Militarism is a social/political approach that places great importance on a strong military or invests high value on military personnel and experience. The terms militarism and militantism do not carry the same meaning. This distinction is important, as certain cultures in the world can be fairly labeled militaristic but not militant, and vice versa. Militarism is a description of a culture’s attitude toward their armed forces, while the term militant more often refers to being rigid, confrontational, or aggressive in defending a set of principles.
The most popular modern example of a militarist culture is the United States of America. While individual feelings vary, American culture generally places a high degree of esteem on those who serve in the Armed Forces. Likewise, the United States, culturally, favors having a potent, well-funded, and relatively large military. These are all characteristics of militarism. While the USA might be the most well-known example of a militarist culture, it is hardly the “most militarist” nation on earth. Nations such as Russia, Israel, and Saudi Arabia devote (at the time of this writing) a higher proportion of national expenditures to their militaries than does the USA.
Trying to compare ancient countries to modern cultures, in terms of militarism, is all but impossible. Nations such as Sparta, Babylon, and Rome were extraordinarily warlike. In fact, military spending to the detriment of other needs is sometimes cited as a factor in Rome’s eventual downfall. While those empires might have exhibited exceptionally strong militarism, even for their own era, even relatively peaceful nations of ancient times engaged in the process of war more than a typical modern country. Nations of prior eras, even when not particularly aggressive, invested more of their men, money, and time into military pursuits than even the most militarist countries of the modern day.
Israel would certainly have been considered militaristic during the conquest of Canaan. Even after that period, the Old Testament’s description of ancient Israel indicates a society where militarism was both assumed and essential (see 1 Kings 10:26). Surrounded by enemies and under all-but-constant threat, Israel had good reasons to maintain a robust military and to honor those who served as soldiers. That being said, surrounding nations would have been in similar circumstances. This further shows why militarism is most meaningful as a comparison between cultures of the same era.
Biblically, whether or not it’s acceptable for a culture to be militarist depends greatly on one’s view of issues such as just war, pacifism, the role of government, and so forth. In other words, Scripture does not give an immediate, easy answer to the question “should a nation embrace militarism?” As with many other cultural ideas, whether militarism is positive or negative has everything to do with how it’s practiced. Some see U.S. militarism over the last century or so as a positive influence in the world. Virtually all would agree that the militarism of Germany in the 1930s was disastrous.
Militarism, then, is very much like the idea of an individual person holding a weapon: the character and intentions of the one holding the weapon make all the difference in deeming that philosophy “good” or “bad.”