Would it make sense for a society to maintain a strong military in the absence of a major adversary, given certain aspects of its history? I am writing about a future in which humanity has a very militaristic structure with a strong military presence, but (until the primary events of the story) there is no comparable force that could oppose them. There are pirate leagues and independent colonies, but they are not quite a significant threat to warrant heavy militarization.

Previous to society's current state Earth was made uninhabitable by a catastrophe that ended the fourth world war. Most of humanity united out of a need to survive in scattered colonies around the solar system. The fact that all factions were in a military stance at the time and military rationing allowed for improved survival make sense for starting as a militaristic society.

That said, the story is suppose to take place about 200 years later when humanity has advanced into a limited interstellar capacity. It has recently been outed that the government became aware of an alien race similarly, but slightly less, advanced than us who as of yet seems to be unaware of us. Obviously the discovery of the aliens would warrant militarization, but would the militarization have survived enough through 2 centuries of peace for nobody to think anything different?

I am just not sure if there are any real history examples that could support it or would I lose the reader right away with the simple question of why is the military still so important.

EDIT: There is another question that is similar to mine, however it differs in that my society has no known counterparts. No other nations that could possibly rise up. Most of that questions answers seemed to revolve around preparation for known possible threats from other known societies. Mine is a society where, until the events of the story, they had no credible threats.

That said I think I have gotten sufficient answers to my question. Thanks all!

  • $\begingroup$ North Korea? It's too insignificant to have actual enemies, sort of like one of those irritating little dogs that yap a lot, but wouldn't even make one good bite for a normal dog. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 3:50
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Nineteen Eighty-Four $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 4:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf This is not a good example because North Korea perceives United States as a major adversary, while the question asks for no major adversary. $\endgroup$
    – Danijel
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 7:40
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I'm not a fan of the north-korean regime, but it has a clear adversary in South Korea, which they exchange fire from on a regular basis, and South Korea is backed by the mightiest military power in the world, who routinely qualifies North Korea as a threat to get rid off, and it's reknown to get rid off governments which it has a dislike for. As Kurt Kobain sang, "just because you're paranoid / not means they're not after you". $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 7:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Related: How can a planet-spanning empire keep their soldiers experienced without wars to fight? $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 8:58

9 Answers 9


Isn't the interstellar society itself the reason for the large military? A society spread out over interstellar distances in numerous colonies is going to experience social fragmentation naturally. Strong institutions are going to be needed to maintain unification in such a situation. A strong military that draws is recruits from all colonies and in turn polices all colonies would serve as a glue for such a society. The culture encouraged would be one where planets took great pride in the Military, and local governments would contribute significantly to its continual modernization. As with our own military / industrial complex, such would be a source of economic growth for star systems. While the military would serve the civil governments in these star systems, it would also have significant independent assets in each star system and would act as the guarantor of whatever civil rights are enjoyed by the citizens, including overthrowing local leaders when the military judges they have violated those rights and corrupted the judicial system in such a way as to make normal legal recourse impossible.

If the level of political intrigue I've suggested for the military is problematic to the story, you could instead adopt a mechanism used by others before and make voting citizenship in your interstellar society linked solely to military service. This would still make the military a social pillar as described above without embroiling military leaders in so much political intrigue as you can't vote until you are honorably discharged from the military.

  • $\begingroup$ I actually do have mandatory 2 year military service at 16 for citizenship, so this may fit very well. The heads of each military branch hold 2 of 9 seats in the ruling council as well. I had already started thinking along these lines, but I suppose I was just unsure. So thank you for re-affirming some of my ideas. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 13:20

Honestly the modern US military may be a good approximation...

The United States spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined.


As my dear old mother in her late 60's put it "I can't remember a time when we weren't at war with someone somewhere."

That's pretty much your answer right there.

You don't really need a capable enemy to justify a never ending militaristic buildup, you just need an enemy.

Whether it be a cold war, a drug war, or a war on terrorism. It's pretty easy to frighten a populace enough to get them to go along with a seemingly unlimited military budget.

