The taming of the warrior class


LONDON -- Woe betide the general who steps outside his military culture. Rodolfo Robles, a retired Peruvian general, formerly the country's third-ranking officer, paid a heavy price two weeks ago for breaking ranks. He accused the army high command of traducing human rights and of harboring a notorious death squad. He was kidnapped on the street and incarcerated in a military jail. Only the Peruvian president's direct intervention got him out.

Then last week, Gen. George Lee Butler, along with 60 other generals and admirals from around the world, including Russia's Alexander Lebed, issued a call for rapid nuclear disarmament. General Butler said he had learned in his former position as commander of U.S. nuclear forces how easy it might be for a simple mistake to start a nuclear war.

The military culture is in retreat -- not just in peace-minded Japan, Germany, Scandinavia, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Canada, but in the epicenters of military power, western Europe and the United States. It has been a slow process of learning and reflection among men whose responsibility it was to look into the abyss and, if given the order, to take us all there.

In the 16th century, Erasmus of Rotterdam believed that wars occurred because they were a way of life among a militarized aristocratic class. "Animals do not make war on one another," he wrote. "Who ever heard of 100,000 animals rushing together to butcher each other as men do everywhere?"

In the 18th century liberal thinkers suggested that the birth of democracy would remove the need for war. Thomas Paine argued in "The Rights of Man" that republican government and free trade "would extirpate the system of war." Yet wars continued.

Democracies, however, do not go to war with each other. Moreover, World War I was the last major war in which leaders on all sides were eager for combat. Industrialization, bringing war technologies capable of inflicting mass destruction, has driven home the real cost of war. World War I hastened the demise of hereditary elites that saw war as romantic, idealistic and noble.

Look who the peaceniks are

RTC We are witnessing a slow but significant cultural change -- none too soon, given the Promethean bargain mankind has made with the atom. It is no longer youthful marchers on the street who raise the questions, but the likes of the former U.S. chief of staff, Colin Powell, who argued in his autobiography last year for large cuts in military expenditure. Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, has called for missile arsenals to be trimmed from thousands to dozens, or even to zero.

Now they are joined by General Butler, who calls nuclear weapons "inherently dangerous, hugely expensive, militarily inefficient and morally indefensible."

Even in the days of the U.S. nuclear monopoly the moral sanction against nuclear arms was such as to render them diplomatically useless, often counterproductive. Hence, Stalin knew he could act with impunity when seizing control of eastern Europe. Likewise Beijing and Hanoi went to war with American armies in Korea and Vietnam without fear of being halted by nuclear weapons.

This is why General Butler finds U.S. nuclear policy "fundamentally irrational." His intervention, together with that of his fellow officers, will reverberate for years to come.

The man who should lead the debate, President Clinton, although once a war protester, is so evidently lacking personal convictions that he is perhaps unable to take the high ground. But the softening of militaristic culture appears to have its own momentum and the tide is stronger than any single political leader.

In the 19th century Western society successfully abolished dueling; men now take their slighted honor or burning grievance to the courtroom or the newspaper. In the 21st it will be the job of the coming generation to rid the world of war, substituting the World Court, international law and arbitration for the clash of the sword and the threat of Armageddon.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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