Military capability as an emotional need

Long-time readers probably remember; I'm the kind of guy who looks at military actions, compares costs and benefits (if the latter are to be found at all) and usually concludes that it wasn't worth it.

I did this for about conflicts and arrived at the more general opinion that the military is for defence, period. Actual defence, such as "other military force shoots at us at the sea or in our or allied countries".

For years I tended to bring this attitude and the cost/benefit comparisons into discussions with others, and a pattern became all-too obvious:

Many people are simply not into this comparison of costs and benefits in regard to the military.

The mere idea to be able to bomb place x or have a sub cruising in y or be able to send a brigade into region z to do something - this idea has value to them in its own.

I concluded that people interested in military affairs are overwhelmingly wired for this kind of thinking, and while probably not representative and certainly not influential in very small countries or demilitarised countries such as Costa Rica, they are very relevant in the U.S., UK, France and possibly Australia and Canada.
They dominate the public discussion on national security affairs. Representatives with interest in military affairs tend to have such special emotional needs, and too many of them are warmongers.

These special emotional needs make it almost impossible to determine an optimal national security policy. We don't know the share of these special people with such special needs and we have little information about their valuation of the military capability itself (it seems to be incredibly high, for no money figures leave even the trace of an effect on them).
How could we supply them with military capability in order to satisfy their emotional needs? If we did, would this improve the overall national emotional well-being or would it be too detrimental for the people without such special needs?

Maybe it's possible to tell them to set up a special fund and pay for their desired military capability themselves, while the others only pay for actual defence? Kind of as if Germany had sent the bills for the construction and operation of the Imperial High Seas fleet to emperor and Flottenverein (a pro-Navy association that lobbied a lot; kind of a ~1900 NRA for warships), as they were the driving force behind building said (utterly useless and even extremely risky) high seas fleet.

What can psychologists tell us about these special needs people; are they cultural or genetic? If cultural, can they be healed? Does giving them what they need only grow the need further as with a drug addict and his drugs or can their special emotional need be satisfied for good?

How handle such people with special emotional needs a life in countries such as Luxembourg or Costa Rica? Do they own lots of private weapons and private camouflage clothes or do they suffer from medically recognised anxieties?

It's abundantly clear to me that cost/benefit reasoning cannot explain the drive towards military power alone. Some powerful emotional needs help to drive it, too. Many peace researchers have blamed war and arms race profiteers as well as Niiskanen's bureaucrat with his principal-agent issues for the apparently irrational emphasis on the military in many nations. These explanations don't suffice to explain what has become abundantly clear and documented in the internet age: Many people without such monetary stakes in military budgeting have value the military much higher than the non-psychological benefits can justify.

Arms races - especially arms races without a serious competitor in the race - are shaped in part by nothing more sophisticated than a child's rage attack when its parents didn't buy some ice cream.



  1. Or they may on their own start a collection.

    This ship, by then the largest ship built in Sweden, was privately financed. Over financed, actually.

  2. I think it's a legitimate issue to ask. I think in the US, one of the fascinations with the military is that because they are extremely well-organized (compared to any other US government agency) and can be ordered to do things in ways that other agencies can't/aren't, that the military gets tasked to do a lot of things that are well outside their scope, such as running the relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, or helping fight fires in western states.
    Mind you, we're not talking about the National Guard, who actually train for these things (though the NG is used for basically the same reasons the active duty guys are), but we're talking about how much the federal government uses the active duty military to do things other than "fight and win the nation's wars". But when you use them so much for so many things, it's no wonder you want to keep using them for things that really have nothing to do with defending your country.
    Heck the US has an expeditionary "Department of Defense" and a stay-at-home "Department of Homeland Security". We should relabel them the "Department of Offense" and the "Department of Defense", respectively, and at least be honest about it.

    1. or the Department of Llap Goch and the Department of Pointless Instrusiveness, if you're going to try to be honest

  3. A few generations ago most countries were honest enough to have a "War ministry" or a "Department of War".

    The U.S. is also quite unusual in its veterans cult; event he Russians don't have such a cult about the veterans status, and they were very proud of their WW2 veterans for decades.
    I know only one country that saw any utility in a dedicated law to outlaw faking a military career.