  • $\begingroup$ I think that's the key. Having an overpowered military is inefficient. From an efficiency perspective you want just barely enough military spending to survive whatever life throws at you. However, if efficiency is not your primary concern, it's very easy to justify a large military, even without a comparable enemy. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 1:00
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Totally agree, so long as you have some group somewhere potentially capable of throwing stones in your direction even if you have to go there and get within their range for them to do so you have enough of an enemy to spend billions on military. By selling them guns you not only make some money, but make your potential enemy slightly more credible. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 2:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The problem is that when you're the US, you have lots of people wanting to be your enemy. Nazis, Communists, Islamists, &c. I think all of us would have been happy if they'd just given up their dreams of world domination, but they don't, And unfortuantely, the US taxpayer winds up shouldering the load for all those other countries. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 3:53
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I doubt that is accurate. Nazis, Islamists, couldn't care less about America; they only started to denounce America after American involvement in what they considered their sphere of influence. Not because they inherently wanted a fight with America or because it is American. If Japan wasn't Germany's ally, if America didn't Lend-Lease with Britain-USSR? Would Germany have gone to war with America? No. If America wasn't involved in the Middle East, would Islamists have targeted them? No. Both were real politik. They might ask the inverse. Why does America want to fight us? $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 9:08
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Guran Which is ironic because the expectation is unrealistic, and getting involved in other's conflicts creates new enemies. $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 9:56

Close parallel: Japan 1600-1868

The Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan (1600-1868) is very close to what the question describes: Military tradition retained for two centuries of peace, followed by the arrival of an external force which instigates change.

The Shogunate began in 1600 after a period of civil war. For reasons of tradition and to maintain order among the upper classes, the Tokugawa Shoguns retained the intensely militaristic culture of the samurai.

During this period, Japan was internally at peace; it had no external enemies, in fact almost no contact with the outside world except through the treaty port at Nagasaki; and the samurai trained to fight using swords, which would have been of little use against a contemporary army with gunpowder weapons.

This anachronistic military culture endured for some 268 years, until the arrival of an American fleet persuaded the emperor Meiji that it was time to modernise. Japan's militaristic tradition was very much intact; it adapted to new technology and began a period of aggressive external conquest, culminating in the Second World War.

I would strongly recommend reading more about the history of the period for inspiration. In addition to non-fiction works, the novels Shogun and Gai-Jin by James Clavell respectively cover the beginning and end of the Shogunate; and the recent film Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, shows the era from the perspective of European missionaries.


The present-day United States provides something of an example in the form of the military-industrial complex. The US maintains an extensive array of military hardware, much of it developed decades ago in anticipation of possible long-term engagements with the armies of other advanced nations like the Soviet Union or China. Since the conflicts that the US has been involved in more recently have tended to be against smaller, more covert forces where equipment like tanks is less useful, the Pentagon has been requesting that the US reduce its stockpiles in those areas. However, because maintaining that equipment provides employment for various people, Congressmen have tended to oppose these efforts, fearing that they would put significant numbers of people in their districts out of work.

In some cases, the military hierarchy has become deeply entwined with the state government. Pakistan, for example, has a history of military coups that have given the army substantial influence in areas one might not expect. While these periods have only lasted for about a decade in that case (officially, anyway - I don't know enough about the details to say what life was actually like), it's certainly conceivable that such a situation could last longer and become self-sustaining.

Other cultural influences might also play a role. It's been argued that the use of armored cavalry in European warfare persisted longer than it "should have", because even though the development of weapons like the longbow had dramatically reduced the effectiveness of the armor, being a member of the armored cavalry was a prestigious position (all that armor is expensive, after all) and changing the structure of the army would have meant that a lot of powerful people would lose.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Since the mid-1990s, most major products used by the U.S. military (such as each kind of bomber, or heavy-duty radar amplifiers) have only had one or two American companies capable of making them. Congress reasonably worries that if purchases were stopped, the last manufacturers might go out of business, and their workforces would disperse. It is a lot harder, and takes a lot longer, to start up a war industry from scratch, than to scale up an existing industry. That "longer" time can be the difference between losing a major war, vs. surviving the war or using diplomacy to prevent the war. $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 5:04

Anticipation is the keyword.

You don't want to be overwhelmed by sudden rebellion, or attack with unknown technology. It might be alien hiding underground. Kraken awakened from its slumber. Whatever. You just don't want to be caught off guard.

The next possible reason is "show-off". I think this is similar to having a beautiful model to advertise your cosmetic products. If you are producing military equipments, how do you convince other countries to buy from you?

The last reason is very unlikely in real world, but can be an interesting plot point in a story. If you regard yourself as the "only hope of humanity" when an alien is attacking, you don't want to disappoint humanity. You want to teach them that at least we won't die without giving up a fight.


