"We're here to preserve democracy, not practice it."
- Crimson Tide

The Authoritarian Nature of Traditional Militaries

Traditional militaries have one person in charge of the whole thing, whether it's a commander in chief or a general that has decided to rebel (and take his troops with him against the government). The person at the top issues orders to his underlings, who then issue them to their underlings, and so on down the chain of command. In other words, it's a dictatorship.

The Network of Anarchists

How would an anarchist military work? (This is assuming they need a military in order to fight for some common cause, such as against capitalist / authoritarian invaders.) Instead of a general who decides on a strategy / tactic and then forcing everyone else to obey, the anarchist army works more like a network: there would be strategists everywhere in the network (basically anybody who feels she has something worthwhile to contribute) - each supplying their own tactics - some may be very similar, some not. There wouldn't be a chain of command - instead, each anarchist just thinks for himself, decides which tactic is the best to follow, and acts accordingly.

Action Within Free Societies

Human beings have evolved brains (or "were created with brains", if you prefer) so that each can think for himself - taken at the level of a society, it is similar to massive parallel processing. In a way, it is similar to how you decide to vote on various things - there's nobody in the chain of command ordering you to vote for this or that (and punishing you if you disobey). You judge for yourself the relative merits of something and then act based on your own thoughts. However, mere voting is a bit different from the "direct action" described above. For the voter, their actions end after the vote. For the anarchist deciding on the merits of a military tactic, her action would be based on the military tactic she believes to be most well thought out. Perhaps she will consult with her peers about the relative merits of any given tactic, perhaps she will believe she already has enough information to act and all she needs to do is contact the people who agree, so they can help each other carry out the strategy against their common foe.

Of course, like anything else, if she finds that she is alone in the tactic she chooses and can't accomplish it without the help of others, she has no right to force others to follow her - she will either have to do nothing, or select an alternate tactic that does have enough supporters to be effective.

Most militaries punish soldiers for being AWOL and for insubordination. If soldiers in a "traditional" military were free to voluntarily choose to disobey their commanders, then it would be much more like an anarchist or democratic one than an authoritarian one. The more punishments there are for disobedience within a military, the more the claim that it is a voluntary military is merely an illusion.

The Effectiveness of Decentralized Forces

There will always be anecdotal evidence of military defeats, successful or failed insurgencies, how one major military power lost one guerrilla war or another to a bunch of "ragtag jungle fighters". However, anecdotal evidence differs from scientific evidence because it can not take into account all the variables. For example, did all sides have the same number of fighters and equipment and only differed in organizational structure? Perhaps one side is still waiting to hear back from their higher ups about what to do (while unknown to them, the "head of the snake" has already been killed), while the other side has already made a decision by themselves. Perhaps the one side is demoralized by "stop loss" (perhaps to the point of fragging superiors) or being forced to join the military because they have no other job prospects, and thus is at a disadvantage - would that be considered a weakness of the military structure or an "external" weakness?

The Use of the Military on the Domestic Population

In a country, the people may vote for the head of state, who then appoints the military heads. However, you come down to a few single points of weakness - all you need to do is corrupt, blackmail, or otherwise compromise the head of state or general, and you endanger the entire country (as various military regimes around the world have illustrated). If all power didn't rest with a single authority, but were dispersed across the population, then you don't have single points of weakness - it is much less likely that anybody is going to choose to oppress himself.

Collective and Individual Morality

As a leftist, I'm often criticized for favoring the "good of the collective" over the "rights of the individual" when I call for employers to share more of their revenues with the employees who are actually doing the work, and who may often have their lives put at risk due to inadequate health care. If employees assume democratic control of a company, is the employer's life at risk? If the employer's life is at risk, should I draw a line between what is and what isn't acceptable behavior when balancing the "good of the collective" and the "rights of the individual"? If I don't draw a line at the point of the individual losing his life, then what line can you draw?

This is the question posed when the collective army orders individual soldiers to sacrifice their lives. If your collective has to force its people to lose their lives or otherwise face punishment, then is your society worth fighting for at all?

Related Nodes:
Anarchy is Order
decentralized democracy
Rear Echelon Mother Fucker

Discussion thread regarding this node.

There's a logical fallacy here. That is the assumption that the hierarchy of a military is necessarily based on force. That's incorrect. The most successful militaries rely, in fact, on those at all levels of the organization voluntarily submitting to the instructions of the hierarchy. Militaries are one of the most Darwinian organizational entities out there, at least so long as there is war; unlike many other organizations, they are in fact selected via testing to destruction quite often throughout history.