    1. Altho to be fair, while they have a great cult of Lip Service To Our Brave Heroes, as soon as they're asked to back it up with, say, pensions or assistance in getting jobs or dealing with PTSD or even just adjusting back to civilian life, it's a hearty snarl of "Get a job you moocher, whaddaya want, socializm"

      Honestly, I've lost count of the number of panhandlers I've stopped to talk to and try to help, who are discharged veterans unable to find a job (or keep one, in some cases).

    2. A veteran cult is always interesting when it comes from people who have no idea what military means other than shooting strange people in remote places.

      As for socialism, our social system and our aid must be adjusted to help people earn a living themselves and supplement it if necessary. You can't have people devoid of a purpose in live. It's not that you live to work, but that working and earning is part self-sufficiency and thus self-esteem.


  4. Adam Smith had something to say about this:

    "In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies . . ."


    If you see your nation as one which has greater "rights" than others, then the ideology of military dominance comes very easy indeed. This is especially true if you yourself and nobody you know or care about are likely to be killed in such a war.

    The list of such countries is quite long: America, Russia and China definitely belong on it, along with a number of others. The USA because it is one of the few remaining claims to exceptionalism that it has, and is integral to the self-image of a great number of poor and not so poor americans. Even if your life is crap, at least you are better off than all of the foreigners not allowed to live in The Most Powerful Country In The World. This is even more true for Russia (which is the reason it is dangerous to underestimate this country). And as for China: One ordinary chinese woman had this to say in a Swedish interview a while back:

    "[The government] use the military against peasants when they take their land. Why does it not punish the Phillipines when they take what is ours? It does not matter who is right or what the laws are. The media says we are a strong nation now, and strong nations just take what they want!" (My translation)


  5. As for Luxemburg and Costa Rica, I think they have plenty of opportunities. Costa Rica is a territory of the US, so I see no reason why you couldn't join the US army from there. From Luxemburg you could probably join either the German or the French army, or the Belgian one.

    A more puzzling case is Iceland. There you have a country which is completely isolated and at the same time completely defenceless if NATO where to collapse. I guess they rather just not think about it.

    1. You mixed up Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.

      Luxembourg has a single infantry battalion afaik. I didn't write about joining, though. I wrote about people having an emotional need to believe that their country has much military power.

      Iceland actually won 'wars' against the Brits without having a military.

  6. I have to ask the question to Mr. Ortmann: so what? How do a few dozen or hundred or thousand armchair generals in blogs effect things on the policy level? What possible influence could, let's be honest, everyone and anyone who has ever read this blog, will ever read this blog, or could any of their friends have any effect on the real world at all? You're a blogger. We're blog readers. Non-in-under-non-effective by definition.

    We get your implications, Mr. Ortmann. So some bloggers are mean evil anglo-saxon warmongers: how does this effect policy or the main thrust of geostrategy in the slightest?

    Optimal levels of security are questions for experts. These are people who go to University to study just such questions, and read a lot to do so, taking all the emotional responses out of the decisions and doing a damned fine job of making security policy into a technocratic enterprise. I know many such people, they are not hotheads.

    I don't know. It just looks to me like you're using your subject as a tool to smack around the anglo-american world. I do that out of simple logic: since I can't find any other purpose to it, that seems to be the remaining explanation.

    1. We disagree very much on how national security policy is being coined. Policy in general is not begin created along a technocratic model. I've seen into the interior workings of a federal ministry and it was not pretty.

      I wrote the text because I see this issue as a human trait, and the very same trait is existent in mere bloggers and mere blog readers, but also in policy-makers.

      It probably wasn't obvious enough, but I also apply the critique to certain German national security debates. The German navy is especially under the influence of emotional need-driven procurement.
      A leaving top German navy admiral once complained that during all the years he lead the navy he wasn't able to christen a single major ship. It was an emotional thing to him - the fact that no navy was threatening us did not keep him from complaining.

