Roland Watson
October 2006

As a discrete sector of society, the military requires a substantial level of funding. Paradoxically, though, one would prefer that it not do anything. Its two most important responsibilities are initially in the nature of a deterrent. First, the military is a defense against external threats. Given sufficient power, it should deter any attacks from foreign parties. However, if such an attack does occur, which could range from a major invasion, to a border incursion, to a foreign sourced act of terrorism, the military must defend the nation. It must be prepared for any and all such threats.

Another element in the equation is that the use of armed force is always controversial. Some situations where the military may be used are legitimately debatable, and there are also typically parties who do not want the change that military action brings, who benefit in some way from the status quo. For example, the U.S. response in Afghanistan to 9/11 was certainly legitimate, to counter the on-going threat from al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, the case can be made that given the recent history of conflict in Afghanistan, and also the size and difficulty of the terrain involved, that a larger force should have been used. Alternatively, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was much more controversial, because it was based on a false claim of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Secondly, the military guarantees the peaceful transfer of power when power shifts from one group to another following an election. But again, this responsibility for the most part goes unnoticed. It only comes into play in less developed democracies, if the losing side refuses to accept the result, and engages in violent protest. Similarly, in such societies the military may be used to ensure that the actual election is held in a peaceful and fair manner.

The military may also be called upon to counter internal threats, if these are of a nature or scope outside of police action. Such threats may broadly be grouped as ideological, e.g., communism or extreme Islam, or separatist, from a distinct group within the society. (An ideological foundation may drive a separatist agenda as well.) In all such cases the use of the military to control such groups is entirely dependent upon the circumstances. They may have legitimate complaints, in which case other social mechanisms, not involving force, should be used to accomplish their resolution. It is essential to reinforce this point. The military should not be used reflexively in these types of situations. They require proper understanding, which in turn involves open communication and dialogue, before stronger measures are utilized.

The role of the military is also evolving as human society becomes more closely interconnected. Multi-national armed forces assist in the humanitarian response to natural catastrophes. Similarly, nations are regularly called upon to contribute troops to international peacekeeping missions. The latter though are often difficult to organize and sustain, not the least when the missions are in countries ruled by dictatorships that strenuously oppose their involvement. From the response to the crises in the Sudan and Burma it is clear that the international community has yet to muster the will to intervene decisively in such situations, even when genocide is being committed.

A final role of the military, as occurred recently in Thailand, is perhaps most controversial of all. This is when the armed forces intervene in a nominally democratic country, but which has really been overpowered by a tyrant, to defend democracy. It is common, again in developing democracies, for elected rulers to undermine social checks and balances as a means to cement their rule. Recent examples of this type of leader include Chavez in Venezuela and Putin in Russia. In some cases, as in Thailand with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the ruler clearly has an agenda to attain absolute power and to end the nation’s democracy. In these situations, it is the responsibility of the people, the final check in a democracy, to protest and overthrow the tyrant. But, if the tyrant organizes, directly or through subordinates, violence against the people, the military can legitimately intervene against him.

The difficulty of course is that while the military is well equipped to depose such an individual, it is not as well prepared to rule the nation itself and to implement the return to democracy, including to a system with stronger defenses against such tyranny. In Thailand, many people complained about the recent coup, and sectors of Thai society are exhibiting impatience at the rate of reforms. They have the right to protest infringements on civil liberties and media freedom, and to maintain their demand for a return to democratic governance until it has been accomplished.

© Roland O. Watson 2006