Anecdotal reporting on the efficacy and survivability of an 'anarchist military' can be found in George Orwell's book "Homage to Catalonia" in which he relates many of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was, at the time, a volunteer in the Republican (Not Communist - thanks Albert Herring!) armed forces - which, if you read the book, seem to operate very similarly to the system gate describes above. Operational objectives are disseminated through the ranks, however the soldiers approach their task with a much 'flatter' attitude to organization. Tactics, organization, logistics, war aims, objectives are all discussed among the various members of this military.

They got slaughtered.

I would venture the opinion that any anarchist group which attempts to operate as a military using these principles will find itself severely outclassed in the arena of high-intensity combat. Time and time again, the value of reaction time or acting time for organizations in combat has shown itself to be a deciding factor, with the organization which is able to act more quickly and with more uniformity of purpose defeating its opponents.

While an anarchist mindset can be said to prevail among various insurgencies throughout historical and present combat, the structure of these insurgencies makes it difficult to apply the term 'military' to them. The definition of 'military' according to our own beloved Webby reads: "Of or pertaining to soldiers, to arms, or to war; belonging to, engaged in, or appropriate to, the affairs of war." To continue the chain, the definition of 'soldier' reads: "One who is engaged in military service as an officer or a private; one who serves in an army; one of an organized body of combatants." Soldier, furthermore, is derived from the Latin soldarius which means 'one having pay.' The word itself comes from the name of Roman coin, the 'solidus', with the implication that a soldier is one who 'receives coin' for his service; who is a paid combatant.

This is distinctly different from combatants who fight purely for conviction outside a formal organization - which is what the above 'anarchist military' sounds like. As such, there is also a semantic flaw in discussing an 'anarchist army.'

Once upon a time in the real world, I was a tank driver. Several times during my three years of active duty, my company was stationed at a forward defense post on a border that had been cold for almost two decades, but had in the past been the setting for some of the most fabled tank battles in the history of modern warfare.

Previous wars had taught us that if the enemy decided to mount an invasion, they would need to be stopped before they reached the north-south line of hills to the east of our post. The hills being mostly too rough for vehicles to pass, any invasion force would have to come through them at certain choke points. If they got past the hills, they would enter a region that had a thousand hiding spots, nearly impossible to control. And if they got their artillery into good spots in that area, they could just sit there and bombard our population until we gave up or died. This was the high ground. If they pushed us out of this area, it would take most of our reserve forces to reclaim it, and in the current scenario those forces were likely to be extremely busy dying somewhere else.

Of course, the enemy knew all this, and they would most likely attempt to take control of the hills we were aimed at before their tanks started rolling. They would start by bombing our post and the western approach to the hills, while they landed commandos with anti-tank weapons on the hills by helicopter and moved their tanks up there as quickly as possible.

My job was to drive a tank that I could barely see out of from a post that was expected to be under heavy bombardment up to a hill that the enemy would be concentrating all of its firepower on. My tank's job was to defend the hill against commando forces AND hold off the invading armor for as long as it could so that the rest of the company could get into position. My company's job was to buy time for the rest of our brigade, currently scattered throughout the area, to get their tanks ready to fight and move out to wherever the enemy was by that time. Our brigade's job was to analyze the enemy's movements, figure out where they were going, and keep them from going there for long enough to get the reserves mobilized.

Getting the reserves to their mobilization bases and getting their tanks out of shrink wrap would take several hours at the very least. Our brigade would have to hold the area for five hours, minimum, before we could expect any kind of reinforcement. As a member of the active "ready platoon" in the forward defense post I'm talking about, I slept in my fire suit and was supposed to be up and running in thirty seconds, buttoned up in my tank with the engine running in two minutes, and on the hill within fifteen minutes.

Anybody who thinks a platoon of three MBTs can actually survive four hours and forty five minutes of continuous head-on, close range armor combat while holding a hill whose coordinates are preprogrammed into the enemy's artillery computers, while gunships and anti-tank infantry squads swarm all around them, needs to have their head checked. The scenario wasn't "win this for us, kids". It was more like "try not to die too quickly."

