Militarism Essay

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Militarism refers to the influence of the military as an institution and of the preparations to use military force on the overall social organization of society. The concept has four parts.

The first is the direct participation of military officers in the most important governing structures. This feature of militarism has been largely absent in the United States, where the Constitution provides for civilian control of the armed forces. Military officers have played a major, direct role in the recent history of countries as diverse as Argentina, Greece, Pakistan, and Myanmar. Direct military involvement in key decision making may also be at a secondary but still important level, particularly during wartime.

The second component of militarism is a foreign policy predicted on a strong military, projection of force, and what C. Wright Mills (1956) called “a military definition of reality.” Here the focus is less on who makes decisions and more on the assumptions and ideological structure that informs those decisions. In the United States, the capacity of some civilians to embrace militarized policies more thoroughly than those in uniform can be traced in the Cold War, Vietnam, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and the “Global War on Terror.”

The third element of militarism concerns the level of support for military values and norms within the overall culture of a society. Different features of popular culture can provide the military with legitimacy, sustain more peaceful alternatives, or create a middle ground where the clash between civilian- and military-influenced values and norms creates a form of “contested terrain.” Examples include respect for those in uniform; the patterning of children’s play; the content of patriotism; the prominence of the military in books, television, and feature films; and the connections between traditionally understood masculinity and military participation.

Fourth, militarism focuses on the influence of war preparations on key economic, political, and cultural institutions. Military spending can have a significant macro effect on the economy (“military Keynesianism”) and play an important role in particular industries and in regional and local economies. Military service may be required or not. Civilians may be encouraged to engage the war effort directly through war taxes, donations, and volunteerism. Preparations to use military force can make a full-scale enemy out of “the Other” or encourage the search for presumed enemies within a society. Finally, the media can be forced or induced to support the military as an institution or militarized policies. Fully militarized societies will provide structures that sustain most if not all of these. Many contemporary societies contain a complex mix of features that sustain militarism while also nurturing social alternatives.


  1. Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Reardon, Betty. 1996. Sexism and the War System. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  3. Regan, Patrick. 1994. Organizing Societies for War: The Process and Consequences of Social Militarization. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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