The west needs a replacement for the warrior spirit; Warfare and welfare have long been connected

September 6, 2013 7:24 pm

The west needs a replacement for the warrior spirit

By Mark Mazower

Warfare and welfare have long been connected, writes Mark Mazower

The memory of Iraq, and the anger that war still provokes, loom large over the defeat of the British government over Syria in the House of Commons, and the wrangling in the US Congress and the French parliament. The doubts surfacing in these legislatures suggest that public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic is a lot more sceptical than it once was about the efficacy of military action and more worried at the tendency of so-called surgical strikes to turn into unwinnable wars.Also important is the fact that years of defence cuts have left military leaders exasperated at being asked continually to do more with less. The number of British regular service personnel, currently below 185,000, is shortly to be reduced to a 150-year low. The French government is proposing to cut more than 30,000 personnel over the next six years.

For a wider perspective on this, one could do worse than read Alfred de Vigny’s meditation The Warrior’s Life. First published in 1835, it is a classic of early French romanticism that asks a very modern question: what price an army that has outlived its usefulness?

When armies shrink, soldiers are the first to feel the effects. No one knew this better than de Vigny, who embarked on his military career just as Napoleon was defeated. Through the years that followed, the troops felt marginalised while their country turned its back on the glorification of war and fell in love with the idea of the civilising value of peace. The aristocratic de Vigny had no time for Napoleon. But he mourned the demise of the warrior’s code – the notion of unswerving loyalty to the monarch, and the idea of duty and equality under arms.

That world now seems far away but The Warrior’s Lifeis nonetheless prescient. In the US – unlike in much of Europe – the military is still idealised. But probe more deeply and, even there, behind the flag-waving, you will find a society with deep misgivings about the soldiering life. Fewer people want to become soldiers, polls tell us, or have any sense of an obligation to serve. This may be connected to the fact that soldiering is becoming less a matter of the battlefield.

Armed forces numbers are plummeting – at below 0.5 per cent of the population, they are lower than they have been for a century or more – and the ratio of support staff to frontline troops is rising. As armies turn high-tech and capital-intensive, spending per soldier has soared. At the same time the chances of being wounded or killed in battle have fallen dramatically: in Vietnam and Korea, American casualty tolls were in the tens of thousands; a mere 147 combat deaths were reported in the first Gulf war, and fewer than 1,000 in the conflict that followed the Iraqi invasion of 2003. Suicide and accident currently kill far more US service personnel than the country’s enemies. Killing by drone seems the ultimate extension of these trends: where is the heroism, or the warrior spirit, in wielding a joystick?

Some American generals already worry that reducing killing to a risk-free video game will erode public support for the troops and intensify pressure on defence budgets. This pressure has gone furthest in Britain. But, despite Mali, it is also certainly under way in cash-strapped France. And even in the high-spending US, it may be in the offing. There has, so far, been a relatively slight fall in defence expenditures from the heights of the war on terror: But President Barack Obama’s budget projects cutting it further, to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product by 2023, which would be the lowest figure since the second world war.

Yet these changes do not affect only the soldiers. The late Charles Tilly demonstrated in a series of brilliant sociological studies the extent to which warfare and welfare have historically been tightly connected. Rulers who wanted citizens to fight learnt the hard way that they had to give them something more concrete and appealing to fight for than the privilege of dying in their name. That is why the advent of mass conscript armies, unified around allegiance to the nation, coincided with the dramatic 20th-century transformation in the nature of the state and the swift post-1945 expansion of social rights in the shape of public housing, healthcare and schooling.

During the two world wars, military service resulted in the percentage of the population in uniform in the UK and the US approaching an extraordinary 10 per cent. This kind of warfare accustomed entire societies to new egalitarian norms and demonstrated the indispensability of the state itself as mediator in industrial relations, and as economic strategist and planner. The lessons were learnt and applied after the war as well, underpinning much of the west’s managed capitalism in the years of the post-1945 economic boom.

Of these lessons, almost nothing remains. The smaller, leaner, more capital-intensive military of the past few decades has contributed to the more timid states of the age of globalisation.

With today’s growing inequalities of income and wealth, the social achievements of two world wars have been whittled away. One would certainly not want to wish war on people so that they could learn the virtues of a dynamic state and its role in cementing social solidarity. But we seem to lack a substitute for the redistributive machinery that turned Franklin Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” – freedom of speech, of worship, from want and from fear – into positive public goods.

As the warrior ethos slips into memory, what is thus lost is not only de Vigny’s romantic attitude to life but something perhaps more valuable: the outstanding governmental achievement of the 20th century. Whether we can find a new and distinctively modern basis for a politics of equality in a post-military age remains one of the most urgent challenges we face.

The writer is professor of history at Columbia University and author of ‘Governing the World’

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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