“Where have all the soldiers gone?” asked American historian James J. Sheehan, observing the steady demilitarization of European states and societies after the Cold War. Following mass-scale reduction and professionalization of the armed forces and the suspension of conscription in post-1989 Central Europe, it gradually became easier to meet a tourist than a soldier, and societal interest in military matters was winding down as liberal Europeanization was expanding its reach. Today, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, small arms sales in Central Europe are rising, more citizens are looking to join paramilitary organizations, and uniformed people are seen virtually everywhere: from borders and airports through hospitals and nursing homes, all the way to local streets and production plants. But rather than increasing our collective resilience to future crises, this omnipresence of the military may be serving as a prosthesis of the state, working to secure and patch up the broken and increasingly vulnerable neoliberal status quo. Now, more than ever, this crisis is pushing us to decide which of these two routes we want to take.
How Covid-19 became war and the military became everything
Soon after countries in Central Europe went into lockdown, several political leaders swiftly turned to militarized rhetoric for mobilizing social solidarity and justifying radical measures. “Let’s go to battle!” – taking office amidst the outbreak of the pandemic, Slovak PM Igor Matovic cheered himself for the tasks ahead. Speaking to the media, the Polish Minister of Health Łukasz Szumowski justified new restrictions to the public by saying that “the role of the minister of health during an epidemic resembles the role of the commander in chief during war.” Writing the current crisis into his broader anti-migrant rhetoric, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán stated how the country is now fighting a “two-front war” against the combined forces of migration and coronavirus.
War metaphors notwithstanding, politicians and policy makers all across the region are increasingly looking towards the army and state-led paramilitary forces for crisis solutions and manpower. Virtually everywhere in Central Europe, soldiers are deployed alongside border guards to control traffic on borders and airports, and in some countries, they are also authorized to assist police officers in implementing domestic security and surveillance. Soldiers are also extensively used to support the overburdened healthcare system, providing logistics and transportation, as well as taking over some duties of healthcare workers such as collecting swabs for coronavirus testing. In Estonia and Czech Republic, the military built field mini-hospitals. In Poland, Territorial Defense soldiers are performing medical pre-screenings and supporting reduced staff at nursing homes. Meanwhile in Hungary, impromptu military task forces oversee more than a hundred companies to ensure steady supply of food and medicine in the country, along with taking command of fifty-one hospitals. In neighboring Slovakia, soldiers were deployed to quarantine Roma settlements. Across the region, paramilitary civil society organizations are also mobilizing for the cause, with Slovak Conscripts buying groceries for the elderly and Polish Combat Alert disinfecting public spaces.
Far from being a Central European specificity, coronavirus-related use of war rhetoric and deployment of armed forces can be observed globally. As argued by American legal scholar Rosa Brooks in her book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, as public services and institutions atrophied following neoliberal reforms, the U.S. military has come to function as a “one-stop shop” for policymakers, supplying them with a vast array of services from designing programs monitoring human trafficking, through fighting pirates and pandemics all the way to launching agricultural reforms. The result of this expansion of the military into other realms resembles a vicious circle – the U.S. military draws unprecedented resources out of civilian agencies, leaving them further incapable of addressing the challenges that are then passed on to the military to handle. A similar trend can be seen in Central Europe as well, as politicians are now turning to the military to fill in the voids left by healthcare and other public services depleted by decades of neoliberal governance.
Safety through militarism?
Armed forces in the CEE region differ from the U.S. in one critical way – they have largely shared the fate of other public institutions after 1989, gradually reduced in size and funding, with some of their functions subcontracted to private enterprises or the non-governmental sector for cost-effectiveness. In this context, several countries in Central Europe are increasingly looking towards bringing more citizens into defense through volunteer territorial components, shooting sports and paramilitary civil society. In other words, they wish to bolster state-led societal militarism as an all-purpose solution to various non-military problems from disinformation and radicalization, through natural disasters, all the way to healthcare shortages. These efforts are so far most pronounced in NATO’s Eastern Flank countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. At the same time, political leaders in other countries could soon learn from this playbook, with the new Slovak government already announcing plans to implement a comprehensive system of population preparation for state defense.
