected historians have approached the 19th-century roots of "liberal militarism" as the moral foundation upon which the Anglo-American war efforts of the aoth century were built.

In terms of its approach, Huntington's The Soldier and the State is remarkable in that it provides what is simultaneously a most illuminating-and condemnatory-explanation of liberal militarism. Americans, who often seem to emerge as the subject of Huntington's ire, tend either to reject war in its entirety or embrace it with the enthusiasm that only freedom of choice can provide. This extremism, in turn, is conditioned by the nature of American liberalism, which originated as an essentially tolerant creed based upon the assertion of individual rights against those of the state. As the political philosophy of the English middle-class and a legacy of America's colonial heritage, liberalism is founded upon the belief that men are essentially good and able to resolve their differences without resort to arms; it is only the stupidity and wickedness of governments that leads people to go to war with each other with such disturbing frequency.

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