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International Security 28.4 (2004) 85-124

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A School for the Nation?

How Military Service Does Not Build Nations, and How It Might

Theodore Roosevelt and his fellow Progressives hoped that universal military training would "Americanize" the mass of newcomers who had recently landed on America's shores. Leonid Brezhnev similarly believed that widespread service in the Red Army would forge a unified Soviet citizenry committed to "the Socialist Motherland," internationalism, and "the friendship of the peoples."1 Like many leaders before and after them, Roosevelt and Brezhnev turned to the armed forces and the policy of universal military service at least in part to help build cohesive national communities out of their countries' multinational jumbles.

This view of the military as a key institution for the labeling and transmission of social values has roots stretching back to ancient Greece,2 but the armed forces first achieved great popularity as a nation builder toward the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, the military was widely hailed across Europe as a "school for the nation," and its apparent success was emulated as far away as czarist Russia and Meiji Japan. As countries across Africa and Asia won independence in the decades following World War II, they charged their armies with weaving a national fabric rent by communal rifts. Throughout the twentieth century, countries across the ideological spectrum have turned to the armed forces in the quest for national integration.3 [End Page 85]

This faith in the armed forces as a potential nation builder is unjustified, for the proposition, and especially the theories underlying it, have received insufficient sustained scholarly attention.4 Over the decades, sociologists, historians, and political scientists have usually paralleled national leaders in asserting the armed forces' capacity to either shore up or undermine the national construct, but their comments have usually been merely suggestive.5 Modernization theorists notably hailed the military as the model modern organization dedicated to sweeping change in the newly formed states of Africa and Asia.6 Others, observing that military rulers were often corrupt, played ethnic and sectional politics, and overall exhibited more traditional than modern characteristics, concluded that military service generally did not lead to new inclusive identities, but rather highlighted and reinforced existing cleavages.7 Few, [End Page 86] however, doubted that the armed forces would dramatically reshape society, for good or for ill.8 And even fewer analyzed and assessed the underlying causal logic and evaluated these claims in light of available evidence.

Three seemingly plausible mechanisms linking military service and the construction of cohesive national communities—socialization, contact, and elite transformation—may be teased out of the existing literature. First, the armed forces may socialize soldiers to national norms embedded in the military's manpower policy, which determines who serves, at what level, and in what capacity. Second, the armed forces may bring together individuals of various ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds in common cause and in a collaborative spirit, providing a suitable environment in which to break down communal barriers, as the "contact hypothesis" would suggest. Third, whether through socialization or intense contact, the military may alter the views of future leaders who later use their positions of influence to spread their revised definition of the nation. All three mechanisms suggest that, under certain conditions, military service leads individuals to reconsider their identity, their attachments, and the definition of their political community, bringing these into accord with their personal experiences and hence with military policy.9 Once [End Page 87] officers and soldiers have internalized the military's national norms, they diffuse this new vision throughout civilian society. If these mechanisms linking military service and nationhood prove unsustainable, then scholars must conclude either that the two variables are independent of each other or that some other mechanism, heretofore unexamined, governs this relationship. In either case, such a claim would challenge the conventional wisdom on this question.

This article argues that all three mechanisms are unsustainable. When available, the empirical evidence for the military's power as...


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