Idefine militarism as a set of attitudes and social practices which regards war and the preparation for war as a normal and desirable social activity. This is a broader definition than is common among scholars. It qualifies people other than John Wayne as militarists. But in an age when war threatens our survival, it is as well to understand any behaviour, however mild in appearance, which makes war seem either natural or desirable. In many societies militarism is ‘up-front’. Young men are educated in violent pursuits to teach them techniques of riding, shooting and close combat and their accompanying forms of morale. Notions of skill, bravery, honour, leadership and cunning acquire military coloration among males. We have examples from many societies—from ancient Persia to Republican Rome to medieval Europe to early modern Prussia. But modern society is not like that. Education and the socialization of the young are largely pacific. Our sports do not relate well to modern warfare, even violent ones like boxing. True, the play of young boys is often militaristic, and male notions of honour retain some of the coloration of traditional militarism. But these are elements in a diverse modern culture, not its core. Nor could they be reasonable preparation for the highest nuclear level of warfare.

So contemporary militarism is not up-front. It is subtle and diverse. Its three characteristic types are: the deterrence-science militarism shared by elites of East and West; the militarized socialism predominating among the Soviet people; and the spectator-sport militarism prevailing among Western citizens. Each may be dangerous to our survival. But other hazards emerge from the essential instability of the relationship between the two Western forms. The instability has been largely contributed by the rapidity of revolutions in military and geo-political relations over the last century or so. Thus I analyse the problem historically, distinguishing three main phases of the highest level of warfare, labelled limited, citizen, and nuclear war. Elements from each co-mingle in the contemporary world, and their uneasy coexistence is our problem. I concentrate on the experience of Europe, Russia and the United States. I make no claim that the patterns I identify apply to other areas of modern militarism.

Let us start with two examples. In the Austro–Prussian War of 1866–67, Bismarck had fresh in his mind the performance of a small, mobile Prussian army in Denmark in 1865. He thought that a war against Austria would also be one of rapid movement, would be short, and would probably result in Prussian victory. The Austrian leaders shared the first two assumptions because after initial defeats in 1866–67, they negotiated. Imperfect knowledge helped the rationality of this war since European strategies were based on recent European examples, not on the American Civil War, a war of attrition. Had Prussian staff colleges studied that, they may not have gone to war in 1866, or again in 1870 against France. Nor, perhaps, would their opponents have so swiftly sued for peace. These were relatively rational wars on the part of Bismarck and Wilhelm because (a) war was believed to be short, low in casualties and in damage to the economy; (b) on balance it could result in victory; (c) victory would acquire territories and German hegemony; and (d) it would unite the Prussian nation, and it would unite the German nation behind Prussia. Thus it would both deflect internal class antagonisms and restore military morale to the more ‘citizen’-oriented pattern of 1813–14, and so in turn increase the likelihood of further victories. For their part, the Austrians made not dissimilar calculations: (a) they believed the war would be short and low in damage; (b) they did not believe they would be defeated—since they had the greater overall resources and the greater recent experience of wars; (c) victory would bring territory and hegemony; and (d) it could divert the multi-ethnic and class tensions of the Empire (apparently they had no thought of a more popular, mobilized militarism). The Austrians’ post mortem was congruent with this, since they blamed defeat on the Prussian needle-gun and on their own commanders. They also believed that wars were many and varied and they might win the next one, as they had always bounced back in the past. They were wrong for the first time, because ‘Citizen armies’ far more powerful than their predecessors were now arriving on the scene. So this war is not difficult to explain rationally. The reasoning on both sides was good in terms of their prior knowledge. The more acute and better organized, the Prussians, were also the aggressors.

The Seven Years War of 1756–1763 involved a number of aspects and motives. But the British had the straightforward objective of taking over French colonies in North America, the West Indies and India. Their strategy was to use the numerical superiority of British settlers in America, and to pay the Prussians and recruit mercenaries for Ferdinand of Brunswick to open a ‘second front’ against the French in central Europe. French military resources were stretched. The British Navy had the edge at sea. But as Pitt said, ‘Canada will be won in Silesia’. It was. So were North America, the West Indies, Senegal and India. As soon as they were ceded, Prussia was abandoned by the British (and nearly destroyed). The colonies were not really won for the victor state—as in the Austro–Prussian war—because the state did not exist as a force ‘above society’. Rather the colonies were won for private companies which saw huge future profits in an extension of monopolies. For the British, using relatively few troops, it was almost an accountants’ war, likely to be profitable given Britain’s unique geo-political advantages. In the event it was more than that—it was sheer windfall. French activity is also explicable but in different terms. Unlike the Austrian losers in my other example, their conduct ‘didn’t make sense’. We are tempted to call it irrational, because the reasons for their defeat seem almost inevitable to us. True, Prussia’s resilience and Clive’s brilliance in India were unexpected. But beyond lay a century of French failure (a) to decide whether to be a European land power or a world colonial one (the same dilemma had earlier destroyed Spain), and (b) to develop a fully fledged fiscal–military system based either on universal despotism or on taxation with representation. This is not really irrationality, however, because states are not persons. They are composed of various families, classes, elites and interest groups, sometimes relatively united, as in the other states considered, sometimes disunited, as in the French case. France’s motives in the colonial war were the same as Britain’s. Her failure to achieve them indicates a lack not of rationality but of political unity to allocate sufficient priority to them.

I have chosen these two examples as representative of most European and North American wars between about 1648 and 1914—that is, between the ferocity of the Wars of Religion, and the weaponry devastation and tactical attrition of 20th-century conflicts. In this period there were cases which do not fit into the pattern, as we shall see in relation to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Such exceptions apart, early modern European war and planning for war involved six elements: (1) relatively short set-piece battles or mobile compaigns; (2) in which manpower and material losses, though sometimes high, would not need continual replacing and, therefore, (3) which had relatively little impact on society as a whole (unless fought over its territory—recognized by the Prussians as an argument for fighting just over their borders!); (4) where war planning was relatively ‘private’ to the state elite and its clients, not being of great concern to the mass of the population; and (5) where it was relatively rational from the point of view of both ends and means. The ends were highly desirable, worth the sacrifices involved; and Europe as a whole gained as it expanded through wars around the globe. All of the foregoing enabled war risks and means to be calculated more precisely, and inserted into a rational geo-political diplomacy. This was the age of the theorist–generals and diplomats, especially in central Europe—of Clausewitz and von Moltke, of Metternich and Bismarck. Through the staff college system militarism became military science, harnessed to the logic of geo-political strategy, partaking in the scientific and technological developments of industrial capitalism. So finally (6) both sides shared common understandings of the ‘rules’ and ‘signals’ of military and diplomatic science.