Given the state of our chronically underfunded public services and the inability of our minimal states to effectively manage risks for their citizens, it is perhaps unsurprising that a growing number of people seem enchanted by militarized solutions. In Poland, a new survey commissioned by the Ministry of Defense amidst the Coronavirus pandemic shows an overwhelming majority of the public backing military deployment in domestic security and surveillance. In fact, only twenty percent disagree with the statement that “seeing soldiers in public spaces would positively affect their sense of security”. In Lithuania, the opposition even called for the military to take over crisis management for greater effectiveness, an exceptional move that would challenge the existing constitutional order. Each of the recent crises of the last half decade – the Ukraine war, the Refugee Crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic – has exposed a multitude of different structural weaknesses of our minimal states. Journalists and researchers working on the ground have seen a growing support for militarized solutions among certain cohorts of the population. Today, in Czech Republic and Hungary, gun shop owners are reporting a growing demand for small arms and weapons that do not require a license. In Poland, where this growing grassroots desire for security and an effective state has recently been tunneled into state-led paramilitarism, the newly-founded Territorial Defense Forces recorded an increased number of prospective volunteers amidst the pandemic.
Shooting ourselves in the foot
Approaching Covid-19 with militarized means lures both policymakers and citizens in the region with the promise of a swift and effective response at a time of a crisis, one that will mobilize military effort to save more lives and uphold the legitimacy of our ineffective state institutions. But despite this wide-scale appeal of military solutions to problems of collective wellbeing and safety, there are significant trade offs.
Feminist analysts and critical military/security scholars have long warned about the dangers of militarizing security, arguing that it gravely limits both our understanding of what it means to be secure, and a pool of possible solutions to its deficits. As they argued, designating something as a national security issue pushes it outside the realm of ‘normal’ politics, and into the hands of the defense establishment: its means, modes of operation and solutions. Moreover, militarized states of emergency also tend to create a fertile ground for institutionalizing undemocratic measures. We were recently reminded of that by the decision of the Polish government to put into legislative review an anti-abortion bill proposal amidst the Coronavirus lockdown, as well as the Hungarian government’s adoption of an Enabling Bill authorizing the Prime Minister to rule by decree without time limits. As Naomi Klein has shown, defining something as an existential threat moves it outside the realm of politics and into a state of emergency, allowing for radical objectives to be pushed through without popular deliberation. In the last thirty years of neoliberal hegemony in our region and beyond, these measures often involved drawing resources from the fiscal into the financial realm, dismantling social security and public services that are not only crucial for collective wellbeing and stability, but also critical for achieving gender equality.
Feminist thinkers such as Cynthia Enloe have also convincingly highlighted how militarized rhetoric tends to rely on the metaphors of battle front and home front that greatly impact how we perceive and remunerate different activities and professions. Today, in Poland, medical staff are generously clapped for by the economic and cultural elites and addressed by politicians as frontline heroes heroically fighting the virus. Meanwhile care workers, retail and postal employees – and even parents homeschooling their children – are framed as home front heroes doing their share in these trying times. However, because many of these health care and service jobs themselves are seen as feminine, and the majority of those essential workers are women, the valuing of their effort has been purely symbolic. In fact, the post Covid-19 economic recovery plan in Poland granted the healthcare system ten times less funds than those directed towards banks and the private business sector. Rather than translating into systemic investments (such as wage raises and protection of workers in essential services), the warlike metaphors of heroism have served as a means to place ever higher demands for underpaid worker’s sacrifice for the ‘common good’.
