What if the government abolished the military?

What if the government abolished the military?

October 29, 2019

By Jorgen Johansen and Brian Martin

As entrenched as the military is in our society and minds, a new book shows that civilians can defend a society without using violence.

Banksy – CND Soldiers, first released by Pictures on Walls of London, 2005
Banksy – CND Soldiers, first released by Pictures on Walls of London, 2005

Imagine that government leaders make an announcement:

“We’re going to abdicate
responsibility for defense. Over the next few years, our military forces
will be phased out. They are too dangerous and counterproductive. It
will be up to everyone to figure out how to defend us all without

Environmentalists immediately get to work setting up local renewable energy systems. They know that an aggressor can hold a society to ransom by controlling a few refineries and large power plants. In contrast, aggressors, and terrorists too, will see little point in attacking energy-efficient buildings and rooftop solar panels.

Originally published by Transcend Media Service
and Journal of Resistance Studies here

Town planners adopt the same thinking. They rapidly
expand opportunities for travel by foot and cycling, thereby reducing
dependence on imports of fuel. A “walkable city” is far less attractive to any aggressor.

Feminists and anti-racist organizers take the lead in
building an inclusive network for mobilizing resistance in case of an
attack. They know about divide-and-rule tactics, and that it is
important that the community be unified against any threats. They are
aware of divisions that have hampered activist campaigns in the past,
and aim at involving all segments of the population, including different
sexes, ages, ethnicities and abilities.

Nonviolent action trainers are in big demand. They
run regular workshops on methods of direct action, decision-making in a
crisis, and strategy. They realize they are too few in number for the
task, so put a priority on sharing their skills so that others can lead

Teachers in schools have many priorities. They encourage their students to learn about the history
and practice of nonviolent action. They also encourage investigation of
the politics and culture of nearby societies, especially those that
might pose a military threat, seeking to learn ways of reducing the

Specialists in language, culture and politics are in
high demand. They put their skills towards making links with groups in
other countries, especially groups resisting repressive governments —
indeed any governments that might become aggressive.

Workers play crucial roles. They prepare to be able
to shut down workplaces, either by striking, working in or destroying or
modifying key bits of machinery or software. They run drills doing
this, rather like fire drills, that are simulations of how to resist
attempts to take over their workplaces or induce cooperation.

Communication specialists have numerous tasks. They
run sessions on how to win over aggressor troops through conversations.
They design and practice communication systems that will be resilient in
the face of attack. They prepare for a shutdown of the Internet and for
hostile surveillance of communications.

An immediate start is made on converting military
facilities to peaceful purposes, supporting efforts to build
self-reliance in energy, water, transport, agriculture and health.
Soldiers, with their specialist skills, become workers in the civilian
sectors of the economy. They also deploy their skills in rescue and
emergency intervention.


The people’s efforts were based on several things they had learned from their studies and earlier campaigns. Most importantly, they avoided any use of physical force. After all, what is the point of an alternative to the military if it relies on violence? The resistance had to be nonviolent.

Careful thought was given to every action. The people decided that some forms of sabotage were acceptable, for example deleting computer files and disabling weapons.

Every attempt was made to enable everyone to be
involved in preparations and resistance, but without compulsion. This
meant that women, children, elders and people with disabilities played
important roles. This was in direct contrast with armed forces, which
rely heavily on young fit men.

The change to a nonviolent defense system had strong
links with other campaigns and social movements. It connected with
environmental, feminist, labor, peace and other movements. The common
threads were equality, participation, self-reliance and resilience.

In making the transition, people learned from
history. They studied cases of spontaneous resistance to invasion,
notably in Germany in 1923 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. They studied the
dynamics of nonviolent action. They recognized the importance of
engaging with aggressor troops, trying to win them over, a process
called fraternization, that is crucially important in nonviolent overthrowing of dictators.

They studied everything they could find written about
defending against aggression without violence. There were many valuable
studies, most of them written in the 1950s through the 1980s. They
adopted ideas that seemed most helpful. When they had ideas about
resistance techniques, they ran simulations to see whether they worked.

As they proceeded, they shared their experiences and
knowledge with like-minded groups around the world. This turned out to
be a vital step. It reduced the risk of aggression, because government
leaders realized that attacking a community without an army might lead
to an internal uprising in their own societies.

Probably the biggest challenge was confronting people’s beliefs that violence is always superior to nonviolence, and that defense is someone else’s responsibility, namely something for the military to handle.

It’s just a scenario

At least two things about this scenario are quite
unrealistic. First is that any government would dissolve its military
forces. It did happen once, in Costa Rica in 1948, but has never
occurred in any large country (there are 15 to 20 small countries
without armies). It is unlikely that any government would abdicate
without fighting to maintain its existence and its power over its

The second unrealistic feature of this scenario is
the speed with which social movements undertook efforts to build a
people’s nonviolent defense system. Even when this alternative is on the
agenda, few movements use it as a guide for their activities and
campaigns. They easily could.

For the past century, inspired by nonviolent
campaigns, a few writers have imagined an alternative to military forces
based on popular nonviolent action. In the 1950s and 1960s, some
researchers developed the idea. In the 1980s, there were groups in a
dozen countries dedicated to promoting this sort of alternative.

Nonviolent community resistance to aggression, as an
alternative to military defense, has several names: social defense,
nonviolent defense, civilian defense, civilian-based defense and defense
by civil resistance. We call it social defense. The basic idea is that
instead of relying on an army, the people in a community deter and
resist aggression using a wide range of nonviolent methods.

In our just-published book Social Defence,
we explain what’s involved and try to bring the discussion about social
defense up to date since the 1980s, when interest was highest. There
have been quite a few developments since then to consider: the rise of
neoliberalism, the collapse of state socialism, the Internet, and a huge
expansion in awareness and use of nonviolent action. Some of these
developments are favorable for social defense, some are negative, and
some just make things different.

Military systems are deeply entrenched, politically, economically and in people’s thinking. It may be a long time before significant moves are made towards alternatives. But in the meantime, activists can use ideas about social defense in designing their campaigns, their organizations and their thinking.

Buy Social Defence at Irene Publishing – at only US$ 17.64

3 Responses to "What if the government abolished the military?"

  1. Brita Bastogi   November 1, 2019 at 5:36 pm

    It could be interesting to know who the small States without an army are. One surely could learn a lot from Them. Their arguments for daring not to have an army etc.
    Kind regards, Brita Bastogi

  2. larryzb   October 29, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    That, sir, could never happen. There are too many dollars involved, and powerful special interests that would actively resist this.


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