Stephen Chan: Political thought on the just rebel­lion, part 7. The man on horse­back. This is a cel­e­brat­ed phrase, the man on horse­back.” It was in fact invent­ed by the German philoso­pher Hegel. Hegel was a young lec­tur­er at a German uni­ver­si­ty at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. And the French armies were lay­ing siege to his city and he had to evac­u­ate. And he wrote to his friends after­wards, say­ing, I have seen the future. The future comes on horse­back.” Meaning the con­quer­ing armies of Napoleon. Meaning the con­quer­ing armies of Napoleon that by means of mil­i­tary force were bring­ing new con­sti­tu­tion­al orders to Europe, bring­ing with these new con­sti­tu­tion­al orders echoes of the val­ues of the French Revolution. Values to do with the equal­i­ty of all humanity.

This was some­thing new in a Europe that was mod­ern­iz­ing but at the same time had huge dis­crep­an­cies in terms of the lev­els of cit­i­zen­ship, the lev­els of obe­di­ence owed to sov­er­eigns, the lev­els of sub­servience that peo­ple in the low­er class­es had to give to sov­er­eigns. The idea of an equal­i­ty brought by mil­i­tary con­quest, this was very very much sum­ma­rized in Hegel’s phrase of the future on horse­back. The man on horse­back, the mil­i­tary con­queror who brings new con­sti­tu­tion­al order. 

The Man on Horseback became the title of Samuel Finer’s famous book about mil­i­tary coups. And to this day that book remains the sem­i­nal text for how we study what is called civ­il mil­i­tary rela­tions. But there’s a fun­da­men­tal dif­fi­cul­ty with using Samuel Finer’s book, and that is it’s A, a very very old book; B, it came out before most African coun­tries achieved inde­pen­dence, or were very ear­ly into the years of inde­pen­dence; and C, almost all of the case exam­ples that Finer used were drawn from Latin American countries.

The idea of the banana repub­lic mil­i­tary ruler, the banana repub­lic gen­er­al, was an image that took root. It was trans­ferred very very read­i­ly to Africa, for instance, where the arche­type of the banana repub­lic buf­foon dic­ta­tor in mil­i­tary uni­form became Idi Amin of Uganda, it became Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic, which he called the Central African Empire.

But when we look more objec­tive­ly at the phe­nom­e­non of mil­i­tary rule, it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter to start in terms of Europe and its own recent his­to­ry. If you look back to just the 1960s, then you will see that Portugal, Spain, Greece had long peri­ods of mil­i­tary rule. These were regard­ed as peri­ods of right-wing total­i­tar­i­an mil­i­tary rule, times of great sup­pres­sion of free­doms, times when polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion was impos­si­ble if it stood against the order imposed by the mil­i­tary rulers.

This seems like a dark hour for Europe, but in fact it was a very very recent hour. And of course the inter­est­ing thing is that Portugal was able to be freed of some of the mil­i­tary yoke in the 1970s pre­cise­ly because of a mil­i­tary coup against a mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment, but in this case orga­nized by younger offi­cers who had new ideas more in accord with the moder­ni­ty of their day. And it was because of their actions that Portugal began to decol­o­nize in Africa, that Portugal who up to that point in time was regard­ed as the sick coun­try of Europe began to mod­ern­ize and devel­op to the coun­try that it is today.

And that was accom­pa­nied by a moment of mil­i­tary ide­al­ism. So, looked at from that per­spec­tive there’s more than one demeanor that could be asso­ci­at­ed with mil­i­tary rule. And in fact when you look at great mod­ern­iz­ing moments in the 20th cen­tu­ry, you look at the move­ment of the free offi­cers in Egypt led by Nasser, at a stroke began the process of mod­ern­iz­ing the coun­try. When you look at what hap­pened in Turkey, the upris­ing led by Atatürk at a stroke began the mod­ern­iza­tion, the devel­op­ment, and the sec­u­lar­iza­tion of Turkey. Of course you had a some­what less for­tu­nate demeanor of this kind of phe­nom­e­non in places like Iraq and Syria. But there is more than one way of look­ing at mil­i­tary rule. 

But why is it so com­mon, whether of a right-wing or left-wing, whether of a pro­gres­sive or repres­sive nature, why is mil­i­tary rule so com­mon in almost every sin­gle part of the world? You have dif­fer­ent kinds of mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment. You could say the People’s Republic of China was born of mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment because of mil­i­tary con­quest in the great civ­il war that end­ed in 1949. And you could cer­tain­ly say that gov­ern­ments in Africa today such as in Zimbabwe were the prod­uct of mil­i­tary vic­to­ry in strug­gles for lib­er­a­tion. Not every­thing that’s come out of those strug­gles has been ben­e­fi­cial, but a mixed record at very best, some of which has been very very good. 

But the ques­tion that most vex­es com­men­ta­tors when they look at civil/military rela­tions is not the moment of lib­er­a­tion when an armed strug­gle was per­haps jus­ti­fied, it is what hap­pens when in what seems like a sta­ble civil­ian regime of long stand­ing, the army ris­es up. And this is where the­o­rists have been very very vexed as to how best to account for this phe­nom­e­non. People have writ­ten very very large tracts of very often unhelp­ful work to do with what they regard as a cer­tain mil­i­tary con­di­tion. Someone like Samuel Huntington wrote about weak­ness in soci­ety on the civil­ian side of things, and this weak­ness auto­mat­i­cal­ly draws in the strength of orga­ni­za­tion of the mil­i­tary. The weak­ness of gov­ern­ment cre­ates a vac­u­um, which the mil­i­tary with its strength, fills.

This is a very very neat account, it’s a very sym­met­ri­cal account, it is an account which could only have been writ­ten by a North American aca­d­e­m­ic. Because of course what hap­pens in soci­eties where both the civil­ian gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary are week insti­tu­tions? Where the mil­i­tary is weak­ly orga­nized and it’s only advan­tage over the civil­ian admin­is­tra­tion is that the mil­i­tary has got weapons? So by force of arms they can achieve a takeover of gov­ern­ment, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly bring any fur­ther strength to that gov­ern­ment and to its prospects of run­ning the coun­try for the bet­ter­ment of its citizens. 

All the same, we are look­ing now at an era where mil­i­tary gov­ern­ments are on the wane. They’re dis­ap­proved in Africa—the African Union no longer tol­er­ates them, or tries its best not to tol­er­ate them. You can­not be a mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment and attain mem­ber­ship of the Commonwealth, for instance. You have to leave if you’re very very much involved in tak­ing over the gov­ern­ment by mil­i­tary means.

But mil­i­tary strong­men remain very firm­ly in the back­ground of many coun­tries. Probably the prime exam­ple of that as we speak at this moment in time is what’s hap­pen­ing in Burma. Even should there be vic­to­ry announced for Aung San Suu Kyi and her par­ty after so many years of strug­gle, even if it’s declared that she has won the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of seats, even so, by right the mil­i­tary will hold 25% of the seats in the Burmese—or the Myanmar—parliament. They will there­fore move from being the pow­er on the throne to the pow­er behind the throne. 

Or, you can have the exam­ple, as in Egypt, of President Sisi. The gen­er­al takes off his uni­form. The gen­er­al puts on civil­ian dress. The gen­er­al ger­ry­man­ders an elec­tion, declares that he is the pres­i­dent by nor­mal process­es, but has the army in reserve. 

The era of naked mil­i­tary gov­ern­ments may have passed. The era of mil­i­tary fig­ures, with mil­i­tary might, hold­ing pow­er in reserve, that era is still very very firm­ly with us today.

Further Reference

Course infor­ma­tion