Last but not least, the modus operandi of a militarized emergency mindset is to see the world in terms of easily identifiable threats to be tackled effectively. In a crisis, there is no time to ponder about root causes of the imminent threat or to ask meta-questions – problematize the means and concepts used to tackle it, or analyze their long-term social consequences. Unfortunately, having such a tunnel vision will ultimately bolster more problems than it was meant to tackle. For instance, the military we rely on for a significant part of the effort to contain the pandemic is not more resilient to it than the rest of the society, and can then increase the spreading of the virus while it is used for internal purposes. As one research fellow at the Royal United Forces Institute observed, “if the military is widely employed then about 20 percent of them will have it (…) and if they start to deploy the military out to sites, they will have to use testing to ensure that they are not spreading the virus.” Moreover, the volunteer territorial troops that are called on to perform medical functions during a crisis are not taken from some magical bottomless reserve – they often are the very nurses and paramedics that our healthcare system has a shortage of.
Finally, relying on the military to come and save the day makes it harder for us to confront the reality of the state of our civilian institutions. With this logic, Hungary has sent the military to take control of hospitals to manage the healthcare response to the Covid-19 crisis, and Poland has deployed a number of Territorial Defense units to support crumbling and understaffed nursing homes. Military management will neither replenish the underfunded and feminized healthcare system nor stop young medical practitioners from emigrating to Western Europe in search for a better life for themselves and their families. While this military prosthesis might be a necessary short-term emergency answer for the current situation, an overreliance on the military may have a paradoxical social effect in the long run. By temporarily patching up holes in our depleted public institutions, it may allow our governments to step out of the crisis and continue business as usual without social pressure for radical reforms that are needed.
Building radical resilience
A serious conversation about the desired role of military actors and measures in our societies is all the more important today, as we are not only entering a period of recession that some claim will be worse than the 2008 Financial Crisis, but also moving fast towards the tipping point of the ecological crisis which will further exacerbate mass migration to Europe. In this context, the doomsday scenario of a ‘war of all against all’ that many paramilitarists have been preparing for no longer seems like just a dark, twisted fantasy. Yet rather than boosting the military arm of our brittle societies in order to help us return to the dysfunctional business as usual after each subsequent crisis, a possibility still exists to shift gears to plot a new trajectory which would enable our societies to be radically resilient to crises such as this in the coming future.
The concept of resilience is now at the forefront of policy debates and transnational activism. Why the term came to fame so quickly in these trying times is because of its reactionary nature. When it is used by both the powerful NGO and security sectors, it usually denotes the ability of societies to resist and recover from crises in a timely and effective manner, allowing a ‘bounce back’ to the status quo. Against this background, radical resilience advocated here would entail making our societies less prone to crises in the first place by addressing the very root causes of the vulnerabilities of the current neoliberal system. Rather than deploying (para)military units to put the fire out of our burning forests, to tame social unrest, and to patch up our crumbling hospitals, we can begin transforming our societies towards radical resilience. Thanks to decades of feminist, ecological and socialist advocacy, we know a great deal about the steps that need to be taken: ensure our societies function within the limits of our ecosystem, develop a care economy, prioritize sustainability above incessant growth, and place solidarity above profit. After WWII, Western European states built civilianized states and societies by providing security, wellbeing and cohesion through robust social programs and universal public services. Today in Central Europe, an equally radical transformation of our states and economy is needed to build genuine security and not its military prosthesis.
Weronika Grzebalska is a sociologist and independent analyst whose work focuses on militarism, security, right-wing politics, and gender in Central Europe. She is about to defend her PhD on post-1989 paramilitary organizing in Poland at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Currently, she is a Rethink.CEE Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, working on the gendered implications of changing national defense policy and civil-military relations in post-2014 Central Europe. She also lectures on military issues at the American Studies Center and the Gender Studies program in Warsaw. In the past, she was a fellow at the Trajectories of Change Program of the ZEIT-Stiftung, a Kosciuszko Foundation fellow at Clark University (United States), member of the FEPS Young Academics Network, and a president of the Polish Gender Studies Association.
Cover image: Szabolcs KissPál