Coup Theories and Officers' Motives: Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective

Coup Theories and Officers' Motives: Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective

by Donald L. Horowitz


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ISBN-13: 9780691615608
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #359
Pages: 258
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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Coup Theories and Officers' Motives

Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective

By Donald L. Horowitz


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07622-5


Coup Theory: The Matter of Motive

More than twenty years have passed since the armed forces of the new states first served notice that they would play an active and enduring political role. Many hundreds of coup attempts later, theories of military intervention now abound. Yet no theory seems adequately to explain why coups happen in some countries and not in others.

The diverse possibilities of social science explanation have been richly evident in this outpouring of theory. Evidentiary checks on theoretical development have been generally weak, and the links among theories have been tenuous. The life span of theories has been short; a new generation of explanation has purported to displace the preceding one every few years. Furthermore, in scope, perspective, and assumptions, the explanations have often been mutually incompatible. Viewed sequentially and comparatively, this profusion of theory makes rather interesting intellectual history.

The Progression of Coup Theory

The first generation of theories tended to contrast the structural characteristics of the military with the rest of the society. Many characteristics were attributed to the military. Some such explanations focused on the army's technical and managerial capacities or on its disciplined, centralized, hierarchical organization. Others stressed the orientation of its personnel toward rationality, merit, or the transformation of society. Within their limited sphere, the armed forces seemed able to arrange themselves according to functionally apt criteria and to transform raw recruits rapidly into disciplined soldiers. On the other hand, the societies in which they functioned rested heavily on a mix of traditional and modern elements. They still utilized ascriptive criteria in appointments to positions and in apportionment of influence. They had limited ability to organize or to direct change. These stark contrasts between the military and civilian sectors were said to frustrate the officers.

At the most general level, it was postulated that developing societies are characterized by a variety of crises and tensions that produce breakdowns of authority. These in turn open the way to the intervention of the most coherent and modernized organization, the armed forces. Indeed, the breakdowns were thought to offend military standards of efficiency and hierarchy. The military was said to intervene "because other elites are absent, impotent or indifferent; it improvises and expands its role to carry the burden created by a modernization crisis." In this view, army officers, organizationally separate from their societies, move in to cope with problems whose solution eludes the politicians.

An alternative view highlighted the structure of the society, rather than the nature of military organization, as the cause of military intervention. In a modernizing society, the army plays a political role like all other social forces. Depending on the stage the society has reached and the direction in which it is moving, soldiers may be radicals or conservatives, but they will surely seek a role. There are many variations on this theme, which stresses the susceptibility of the armed forces to all the tensions and cleavages — class, ethnic, generational, ideological — that rend the society at large. If the military shares economic interests in common with bureaucratic or entrepreneurial groups, these may form the basis of a coup conspiracy. If ethnic conflict is prominent in the society, the armed forces may become active participants in that conflict. The common denominator of these variations is the premise that the military is an extension of the society in which it operates: "Military explanations do not explain military interventions."

A more recent conception views the armed forces essentially as a trade union looking out for its own interests. When these are affected — and only then — the officers move to protect their budgets, their autonomy, their promotions, salaries, pensions, and perquisites. The recent literature on military coups is rife with explanations deriving from the desire of the armed forces to protect their "corporate interests."

Most recently, there has been a challenge mounted to the very idea that the armed forces, or units of them, are organizations at all. Rather, armies in the new states are said to be "a coterie of distinct armed camps owing primary clientelist allegiance to a handful of mutually competitive officers of different ranks seething with a variety of corporate, ethnic, and personal grievances." Ambition is the linchpin of the coup d'état; previous explanations have placed "insufficient weight ... on the personal motives of ambitious or discontented officers, who have a great deal of freedom and scope for action in fragmented, unstructured, and unstable political systems." According to this view, the army does not intervene to redress the deficient performance of elected officials, or to act in behalf of forces in conflict in the wider society, or solely to protect its own organizational interests, or even — contrary to what has often been thought about the military mind — to impose some vaguely felt sense of order on disorder. On the contrary, the armed forces are, in this conception, just another disorderly congeries of self-interested participants in a disorderly political system.