As soldiers in a regular army that worked by traditional chain of command, my crewmates and I accepted that this was our job for the duration of our posting. It was part of a grand strategy that analysts working at the division level and above had decided was the best and only way for us to deal with an invasion scenario. The reality of war meant that someone - a lot of someones, actually - had to die to hold the enemy back, and the first dead someones were going to be me and my crew.

I'm wondering, as a member of an "anarchist army", what's my motivation for going up that hill when I know without a doubt that I will be killed?

Assuming I do want to, how can I do it? A tank driver can't drive the tank effectively in combat without guidance from the tank's commander. My field of view inside that tank is restricted to narrow fields seen through three episcopes in the hull of the tank. I can't see anything to the sides or the rear of the tank. I don't know where my allies are, I don't see enemies who may be about to fire on us, I don't know if there is a gaping abyss right next to the tank.

The gunner in the tank has an even more limited field of view. He's looking through some very expensive optics at a field just wide enough to help him find the weak spots on an enemy three meters wide at a range of two thousand meters. He can't find his own targets. It's the commander's job to find the targets for him, traversing the turret to approximately the right angle so the gunner can do the fine tuning.

The loader in the tank, buried inside the turret somewhere behind me, can't see a damn thing, and doesn't even know what kind of ammunition to load or what to do until the commander tells him "load HEAT" or "lower antennas" or "put a grenade behind us before that infantry squad climbs up our ass".

The commander can't do any of these things by himself. He's too busy doing his own job, which is listening to the radio, watching everything outside the tank, coordinating with friendly forces and giving us orders.

Furthermore, our tank can't work by itself. A lone tank can't defend itself properly against infantry at close quarters, and anti-tank weapons can take out a tank from a thousand meters or more if they get it from the right angle. We rely on other tanks or infantry forces to cover us and help us find enemies. We know that the other tanks will be there to cover us because we are a disciplined unit (see PostScript), and have spent months training to work together following orders from above. Of course, we also train to fight on our own, just like we train to fight the tank with one or more crew members down, but we spend most of our careers praying that we won't have to make use of that training because in reality, a tank on its own in combat is a sitting duck, and a tank with two crewmen dead is like a man missing an arm and a leg.

This is just a platoon of tanks we're talking about. It's twelve soldiers who rely on the chain of command to become an effective fighting unit. What happens when the anarchist army tries to field an aircraft carrier and its attendant fleet, or a division-sized force that combines armor, infantry and artillery, along with the required medical, communications and other support groups? Setting combat effectiveness aside for the moment, how do you even manage the logistics for such a battle group without a chain of command?

The writeup above talks about lone soldiers acting on their own when they have enough information to act, but it's very dangerous for a soldier in the field to assume s/he has all the information s/he needs. I've seen a tank slip over the edge of a trench, flipping the tank upside down, destroying the main gun and injuring the loader and gunner, because the driver didn't see how close he was to the trench. On several other occasions, I've driven sixty tons of steel over serpentine mountain passes almost completely blind, steering according to my commander's orders. This is how we fight wars.

Maybe I could do this without following orders, by "consulting with my peers about the relative merits of any given tactic" - except if we took the time to do that, we'd be dead in minutes. A tank that spends more than forty seconds in a hull-down firing position is commiting suicide. A gunner who waits a second or two to debate which of two moving targets to shoot at will not hit either one.

Apparently, every anarchist soldier's every "action would be based on the military tactic she believes to be most well thought out." And what happens when two platoon leaders both pick the same hill to fire from, and neither one picks the next hill over to cover them from? What happens when a gunner is about to kill a target and the driver prematurely decides to hit the smoke and reverse away from the firing position? A cluster fuck is what happens. Six tanks try to drive up the same slope, getting in each other's way, and they all get shot out by the AT squad on the hill next door. A tank wastes a round and alerts the enemy to its presence, and the gunner gets extremely annoyed with the driver. In a real army, we avoid this by making sure the entire unit is moving as one, according to one strategy dictated at the appropriate command level. The chain of command, and the discipline to follow it instantly, are vital to this process. Unlike the Hollywood depiction of the military, soldiers can and do think independently, but following orders has to take precedence over independent thought. We spend half of our basic training learning to jump when a superior says frog, because the effectiveness of the entire army, and the lives of countless civilians, depend on our ability to respond to orders as quickly and accurately as possible.

