This analysis was brought to our attention in this comment by Grimgrin: an excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It’s eerie how accurately he foresaw the evolution of America. We can still profit from his insights, almost 140 years after they were written.
We have, with little forethought, done something the Founders strongly warned against: created a powerful standing army. Probably necessary, have we considered the risks — and taken precautionary steps?
We learned nothing from Vietnam — a long, expensive, and unnecessary (in terms of benefits to America) war. We invaded Iraq on the basis of reasons that now look erroneous (or fraudulent). We are expanding our fighting in Afghanistan on the basis of reasons left unstated, as they wither under even cursory examination. Might these wars have some part of their origin in the existence of our massive military?
From Democracy in America, Chapter 22 — Why Democratic Nations Naturally Desire Peace, and Democratic Armies War
War is nevertheless an occurrence to which all nations are subject, democratic nations as well as others. Whatever taste they may have for peace, they must hold themselves in readiness to repel aggression, or, in other words, they must have an army.
… In democratic armies all the soldiers may become officers, which makes the desire of promotion general and immeasurably extends the bounds of military ambition. The officer, on his part, sees nothing that naturally and necessarily stops him at one grade more than at another; and each grade has immense importance in his eyes because his rank in society almost always depends on his rank in the army. Among democratic nations it often happens that an officer has no property but his pay and no distinction but that of military honors; consequently, as often as his duties change, his fortune changes and he becomes, as it were, a new man.
… In democratic armies the desire of advancement is almost universal: it is ardent, tenacious, perpetual; it is strengthened by all other desires and extinguished only with life itself.
… All the members of the community, being alike, constantly harbor the wish and discover the possibility of changing their condition and improving their welfare; this makes them fond of peace, which is favorable to industry and allows every man to pursue his own little undertakings to their completion.
On the other hand, this same equality makes soldiers dream of fields of battle, by increasing the value of military honors in the eyes of those who follow the profession of arms and by rendering those honors accessible to all. In either case the restlessness of the heart is the same, the taste for enjoyment is insatiable, the ambition of success as great; the means of gratifying it alone are different.
These opposite tendencies of the nation and the army expose democratic communities to great dangers.
When a military spirit forsakes a people, the profession of arms immediately ceases to be held in honor and military men fall to the lowest rank of the public servants; they are little esteemed and no longer understood. The reverse of what takes place in aristocratic ages then occurs; the men who enter the army are no longer those of the highest, but of the lowest class. Militar ambition is indulged only when no other is possible. Hence arises a circle of cause and consequence from which it is difficult to escape: the best part of the nation shuns the military profession because that profession is not honored, and the profession is not honored because the best part of the nation has ceased to follow it.
It is then no matter of surprise that democratic armies are often restless, ill-tempered, and dissatisfied with their lot, although their physical condition is commonly far better and their discipline less strict than in other countries. The soldier feels that he occupies an inferior position, and his wounded pride either stimulates his taste for hostilities that would render his services necessary or gives him a desire for revolution, during which he may hope to win by force of arms the political influence and personal importance now denied him.
The composition of democratic armies makes this last-mentioned danger much to be feared.
… When a nation perceives that it is inwardly affected by the restless ambition of its army, the first thought which occurs is to give this inconvenient ambition an object by going to war. I do not wish to speak ill of war: war almost always enlarges the mind of a people and raises their character. In some cases it is the only check to the excessive growth of certain propensities that naturally spring out of the equality of conditions, and it must be considered as a necessary corrective to certain inveterate diseases to which democratic communities are liable.
War has great advantages, but we must not flatter ourselves that it can diminish the danger I have just pointed out. That peril is only suspended by it, to return more fiercely when the war is over; for armies are much more impatient of peace after having tasted military exploits. War could be a remedy only for a people who were always athirst for military glory.
I foresee that all the military rulers who may rise up in great democratic nations will find it easier to conquer with their armies than to make their armies live at peace after conquest. There are two things that a democratic people will always find very difficult, to begin a war and to end it. Again, if war has some peculiar advantages for democratic nations, on the other hand it exposes them to certain dangers which aristocracies have no cause to dread to an equal extent. I shall point out only two of these.
Although war gratifies the army, it embarrasses and often exasperates that countless multitude of men whose minor passions every day require peace in order to be satisfied. Thus there is some risk of its causing, under another form, the very disturbance it is intended to prevent.
No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country. Not indeed that after every victory it is to be apprehended that the victorious generals will possess themselves by force of the supreme power, after the manner of Sulla and Caesar; the danger is of another kind.
War does not always give over democratic communities to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it must almost compulsorily concentrate the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands of the administration. If it does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it. This is the first axiom of the science.
One remedy, which appears to be obvious when the ambition of soldiers and officers becomes the subject of alarm, is to augment the number of commissions to be distributed by increasing the army. This affords temporary relief, but it plunges the country into deeper difficulties at some future period.
