Seeing the debate on National Service as defining the “true” Singaporean, I find the idea that our communal identity is constituted by our training into violence and warfare to be abhorrent. Only with the rise of nationalism and the nation state are communities defined by their armies and their military might, and we have that revolting French Revolution to thank for the idea of a “nation-at-arms”.
Let other Singaporeans wring their hands over who truly is part of their community of violence and war infliction. I would have no part at all in this debate. Instead, I prefer to critique this very mindset itself.
The idea of a “standing army”, full time permanent professional armies even in times of peace and conscription or “nation duty” to fight wars, was a concept very much alien to the middle ages. The idea that a community was defined by the presence of a military was unheard of. Sure, wars has existed from the most ancient times, but with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the idea that warfare was a “professional” or “national” affair, a highly specialised trade and permanent part of the civilised world, died with the Empire.
Ironically, Medieval Christendom was actually more ‘peace-loving’ than any of the times before or after Christendom began to collapse. Wars were limited, empirical affairs, the affairs of mainly kings and aristocrats which rarely involved the civilians. Kings and aristocrats fought over well-defined goals to secure concrete territories or titles over cities or lands. Wars had clearly defined objectives, securing a castle, killing a certain aristocratic house, etc. The communal identity of villages and the populance were not defined by whoever occupied the castle and were largely independent of it, and it was in the interest of nobles to distinguish between the aristocratic family and combatants hired by them, and civilians who were largely unrelated. Both kings and nobles and villagers were subjected to a vaster Christendom under the Pope, who can threaten an interdict should wars get out of hand, and wars were delimited by religious places and events, no fighting in churches, the right of sanctuary, no fighting on Good Friday, etc. Violators could risk excommunication and made to do exacting penances for such public offenses.
Democracy and the Nation-State
But with the advent of the modern nation-state, the nation came to dominate an exclusive right over the entire person, civilian or combatant, the limited wars of kings became the total wars of modern states. The line between combatants and civilians becomes blurred, no surprises that it would be the French Revolution that would coin the phrase “nation-at-arms” to draw everyone into a national struggle. Before, wars was the affairs of kings and aristocrats, none of the villagers problem, kings can of course call for a draft, but such a move was highly unpopular and kings who do so must always be wary of a peasant uprising. (There was a show depicting a discussion between an English aristocrat and an English merchant during the American War of Independence. Upon learning that the merchant was still trading with the Americans, the aristocrat objected saying, “But we’re at war with them!” “No”, the merchant replied, “the King is at war, but I have no quarrel with them.”)
With the expansion of the participants of wars, and the expansion of war as a social reality, came the professionalisation of war itself. Standing armies which were the exception in the medieval times became the norm again, just like the good ‘ole days of the Roman Empire. Before, wars were somewhat limited affairs, it made little sense to have a ‘professional’ army when wars would be quickly over, and armies would be disbanded in peace time. “Professional soldiers” were mostly mercenary groups. But with the rise of the nation-state, wars became the affair of all, wars expanded in its scope and its duration, and from there was born the modern permanent solider and the national conscript. (It is perhaps ironic that one of the grievances of the American colonies against the British was that the British kept standing armies in America in peace time, now the Americans are keeping standing armies… everywhere else in the world.)
War Making: A Comparison
Thus with the rise of the nation-state, democracy, etc, the very nature of war itself changed. Before, wars were the affairs of kings and aristocrats, fought for clearly defined empirically limited goals, and when those goals were secured, the wars ended with it. But now wars were about “freedom”, “democracy”, “self-determination”, etc. But these goals are nebulous, ill-defined, who can tell when such goals are achieved? Thus now we have endless “war on terror” which has no discernible goal, no empirical objective. They go on and on and on… Before war was the exception to the norm of the civilised world, but now wars are a permanent and essential part of the civilised world. Conscription and standing armies are now a must to secure “national defense” and to permanently protect the “nation” who is now our god from whom all things come and to whom all things are owed, even our very lives, and as opposed to all the other nation “gods” whom we are in permanent and suspicious opposition. And of course when the nation-state commands such an all-encompassing loyalty over all, as I said, civilians and combatants are not distinguished, everyone is fair game, drone wars can legitimately kill both combatants and civilians who are ALL part of the same ideological struggle of nebulous goals, the incineration of German civilians in Dresden is justified, and of course, it is “good strategy” to spare the lives of American combatants by nuking Japanese cities and committing mass murder against Japanese civilians. Sure, there was great slaughter of civilians during the medieval times, villages were burned and sacked. But such acts were universally condemned by all Christendom, the clergy could demand of the perpetrators hard and long penances for such violations. But today, we simply call it “collateral damage”, and just shrug our shoulders.
In what sense of the word have we progressed?
P.S: Although the following post is about the relation of the Christian community to the meaning of NS, but I believe it also articulates the first steps towards an ethics of war-waging.