Eighth Letter to My Friends

Dear Friends,

As indicated in the previous letter, the present letter will focus on points related to the armed forces. The interest of this writing will center, of course, on the relationships among the armed forces, political power, and society, and will be based on the paper I presented three months ago in Moscow under the title “The Need for a Humanist Position in the Contemporary Armed Forces”. This letter will depart from the concepts in the original paper in treating the position of the military in the revolutionary process, a topic that will allow further development of ideas outlined in previous letters.

1. The Need to Redefine the Role of the Armed Forces

Today the armed forces are endeavoring to define what their new role will be in a process that began with the proposals for progressive proportional disarmament initiated by the Soviet Union toward the end of the 1980s. The diminishing tensions between the superpowers led to a reversal in the concept of defense for the major powers. Meanwhile, the gradual replacement of military-political blocs, in particular the Warsaw Pact, by a system of relatively cooperative relationships has unleashed centrifugal forces that have given rise to fresh conflicts in various parts of the globe. Certainly, at the height of the cold war limited wars were frequent and often prolonged, but the current character of these conflicts has changed, and now threatens to spill over from the Balkans into the Muslim world and other areas of Asia and Africa.

Given the secessionist tendencies inside many countries, the border disputes that previously occupied the armed forces of adjoining nations are today taking a different direction. Economic, ethnic, and linguistic differences are leading to changes in borders long thought unalterable at the same time that large-scale migrations are taking place. Human groups are being uprooted as they flee desperate situations; others try to hold back or expel different groups from certain areas.

These and other phenomena reveal profound changes, particularly in the structure and conception of the State. At the same time that we are witnessing a process of economic and political regionalization, we are also seeing growing discord within many countries as they move toward this regionalization. It is as if the nation state, designed two hundred years ago, is no longer able to withstand the blows from above by multinational interests and from below by the forces of secession. Increasingly dependent, increasingly tied to the regional economy, increasingly pitted against other regions in economic warfare, the State is undergoing a crisis of unprecedented proportions as it struggles to maintain control of the changing situation in which it finds itself.

Existing civil and commercial laws and regulations have become obsolete, and constitutional documents are being amended to open the way for the ever-greater worldwide movement of capital and financial resources. Even penal codes are changing—today a citizen may be seized for a crime that has been tried in another country under foreign laws by judges of a different nationality. The traditional concept of national sovereignty, then, has been noticeably weakened. The entire legal-political apparatus of the State, its institutions, and those people directly or indirectly in its service, are all experiencing the effects of this general crisis.

The armed forces, long assigned the role of protector of the general sovereignty and security, are also suffering these problems. As education, health care, and the means of communication are privatized along with goods and services, natural resources, and even significant areas of public safety, this continues to erode the importance of the traditional State. It follows that if the administration and resources of a nation are removed from the sphere of public control, that the legal and judicial system will follow suit, reducing the armed forces to the role of a mere private militia assigned to defending only parochial or multinational financial interests. And indeed these trends have recently intensified in many countries.

2. Continuing Factors of Aggression in This Period of Reduced Tensions

Among the powers that have declared the cold war at an end, external aggression has yet to disappear, however. Violations of air and maritime space continue, as do provocations against distant nations, fresh incursions and base installations, new military pacts, and even foreign wars and occupations to control shipping lanes or areas with abundant natural resources.

The clear record established in the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; in the Suez, Berlin, and Cuban crises; and in the invasions of Grenada, Tripoli, and Panama, has shown the world that more powerful nations frequently direct disproportionate military action against defenseless nations, a record that weighs heavily at the time of disarmament talks.

This type of action is particularly grave when, as in the case of the Gulf War, it takes place on the flanks of important powers that could interpret such acts as threats to their own security. These excesses also have harmful secondary effects when they strengthen certain sectors within those powers, allowing them to criticize their governments as incapable of stopping such encroachments. And all of this could compromise the climate of international peace that is now so vital.

