The Costa Rica Lesson

I recently returned from a holiday in Costa Rica, a country I’d wanted to visit for some years. I bought two T-shirts there. One has an image of an automatic rifle with a flower sticking out its barrel and the words “NO ARMY” written across it in the colour of blood. The other T-shirt has an image of an artillery piece, with the words “No army since 1948” on it.

Just after Costa Rica had its revolution in 1948, one of the first things its new visionary leader Jose Figueres Ferrer did was scrap its army. Contrary to what one might think, this immediately increased Costa Rica’s security, rather than weakening it, and it’s the only country in an otherwise war-torn part of the world to have had sustained peace and prosperity ever since.

Ferrer’s action suggests that he realised that, counterintuitively, armies are more of a threat to freedom and national security than providers of it. Costa Rica has a lightly armed police force which is quite enough for its security needs. Scrapping their army has allowed Costa Rica to spend billions of dollars providing standards of health, education and pensions for all its citizens that are unknown in that part of the world. It provides almost carbon-neutral energy supplies, and protects and preserves huge swathes of its natural environment from the wanton destruction of property developers. Much of this is paid for with the money it doesn’t spend on keeping an army. Switzerland also has no standing army, yet has remained secure for almost two hundred years – even when completely surrounded by war, twice.

The world doesn’t need armies – especially today. They’re a curse, not a blessing. The primary use of armies has always been to loot and plunder others – and it’s still their primary use today. It can be argued that through most of our history armies have sometimes provided security. But in 1948 the continued need for armies was dispensed with by the creation of the United Nations. The UN scrapped the need for armies by creating an international law instead, a law that states that it’s illegal for any country to be the first to attack another. Costa Rica immediately recognised the significance of that and scrapped its army. The fact that the UN has been singularly unsuccessful in policing this law is not the fault of the UN. It’s the fault of the biggest military machine on the planet which simply refuses to obey or support the law whenever it wants to ignore it. Why? Because war is big business. It makes lots and lots of money for super-rich Americans – no matter the cost in human suffering and environmental catastrophe.

Like Costa Rica, Britain hasn’t needed an army since 1948. Imagine the good that could have been done if the trillions of pounds that have been wasted since then on our armed forces and their affiliates (such as pointless spying organisations) had been used instead on health services and education, public housing and transport, renewable green energy systems. Instead of being seen as the allies of international war criminals we could instead have been true champions and ambassadors of global peace – as Costa Rica is. All we have to do is insist our government and others, such as the US government, obey the law. It’s not too much to ask.

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. Check out John's books: Fiction: The Road to Emily Bay; Non Fiction: The School of Kindness; The People’s Constitution. Read other articles by John.