Direct Action against Militarism


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based on a piece by Cecil Arndt

In different countries, war and militarisation take on very different meanings and have different effects, depending not only on the presence or absence of direct acts of war but also on country's political, economic, and social circumstances, and its history and traditions. As these factors define not only to the types, levels, and effects of militarisation but also the ways in which it can be effectively resisted, the scope of this article is inevitably limited; it can only provide a Western, European, largely German perspective on the use of direct action to oppose the militarisation of youth, although it explores possibilities in other countries nonetheless.

Militarisation, in whatever form it takes, must be understood as always being directed at young people. The militarisation of youth relies not only on their direct recruitment into the armed forces, but on the widely growing intrusion of the military into the lives and minds of people of all ages. This intrusion influences individual daily routines, preferences and choices, as well as general perceptions. The common theme is the normalising of war and the military.

For those living in places where the reality of war seems far away, the military presence in everyday life sometimes goes unnoticed. It can take forms such as cooperation with civil institutions such as Ministries of Education and Development and healthcare providers, musical entertainment, the out-sourcing military logistics to private economic partners, or the direct recruitment of young people in schools, job centres, and elsewhere.

In the Western world, from where wars are exported to places usually perceived as 'less developed', the ability to wage war very much depends on the population's support for the military, and thus on general assumptions about war and its normality. The strategies used to normalise war and the military, inducing a view of them as detached from their violent, destructive reality (at least in those countries where people are not directly affected by war), vary a lot from country to country, and so does resistance to them.

Taking direct action

Any direct action against war and militarisation should be seen as direct action against the militarisation of youth, in that it is unmistakeably aimed at demasking the supposed normality of war(fare), thus offering an alternative vision of a world without war and militaries, and highlighting the individual's possibility to choose to work towards this. Antimilitarist direct action does this by challenging general assumptions regarding authority and by undermining predominating, government-led expectations of socially accepted behaviour. Looked at in this way, direct action against the militarisation of the youth allows the reclaiming of the term 'humanitarian intervention', grounded in individuals' 'responsibility to protect' from (and act against) war and militarisation.

There is a rich variety of activist traditions and knowledge reaching back to at least the beginnings of the First World War – ranging from labour strikes to direct disarmament activities – and there is a wealth of creativity among contemporary activists when it comes to confronting new(er) forms of militarisation. Traditional forms of antimilitarist direct action, with precedents noted in brackets, include: the blockading of military bases (Faslane nuclear submarine, Scotland[1]) and military transports (Husum, Germany[2]); the sabotage of military planes (Shannon, Ireland[3]), naval vessels (Loch Goil, Scotland[4]) and military vehicles (Hanover, Germany[5]); the labelling of sites of war and militarism such as military weapons testing ranges (Luleå, Sweden[6]), city centres (London, UK[7]) or universities (Potsdam, Germany[8]), and the trespassing of military areas (NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium[9] and Letzlingen, Germany[10]).

More recent forms of action include: ironic parades to counter the armed forces' 'pink-washing' (promoting their supposed openness towards LGBT people, as in Sweden and Israel), 'die-ins' at events and festivals where military bands or exhibitions provide entertainment for the public (for example in Germany and Sweden), and the circulation of literature denouncing the growing normalisation of the military's influence on people's lives (such as in Spain).

Along with the growing militarisation of war-exporting Western countries there is a proliferation of the sites, events and institutions which can help activists to oppose the normalisation of war and militarism. For example, the growing number of recruitment events held by the armed forces at schools and job centres represent opportunities for causing disruption (using one or more of the approaches listed above), or undermining the military's unbalanced self-representation by depicting the negative side of war, for example by handing out leaflets, fake blood or instructions on how to make a coffin to any young people present, or by interrupting military officials' talks with challenging questions.[11]

International variation

While there have always been proud military parades in Great Britain, the appearance of the German armed forces at public events is a more recent development, given Germany's history. And while joining the military has always been presented as a good move for a young person's future in the US – including being a way to attain citizenship – in Sweden the emphasis is on adventure and sport, as seen with the text service which sends military fitness activity instructions. However, militarisation processes always draw upon the construction of national identities, so good antimilitarist actions should try to highlight the issues of nationalism, racism, and constructions of the 'other'.