3. Internal Security and Military Restructuring

Regarding internal security, it is important to note two problems that are visible on the horizon: social explosions and terrorism.

If unemployment and recession continue to rise in the industrialized nations, it is possible these areas will be the scene of growing unrest and upheavals, reversing to a degree the picture of previous decades in which conflicts arose on the periphery of these centers, which were nonetheless able to continue their expansion without experiencing undue shocks. Today, however, events such as the recent riots in Los Angeles could spread beyond one city and even to other countries.

Secondly, the phenomenon of terrorism presents a danger of some magnitude, considering the firepower to which these relatively specialized individuals and groups now have access. This threat could take the form of high explosives and even nuclear devices or chemical and biological weapons, all of which continue to become less expensive and easier to produce.

In the unstable panorama of today’s world, the concerns of the armed forces are many and varied. In addition to the strategic and political problems they face, there are internal issues of restructuring, large-scale troop reductions, recruiting and training methods, replacement of equipment, technological modernization and, of primary importance, declining budgets. However, while the armed forces must thoroughly comprehend these factors in the context of their own sphere of activity, it must be added that none of these problems can be fully resolved until the primary function that the military is to fulfill in society and the world is made clear. It is, after all, political power that gives orientation to the armed forces, which must act in accordance with that orientation.

4. A Review of the Concepts of Sovereignty and Security

In the traditional conception of these issues, the armed forces are assigned the function of safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and security and granted the authority to use force in accordance with the mandate of the duly constituted powers. In this way, the State’s monopoly on violence is transferred to the military services.

But this brings us to a key point in the discussion of what should be understood by the terms sovereignty and security. If a nation’s sovereignty and security or, in more modern terms, its “progress” are said to require extraterritorial sources of raw materials, indisputable rights of maritime passage to protect the flow of commerce, and the control of strategic points or the occupation of foreign territory with these same objectives, then what we are faced with is the theory and practice of colonialism or neocolonialism.

The function of the military during colonial times consisted principally of facilitating the interests of the crowns of the period, and later on the interests of the private companies that obtained special concessions of political power in exchange for suitable compensation. The illegality of that system was justified by the supposed barbarism of the subjugated peoples, who were characterized as incapable of adequately governing themselves. The ideology corresponding to this stage affirmed colonialism as a “civilizing” system par excellence.

During the age of Napoleonic imperialism, the function of the army, which also held political power, consisted of expanding the borders with the declared objective of redeeming through military action peoples who were oppressed by tyrannies, and installing a legal and administrative system enshrining liberty, equality, and fraternity in its legal codes. The corresponding ideology justified this imperial expansion by the claim of “necessity” on the part of a power constituted by the democratic revolution against illegal monarchies that were based on inequality and that moreover formed a united front to suppress the revolution.

More recently, and following the teachings of Clausewitz, war has been understood as a simple extension of politics, and the State as promoter of these policies is considered the governing apparatus of a society that lies within certain geographical limits. Starting with this premise, geo-politicians have reached certain definitions they now hold dear in which borders are viewed as the “skin of the State,” and in this organic-logical conception, the “skin” contracts or expands in accordance with the vital energy of the nation, and must thus expand as the progress of the community demands greater “living space” given its population density or economic strength.

From this perspective, the function of the military is to acquire space according to the demands of the policy of security and sovereignty, which is given primacy over the needs of neighboring countries. In this case, the dominant ideology proclaims that the differences in the needs experienced by various collectivities are related to “inherent” characteristics. This zoological vision of the struggle for the survival of the fittest recalls Darwinian conceptions, here illegitimately carried into the sphere of political and military practice.

5. The Legality and Limits of Established Power

Today we frequently hear reference made to the three conceptions used above to illustrate both how the military responds to political power and how it is framed within the various positions that political powers define at any given time as security and sovereignty. And if the function of the military is to serve the State in matters of security and sovereignty, and if the conception of these two factors varies from government to government, then the armed forces will have to abide by these changing directions.

