It is undeniable that the military’s reputation as an institution is severely damaged in many parts of today’s world; especially, in Western countries. While once young men dreamt about a career as a soldier, in order to live the ideal of the brave and glorious saviour of the nation, today fewer and fewer people aspire such a career. In some countries, soldiers are still kept in high regard, but even there, a career in the military is seldom on top of the priority list. The reputational decline of the military even reaches so far that some voices even question the necessity of militaries and advocate for the abolition of this institution. All this is in stark contrast to the times when military officials enjoyed much respect within society. Often, this was based on a deep appreciation for those people’s ability to lead and command a great number of troops, but also soldiers were much respected for putting their lives on the line for the nation.

As mentioned before, this is still the case in many countries, but in comparison to people from other professions, such as lawyers, doctors or scientists, soldiers are viewed relatively neutrally rather than being drowned in admiration. From an institutional perspective, the military had considerable influence on politics and was often the main driver of it for centuries in many states, empires and kingdoms. To some extent, this is still the case, but states with military leadership are not held in high regard today and quickly raise eyebrows among the global society. This decline could be explained solely on the grounds that we are experiencing a proliferation of liberal ideas which often incorporate pacifism and reject the idea of the use of violence. However, this account would be too simplistic, if not even inaccurate. This article treats the question of why the military’s reputation is so damaged and what its role in the contemporary societal and political order is today.

A Questionable Deal

In order to understand why the military has lost much of its reputation, we need to combine several factors. The transition to democratic systems definitely plays a big role here. One might be quick to assume that democracies have brought about a positive change in the normative framework of societies, meaning that human rights, peace, cooperation and pacifism gained prominence with democratic systems often being linked to liberalism. However, that is not the driving factor – if it even plays a role at all. Rather it is much more useful to look at the nature of the tasks of the military. Obviously, the core purpose of militaries is to physically attack other nations and withstand attacks from other nations. In short, militaries are there to engage in war.

War in every aspect is destructive and horrific. With the constant pressure of imminent death, nobody wants to be involved in war if not inevitably necessary. Accordingly, in the history books, we rarely saw kings, emperors or dictators personally moving to the front and fighting along with the soldiers and neither did they send their family members or friends. They usually ‘outsourced’ the operative part of wars to others, namely the citizens, regardless of whether the war at hand was defensive or offensive in nature. Everybody wants to avoid war on the individual level, if possible. Collectively, however, there has always been a human tendency to have an indifferent, or even favourable, stance towards war once waged. At times, it is argued that it is needed to defend the nation, at other times, ethnic conflict was brought up to justify wars, but no matter what the reasons were to wage war, everyone expected others to get involved and take on the responsibility. Now, under totalitarian systems, people had little choice but to follow the commands of the leaders. Those leaders, however, needed motivated troops at the front and utilised nationalist, ethnic and religious identity narratives to motivate the soldiers. Often, they were framed as the heroes of the nation, ethnicity or religion, which gave them an extra motivational push. In short, the leaders sent troops to war at will, without being personally involved and ensured the soldiers’ societal respect in return.

Nothing has changed

Today, the situation is different, because there are only very few totalitarian state systems left in the world. There are some more or less autocratic governments in place but these are rather temporal than outright systematic totalitarian. With the democratic idea that the people of a nation should retain sovereignty about how societal and political life is structured, the ordinary citizen has gained importance in the policy process. Keeping in mind what we know from above, people naturally want to keep war as far away from themselves as possible. Hence, having a more important role within the political system, citizens in democratic systems do not advocate for wars. They could support it if political representatives just decide that troops are going to be dispatched for military operations or be simply indifferent about it, but in democratic systems, populations are very unlikely to demand military aggression. We can see this in many countries where the population is not even properly informed about military operations abroad. In other words, populations tend to reject the initiation of wars but remain inactive about ending them.

The reputational decline is, therefore, caused by the change in citizens’ role in the policy process. Militaries are not held in high regard, as citizens would seldom push for the initiation of wars to keep them as far away as possible but remain relatively indifferent about ongoing conflicts, as long as they are not directly involved. As such, we cannot say that pacifism has been on the rise and that this has caused reputational damage to the military as an institution. Pacifism would require more active approaches by the population against military policies.

Militaries in Today’s Order

From the above, it becomes clear that democratic systems enabled citizens to better ignore war activities and, hence, the military. In such systems, governments are more restricted in their ability to wage large-scale wars and cannot freely send troops around at will. The military operations that are conducted, however, are usually framed as temporary and necessary interventions; arguments that enable the citizens to remain rather indifferent about the conflict, as long as they are not directly affected. It is a silent agreement about the place of the military and wars in our contemporary order between the ruler and the ruled.

It becomes clear, however, that the existence of the military is broadly considered to be necessary. Certainly, radical liberals advocate for the abolition of militaries altogether, but in general, this institution’s existence rights are still relatively rarely questioned. But what is its role today? Above, we found out that militaries had a much more central role in politics than today, as diplomacy was almost inevitably linked with military strategy. Today, the situation changed on the operative side. Militaries in the 21st century are just as active as they were hundreds of years ago, but their operating fields changed. Rather than being part of diplomacy, they were reduced to the executive arm of it. In other words, if a country today decides to start a military intervention abroad, military officials are not included in the policymaking process but are merely concerned with the realisation of the intervention. The officials advise the politicians on how to approach the matter on the ground but are excluded in terms of questions on how the intervention would alter the political landscape, domestic situation and economy, for example. This form of the military is mostly found in Western nations where the military is subordinate to the government and is not vested with any political powers.

In some countries, militaries are constitutionally subordinated to the citizens and not the government. In cases where the military leaders perceive that the fundamental interests of the nation are in danger, some constitutions give the military the right to topple the government and take the lead until a more responsible government is formed. To this day, some militaries misuse this provision, which is aimed at protecting the nation’s citizens. However, in this approach to militaries the citizens, in theory, have an executive power on their side, which is entrusted to intervene when governments are fundamentally misusing their powers. Elsewhere, militaries also simply topple governments out of the pure desire for personal power. Usually, in such situations, we can often observe that the military and the government have a history of ideological or personal differences. This leads to a struggle for power and with the government and the citizens losing grip on the military, the danger of a coup d’état significantly increases.

What Should the Military’s Future Look Like?

We need to get rid of the romantic idea that nation-states could exist without militaries. Maybe, if the human species moves beyond the nation-state as a system to organise societal life, it might be thinkable, depending on the new system. However, as long as there are territorial boundaries, that are also interconnected with identity aspects of societies, militaries are necessary to safeguard the existence of a society’s people. Our biological inability to act reasonably in groups hampers a peaceful coexistence. If we think about the ethnic, religious and economic differences of our societies, then we find it even more difficult to agree on peaceful conduct with each and every other nation.

Nevertheless, we need to find a way to reduce conflict and the actual use of violence. In order to do this, we need to understand violence in the first place. There are only two reasons for the use of violence, which is universal across all areas of life, including verbal and economic violence. Violence is either used because a direct competitor is significantly more powerful than oneself, or is used when a direct competitor is significantly less powerful than oneself. In no other case, violence is used. This concept can be applied to an argument between two people, to the workplace, to sports or to nations. Therefore, the only sustainable way to reduce violence on the national and international levels is to flatten out the power differences between societal groups (on the national level) and nations (on the international level). By approaching power parity, the cost-benefit calculation of war will result in an unreasonable risk-to-return ratio.

The only way to achieve greater power parity is that the power to be re-distributed from powerful nations to less powerful nations. This re-distribution is mainly to be done on the military side, but economic as well. Realistically, this is not going to happen. Neither the USA nor China is going to donate parts of their arsenal to another country. They will also not give up anything from their economic power. Why should they? For the common good? The development level of our species is not enhanced enough to allow for such thinking. The only realistic way to achieve parity is that the less powerful nations try to become more powerful. One part of it is to strengthen the military. And this is maybe the biggest paradox: in order to reduce conflict more military power is necessary.

It becomes clear that the military might have lost much of its glory in the eyes of the citizens, but not its importance. Although military officials are less prominent in the political sphere, the institution they represent fulfils an important role in the structure of the territorial nation-state. Summarising, it can be said that militaries are only what the structures allow them to be. So, it is not a matter of altering the military, but rather the structures it is embedded in.