Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tocqueville on 'the military spirit'

Last month’s repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law has met with widespread and justified approval. Some voices, however, have issued reminders that military culture continues to be 'gendered' (see, for instance, here). Whether or not you agree with this, and whether or not you are troubled by it, it's perhaps worth reflecting on the degree to which attitudes on this bundle of issues have changed over time. Alexis de Tocqueville – not usually considered a militaristic thinker – wrote in this respect a revealing note to Volume Two of Democracy in America (which I quote below).

As Alan Ryan recently observed (“Tocqueville’s Lesson,” New York Review of Books, Dec. 9, 2010), Tocqueville in Volume Two of Democracy was concerned with "the dangers of ‘soft despotism,’ a condition in which the population were reduced to a sheep-like dependency on a state that made them comfortable, saved them the necessity of thought, and destroyed their will by enervation rather than oppression."

In the note to Volume Two to which I’ve referred, Tocqueville ruminated on what the taste for comfort might do to "the military spirit":

If the love of physical pleasures and the taste for well-being which are naturally prompted by equality [i.e., some social mobility and absence of a quasi-feudal class structure--LFC] should get such a hold on a democratic people that they should come to absorb it altogether, national mores would become so antipathetic to the military spirit that even the army, in spite of the professional interest leading soldiers to desire war, would come to love peace. Living in such a soft society, soldiers would come to think that slow but convenient and effortless promotion in peacetime was better than a more rapid rise in rank paid for by all the toils and privations of the battlefield. In such a mood, the army would take up arms without eagerness and use them without energy.... The remedy against such dangers does not lie in the army, but in the country. A democratic people which has kept its manly mores will always find courageous soldiers when it needs them.[1]

Today, this explicit equation of courage with 'manliness' would sound jarring to many people (though admittedly not to everyone). Which is an indication of, for lack of a better word, progress.

P.S. An interesting question is: when would this have started to sound jarring? Possibly not until quite late in the twentieth century. Note for instance that William James, writing almost a hundred years after Tocqueville, shared his general view of 'manliness' and concern about 'softness': "A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy.... Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built -- unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths fit only for contempt, and liable to invite attack whenever a center of crystallization for military-minded enterprise gets formed anywhere in their neighborhood." [2]

Afterthought (added Jan.2): "A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy": sounds like something that might have been said by a revolutionary who's just come to power and is trying to prepare the people for an extended period of hardship and adversity. Did Fidel ever read "The Moral Equivalent of War"?


1. A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. G. Lawrence, ed. J.P. Mayer (Anchor Books, 1969 [and subsequent editions]), p. 734.

2. "The Moral Equivalent of War" (1910), in William James: The Essential Writings, ed. B. W. Wilshire (State Univ. of N.Y. Press, 1984), pp. 357-58.


hank_F_M said...


Happy new year.

Today, this explicit equation of courage with 'manliness' would sound jarring to many people (though admittedly not to everyone). Which is an indication of, for lack of a better word, progress.

One thing that struck me about the post to which you referring was it’s gross ‘Gender Stereotyping,” though I must plead guilty of lacking the courage to say it directly in that context.

Courage is not a specially masculine characteristic, women have shown great courage throughout recorded history, and I assume before, probably in the same proportion as men, though circumstances influenced how it was expressed.

I think that courage should be seen a necessary (though certainly not exclusive) military virtue, the question of male and female is irrelevant.

I think part of Tocqueville’s point is that when courage stops being a characteristic in any society generally it is not good, and military spirit was an example albeit one where courage is especially important.

I served in the military with many female soldiers, what make them good indifferent or poor soldiers was the same characteristics that made male soldiers good indifferent or poor soldiers.

P.S. The author of the post in question is an excellent political scientist for whom I have great respect. I have learned much from her writing she writes primarily in that mode.

LFC said...

Happy new year to you as well.

Not to rehash the whole argument at Duck of Minerva, but I think you misunderstand, or at least you have mis-stated, L. Sjoberg's position. She does not think courage is a specifically masculine quality; she thinks, rather, that the US military, in expressing the value that it puts on courage, uses terms that suggest that it thinks that courage is masculine -- see the example given in her post of comparing a soldier's heroism to Rambo. (Rambo is not a gender-neutral referent, to put it mildly.) Now, you or I or anyone can disagree with her, and that's fine, but I think you owe it to her not to misstate her position.

The subsequent discussion at D of M about what a "post-masculine" military would look like suggests that some commenters find her argument raises more questions than it answers, but that's different from mis-stating it.

LFC said...

Clarification: the comparison to Rambo was apparently on an official Marine Corps website, linked in her post.

hank_F_M said...


Your post was about courage so I used the example. You are right she does not see courage as a specifically masculine quality. I went and reread her comment and the article she sited. I see you point though I think she assigned the personal nickname of an Afghan soldier a bit more value than warranted. "Rambo" is not usually a compliment - courage sans commonsense. We do not know why his friends bestowed it.

In her comments to me she stated What a "military" is was constructed by men, for men, in service of how men were interested in solving problems (and sometimes making them), and in a way that glorifies masculinity. Therefore there is nothing "specifically military" “before considering gender issues‘ What I did not really like the a prori filtering (forcing) and qualifing everything through an ideological perspective when other good explanations are available for discussion. With a little less filter she makes a good presentation of her perspective to the discussion, as you said there are more questions than answers.

LFC said...

OK. I think we can probably find some common ground on the "less filter". I am not in 100% agreement w everything she writes by any means (and had left a comment there myself).