Military and or military as public good? —Ejaz Haider

Military is a public good. If that were not the case, we wouldn’t require it. The need to reform the military in and of itself shows that we consider it a public good and therefore it must be answerable to the public. Else we would be talking about getting rid of the military

In her op-ed in the Friday issue of Dawn (“Defence as a public good”), Dr Ayesha Siddiqa has raised the interesting issue of when “defence” ceases to be public good. However, since she has meandered to the question, let me follow her trajectory.

The prompt for her article was a recent two-day conference in Lahore on the problematic of civil-military relations.

Yes, there were PMLN parliamentarians present at the conference while the PPP was absent. But given what the PMLN had to offer in terms of ideas, perhaps it was better that the PPP did not add to the aggregate of unlettered ignorance politicians tend to bring to such problems.

Let this comment be Exhibit A for my long-held view that the civilians, despite a clear and present danger from a praetorian military, have singularly failed to develop any sophistication in approaching the issue.

The audience’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, it was by and large nothing much to write home about since people were more interested in appreciating a quip or clever remark that put down the army than understanding the nuances of the problematic. Lahore is always a great place to be in on a day one doesn’t want to be an intellectual.

I would beg to differ with Ayesha, a friend of many years and a fine scholar of the military, that such a debate has been taboo so far. Both she and I have been part of many such debates inside and outside Pakistan, including in India, where we have been highly critical of the army. There has never been any knock on my door.

My own experience of speaking at the National Defence University, Command and Staff College, Quetta, and at the Strategic Plans Division has been refreshing. I have very often been brazenly critical and provocative and the officers, students as well as Directing Staff, have responded to my observations and arguments in good spirit.

Which is why, and I completely agree with Ayesha, the conduct of the said lieutenant general and some other officers at the conference left much to be desired. They showed themselves utterly incapable of appreciating the academic spirit in which the discussion was being carried out and did not cover themselves in glory; neither did they do any good for the army as an institution.

And this is just the point, with the term “institution” having been thrown in, at which I must move to the substantive part of Ayesha’s article.

She writes: “One of the latest arguments in defence of the army is, why blame the entire institution for the fault of a few at the top?” She considers this argument flawed on two counts: “the military is a disciplined force and orders flow from the top and everyone in the hierarchy is meant to carry out every decision taken at the top”; two, “all personnel own the decision of the superior management”.

She goes on to argue: “Those who differ with the policy to usurp power either speak out, for which they are phased out… or [they] resign. Those who remain…are partners in the decision as they share the benefits of being in the organisation.”

I agree with her that the military is a cohesive organisation and the Pakistani military, despite the coups and the pressures they bring to bear on the organisation, has largely retained its integrity.

But Ayesha has also advanced another argument, both in her book and in the closing moments of her presentation at the conference — i.e., there are linkages between the top brass and the political elites, such that the top brass, even when officers rise from the low and middle income groups, gets plugged into the ruling elites. In her book, Military Inc., she argued that the fault-line is now no more between the civil and military enclaves but between the ruling elites (of which the military is a predominant part) and the rest.

If her argument about the power relationships is accepted, then the formalism of organisational discipline which binds the military at the low and high ends of the spectrum, from the ORs, NCOs and JCOs to subalterns, field officers and general staff officers, must get diluted, if not in a legalistic sense then at least for the purposes of discussion under her own model.

I will eschew her reference to the Nuremberg Trials on the issue of responsibility because that is highly problematic both for legal and political reasons. But that can be debated separately.

In fact, like the divide between the elites (of which the military top brass is a part, according to Ayesha) and the rest, we would then also need to assume that there is groundwork here for a divide within the military between the general officers and the rest. Of course, we do not know, at least I don’t, where the dividing line exists or can be drawn. But if Ayesha’s model is right then there must be a dividing line somewhere and that should worry the army.

(In fact, Ayesha’s argument is very interesting and could actually solve the puzzle about why civilian political actors have remained so apathetic in the face of interventions from the military instead of trying to offset that possibility. But that is a different debate.)

On the other hand, such cleavage within the army, if it exists, could be exploited by the civil society to push for constitutionalism. This is the argument Nader Sohrabi put forward in his 1995 article “Historicising Revolutions: Constitutional Revolutions in the Ottoman Empire, Iran and Russia, 1905-1908” (The American Journal of Sociology; Vol 100, No 6).

Sohrabi’s argument, in addition to differentiating between socialist/communist and what he termed “constitutional” revolutions was that the latter succeeded in the case of Turkey and Iran and failed in the case of Russia. His contention is that while in the cases of Turkey and Iran opposition actors found support within a divided army, the Russian Duma failed to make any headway against the Tsar because the Russian army remained largely integrated despite having been defeated by Japan.

The question is: Is there such a cleavage within the military? And if there is, does a situation obtain that would legitimise civil society’s efforts to exploit it in its push towards constitutionalism? Or do we still have spaces for a less confrontational approach towards that objective? I ask these questions in the same spirit in which Ayesha has invited a debate on the problematic of civil-military relations and its various manifestations.

Finally, and this syncs with my question, is Ayesha right in arguing that “defence” is a public good only “so long as it is beneficial to the general public? When its benefits are restricted to a few hundred or thousand people, then it ceases to be a public good…”

I do not think this is a rigorous treatment of the issue. I also think that by “defence” she means the military. The need for “defence/military” is both a necessity and a concept, just as law and order or sovereignty etc. While one may have a problem with praxis, one cannot reject a concept which underwrites the very existence of a state (and by state I mean the operationalisation of the unwritten social contract between state and society and I am not problematising it because that would take us on a tangent).

One can fault the police for being corrupt or the criminal justice system for being flawed and in need of reform. But justice is a public good, as are the police and the courts. States may be bad, indeed many are very bad, but that doesn’t make us anarchists. We still use the state as a unit of analysis and consider it vital to any social contract or its actualisation.

It is not an issue of military and public good but military as public good. If that were not the case, we wouldn’t require it. The need to reform the military in and of itself shows that we consider it a public good and therefore it must be answerable to the public. Else we would be talking about getting rid of the military.

Finally, I agree with Ayesha that “At this juncture, it is vital for the nation to engage in [a] debate on defence and to ensure that it [military] serves the public good, if it doesn’t do so already”.

Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 25/10/2008

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