The idea of an anarchist army is philosophically intriguing, and the science fiction writer who lives in my head has been busy trying to figure out how to make an anarchist army effective ever since I read the writeup above. But the old soldier who shares headroom with the SF writer pretty much hates the idea. Losing wars is no fun at all, and military history has proven the value of discipline again and again. There is a reason why every army in the world uses a strict chain of command, and why even terrorist groups follow a chain of command and train rigorously to fight together effectively.

The reason has nothing to do with politics and power structures. The reason is that it wins wars.


I'm not going to be able to respond to every criticism of this writeup or the military system it's about, but as I read the edits and additions that gate and kalen have made, it's obvious that there is a fundamental misunderstanding at work here. This is regarding my use of the word "discipline". It seems that when I say "military discipline" or describe disciplined actions, they (and perhaps many others) are thinking of corrective discipline, i.e. punishment.

Based on this, they think I'm saying that an army works because the soldiers are afraid of being punished if they disobey. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Take a look at Webster 1913's definitions of discipline. There are several overlapping definitions, including punishment. But when a soldier talks about discipline, s/he is talking about the first two definitions in Web1913. Specifically, "development of the faculties by instruction and exercise; training, whether physical, mental, or moral" and "Training to act in accordance with established rules; accustoming to systematic and regular action; drill." The other definitions do play into this, as punishments are used frequently in training a soldier. (And I absolutely won't get into a discussion of the ethics of this here, but some of my ideas about it are here.) But the end result of the training is what I'm referring to here, and that end result is not the fear of punishment, but the ability to act systematically and work together according to established rules.

In the example I gave above, I'm not driving up the hill to die because I'm afraid of being punished for disobedience. I'm driving up the hill because if I don't, we lose the war in the blink of an eye, and thousands of other people - including many of my comrades and the civilians I've sworn to protect - will die in my place.

Certainly a group of anarchists may feel the same sense of duty. But lacking the "development of the faculties by instruction and exercise" and the "accustoming to systematic and regular action", I doubt they'd get very far.

And regarding the SAS: since almost every SAS volunteer has already achieved the rank of corporal in the regular army, and given the extent and difficulty of SAS training, I seriously doubt that they have a "total lack of military discipline". I know that this is how the popular media portrays them, but from what I know of similar elite forces, I think they've simply trained long enough and hard enough to know when and how to break the rules. Their apparent lack of military discipline is a bit like James Joyce's apparent ignorance of proper English grammar.

Words are tricky beasts, aren't they? I mean, even a simple word that we all understand, like push, can mean advance or squeeze or tense certain muscles or political group or, simply, push-as-in-door.

It gets even trickier (and much, much sillier) when we insist on single meanings for complex, multipurpose words like anarchy, and all of the words made from that root, like anarchist.

One of the meanings of anarchy is, indeed, chaos. As in the opposite of order. But it would be a willfully ignorant (or irreparably stupid) person who assumed that what anarchists want, or what anarchism is about, was chaos. Kind of like the helpful husband in the joke who says "Push, darling!" and whose wife screams "Do you see any doors around here?!" In other words, while it may be effective ad hominem, it's just a joke to equate anarchism with chaos or disorder. This neatly dispenses with nearly 80% of the anecdotes-posing-as-intellectual-discussion that comprises the bulk of previous commentary here on the idea of an "anarchist army".

It is true, as the Oxford Companion to Philosophy puts it, that "there is no single defining position that all anarchists hold, and those considered anarchists at best share a certain family resemblance", which does make our quest for the anarchist army somewhat more difficult, but not insurmountably so. And while Wikipedia neatly summarizes as follows: "...some anarchist schools of thought differ fundamentally, supporting anything from extreme individualism to complete collectivism..." this divergence doesn't fundamentally alter the "family resemblance" the Oxford tome is talking about. Without getting too complicated, anarchists are basically agin' compulsion. Most commonly, this is an opposition to the compulsive powers aggregated by the state in all its various forms.

So an army that relies on a compulsory draft would not be an anarchist army. But of course most modern armies are volunteer armies -- professional soldiers who want to be there are obviously and provably better than cannon-fodder forced to fight -- and thus most modern armies are not by definition non-anarchist.

Likewise, there is nothing in anarchist philosophy which disallows hierarchy, so long as the hierarchy is not compulsory, and is agreed to by all. Anarchists of any stripe are not against specialization, which is all, at the end of the day, that the so-called military hierarchy is: strategy specialists co-ordinating the actions of the rifle specialists, supply specialists, artillery specialists, etc.