Sharing our experience and knowledge on taking direct action with activists from other countries and of different ages is not only inspirational, but can also help encourage us to try alternative approaches rather than sticking conservatively to what we are used to, which may hinder our impact. However, international variation must always be kept in mind. One important example is that laws and the implications of breaking them can differ greatly from country to country. While it is relatively easy to approach a member of the armed forces in a public place in Germany, for example, this may be life-threating in some other countries. While in Belgium activists entering the grounds of the NATO headquarters, or 'bombspotting' (the attempted inspection of nuclear weapons by civilians) at other military bases, have never been tried in court (due to officials' fear of the spotlight that public trials would put on these already-controversial issues), in most other places activists have to accept a high probability of being arrested and tried. And while activists in the UK who sabotaged military equipment such as planes and naval vessels have been found not guilty by juries who value the life-saving effects of the antimilitarist act more than any material damage it may have caused, antimilitarists in Germany can face many years of prison if found guilty of the same. In addition, individual activists have different personal circumstances, including their legal status, economic situation, health, and skills, which also inform what they are able to do.

International campaigns are a way of taking these differences into account while at the same time connecting activists. They not only offer the chance of mutual support but can also map different aspects and developments of war and militarisation and their effect on people. One example of successfully working together on an international level is the European campaign War Starts Here.[12] War Starts Here draws to people's attention, disrupts, and blocks the places, institutions, organisations and events in war-exporting countries that - in different, sometimes almost-imperceivable ways - are involved in warfare, including schools and universities where the military are involved through teaching and weapons research, to the military's use of public infrastructure such as railways, electronic communication facilities, and their participation at festivals and sports fixtures.

In focusing on mapping the presence and influence of the military within the societies of the war-exporting countries and calling for them to be highlighted, disrupted and blocked, War Starts Here also paves the way for joint activities across borders and political traditions. It offers a framework that allows participation and engagement with other activists that can also always be adjusted to suit individual and group preferences and needs.


The sharing of experience is a basic condition for widening the horizons and scopes of direct action against militarisation. It allows us to develop new perspectives and possibilities, and provides solidarity that transcends borders and politics. This requires work. The transfer of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next, and among activists with very different backgrounds, needs to be improved. This could be done by holding small meetings, or larger workshops or conferences. The various types of direct action against militarisation have multiple effects: they directly counter recruitment to the armed forces, whilst at the same time offering an alternative vision of an unmilitarised world; any direct action against militarisation will perforce demonstrate the possibility of saying 'No!' to war and militarism and to the current relationships of power that drive them.


[1] The Faslane Naval Base near Glasgow, as well as being the site of a long-running peace camp, has repeatedly been targeted by activists who have chained themselves to its gates, climbed the fences, entered the base by canoe, and disrupted the road transportation of the missile warheads.

[2] In February 2008, activists blocked the train transport of equipment for the NATO Response Force by chaining themselves to the rails.

[3] In 2003, activists entered Shannon airport and disarmed a US warplane with a mallet, poured human blood on the runway, and painting the hanger where the warplane was stationed.

[4] In 1999, activists entered the vessel Maytime at Loch Goil and destroyed equipment by depositing it in the waters of Loch Goil and pouring a mixture of sirup and sand over its machinery.

[5] In 2012, activists disarmed thirteen army vehicles by setting them on fire.

[6] In 2011, 200 international activists marked the Northern European Aerospace Test Range (NEAT) by entering the base, colouring runways and buildings, and by marking the road leading to it with pink arrows and the slogan 'War starts here, let’s stop it here!'. The airspace was marked by a release of pink balloons after a die-in outside the area.

[7] In 2003, during then-US President George W. Bush's visit to London, the fountains at Trafalgar Square were dyed with red paint to make them look like pools of blood.

[8] In 2011, activists marked the university building with the slogan 'War starts here' to denounce the university's involvement with war and militarisation through its role as a think-tank for military and security studies.

[9] In 2012, 800 international activists participated at the NATO Game Over action day near Brussels. 500 activists tried to enter the NATO compound; twenty of them succeeded. [10] In 2012, about 150 activists from the War Starts Here camp entered the GÜZ - the largest German military training ground.

[11] The huge variety of strategies to counter the direct recruitment of young people (for example at schools, job centres, universities, and recruitment-offices) are not explored in this article as they are referred to elsewhere in this book.

[12] The call-out by the European Antimilitarist Network (EAN), and some activities, are documented at So far the campaign has been quite successful in Germany, where since its beginning in 2011 activists from a broad political spectrum have done a great number of very different actions, from blockading armament production sites and schools visited by recruiting military officials, to highlighting public military concerts and firms involved in cooperation with the military, and disrupting military equipment. So far, two 'War starts here' action camps have been held - in Sweden (2011) and Germany (2012). Other international 'War starts here' action camps will take place in 2013: in Germany from 21 - 29 July near Letzlingen, and in the UK from 26 August - 7 September at Burghfield.

Programmes & Projects

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