I struggle with the idea of the military and what that looks like in a socialist future. So I’m asking, What sort of military should Democratic Socialists have?
Hoping for a better way
Dear Hoping for a better way,
In order to answer this question we have to first take a look at the nature and history of US imperialism. Contrary to popular belief the US was not founded on the ideas of freedom and equality but rather a new and competing colonial project to those of Europe. The US was founded in violence with the establishment of chattel slavery and the stealing of Indigenous land. At the core of this “American Exceptionalism” was the ideology of white supremacy and settler colonialism. The establishment of the American capitalist settler state required constant expansion to generate more wealth and have access to more resources. The ideological component of Manifest Destiny, the belief that white settlers were destined to expand across North America, was key to building support among ordinary people. From this perspective the US was a great civilization that needed to steal the land of, as the founding fathers called them in the Declaration of Independence, “merciless Indian savages.”
You might ask yourself: why would you start with this very brief history when answering this question? The answer to that question is that everything has context. In the US the continental army, state militias and what we call the modern US military has always been a tool for expansion and imperialism. It is easy for the historians to mark the beginning of US imperialism to the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the US gained control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam and indirectly Cuba, but this was merely the first major expansion and invasion beyond the North American continent. What we call Western Expansion was really the first steps of US imperialism with the invasion of Indigenous nations.
Throughout this process it was the US military that was used to protect white settlers, it was the US military that slaughtered millions of Filipinos during their fight for independence. Throughout history the US military has never been an arm for liberation despite the claims the US makes. One might say the lone exception was the Civil War, which is a valid argument. Once formerly enslaved people were allowed to join the Union army in 1863 the war was shifted from a struggle to save the union to a fight against slavery, this army did fight for liberation. However this was a result of pressure from abolitionists and shortly after (and during the war) the US military was used to fight wars in the west against Indigenous nations. Many Civil War heros became Indian fighters such as General George Armstrong Custer and William Tecumseh Sherman. Even some of the Black regiments were used to fight against Indigenous freedom.
We could make a list of other wars where the US was a reactionary force from their intervention of the Mexican revolution during World War I to siding with the White Army against the Red Army in the Russian Civil War immediately following the Russian Revolution to siding with the Nationalist during the Chinese revolution in 1949 to the Vietnam War suppressing the Vietnamese’s right to self-determination to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US has been at war and a reactionary force it’s entire existence. Understanding the nature of US imperialism should inform socialist approaches to the military and a vision of what a socialist society’s military would look like.
Before we look at the demands socialist should call for, one must understand the difference between US military personnel and the institution. Most people in the US military are ordinary working people who for whatever reasons join the military. In fact in 2017, 43 percent of the active military were people of color. You have people who join because of opportunities such as college, stable jobs, a way out of their hometown, etc. Despite the increase of people of color in the military those in higher ranking positions are disproportionately white compared to the US population. Also we cannot discard that we have seen an increase in the number of white supremacists joining the military because of its institutional history and it’s culture of extreme nationalism.
Militaries have played important roles throughout history including siding with the people during rebellions and revolutions. It was US soldiers during the Vietnam war that started to speak out to help bring an end to the war, it was the Russian military that turned their bayonets on the Tsar during the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was the Egyptian military that was the turning point in overthrowing the dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Groups like Veterans for Peace have shown there is an opening for questioning the US empire within the military.
For socialists in the belly of the beast our goal and demand should be to defund and abolish the military as a way to weaken the US empire. This includes calls to end the F-35s program in Madison. The US has the largest, most expensive military in the world, accounting for 39 percent of the world’s military budget. Currently the US has nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the US spent $714 billion on national defense in the 2020 fiscal year, which is 43.8 percent of the US discretionary budget and 10.8 percent of the combined budget of mandatory spending, discretionary spending and net interest.
Like the call to defund the police, we must demand that these funds go to social safety nets such as universal basic income, free college for all, free childcare, medicare for all, reparations for Black and Indigenous people, etc. As we have seen throughout Democratic and Republican administrations, there are always people advocating to cut medicare, social security and other programs that help people but there is always money for military spending.
As we call for defunding and abolishing the US military we should also envision what a military in a socialist society would be. Ultimately that would be up to the democratic decisions of those people in that future society but we could see a military being used to fend off attempts to invade countries around the world that are fighting for their liberation, providing aid to those in need around the world in solidarity with each other with no strings attached, they could be a institution that is democratic and can mobilize for disasters around the country but most importantly it would not be a force that would be going around the world imposing its will on oppressed people. Ultimately a socialist military would be unrecognizable to the current US military.
At the core of socialist belief should always be to figure against oppression everywhere. We are under no illusions that the ruling class will just give up their power. So any successful socialist revolution would be a dramatic transformation against imperialism resulting in a dismantling of the US military as we know it.
B. More Commie