Very large groupings might prove a difficulty for an "anarchist" army, certainly the more individual-focused strains. Collectivist anarchism would have no such difficulty, but let's limit our notional "anarchist army" to small groups of like-minded volunteers just to be safe.

An implicit criticism of the anarchist army that's harder to shake is the idea that humans require the threat of punishment to be "good", or do things that the majority favours. This is harder to shake only in the sense that sizable majorities profess to actually believe this, usually stated in the form "if there was no God there would be no reason for anyone to be good". Pointing out the myriad counter-examples to this theory doesn't seem to have any dissuasive power: this is something that's simply believed. Likewise, elsewhere here we're treated to a version of this: if there was no military discipline (i.e. a regime of compulsory punitive punishment) people wouldn't be "good" (i.e. sacrifice themselves for the notional advancement of the army as a whole). Fortunately for the anarchist army, the specific military counter examples to this concept are simply too numerous to ignore or shrug off.

So what would an anarchist army look like? How effective would it be in combat?

Our limitations (as discussed above) are: volunteer, intelligent non-compulsory interaction between specialties, small groups, self-imposed discipline only.

Hey, wait a minute! That describes the SAS! Highly self-motivated volunteers, almost total lack of "military discipline", very robust interaction between specialties (including refusal of missions if individual squads feel they are planned on poor or incomplete intelligence), and, of course, utterly utterly lethal, and capable of taking on forces several times their physical manpower.

In case we get confused and try to limit words to one sense again, let me expand a little on "lack of military discipline". The SAS (and equivalent) certainly don't lack training in military disciplines like close-quarter combat, marksmanship, etc. But they do lack, and are famous for the lack of, the kind of spit-and-polish high-and-tight compulsory "discipline" that regular soldiers suffer under. Being able to perform all the "tasks of a soldier" to a high degree of proficiency requires no military discipline. It does, however, require a thoroughgoing knowledge of various disciplines that have traditionally been labeled "military". The fact that, in training, the SAS voluntarily accept tough discipline is neither an argument for, nor against, their "anarchy", but rather an argument which can be summarised with the old military catchphrase: "Train hard, fight easy."

And please don't take my word for the military effectiveness of such forces. Do a search for SAS or special forces. Even if just limited to conventional guerrilla warfare, the ability of exactly such forces to tie down, inflict asymmetric damage on, and eventually defeat "conventional" armies is well established.

One last point. Where would a notional anarchist army be deployed? Naturally, in defense of an anarchist society. And since one of the features of any anarchist society is that people are members because they want to be and are deeply, personally involved in the economic and political well-being of such a society, conventional notions of occupation, economic embargo, and military action against such societies simply don't apply. If war threatens, the entire society gets "behind" the soldier or citizen-soldier clade in such a way that a "conventional" state can only dream about.

To slightly paraphrase: if your society requires compulsion and brutal discipline for its "defense" then is it a society worth dying for? No soldier in any "anarchist army" would ever have that doubt.


It is possible to come up with a hypothetical tactical situation to defeat any theory of warfighting. Recently, for example, the manufacturers of the next-generation F-35 aircraft were dismayed to learn of a simulation where a swarm of 3rd generation fighter aircraft defeated a group of their highly advanced machines via the simple tactic of swarming the refueling tanker that is a key part of the F-35's air superiority capabilities.

Rather than point out that such a tactic would require suicidal dedication on the part of the enemy fighter pilots, the Pentagon and the manufacturers have chosen instead the time-honoured tactic of denying the validity of the simulation.

My point is that hypothetical battlegrounds with hypothetical force-balances which require the compulsory suicide of some fraction of the hypothetical "good guys" are obviously not the kind of situation where the New Model Anarchist Army excels. But why would an anarchist society choose to fight in that manner?

In fact, forget about anarchists, why would any sane society accept a geopolitical setup which required such compulsory sacrifices? For every hypothetical Fulda Gap there are, obviously, multiple winning tactical options which don't require compulsory suicidal "diversionary" tactics. And indeed if you read the history of the actual situation alluded to by DejaMorgana, many such tactical options were canvassed.

The fact that none of them were implemented says everything about how easy it was, having established compulsory suicide as a military "norm", to place forces in that configuration. But that's (clearly) an argument about society, not an argument about how wars should be fought, have been fought, and might be won.

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