Are there any limits or exceptions to this? Two clear exceptions can be seen: (1) when political power has been illegally constituted and civil recourse to rectify this irregular situation has been exhausted; and (2) when political power has been legally constituted but in its exercise has become illegal, and civil recourse to rectify this anomalous situation has been exhausted.

In both cases the armed forces have the duty to reestablish the legality that has been interrupted, which is equivalent to carrying forward the actions civil means were unable to bring about. In such circumstances the military’s duty is clearly to the law and not to the established power.

This does not mean, however, promoting a state that is dependent on the military; rather, the focus is on restoring the legality previously interrupted by an established power of criminal origin or one that has become criminal.

The questions that must now be asked are: where does legality originate, and what are its characteristics? As humanists our view is that legality flows from the people, as it is the people who give rise to a particular type of State and fundamental laws, to which the citizenry must then submit. And in the extreme case that the people should decide to amend the type of State and type of laws, it is incumbent upon the State and the legal system to carry this out, because there is no State structure or legal system whose existence can be placed above such a decision by the people. This point leads to a consideration of the revolutionary act, which will be treated further on.

6. Military Responsibility to Political Power

It should be emphasized that the military services need to be made up of citizens who recognize and carry out their responsibilities to the legality of the established power. And if the established power is functioning based on a democracy in which the will of the majority is respected through the election and replacement of representatives of the people, in which minorities are respected in accordance with established law, and in which there is respect for the separation and independence of powers, then the armed forces need not pass judgment on the correctness or errors of their government.

If, however, an illegal regime is imposed, then the armed forces cannot simply support it by mechanically invoking “obligatory obedience” to this regime. And in the case of international conflicts, the armed forces cannot carry out genocide following the orders of a political power made feverish by abnormal circumstances. For if human rights are not placed above every other right, it is not possible to understand why either social organization or the State exist. In the same way, no one can claim to be “just following orders” when it comes to assassination, torture, or degradation of the human being. If the trials following World War II taught us anything, it is that every person in the military has responsibilities as a human being, even in the extreme situation of armed conflict.

At this point it could be asked: Is not the military an institution whose training, discipline, and equipment make it primarily a factor of destruction? I would reply that long ago things were set up as they are today and, independent of the aversion we feel for every form of violence, we cannot now propose the simple disappearance or unilateral disarmament of the military, which would only leave a vacuum that will be filled by other aggressive forces, as was previously noted in relation to the record of attacks carried out against defenseless nations.

The armed forces have an important mission to fulfill in not obstructing the philosophy and practice of proportional progressive disarmament and through inspiring their colleagues in other countries to move in the same direction. They can make it clear that the function of the military in the world today is to avoid both catastrophes and the oppression imposed by illegal governments that do not answer to a popular mandate.

The greatest service, then, that the armed forces can contribute to their country and to all of humanity will be to prevent the existence of war. This proposal, which might seem utopian, is today supported by the strength of events that demonstrate how dangerous and impractical it is for everyone when military power increases, either unilaterally or globally.

Let us now return to the theme of military responsibility through some examples of the opposite. During the period of the cold war, the West repeated two messages: that NATO and other alliances were formed to preserve a way of life threatened by Soviet and on occasion Chinese communism, and that military actions were undertaken in distant lands to protect the “interests” of the Western powers.

In Latin America the military preferred the pretext of the threat of internal subversion to justify their coups d’état. The armed forces there failed to answer to political power, trampling all law and every constitution in militarizing practically an entire continent under this so-called “doctrine of national security.” The sequel of death and backwardness left by these dictatorships was bizarrely justified throughout the chain of command by the concept of “obligatory obedience,” holding that under military discipline each level is simply to follow the orders of the next higher level. This way of posing things, reminiscent of Nazi justifications of genocide, must be borne in mind in any discussion of the limits of military discipline.

