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Benjamin Constant on the dangers to liberty posed by the military spirit (1815)

The French political theorist and politician Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) worries that after long periods of war men become imbued with ideas about the use of force and a “military spirit” which undermines the very liberty they are supposed to defend:

This politics of war casts into society a mass of men whose outlook is different from that of the nation and whose habits form a dangerous contrast with the patterns of civil life, with the institutions of justice, with respect for the rights of all, with those principles of peaceful and ordered freedom which must be equally inviolable under all forms of government. …

In all centuries and countries, men associated together in the army for long periods have separated themselves from the nation. The very soldiers of freedom, in fighting for such, conceive a kind of respect for the use of force, regardless of its purpose. Without knowing it they contract thereby morals, ideas, and habits which are subversive of the cause they defend. The measures which ensure the triumph of war prepare the collapse of the law. The military spirit is haughty, swift, swaggering. Law must be calm, often slow, and always protective. The military spirit detests the thinking faculties as incipient indiscipline.

After our examination of the most specious pretexts of war on the part of modern governments, let us dwell on one of their effects, one in my view insufficiently remarked on hitherto. This politics of war casts into society a mass of men whose outlook is different from that of the nation and whose habits form a dangerous contrast with the patterns of civil life, with the institutions of justice, with respect for the rights of all, with those principles of peaceful and ordered freedom which must be equally inviolable under all forms of government.

Over the last sixteen years there has been much talk about armies composed of citizens. To be sure, we do not wish to visit insults on those who so gloriously defended our national independence, on those who by so many immortal exploits founded the French Republic. When enemies dare to attack a people on its territory, the citizens become soldiers to repulse them. They were citizens, they were the leading citizens, those who freed our soil from the profaning foreigner. In dealing with a general question, however, we must set aside remembrance of glory, which surrounds and dazzles us, seductive and captivating feelings of gratitude. In the present state of European societies the words “citizen” and “soldier” imply a contradiction. A citizen army is possible only when a people is virtually confined to a single city-state. Then the soldiers of that nation can rationally justify obedience. When they are in the bosom of their native land, between governors and governed whom they know, their understanding can count for something in their submission. A very large country, however, whether monarchy or republic, renders that supposition absolutely chimerical. A very large country requires from soldiers a mechanistic subordination and makes them passive, unreflective, and docile agents. As soon as they are displaced, they lose all the prior information capable of illuminating their judgment. The size of the country permitting those in charge of the armed forces to dispatch the natives of one province to another distant one, these men, subject to a discipline which isolates them from the local natives, are only strangers to the latter, although they are nominally their compatriots. They see only their commanders, know only them, obey their orders alone. Citizens in their birthplace, everywhere else they are soldiers. Once an army is among strangers, however it is organized, it is only a physical force, a pure instrument. The experience of the Revolution demonstrated only too well the truth of what I am affirming. We were told it was important for soldiers to be citizens, so they would never turn their arms against the people, and yet we have seen the unfortunate conscripts taken away from their ploughs, not only to contribute to the seige of Lyon, which could not be other than an act of civil war, but also to make themselves instruments of torture of the Lyonnais, disarmed prisoners, which was an act of implicit obedience and discipline, of precisely that discipline and that obedience from which we had believed that the citizen soldiers would always be able to protect themselves.

A large army, whatever its basic elements, contracts, involuntarily, an esprit de corps. Such a spirit always seizes hold of organizations assembled for a single purpose, sooner or later. The only lasting thing men have in common is their interest. In all countries, in all centuries, a confederation of priests has formed, within the State, a State apart. In all centuries and countries, men associated together in the army for long periods have separated themselves from the nation. The very soldiers of freedom, in fighting for such, conceive a kind of respect for the use of force, regardless of its purpose. Without knowing it they contract thereby morals, ideas, and habits which are subversive of the cause they defend. The measures which ensure the triumph of war prepare the collapse of the law. The military spirit is haughty, swift, swaggering. Law must be calm, often slow, and always protective. The military spirit detests the thinking faculties as incipient indiscipline. All legitimate government rests on enlightenment and conviction[…]

About this Quotation:

Constant wrote several versions of The Principles of Politics (in 1810, 1815) and it has never been given the attention it deserves. He was writing the second version when Napoleon returned from defeat and asked him to draw up a new constitution, so he was very concerned with the practical political problem of how to reform a society which had been dominated by the military for nearly two decades. One of the biggest problems lay in the minds of men who had experienced military discipline first hand, were accustomed to obeying orders without question, and who regarded independent thinking as “incipient indiscipline”. The respect for individual liberty had to be relearned by the citizen soldiers who had served Napoleon for so long that they had adopted “a mechanistic subordination” which made them “passive, unreflective, and docile agents” of power. Thus, part of Constant’s political agenda was to try to rekindle the love of liberty in the minds of Frenchmen both within the Chamber (in which he served until his death in 1830) and in a series of major books he published during the 1820s.

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