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Special Guest Blog – The problem of militarism

by Tony Coady

Israel’s decision to institute an inquiry into the military misadventure with the flotilla attempting to break its blockade of Gaza and its subsequent partial relaxation of restrictions on aid to Gaza represent grudging concessions to international outrage about the flotilla episode. Any recognition by Israel that its military policies are offensive to so many in the outside world is surely welcome. But the flotilla episode will be misunderstood if it is seen only as a failure in public relations or an instance of military mismanagement. Certainly it constitutes both of these since it has badly damaged Israel’s image throughout the world and alienated its few friends in the region as well as called into question the competence of its much-vaunted armed forces. But there is a deeper lesson to this tragic fiasco and that concerns the influence and failings of the spirit of militarism.

Militarism is a complex phenomenon often incorporating romantic attitudes to war and an uncritical admiration of one’s own warriors, but its most relevant feature here is its unbalanced faith in military night for the solution of political problems especially those concerning foreign affairs. Because of both real and apparent threats to its safety, Israel has had a heavily militarised culture for a long time, but its reliance upon military methods to advance and secure its interests has become a dominant and even obsessional element in its politics.

The distinguished Israeli writer Amos Oz, a founder of the Peace Now movement, made what is essentially the same point in an article in The Guardian commenting on the flotilla attack, when he said: “Every attempt to use force not as a preventative, not in self-defence, but instead as a means of smashing problems and squashing ideas, will lead to more disasters—just like the one we brought on ourselves in international waters, on the high seas, opposite Gaza’s shores.” Oz insists that Israel has a legitimate need for a strong military as a defensive force, but objects that it “is fixated on military force. The mantra is: what can’t be done by force can be done with even greater force.” The old adage, as Oz reminds us, is pertinent here: to a man with a big hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Israel’s apologists tend to present criticisms of its state policies and actions as products of anti-semitism or more commonly these days as misunderstanding by foreigners who fail to appreciate its problems, but Oz’s protest is only one amongst many raised by Israelis themselves about the militaristic nature of the Israeli government’s policies, especially towards Gaza. David Grossman, for instance, another Israeli author, complains of “clumsy and calcified policy, which again and again resorts by default to the use of massive and exaggerated force, at every decisive juncture, where wisdom and sensitivity and creative thinking are called for instead.”

Quite apart from what it does to others the reliance upon military violence tends to have a brutalising effect upon the soldiers themselves. This is true even of relatively restrained and justified resort to warfare, and it is one of the reasons why such a choice should always be reluctant, as the just war condition of “last resort” requires. But this brutalising effect is even more conspicuous when militarism is the default response to so many political problem. The well-known Swedish author of the Wallander crime novels Henning Mankell was one of those captured by Israeli troops during the flotilla raid. He has written of the way Israeli troops treated their captives. If his account is to be believed, the treatment by Israeli soldiers of palpably harmless civilians (excluding those who are claimed to have resisted the armed invasion with iron bars and kitchen knives and who may have been amongst those shot dead by Israeli soldiers) was callous and often brutal. He describes the use of stun guns and rubber bullets against people who were deemed to be too slow responding to orders from the boarding troops and the beating of a defenceless man who refused to be fingerprinted. 

Of course, Israel is not the only state to subject itself to the corrupting influences of militarism. It has a long way to go before matching the likes of North Korea, for instance. Moreover, militarism has been a significant influence in the prosecution of the fruitless, disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under the banner of the “war on terror”. But, unlike Israel, North Korea is not a democracy and has no pretensions to the sort of ideals that many Israelis and many outsiders see as having animated the founding of the Jewish state. It is these ideals that are betrayed by such episodes as the flotilla attack which as David Grossman put it: “seem to be part of a larger corruptive process afflicting Israel.” Reversing this process will be no easy matter, but recognising the facts and acknowledging the defects of the militaristic stance must be a first step on the way. Israel’s many friends and supporters in the West can best aid this reassessment by equally frank, public but sympathetic acknowledgements of the flaws and tragic consequences of Israel’s unbalanced reliance upon military might.

Professor Tony Coady is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Morality and Political Violence (CUP, 2008) and Messy Morality-the Challenge of Politics (OUP, 2008), the latter of which is the product of the Uehiro Lectures that he gave in Oxford in 2005. He was a visiting fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre in the first half of 2010.
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1 Comment on this post

  1. This seems to me to be an extremely important issue with which to grapple if we are interested in the future of humanity, since it goes to the heart of what people value, and whether or not these values are conducive to peace and prosperity.

    This being the case, in addition to acknowledging the flaws and consequences of militarism in Israel we should perhaps also reflect on what has caused it and what can be done about it. Prof Coady has already referred to the obvious answer to the first question: it is because of “both real and apparent threats to its safety”. One can of course also add more historical considerations. But what of the second question? What can we realistically expect Israelis to do to combat militarism? In other words, how SHOULD Israel behave in the face of these “real and apparent threats”, and how confident are we that we would do the same in their place?

    It could also help if we clarify exactly what “ideals” we see, and/or think that Israelis see, as having “animated the founding of the Jewish state”. In general I find Prof Coady’s analysis highly convincing, but one drawback is that it puts the emphasis on what is wrong, rather than what we want to achieve. Perhaps what we need, then, is a positive discussion on values and ideals. In other words, what is it, finally, that we actually want?

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