Our point of view, as already mentioned, is that once the military severs its dependence on political power it then constitutes an irregular force, an armed gang outside the law. This issue is clear, but admits one exception: a military uprising against a political power that has been illegally established or subsequently become seditious. The armed forces cannot invoke “obligatory obedience” to such an illegal power or they become accomplices in this irregularity, just as in other circumstances they cannot engage in a military coup, ignoring their duty to follow the popular mandate. These issues relate to internal order and, similarly, during international conflicts the armed forces cannot attack the civilian population of an enemy nation.

7. Military Restructuring

Regarding military recruitment, our point of view favors replacing compulsory with optional military service, a system that allows superior training of the professional soldier. But this limitation on recruitment will also be accompanied by a significant reduction in the levels of enlisted and officer personnel.

It is clear that a satisfactory restructuring of the military cannot be accomplished without attending to the personal, family, and social problems that will arise in numerous armies that now find themselves oversized for today’s world. The change in employment, geographical location, and re-entry into society of these troops will be more harmonious if the military maintains a flexible relationship with them throughout the period required for their readjustment.

The primary factor that must be taken into account in the restructuring taking place today in various parts of the world is the political model of each country involved. Naturally, a unitary political system has characteristics different from those of a federal system or one in which various countries are joining together to form a regional community.

Our point of view favors federal systems open to regional confederations, for which a correctly designed restructuring will require permanent, solid commitments to give continuity to this project. Without a clearly established desire on the part of all the parties to move in this direction, such restructuring will not be possible, because the financial support from each country will be subject to unpredictable political fluctuations. In this case, the federal armed forces would have only a formal existence, and military contingents would be the simple aggregation of separate troops from each community that is part of the federation. Attempting to form a unified command in this situation will present serious problems that will be difficult to resolve. In short, the political power that orients the military must set the guidelines, and in each set of circumstances the armed forces will require very precise and coordinated guidance.

Another important problem in restructuring is related to security forces. The function of security forces, if they are not part of the military, is to maintain internal order and to protect the country’s citizens, although habitually they become involved in operations of surveillance and control of the population that are far removed from the objectives for which they were created. In many countries, the organizational chart in which they appear shows them directly connected to political ministries or cabinets of the interior rather than the ministry of war or defense.

The police, in contrast, are understood as public servants formed to follow a legal chain of command that will not be detrimental to the country’s inhabitants; they have an accessory character and fall under the jurisdiction of the judicial branch. Often, however, through their character as a public force they carry out operations that can make them appear like military forces in the eyes of the population. It is clear how inappropriate such confusion is, and that it is in the best interest of the armed forces that these distinctions be made clear to all.

Similar things occur with other State organizations such as the intelligence services or other secret bodies, which often overlap and duplicate each other and which also have nothing to do with the military. The military does need an appropriate system of gathering intelligence to operate efficiently, but not one that in any way resembles mechanisms of surveillance and control of the country’s citizens, because the military’s function has to do with the security of the nation and certainly not with involvement in any ideological approval or censure by the government of the moment.

8. The Military’s Position in the Revolutionary Process

It is supposed that in a democracy power flows from the sovereignty of the people. Both the conformation of the State as well as of those organizations that derive from it stem from this same source. Thus, in defending the country’s sovereignty and providing security for the country’s inhabitants, the military fulfills the function conferred on it by the State.

As we have seen, aberrations can of course occur if the military or some other faction illegally seizes power. And as we have also seen, the extreme case can occur in which the people may decide to change the type of State and type of laws—that is, the entire system. Under these circumstances, it is incumbent on everyone to carry out these changes, because there is no state structure or legal system whose existence can be placed above this decision by the people.

Certainly the fundamental documents of many countries contemplate the possibility that these documents can be modified by popular decision. This is one way that revolutionary change can take place, through which formal democracy will give way to real democracy.