To increase the army may produce a lasting effect in an aristocratic community, because military ambition is there confined to one class of men, and the ambition of each individual stops, as it were, at a certain limit, so that it may be possible to satisfy all who feel its influence. But nothing is gained by increasing the army among a democratic people, because the number of aspirants always rises in exactly the same ratio as the army itself. Those whose claims have been satisfied by the creation of new commissions are instantly succeeded by a fresh multitude beyond all power of satisfaction; and even those who were but now satisfied soon begin to crave more advancement, for the same excitement prevails in the ranks of the army as in the civil classes of democratic society, and what men want is, not to reach a certain grade, but to have constant promotion. Though these wants may not be very vast, they are perpetually recurring.
Thus a democratic nation, by augmenting its army, allays only for a time the ambition of the military profession, which soon becomes even more formidable because the number of those who feel it is increased.
I am of the opinion that a restless and turbulent spirit is an evil inherent in the very constitution of democratic armies and beyond hope of cure. The legislators of democracies must not expect to devise any military organization capable by its influence of calming and restraining the military profession; their efforts would exhaust their powers before the object could be attained.
The remedy for the vices of the army is not to be found in the army itself, but in the country. Democratic nations are naturally afraid of disturbance and of despotism; the object is to turn these natural instincts into intelligent, deliberate, and lasting tastes.
When men have at last learned to make a peaceful and profitable use of freedom and have felt its blessings, when they have conceived a manly love of order and have freely submitted themselves to discipline, these same men, if they follow the profession of arms, bring into it, unconsciously and almost against their will, these same habits and manners. The general spirit of the nation, being infused into the spirit peculiar to the army, tempers the opinions and desires engendered by military life, or represses them by the mighty force of public opinion. Teach the citizens to be educated, orderly, firm, and free and the soldiers will be disciplined and obedient.
Any law that, in repressing the turbulent spirit of the army, should tend to diminish the spirit of freedom in the nation and to overshadow the notion of law and right would defeat its object; it would do much more to favor than to defeat the establishment of military tyranny. After all, and in spite of all precautions, a large army in the midst of a democratic people will always be a source of great danger. The most effectual means of diminishing that danger would be to reduce the army, but this is a remedy that all nations are not able to apply.
About the author
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) was a French political thinker and historian best known for his Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In both of these works, he explored the effects of the rising equality of social conditions on the individual and the state in western societies.
Democracy in America (1835), his major work, published after his travels in the United States, is today considered an early work of sociology and political science. An eminent representative of the classical liberal political tradition, Tocqueville was an active participant in French politics, first under the July Monarchy (1830–1848) and then during the Second Republic (1849–1851) which succeeded the February 1848 Revolution. He retired from political life after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte’s December 2, 1851 coup, and thereafter began work on The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I.
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- About America’s national defense strategy and machinery
- About An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports
Some relevant posts about our military:
- Nagl gives a profoundly wrong vision for the US military, 22 June 2008 The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it, 3 July 2008 A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
- One of the best geopolitical posts of the year, IMO, 12 August 2008 — By Andrew Bacevich
- Blowback – could our military become a threat to America?, 7 May 2009
12 thoughts on “A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military”
FM, have you served a stint in the military?
Fabius Maximus replies: What difference does it make? Does my background change the significance of de Tocqueville’s words? Or change the history of our wars?
Time has not dimmed the brilliance of de Tocquiville, who appears more and more prescient by the day. Regarding his warnings and observations, they point to a smaller professionalized military, do they not?
Today, the “professional” military is usually considered an unqualified success compared to the conscript armed forces of the past, and in some respects it is. But there are drawbacks to such a force. However noble the motivations and service of the individual soldier, being in the military as a career tends to produce very different incentives and pressures than those on the citizen soldier, whose motivation is to get the job (whatever it is) done, and resume his civilian life and career. The nation needs a core of professional military men and women to serve as a backbone, a force in being with a reservoir of skill, experience and institutional memory; around which can be added a much larger component of non-professional citizen soldiers.
The problem arises, as de Tocquiville notes, when the permanent military class sees itself less as a means to an end, but an end in itself. To coin a phrase, “War is too important to be left (solely) to the generals.”
we’ve had several protracted wars. have they had an effect on our democracy? is the military attempting to take away our 1st and 2nd amendment rights on a daily basis? less than 1% of our population serves in the military. that restless, turbulent spirit he warns of makes a very small percentage of the population.
our soldiers are disciplined and obedient. Our government is not.
Fabius Maximus replies: You’re missing the point. which is the role of an aggressive and large military in seeking foreign wars, opportunities to do what they do. The threat to our liberty is a worry about the future. The repeated involvement of the US in long, expensive, useless foreign wars is a fact.
The role of the army in England has been problematical since the time of Cromwell. Among other things, note that while while it’s the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and – indeed – there are several royal regiments – it is not the Royal Army.
The British have managed this over the years.
Fabius Maximus replies: While true (the UK has managed this well), the relative size and cost of the post-WWII US military dwarfs anything the UK had outside of wartime — even when they were policing a global Empire.
Not sure that a “small backbone” would fix the problem.
de Tocquiville pointed out that the phenomena is proportional … so even though you could have a smaller military, the problem would only be smaller. I suppose compared to today’s state of affairs this would be “good.”
There was a “small backbone” in the days preceding WWII. I recall reading that Roosevelt had to work quite diligently to find qualified candidates to lead the military (I could be misremembering as I can’t remember where I read that). The point being (again) that any standing military, no matter how big or small, will suffer from this problem.
FM: “While true (the UK has managed this well), the relative size and cost of the post-WWII US military dwarfs anything the UK had outside of wartime — even when they were policing a global Empire.”
It also dwarfs the pre-WWII U.S. military. Indeed, what does it not dwarf in both absolute and relative terms? The Soviet Union? Prussia?
What an interesting article .
Adverts for our armed forces ( af )now stress the training in skills such as engineering , catering and electronics . Talk was a couple of years ago , when rebuilding nations was in fashion , of using the afs as Peace Corps and international helpers in disasters . Free university places for ex afs. Afs as a stepping stone to other careers .
2.Af ideals applied to other careers . For example , I would certainly have done much better at university if someone had kicked me out of bed at 6 am and made me run a few miles . Instead of a shuffling queue at the end to receive a bit of paper from a bored exectitive , how nice it would have been to have marched up with brass bands playing , and had a famous scientist pin a medal ( er , not to the usual place , maybe the shoulder for women ? ) and say Well Done for Sticking With It .
3. Historically , in Europe at least, the substition of skill at arms for warfare , in time of peace . Horsemanship in particular : fox hunting , the Campaign school , polo ,dressage . Horses irrelevant now ( unless you are with the Janjaweed ) , hard to think of anything else to substitute , where success does not depend on inborn talent , strength , youth or money .
Following up on Duncan Kinder’s comment, the Falklands debacle nearly bankrupted the British and seems to have discouraged them from further overseas adventurism. The U.S. economy, being larger than Britain’s, has taken longer to get itself bankrupted by our adventurism…but we’re getting there. (Compare the tiny size of the British deployment in Af-Pak to the ambitions of Thatcher’s Falklands campaign to see the difference. How many cruisers and destroyers and aircraft carriers has Britain deployed to Af-Pak?)
The truth, which hardly anyone wants to admit, is that in the 21st century, conventional land/air/sea warfare has become uneconomic. Once upon a time, capturing vital strategic resources would pay for a war. But increasingly, 21st century industries like genomics and computer technology and robotics and the software industry depend on the ability to organize brainpower, not on the raw materials which made Ford’s River Rouge plant such an economic powerhouse near the start of the 20th century.
Cities today have immensely more intricate infrastructure than back during WW II to say nothing of WW I. Server farms, fiberoptic data lines, and increasingly geolocative augmented reality wifi hotspots and smartphone cell towers with built-in intelligence prove vastly more expensive to rebuild than the old water mains and sewer pipes of WW II because most of the expensive in today’s infrastructure involves the data and topology of the infrastructure. Today, bombing a city into rubble requires immensely more work to rebuild it than back during WW I or WW II, and today’s superweapons are so absurdly more expensive than those used during WW II ($330 million dollars for each F-22 at last estimate) that much more money gets wasted in these foreign adventures than could possibly be gained.
Consequently it seems likely to me that large-scale conventional land wars are going away. Warfare itself will never vanish, of course, but we’re much more likely to see 4GW from non-state actors in the 21st century than another Desert Storm.
Global geoeconomic trends having run so strongly against America’s brand of overseas cowboy interventionism and our financial meltdown looming ever larger, the sheer unsustainability of America’s absurd 1.5-trillion-dollar-per-year military profligacy makes the entire issue somewhat moot. Regardless whether U.S. permahawks want to continue sending American troops overseas to get in trouble and get dragged dead out of burning helicopters feet first, as a practical matter the money for it simply isn’t there. The only question remains how long it will take America to realize this.
mclaren: “only question remains how long it will take America to realize this.”
The discussion about whether China may be collapsing is relevant here. Basically it is going to take a kick in the groin to make America realize this, and this kick most likely will come from China. The only question being whether China administers this kick deliberately or whether being overwhelmed by its own problem China administers the kick inadvertently.
FM: i’m not missing the point. do military commanders want to go to war? of course. that’s what we are here for. however,our military doesn’t control where and when we go to war. a large standing military DOES leave a great amount of flexibility for our civilian commanders to employ us. whether or not you think the military is calling the shots probably depends on your political views.
Fabius Maximus replies: Your comment #3 discussed the military overthrowing the government, which is not the point of this discussion (or any serious discussion at this time). It’s a strawman.
“our military doesn’t control where and when we go to war.”
That’s one of the most naive statements I’ve read in a long long time. The military does not “control”, but has a very large voice in the discussion — and a de facto veto.
Re ( 8 ) its a pity we didnt deploy carriers , destroyers and leftover cruise liners etc to Afgh as we would have had far fewer casualties . The Spirit would have been demonstrated to be Willing , but the Flesh several hundred miles from the danger zone .
This raises the interesting idea that perhaps G5 warfare , like fencing or Haute Ecole , could be a matter of posturing and ritual combat .
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