Keeping our hearts civilian
The decision to build up the military strength of the United States is based on the judgment that self-preservation requires a balance of power. The gravest danger to peace occurs, it is assumed, when one great power becomes substantially weaker than another.Skip to next paragraph
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But a second balance of power is involved in every armament program. This is the internal balance of power between what may be called the civilian state and the military state. There the question translates: in the process of giving priority to military goals, how do we keep in balance the goals of the civilian state? How do we keep from turning into a military state?
Somehow we must maintain that second balance, too, as part of our self-preservation. We must not become so obsessed by the scenario of war that everything becomes subordinated to defense. One funds the arts only to develop marching bands, as it were. One sees a silo and thinks, not of grain but of a concealed missile. One builds roads and bridges, not with a view to peaceful journeys of friendship and commerce but with an eye to emergency evacuation. This is to be obsessed. This is to be defeated in our very survival.
We need not be.
History's classic cases of "this way, not that" are Athens and Sparta. Sparta worked with such a singleness of purpose toward military preparedness that all she had left was a nation of soldiers; and all they had left to protect was a barracks state.
On the other hand, Athens managed to become a formidable military power without sacrificing one of the richest civilizations of all time.
What is the secret?
To begin with, the Athenians kept their hearts civilian. They never forgot that the only purpose of the military is to protect those aspects of life that are not military. For one thing, they paid more attention than the Spartans to works of art, including the greatest of poems of war, the Iliad.
Homer's description of the decoration on the shield of Achilles perfectly illustrates the tension between the civilian state and the military state. Two cities are depicted. The first city is at peace. A wedding is taking place. There are flutists and harpists and dancers -- festivities. Elsewhere a court is shown in orderly session. On the borders shepherds tend their flocks and plowmen cultivate fertile fields.
The second city is at war. Soldiers hide in ambush to attack the herdsmen. Man, and women as well, stand guard on the wall. The city has become a fort.
As if he had been brooding on these two scenes, Tolstoy wrote in the epilogue of "War and Peace": "What does all this mean? Why did it happen? Why were the fields left untilled? Why were the houses burned? What made those people slay their fellow man?"
The shield of Achilles -- even in its identity as a military weapon -- does not let anybody forget the civilian state, nor the tragedy that occurs when it is abandoned, when plowshares are beaten into swords instead of the other way around.
Before the act of war there is the act of decision -- the moment at which the presence of the sword in the hand makes it seem the only solution. The moment at which the civilian turns into a warrior. As $30-plus billion comes out of the civilian state and passes into the military state, how can we keep from turning into Spartans?
The historian Thucydides gave one answer that is still applicable. The strength of Athens, he observed, did not lie in the quantities of its fortifications and fighting ships but in the quality of its people -- not just as soldiers but as full, flowering human beings.
If we do not keep this second balance of power, we become S partans -- we become our enemy.