Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Militarism Looks Like

Some years ago, at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Memphis, Wendy St. Jean argued that the Chickasaw Indians of the American southeast became in the 18th century a militarized society - an assertion which prompted Alan Gallay to ask "What is militarism?" It's a question that St. Jean took slightly longer than usual to answer, and one which stumped me. I filed the query away in my memory, until it was recalled to me six years later by an article in the August 2, 2010 issue of Time, on the military junta in Burma.

The article's author, Hannah Beech, notes that during the junta's half-century rule, it has fashioned itself both into Burma's leading political caste and its socioeconomic elite. Burma's Defense Services Academy in Pyin U Lwin (formerly the British outpost of Maymyo) identifies its students as "the triumphant elite of the future," and a rejected applicant told Beech that one attended the Academy not to serve the public but to "become . . . rich and powerful." The country's armed forces have for twenty years systematically enriched themselves from the sale of Burma's "gas, oil, timber, [and] gems" to foreign companies, then spent the proceeds on luxurious mansions, spa visits, Buddhist pagodas, and "vanity projects" like the new national capital at Naypyidaw. It's tempting to say that the junta has squandered their nation's resources, but actually everything they've done with their billions has rational purpose behind it: to display and secure their personal and cultural power. The new capital, which is isolated and heavily guarded, ensures the regime's personal security; the lavish mansions and nightclubbing display officers' social supremacy; the pagodas, inscribed with the names of their patrons, help prevent (if George Orwell their patrons' earthly crimes from following them into the next life. Some of the generals' profits go to consolidating their own power, by enlarging and arming Burma's military forces (currently 470,000 strong). Meanwhile, per capita GDP in Burma is around $400 per year, a third of the country's 50 million people live on "less than $15 per month," tens of thousands of non-Burmese people like the Karens have been driven from their homes, and civil liberties are ruthlessly and thoroughly suppressed by law. (On these subjects see Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma [Penguin, 2004].)

It's difficult to see much similarity between twenty-first-century Burma and the early eighteenth-century Chickasaws. True, the Carolina trader and official Thomas Nairne did note in 1708 that the rise of the Indian slave trade had given considerable economic and political power to the Chickasaws' war captains, to the extent that its civil chiefs' authority had "dwindled away to nothing" and the nation's paramount chief had become a warrior himself. Nairne also observed that the Chickasaws were almost continually raiding their Indian neighbors for captives, making war the nation's dominant economic activity. (See Alexander Moore, ed., Nairne's Muskhogean Journals [University of Mississippi Press, 1988], quote p. 39.) At the risk of seeming pedantic, however, let me argue that there is a difference between a society that is militarized (like the Chickasaws) and one that is militaristic. The latter sets off the military as a separate ruling caste and confines membership in that group to a favored few; in Myanmar, the military is literally "set off" from the rest of the population in a fortified capital complex. Among the Chickasaws, by contrast, entry into the warrior class was fairly easy - one needed to perform some military exploit (like taking a captive or scalp) and to win adoption by a patron from the "ruling families," but Thomas Nairne suggests (p. 43) that men who fulfilled the former criterion generally acquired a patron. Moreover, every young warrior could aspire to material wealth and political status if they were successful in warfare. Only membership in the (declining) chief class was restricted by birth. The only marginalized group among the Chickasaws was women, who, while they continued to raise the Chickasaws' crops and play minor roles in warfare and in the tribe's political succession, were cut off from the tribe's principal source of new wealth (slave-catching). In sum, the early modern Chickasaws, while they were warlike, were not "militaristic" because they didn't have a true warrior elite.

Still, the adjective "militaristic" seems likely to become standard for the early modern Chickasaws, as Robbie Ethridge and Sheri Shuck-Hall use it in their recent books on the early southeast and the early Chickasaws (Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 2009, and From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 2010). I'll maintain the semantic distinction as long as I find it useful, though.

[The photo above, of the Water Fountain Garden in Naypyidaw, is by DiverDave and is available under a Creative Commons license.]

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