Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
James Sheehan, a Stanford professor modern European history, discussed his most recent publication, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?, in a lecture this past Thursday.
Sheehan’s sought to assess the more recent transformation of the role of the military in Europe in comparison to its previous organization and function, as well as from the lens of military institutions. He identified the nature of relationships between European states and between the state and its citizens.
Essentially, Sheehan argued that the quality of dying and killing as an honorable component of war and military service has largely vanished in a gradual century-long process.
He argued that the military and its institutions have undergone three major revolutions. The first came about at the end of the middles ages: the development of the modern standing army. Sheehan recalled Prussia as an army first and foremost, with a nation-state attached to provide for and oil the new army machine. To a certain extent, that was true of all European states, he added.
At the end of the 18th century, the democratization of standing armies not only reorganized the administration of the military, it reorganized the fundamental function of European society. Citizens willfully obliged to the cohesive cooperation in mass conscript armies. In 18th century Europe, the streets of any major city would be crowded with soldiers in fancy dress. Decorated soldiers guarded every public building. Monuments littered the city, and roads were named after victorious battles or war heroes. Even throughout the nation, in the more remote villages and towns, monuments, plaques, and memorials were a common sight.
Furthermore, Sheehan asserted, “The connecting tissues in society were woven by the institution of conscription.” A large percentage of every male cohort was liable, and reliable, for military service. In addition, an active reserve component flourished. Between training, reserve obligations, and actual military service, a German soldier’s commitment could last until he was 45 years old. European states participated in conscription armies, evidenced by its institutionalization – i.e., depots, equipment storage, medical examiners and physicians – pervasive through society. Further, the institutionalization of conscription armies became a cultural keystone as well. For instance, holidays witnessed parades of soldiers, ceremonies dedicated to the military, and speeches that exalted the soldier as an exemplary citizen. Such a man demonstrated the most virtuous character. Apart from bravery, service, and discipline, the most honorable feature of a soldier was his willingness to fight, kill, and die for the state.
After the First and Second World Wars, rather than diminishing service and military might, conscription armies exploded. French law in 1950 mandated 28 years of military commitment, and sought out the most physically fit males. Exemptions were increasingly difficult to achieve. Shortly after WWII, even Germany had a standing army of 500,000 men. Essentially, an army was unquestionably part of the state, if not what the state was. Military institutions were reinstated and strengthened throughout Europe.
However, the Cold War eventually put a stop to the European craze for military might, and onset an understated revolution of military practice. Sheehan argues the impact of this recent revolution has not yet been fully recognized; yet the effects – the disappearance of the conscript army and the marginalization of war-making – are incredible.
Change began when the United States and Soviet Union imposed a geo-political order of Europe. The bipolar architecture that stabilized two halves of Europe created peace within Europe, exporting the real threat of danger outside, between the USA and USSR. The bipolar new world order ended the question of Germany as a threat. Furthermore, the disappearance of colonial empires, sometimes due to withdrawal, other times due to military defeat, also contributed to diminished state-sponsored violence.
Thereafter, through the 1960s, war was pushed to edge of the general citizenry’s conscientiousness. With the passing of time, war became more and more unimaginable, until the state shifted its focus from military-based perspectives, towards a civilian-based perspective.
He argued that the general populace caused the change. The average citizen no longer revered military service. Instead, citizens demanded that their government provide domestic security – civil order, education, health care, low inflation, and social welfare. Conscription was altogether abandoned through Europe by the 1990s, and the quality and conception of a soldier was drastically reversed. Public opinion shifted in favor of life and personal security, rather than public interests.
According to a French poll, while 61% of the population still preferred conscripted armies in 1970, over half said they would prefer their son demand and be granted exemption from service. Then in 1991, the French military stood 400,000 strong. However, when the military sought to send a division of 15,000 troops to the gulf, they had great difficulty acquiring the numbers. Energy is exerted on life and its improvement, not on death—the state-citizen contract has changed.
Sheehan believes this new attitude is an effect, caused by the peace and integration of the European Union. Nowadays, the EU is a super state, a super civilian state, as noted by Sheehan, where military activities are kept in the margins.
The enlargement of the EU is “intimately connected to civilians values and institutions,” and the single most pressing issue concerning the EU is Turkey. Turkey has yet to join in the revolution and still adheres to antiquated military practice. It is not, he argues, an issue that Turkey is a Muslim state, rather that it subscribes to the culture of a militaristic society. As for the future of Europe, regarding military needs, Europeans will by necessity, continue to rely on the USA for their immediate security needs. The survival of NATO, which was founded upon keeping the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in, is testament of this assertion. Still, the interdependence of NATO and the EU creates tension and growing uneasiness between the EU and the USA. Sheehan foresees trans-Atlantic tensions present throughout this next period of modern history.