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Sustaining Militarism and Enabling War in Liberal Societies

Sustaining Militarism and Enabling War in Liberal Societies

Photo credit: ChiralJon

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Basham, V.M. (2018). Liberal militarism as insecurity, desire and ambivalence: Gender, race and the everyday geopolitics of war. Security Dialogue, 49(1-2), 32-43. 

Talking Points

  • Liberal democracies often justify their reliance on military force as necessary to maintaining freedom, as well as frame security threats in terms of the dangers posed to the everyday lives of regular people, such that individuals will be willing to give up some freedom for personal security.
  • To understand how liberal militarism is sustained, we must consider the ways military force is made to seem normal and rational in terms of both geopolitics and everyday experience.
  • At the geopolitical level, the British state justifies military action by identifying its moral responsibility to respond to threats to its allies and by equating military action with security—despite the fact that it ends up producing insecurity for many, both inside and beyond its borders.
  • As part of everyday experience in some liberal democracies, a racist fear of refugees, the desire for normalcy, and ambivalence about military action combine to reproduce liberal militarism and ultimately normalize and enable war.


War is usually explained with reference to the ends it is purported to achieve—as a tool for defending one’s territory and/or ensuring the security of one’s population. The use of war, however, for these instrumental purposes depends on far more fundamental factors like widespread societal beliefs about the necessity and legitimacy of military force. To understand what makes war possible, we must first, therefore, understand how militarism is created and sustained. Liberal democracies present a puzzle when it comes to the emergence and maintenance of militarist ideology, as their emphasis on the importance of individual freedom appears to contradict reliance on a tool that limits this freedom—both for those who participate in the military and for those who are militarily targeted. Often this means that liberal democracies will justify their reliance on military force as necessary to maintaining freedom. It also means that, for individuals to be willing to give up some freedom for personal security, the threats to which military force is portrayed as a response must be framed in terms of the dangers they pose for the everyday lives of regular people, rather than for abstractions like the “state,” “nation,” or “economy.”

Militarism: “society’s emphasis on martial values.” (Lutz 2004; full citation under Continued Reading)

Liberal militarism: “the commitment by liberal democratic states and societies to maintain and use military force.” (Basham 2018)

The author therefore explores how militarism is reproduced in liberal democracies—in the United Kingdom (U.K.), in particular—and, by extension, what enables such countries to wage war. To anchor this exploration, she looks at the case of British airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria (authorized in December 2015) and related debates over Syrian refugees in the U.K., paying close attention to the language used by Prime Minister David Cameron to justify the U.K.’s policies. Through this analysis she finds that, to gain a full picture of how liberal militarism is sustained, we must consider the ways in which military force is made to seem normal and rational at the level of both geopolitics and everyday experience.

At the level of geopolitics, the author finds two ways that U.K. state narratives make military force the “rational” response to insecurity. First, the British state—through Cameron’s speeches—casts itself as having a moral responsibility to respond to threats to its allies (the terrorist attacks on Paris in late 2015) and thereby reassert itself as a global power. This responsibility stems, in part, from the U.K.’s self-proclaimed impressive military capabilities—the obsession with which can be attributed to the masculine credentials they provide to political leaders—and, in part, from what Young calls the “logic of masculinist protection,” whereby military action is justified in terms echoing the need for men to protect their women. Furthermore, residual racism from British colonialism ensures that military action paired with humanitarian aid—and not more welcoming policies for Syrian refugees—is presented as the appropriate policy response. While this approach is a way of responding to the “threat” multiculturalism is seen by some to present to an idealized white Britain, Cameron justifies it in humanitarian terms by stating that by “help[ing] refugees closer to their homes… [we will prevent them from] having to make that terrible journey across the Mediterranean.” Second, the British state represents ISIS as a threat to the U.K. and the “British way of life” and then presents military action as the logical response to that threat, reinforcing the widespread notion that military action equals security. This conflation of military action with security, however, eclipses the ways in which military action can make Syrians and also some British citizens—through the “economic trade-offs between warfare and welfare”—less secure.

At the level of everyday experience, the author finds that fear, desire for normalcy, and ambivalence about military action combine to reproduce liberal militarism and ultimately normalize and enable war. First, fear of a the racial “other,” in the form of Syrian refugees crossing the border and threatening “our way of life” with terrorism—a fear itself dependent on a clear-cut conception of what is inside a country’s borders as stable/safe and what is outside those borders as dangerous/threatening—creates a level of everyday insecurity conducive to support for militarism. Second, this feeling of insecurity and fear is heightened by the desire and general expectation in liberal societies for normalcy and an ordinary everyday. Third, this widespread (though by no means universal) enjoyment of an ordinary everyday is what makes ambivalence about military action possible for many; most British citizens can afford to be ambivalent about the military policies of their government, leaving these policies unchallenged, as long as they don’t disrupt their “worry-free” everyday life. In the end, although the liberal state clearly attempts to equate military action with security, bolstering its legitimacy in the process, the author highlights the multiple ways in which liberal militarism actually produces insecurity for many, both inside and beyond the liberal state’s borders—those whose everydays are sacrificed so that some can continue enjoying their normal everydays undisturbed.

Contemporary Relevance

This research helps us think through some of the strategies liberal societies employ more broadly for managing insecurity and justifying military action, especially in the post-9/11 world—in the process revealing some of the assumptions upon which these policies are based, as well as their often obscured effects. Although this research is focused on the U.K., we can see similar processes occurring in other liberal democratic countries that have been threatened with terrorism. In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration in the U.S. capitalized on the fear Americans were feeling—a kind of vulnerability new to many of them who were used to going about their daily lives in relative security—to launch, first, the war in Afghanistan and then, a year and a half later, the war in Iraq. As with the analysis here, employing gender and racial lenses help us see some of the legitimation strategies at work in building public support for these wars: the oppressed women the U.S. was “saving” in Afghanistan (see Young under Continued Reading); the evil male rival who must be eliminated as the symbolic stand-in for an entire country, Saddam Hussein for Iraq, Osama bin Laden for Afghanistan (what Cohn calls the “unitary masculine actor problem”—see Continued Reading); the obsession with weaponry as proof of masculinity (again, see Cohn); the racist dehumanization of Afghans or Iraqis or anyone seen to be vaguely Middle Eastern as “ragheads,” making violence against them seem somehow less troubling (see Herbert under Continued Reading). Similarly, there was also the unquestioned conflation of military action with security—the framing of military action as the appropriate, indeed the only viable, response to insecurity, whether terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, and the associated assumption that military action is effective and decisive. Yet, 17 years later, there is still intense instability and violence in Afghanistan where the Taliban still holds vast swaths of territory; and the war in Iraq sparked a bloody military occupation, insurgency, and civil war, leading to the formation of a new terrorist organization that itself became the target of military action and was the subject of the research presented here. So, the cycle of violence and insecurity continues. This research makes us more alert to the ways in which those of us living fairly comfortably in liberal democracies can be complicit in the steady reproduction of militarism in our daily lives, leaving these assumptions unchallenged, normalizing military action, and thereby making war—and these cycles of insecurity—possible.

Practical Implications

As this research demonstrates, militarism is not necessarily fervent or flashy, nor is it dictated from the top-down; rather, it is embedded in our everyday lives and emerges through how we construct (and consume constructions of) threats, how we privilege our own daily comfort and normalcy, and not least of all how we accept—or at the very least remain ambivalent towards and don’t challenge—narratives about the effectiveness and necessity of military action for security. The good news is that if we reproduce militarism in our everyday experiences, that is also where we can resist it. Military action can only happen if these narratives remain intact and if the targets of military action are understood as appropriate targets of violence. Those of us concerned with preventing war must therefore push up against the everyday practices and narratives that reinforce and enable it: the taken-for-grantedness around how military action is supposed to be decisive and effective; the celebration of military sacrifice over other forms of communal sacrifice/service (for instance, firefighters, civil rights activists, police officers, teachers, AmeriCorps/Peace Corps volunteers, etc.); the simplistic representation of what is inside the country as safe and what is outside as dangerous; sometimes subtle and sometimes overt forms of racism that end up separating some out of the human community; the machismo competition that somehow gets mistaken for rationality in the lead-up to war; and so on. One way to enact this resistance is simply to think and speak critically about the way your government justifies its calls to military action and about the assumptions it’s relying on: Do these military policies attain their objectives? Have they in the past? Do they stop or do they reinvigorate terrorist organizations? Do they actually create security? For whom? And for whom do they create insecurity? Whose lives are valued over others?

Bringing up such questions may make us feel uneasy, especially those of us in liberal societies who like to think of ourselves as valuing human life and individual freedom and human rights the world over—but it is a productive uneasiness, as it forces us to consider whether our actions actually align with our supposed values. Is supporting a war that kills the same number of civilians in the first few months that were killed in the terrorist attack it was a response to consistent with these values? (See Carl Conetta’s Afghan civilian casualty estimates in his Project on Defense Alternatives report here.) How can we instead choose policies that actually do align with our liberal democratic values? There are of course no easy answers, but such questions are a start—exercises in resisting the impulse towards ambivalence, normalization, and complicity that makes war possible.

Continued Reading

Militarization By Catherine Lutz. In A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics, edited by David Nugent and Joan Vincent. New York: Blackwell, 2004.

The Military Normal By Catherine Lutz. In The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009.

How to Change a Narrative: A Guide for Activists and Peace Builders By Beth Hallowell and Jos Truitt. American Friends Service Committee, July 3, 2017.

The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State By Iris Marion Young. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2003.,%20Logic%20of%20Masculinist%20Protection.pdf.

War, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War By Carol Cohn. In Gendering War Talk, edited by Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

From ‘Gook’ to ‘Raghead’ By Bob Herbert. The New York Times, May 2, 2005.

Strange Victory: Appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan War By Carl Conetta. Project on Defense Alternatives, January 30, 2002.

Keywords: militarism, militarization, war, liberal democracies, United Kingdom, Syria, ISIS, immigrants, refugees, gender, race

This analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 3 of the Peace Science Digest.


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