      You're right about having no effect, of course. "Mr. Geopowers" Michael Forster, the first and till his death most successful German national security blogger, once warned me to never fall prey to the illusion of influence. Even he had none, despite being read at up to the highest levels of the ministry.

    2. @James V: Presumably, you believe freedom and freedom of speech is best protected in military actions far from friendly shores. I see your point. Still, it is ironic that you criticize someone for using the freedoms given to him by aggressive foreign policy. Sort of defeats the purpose of these military actions in the first place.

      "Optimal levels of security are questions for experts. These are people who go to University to study just such questions, and read a lot to do so, taking all the emotional responses out of the decisions and doing a damned fine job of making security policy into a technocratic enterprise. I know many such people, they are not hotheads."

      So only people with an academic background in political science are qualified to answer any such questions? I have no doubt that there are many with this background who are very capable, intelligent and thoughtful people. By your logic however, these people are completely incapable of judging the merits of, for example, fighter jets, warships or military firearms; after all, they lack the necessary engineering background.

      John Boyd, a very interesting and wise strategist, said at a talk he gave at Auburn University in the 1990's, that whenever he was putting a team together, he'd always look for people with different backgrounds; people would always learn something from each other, and they would always bring something good to the table.

      I can't really see any genuine arguments against Mr. Ortmanns post, only an ad hominem. But I'm sure Mr. Ortmann, and indeed most other followers of this blog, would appreciate your arguments regardless of your academic background; after all, we have no effect on foreign policy anyway.

      @S O; sorry for butting in here. I hope you forgive me.

  7. We might disagree, the Flottenbauverein had their morons and the actual fleet design fell short of needs. From a more rational point of view, Germany always had a requirement for secured sea lines of communications and fell short of this except when allied with the UK. While the Flottenverein correctly recognized German needs for protected sea routes and would not have been wrong in building up a fleet that convinces the UK to stay true to their alignment with Germany (look at alliance turncoats in the wars), the overall design failed because of German arrogance, twice. The later case WWII being a prime example of hurt pride leading to even more arrogance, recklessness and greed.
    A German fleet would have been an asset of mutual security if allied with the UK and a liability with limited use if not.
    Today, we Germans still could think more about components to secure sea lines of communication (like the Dutch) with our allies and not just defend our nearest shores. You might call that the amphib/carrier faction in our navy.

    The emotional attachment to the military is a very interesting issue. All states were formed with some kind of military history. The military is the force that creates in interior and exterior. While you need security because people can be problematic, be it nations or single persons, you can always misuse that to not only secure your rights, but impose your will to outright robbery (the best description for the German plans in WWII). An attachment to overwhelming military capability to do all kinds of stuff all over the world is in part a crave for a demonstration of national capability. It's one capability a community can muster to demonstrate a common effort at solving problems that at the same time demonstrates to others the gap in capabilities. You could build pyramids instead. All Anglo-Saxon countries have a history of fighting the right wars and not much of the stint of defeat the Germans have. As for the German point of view, part of our anti-militarism has to do with dishonesty and camouflage of ambitions and roles during the Third Reich. It created an ongoing mindset that removed our military from being seen as one of our institutional providers of external security and not a gang of psychopaths bent on world domination.
    As for the Anglo-Saxon view, ask these people what they are proud of. Often these are glorified righteous military achievements of the past and like all young nations, their military glory days of establishing the nation are not far back. It's only natural to delve in continuing military excellence.
    It might also serve as an expression of communal problems with the military serving as most trusted institution that keeps the nation united and really serves common goals.
    It's really interesting how little the emotional attachment worries about the bill to foot for all this military stuff. The suggestions are always devoid of any financial analyses.

    Sappho wrote a good poem about this ageless issue. Here's a quote:

    Lobel-Page 16 / Diehl 27a 27b / Cox 3 / Voigt 16

    Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
    οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
    ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
    τω τις ἔραται

    A troop of horse, the serried ranks of marchers,
    A noble fleet, some think these of all on earth
    Most beautiful. For me naught else regarding
    Is my beloved.