Many observations might be made about this theoretical progression. It is striking, for example, that each explanation is the derivative of a much larger set of theoretical concerns. The first generation of theories was very much the product of preoccupation with traditional-modern dichotomies. Armies were seen as modern organizations set down in traditional or "transitional" societies. The second set reflected concern that, in weakly institutionalized societies, social forces of all kinds could operate through whatever formal organizations happen to be available. It was, however, also congenial to class analysis. The third view seems to have roots in the analysis of bureaucratic politics, and the most recent view draws some of its sustenance from patron-client theories of the political process. The extent to which perspectives on military intervention have followed changing fashions in comparative politics may be ground for confidence or disquiet, depending on the assessment of the larger body of theory under which coup studies are subsumed. It may also speak volumes for the role of theoretical preconceptions in coup studies.

In terms of overall perspective, the earlier theories tend to look from the top down. The first generation of theories tended to impute certain attributes to the armed forces from a priori premises. The second theoretical perspective also tended to be macrosocietal. It emphasized stages of social conflict and of political participation. The corporate and personalistic explanations of coups tend, on the other hand, to focus on much smaller units of political behavior — on the aims and actions of individual officers and cliques of officers. This fundamental difference of perspective raises the possibility that differences among the theories may relate as much to the level of analysis as they do to the fit between theory and data.

On some basic matters of military sociology, there is little consistency from theory to theory. The social backgrounds of the officers, for example, were sometimes relevant to the earlier formulations; they play virtually no role in corporate or personalistic interpretations of military intervention. The assumption of the latter theories is that membership in an organization or faction, rather than in a social class, is the decisive affiliation. Likewise, the first generation of theories rested heavily on the coherence of the military as an organization in the modern sense. Corporate theories make similar assumptions. But the view that the armed forces are merely extensions of the society or agglomerations of cliques and factions obviously downplays the organizational autonomy and cohesion of the military.

Indeed, on the whole question of organizational boundaries, there are some basic incompatibilities. The first set of theories emphasized the insulation of the officer corps, the absence of ties binding it to other elites, the inculcation of specialized skills that set the officers apart from other elites, and the universalistic values that cut the officers adrift from ethnic attachments. In this model, the armed forces are institutionally differentiated, to a considerable degree impervious to social forces outside the military, actors of politics rather than acted upon. These assumptions were reversed by the second view, the view that saw the army as reflecting social and political forces. The officers are not cut off from other elites. Their ethnic attachments have not been displaced by an inclusive conception of the nation they serve. Their professional training does not socialize them to wholly new orientations toward the social and political order. In this view, the boundary between military and civilian affairs is, in many modernizing countries, weak, ill defined, and often permeable.

Some combinations of the various theories are plausible. In an army that is not, for example, ethnically or ideologically homogeneous, the factionalization of the officer corps along ethnic or ideological lines will certainly facilitate — and may even be a precondition to — the involvement of officers in the struggles that take place in the larger society. Certainly, in such an army, the development of personalistic cliques and the prevalence of ethnic or ideological affinities are not mutually incompatible. The two may overlap; or two sets of motives may coalesce in the form of two factions that join to make a coup.

The explanations have become steadily more cynical. The first view implies that the officers have the will and the resources to try their hand at problem solving in earnest. The second holds that they are instead the creatures of segmental forces present throughout their societies. The third argues that they look out only for the organization of which they are a part. The fourth urges that they look out only for themselves. Clearly, explanation has moved from public to private, from heroic to selfish, from the widest circles to the narrowest.

Since increasingly narrow, selfish motives have been advanced, the question of motive has become acute. The first generation of explanation was highly systemic: the variables it featured were modernization crises and sectoral discontinuities. The assumption of such theories was that the subjective motives of the officers are far less important than the objective structure of the army and the society: coup motives are the product of the environment or situation in which officers find themselves. Motive is the derivative of role. In each of the succeeding formulations, role becomes less important, motive more. Now the assumption is reversed. Decalo, for example, argues that the objective structure of the society matters little. What counts is the particular configuration of personal alliances and ambitions. Coups are made by men with motives. It is perilous to ignore "the idiosyncratic factor — the 'personal element,' which plays such an important role in syncretic and unstructured societies and which is of paramount importance for an understanding of military upheavals...."