Large, complex nations require many institutions to remain stable. Else they grow into empires - or fracture back into kingdoms as their leadership waxes and wanes and their societies evolve. Military is just one of those institutions.

Generally, military spending rises when countries foresee risk of conflict, and falls when they do not. Maintaining a high level of military spending in the absence of a perceived threat requires a political reason for maintaining the force - a real, structural reason that remains after hysteria fades.

In the USA, for example, military spending decreased from 7.5% of GDP in 1988 to 4% in 2000, then rose again to the current 5.5%. The original structural reason for maintaining spending on an Army officer school was to train civil engineers to build canals and (later) railroads.

It's possible to maintain a large military with low expenses...but that usually means conscription, high turnover, and a resulting generally poorly-trained, poorly-equipped force.

One danger is that the militant society might (inadvertently or intentionally) create enemies to fight for purely internal political reasons. (Example: The 1982 Falklands War)

Another danger is the possibility that the mighty force may be turned against it's own people, overthrowing the political leadership (Example: Brazil, Libya, and many others), or fracture into civil war (South Sudan, Balkans).

Yet another danger is that the mighty force may be hollowed by corruption (South Vietnam, 1975), incompetence, political purges, deliberate subversion (USA, 1797), or trained extensively on forms of conflict that turn out to be obsolete or inappropriate (USA, 1898).


Obviously, maintaining a large, well-equipped army is expensive. To provide an alternative from the answers above, how about considering that a strong military force can also be used for several important, non-military purposes?

For example, Singapore, a small city-state whose foreign policy is to avoid conflict if at all possible, has an army which some might feel is disproportionately large compared to its "military" needs. However, the army is kept busy with peace-keeping operations, disaster relief, and other civilian-related operations.

In your example, the military force could actually be a large, well-disciplined organization that does labour-intensive work in peacetime (thinking of construction for some reason), which can be mobilized at a moment's notice. That alternative purpose could be justification enough to keep them around.


There is no reason why a lack of an external enemy should be considered an issue.

This question has been answered before, by people much more eloquent than me. Most famously, by George Orwell in '1984'. (the book, not the year)

The book introduces three superpowers, locked in an unending war of ever shifting alliances, betrayals and jostling for advantage.

While the book never clarifies exactly how deep the lie runs, what is certain is that none of the three countries would ever want to win the war.

The objectives of the war are:

Use up 'excess resources' - a starving population is a compliant population, and the war in 1984 kept society from becoming wealthy enough to escape poverty. You should stop reading George Orwell's answer here, and start reading Karl Marx's, as he explains this point best. When Russia had its Communist revolution, it was an educated 'intelligentsia' that revolted, not the peasantry. Marx expected the UK and similar countries to have Communist revolutions, not Russia. He argued that this was because increased industrialisation and education were better formentors of rebellion than abject poverty.

Instill fear then offer protection - while George Orwell also provides an excellent example of this one, we can also see this in virtually all modern societies. Kim Jong Un knows that threats he makes to the USA are ignored by the USA, but that's fine, the target audience is his own population. You can also see many governments in the West like to crack down on terrorism/immigration, drop bombs, or invade other countries. They do this primarily as domestic policy - suring up votes, making any dissent seem like 'letting the enemy win', distracting from scandals. A fearful population sticks to the status quo and willingly hands away their rights.

Terrorism is likely your best historical example. Compare average annual deaths from sugar and terrorism. Look at the budget set aside for counter terrorism. Governments do not assign resources to problems that are at all correlated with the impact of the problem.


A lack of a common enemy is a bit tricky for keeping multiple militaristic factions together. It sounds a little like all of the colonies banded together to prevent their extinctions. But that doesn't seem quite logical for everyone being militaristic. Militaries need to conquer or defend. If maybe the "destruction" of Earth or some other reason caused one/some factions to surrender to the other factions, an internal "cold war" or arms race could happen. No single faction or colony wants to fall behind the other's military or be completely at another's mercy, so everyone develops military technologies.

  • $\begingroup$ More accurately, the idea is that all the colonies were already in a very militaristic state because the fall of earth come from World War 4. With the only real source law and order gone, people turned to the nearest authority figure being the military of each faction a good 90% of the time. These military leaders then created the new government, which would obviously be heavily influenced by their military careers. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 13:33

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .