Monday, June 18, 2007

The Role of the Military in Society

There is no doubt that the military constitute a vital force in today’s society. This fact is based on the conventionally perceived role they play in the lives of the populace. Being an armed section of a nation, the military have the primary role of defending the nation against external aggression. They are trained in modern warfare and furnished with whatever weapons the state is capable of procuring to enable them repulse the enemy as swiftly and as brutally as possible. But in times of peace, the military engage themselves in such occupations as the construction of roads, bridges, etc. They may also get involved in such varied tasks as relief work and evacuating victims in times of disaster. Sometimes they are sent abroad to help in keeping or ‘enforcing peace’ in war-torn areas. However, it is not uncommon for the military to intervene in the political affairs of a nation. In fact, the mere mention of the military, in most cases, evokes memories of brutalities in many a mind. They have carved a somewhat negative image of themselves as notorious perpetrators of insecurity and instability. This stems from their often violent and bloody uprisings and coups d’etat which they are prone to staging. In other cases, governments use them to unleash terror on striking workers or students on peaceful demonstrations.

Who are the military?

These conflicting functions that the military plays in society calls into question the real position of this tiny but important segment of the population. To understand the military and their real (not perceived) role, certain questions must be posed and answered. First and foremost, who exactly are the military and how did they come into existence? Simply put, they constitute a part of the coercive arm of the state. The other parts of this coercive arm being the police, prison officers, lawyers, judges, the courts and other paramilitary groups.

Every nation is made up of two basic classes. There is the class of owners and there is the propertyless class. By the ‘class of owners’ we mean that tiny group in society who own and control the means of production and distribution of wealth - factories, mines, land, railway lines, aircraft, roads, communication network, media houses, etc. On the other hand, the ‘class of workers’ refers to the overwhelming majority of people who do not own any of the properties mentioned above. They only possess their mental and physical abilities. The class of owners hires the latter to work on the means of production in order to create wealth. The owners then appropriate the wealth created (by virtue of their ownership) and pay the producers wages and salaries. As the class of owners are looking for ever more profits, then the less wages and salaries they are prepared to give out to the workers. But as the workers also need to have enough to clothe, feed, educate and shelter their families and indeed themselves, they demand more wages and salaries. This conflict of interests leads to a constant friction in society. So in order to maintain peace and security so that production can go on, the state emerged as a body standing above society and serving as an ‘impartial' regulator. Thus, it has the task of stopping the two antagonistic classes tearing society apart. It does this by using its three arms – the executive (the government in power), the legislature (the law-making body) and the judiciary (the body which dispenses justice). Now, it is to the judiciary that the military belong.

For or against

Having seen who the military are (a part of the state), one may now ask whether the state, and for that matter the military, is as neutral as it is claimed to be. In other words, are the military unbiased or are they on the side of the workers or on the side of the wealthy owners of the means of production? Here again, in order to do justice to the question, one must understand how the state is formed or who are chosen to represent the state. As has already been explained above, the state comprises the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The executive arm is the government in power. This government, under normal conditions, assumes power after having contested and won elections. But every mainstream political party is in reality owned by a few wealthy people who contribute huge sums to maintain the party and enable it meet the financial and logistical expenses of contesting elections. Therefore, the party in power (the executive) serves the wealthy owners, who are really in control. It is the same with the legislature. Only the rich owners of wealth are able to provide the funds to sponsor themselves or their stooges to get into the national assembly or parliament. The common people, the working class, only queue up on Election Day to vote for one group of wealthy individuals or another. The story is the same with the judiciary, the third arm of the state. This is peopled with individuals who have been privileged to attain the highest levels of academic achievement. They are, in the main, hands-in-glove with the few privileged wealth owners and leaders of society. Members of the judiciary are appointed to their positions mostly on account of their cordial relations with the leadership of the nation.

It follows, logically, that since the state apparatus is peopled with those in cahoots with the owners of the means of production and distribution, there is no doubt as to where the loyalty of the state lies in the conflict between these owners and the working class. At best the state is part and parcel of the privileged class and at worst it (the state) is controlled by this privileged few. Thus, the military, being an instrument of the state machinery has a historical role of defending the interests of the owning and ruling class against the interests of the working class.

The reality of the military

An honest analysis of the conventionally perceived role of the military, outlined in the first paragraph, clearly proves that the military stands solidly behind the owning class against the majority in the working class. For instance the issue of the military defending the nation in times of war only masks the reality. When a nation fights another nation it is always over sources of raw materials or markets for their finished products, or over trade routes, or even the strategic positions from which the same can be defended. The central issue is always wealth. And since wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few owners of the means of living, wars are fought in the interests of these owners. Wars are therefore not a matter of nations against nations but they are a matter of the rich of one nation against the rich of a competitor nation. Sadly, however, all wars are fought by the poor people of the belligerent nations and who have no stake at all in such wars.

It has also been mentioned that in times of peace the military are deployed in construction. The roads, bridges and other infrastructure they help to provide are not intended to benefit the masses. Given the fact that society as at present constituted is run in the interests of the owning classes, all undertakings on the part of the state aim at enhancing the profit prospects of the wealthy. Thus, even in times of peace, the role played by the military is still anti-working class. And this is manifest in the ease with which the military is unleashed on workers when they embark on an industrial action to demand better conditions of service. Even harmless school children, demonstrating peacefully over one issue or the other, can be brutally massacred by the military when given orders to do so by the powers that they serve. And if the international role they play in the various peacekeeping missions is critically examined, the fruitlessness of that role cannot be missed. Apart from the numerous reports of such peace keepers getting involved in widespread looting, rape and sexual abuse they, in all cases, only add to camouflage the real essence of war. Peacekeeping forces have been in the Middle East for umpteen years now, yet that region remains volatile and insecure. It is the same in the Horn of Africa and the Congo Basin, which have known no peace since the early days of independence.

A positive role

This being the situation on the ground, the next is question whether the military can play a positive role in society. The answer obviously is both yes and no. Depending on how the military see this class-divided society, they can either live up to the expectation of their class or they will continue in this present unenviable "killing" profession on behalf of the capitalist class. If the military accept the present unjust world economic order and think they can reform it by going to war or indulging in peace keeping abroad or by repairing bridges and roads at home, then they will be choosing to continue along the negative path. But if they understand the world economic system in operation today and strive to change it, then they will be charting a positive course. So what is the current economic arrangement like? Though this has been referred to earlier in this write-up, more light will be thrown on it. Society is locked in a continuous battle with itself: the few who own and control wealth against the majority who produce the wealth but own nothing. In other words the current material productive forces are in conflict with the relations of production. Material productive forces refer to the elements actually involved in production, such as workers, land, factories, mines, transportation etc. The relations of production are somewhat more difficult to explain. They involve such things as production costs, who owns the material productive forces and who owns the results of production. Currently, the relationship between people on the one hand and land, factories, mines, transportation, etc on the other, divides people into two groups. One group owns those things. The other group must use its physical and mental ability to turn raw materials into finished products. Workers produce everything from food to education, from automobiles to hammers, from houses to hospitals, and from shopping malls to factories. They even produce the weapons used to kill each other in wars.

Those who own the means of production (basically the material productive forces excluding workers) determine when, where and how production takes place. If a factory decides to shut down, the workers have no say in the matter. If the owners of a soap manufacturing company in The Gambia, for instance, decide to move their factories to Nigeria or Ghana, it is their choice. They own the means of production. If the owners of a soft drinks processing plant believe that they cannot sell their product for a profit, they have the right to shut down the plant. That right is theirs even if the processing plant produced all the soft drinks in the world. Profit trumps human need every time in capitalism.

Those who own the factories own the products of the factories. The owners may have never been on the same continent as the factory but they nonetheless own everything produced in the factory. Those who do the actual work have no legal right to the products they have produced. Those who own the means and the products of production and who control production are the capitalists. Those who do the actual producing are the working class.

Humanity has developed the ability to produce to a level which easily enables the planet’s real needs to be met.. But the current relations of production dictate who eats what, who sleeps where and at what price. Capitalism cannot accommodate necessary production. By and large, people do not go hungry, walk barefooted or die of curable illnesses because there is no food, shoes or medicines, but because they are, from the unalterable perspective of capitalism, unworthy: they cannot buy the food, pay for shoes or procure medicines. They do not have the finances to purchase what the capitalist sells, so they do not present as a market.

If the military were to understand the world as explained above, they would be in a position to throw their weight behind their historically determined class – the exploited class; to be in a position to stop serving the interests of the master class, to stop fighting their wars, to stop breaking strikes and attacking peaceful demonstrators. Were this to happen, then the military could be seen to be playing a positive role in society.


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