Such theories come close to suggesting that, as the coup d'état depends on the unpredictable play of officers' motives, it is an event that defies systematic explanation. The assumption has gained currency that military intervention is a routine event that can happen anywhere or at least almost anywhere in the developing world. In fact, it is now argued that the effort to understand the conditions conducive to coups is misplaced. That effort at understanding presumes that some unusual combination of circumstances is required to trigger military intervention, whereas in fact the coup has become the most common form of regime change in the developing world.

The regularity with which coups now occur reinforces the view that they are more dependent on the private and perhaps capricious goals of the participants than on the structure of public institutions. If the frequency of coups does indicate the universal vulnerability of Asian and African states to military intervention, then it may be fruitless to construct systematic theories of coup behavior. What is more, there are even suggestions that the military coup may not be a significant event, "for it is performance of a regime, rather than its origin which is likely to affect the processes of economic and social change in the particular country." And on this score there may be fewer differences in performance between civilian and military regimes than anyone had imagined.

Coup theory is thus in the curious condition of having reached early obsolescence. Theoretical emphasis has shifted so rapidly that there has scarcely been time to gather material that might support or refute the explanations being propounded. And now, before the evidence is really in, it is asserted that it will not matter very much, since evidence relating to structure is irrelevant in "unstructured societies," since the mere "origin" of a regime is of scant importance to those subject to it, and since a first cut at empirical investigation seems to indicate that in some areas of governmental activity there may be few systematic differences between civilian and military regimes.

The interment of coup theory is, however, premature. Whatever the difficulty of explaining military coups, there is no gainsaying their importance. Although performance studies are long overdue, it is much too early to conclude that military and civilian regimes behave in essentially the same ways, even in the cross-national aggregate, much less within single countries. Moreover, no amount of convergence in the performance of civilian and military regimes can obscure the likelihood of differences in the legitimacy of regimes deriving from how the regimes came into being.

The coup motives ascribed to conspirators can affect the legitimacy of military regimes and the prospects for transfer back to civilian rule. An army that rescues a polity from institutional breakdown and disorder may be given more leeway than one that seizes power for merely self-serving reasons while democratic processes are still functioning. But, if the belief becomes widespread that soldiers will seize power capriciously for their own ends, the notion may also spread that they can no longer "be relegated solely to their traditional duties of defense and security." Such an idea did in fact gain currency in Ghana. In 1972, a coup, made in the apparent interests of self-seeking officers, cut short an ongoing experiment in competitive politics. The 1972 coup fostered a sense of resignation about military intervention. When public debate turned again to the question of civilian rule, there were proposals to include the armed forces in a civil-military "Union Government." In Nigeria, on the other hand, significant currents of elite opinion tended to attribute the 1966 coups primarily to malfunctioning of the political system, rather than to the personal ambitions of officers. The army was therefore given a considerable period of tolerance; its intention to hand power back to civilians was taken seriously; and the civilians embarked on constitution making with optimism.

Coup theory thus has direct relevance to the situation of states that have experienced military intervention. If coups can happen anywhere, at any time, for any reason, the search for effective and wholly civilian institutions becomes a chimera. But if coups occur for specified, discernible reasons, planning for the transfer of power to civilians becomes a meaningful exercise.


Excerpted from Coup Theories and Officers' Motives by Donald L. Horowitz. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • List of Tables, pg. ix
  • Preface, pg. xi
  • A Note on Terminology, pg. xv
  • 1. Coup Theory: The Matter of Motive, pg. 1
  • 2. Sri Lanka Society and Political Change, pg. 31
  • 3. The Armed Forces: Their Construction and Reconstruction, pg. 53
  • 4. The Conspirators: A Profile, pg. 76
  • 5. Personal, Familial, and Factional Motives, pg. 89
  • 6. Corporate Motives, pg. 109
  • 7. Social Allegiances and Segmental Motives, pg. 130
  • 8. The Political System and Coup Motives, pg. 147
  • 9. Interpreting Intervention: Sri Lanka and the Developing World, pg. 179
  • Appendix: A Note on the Interviews, pg. 223
  • Index, pg. 233

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