If, however, this possibility is blocked, that constitutes a denial of the source from which all legality flows. In these circumstances, and only after having exhausted all civil recourse, it is the obligation of the military to carry out this will to change by removing the faction that is currently installed, now illegally, in power over public life. Through that military intervention society can reach the creation of revolutionary conditions in which the people can put into practice a new type of social organization and a new legal system.

It is hardly necessary to point out the differences between military intervention having the objective of returning to the people the sovereignty that has been stolen from them and the simple military coup that violates the legality previously established by popular mandate. Consistent with these ideas, legality requires that the will of the people be respected even when they propose revolutionary changes. Why shouldn’t the majority express their desire to change these basic structures and, what is more, why shouldn’t minorities have the opportunity to work politically to bring about revolutionary change in society? Denying the will to revolutionary change through repression and violence seriously compromises the legality of the current system of today’s formal democracies.

It will be observed that this letter has not touched on matters relating to military strategy or doctrine or on questions of military technology and organization. This could not have been otherwise, for we have applied a humanist point of view to the armed forces in relation to political power and society.

The men and women of the military still have before them the enormous task, both theoretical and practical, of adapting their framework and organization to this special time in which we find our world. The views of society, and the genuine interest of the armed forces (although they are not specialists) to know those views, is a matter of fundamental importance. At the same time, vigorous relationships between members of the military from different countries, accompanied by frank and civilized discussions, form important steps toward recognizing the plurality of points of view. The attitude in some military forces that keeps them isolated from others, and their unresponsiveness in the face of the people’s demands, correspond to an earlier period in which human and tangible interchange were restricted. Today the world has changed for everyone, including the armed forces.

9. Considerations on the Military and Revolution

Two widely asserted opinions are today of special interest: The first declares that the time of revolutions has passed and the second that military influence in decision-making is gradually declining. It is also supposed that only in certain backward or poorly organized countries do such hindrances from the past still pose a threat. It is further held that as the system of international relations takes on an ever more solid character, it will make its weight felt until all the old factors of disorder are brought under control.

On the question of revolutions, as already noted, our point of view is diametrically opposed to the above notions. Whether concerted action by “civilized” nations will impose a new world order in which military influence will play no part is highly debatable.It should be noted that it is precisely in those nations and regions that are taking on an imperial character that both revolutions and military influence are increasingly making their presence felt. Sooner or later, as the forces of money become ever more concentrated, they will confront the majority, and in this situation bank and military will end up being antithetical terms.

As contemporary humanists, we find ourselves, then, at the opposite pole of the interpretation of historical processes from those who support the prevailing system. Only the times near at hand will tell which perception of events is correct, events that some always seem to find (in the tradition of recent years) “incredible.” With their way of looking at things, what will they say when the things described here do come to pass? Probably that humanity has gone backwards, returned to the past, or in more everyday terms that “the world has fallen apart.”

We believe that phenomena such as the spread of irrationality, the rise of ever stronger religiosity, and many other related phenomena do not belong to the past, but correspond to a new stage that we will have to face with all the intellectual courage and human commitment of which we are capable. It will not work to go on claiming that society can best develop by staying the present course. What is important here is to comprehend that the conditions under which we are living are leading us directly toward the collapse of an entire system, a system that some consider defective but still “perfectible.” Today there is no longer any such perfectible system. On the contrary, every day this system reaches new heights in all the forms of inhumanity it has been amassing over the course of so many years.

If someone should criticize these assertions as lacking any basis, it is entirely within their rights to present a different position that is coherent. If they feel that our position is pessimistic, as humanists we affirm that the new direction toward a humanized world will prevail over this mechanical negative process. And that new direction will be propelled by the revolution that the vast communities of humanity will finally bring about, those thousands of millions of human beings who are every day denied their destiny.

With this letter I send my warmest regards,


August 10, 1993

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