37

If they are civilian in the common sense, why then do they wear military style uniforms, have a military hierarchical command and military rank structures; have a Starfleet Command and a Starfleet Academy if they aren't a military organization?

We keep hearing a touchy/feely description of Starfleet as a bunch of explorers out poking around the galaxy wanting to help people and be friends. As Guinan told Picard in TNG 3x15 'Yesterday's Enterprise', "This is a ship of peace, not a ship of war".

In the alternate timeline (2009) Star Trek movie though, Capt. Pike bluntly told pre-Starfleet Academy civilian J.T. Kirk that Starfleet was actually a 'humanitarian and peace-keeping armada'. Starfleet is obviously 'government' but is it military or civilian?

  • 23
    Uniforms do not denote military - police, fire service, boy scouts and girl guides, are all non-military organisations and all wear uniforms and have a hierarchy. – HorusKol Apr 15 '14 at 3:31
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    @HorusKol - Those kinds of organisations are usually referred to as "paramilitary" – Valorum Apr 15 '14 at 6:10
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    @Richard - the fire service, boy scouts and girl guides are definitely not paramilitary. Some national police forces (or sections of police forces - like SWAT or GSG-9) may be - but generally not so in western democracies. – HorusKol Apr 15 '14 at 6:29
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    @Jimmyshelter - as a Brit I can firmly state that my opinion is that any country where the military is in charge of the military is probably a tinpot dictatorship – Valorum Apr 15 '14 at 12:05
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    You don’t have to be military to have an academy. I mean even Khan has an academy now. – Paul D. Waite Mar 25 '15 at 11:35

13 Answers 13

35

TL;DR, Starfleet isn't a military organisation, according to every relevant source both in-universe and out-of-universe.


To start with, I shall quote Captain Picard (from TNG : Peak Performance)

PICARD : Starfleet is not a military organization. Our purpose is exploration.

Lieutenant Scott from Star Trek: Beyond

SCOTT: The Federation. Starfleet. We're not a military agency.

Captain Pike from Star Trek (2009)

PIKE: ...Starfleet could use you... It's a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada...


As described in the excellent Starfleet Technical Manual, Starfleet is neither wholly civilian, nor a military in the conventional sense. They are in fact best described as a "peace keeping force". They report directly to the Federation's Military Council but their Commander-in-Chief is the (civilian) Federation President who represents the elected representatives of the various Federation worlds.

enter image description here


The description of Starfleet in the factbook The Star Trek Book offers this advice to those who might conclude, through honest error, that Starfleet is a military organisation.

With its powerful armada of starships and naval rank structure. Starfleet could be mistaken for a primarily military organization. In fact, it has adopted the commitment to new technology and self-discipline that characterized Earth's martial past and directed those qualities toward a new end: peaceful, methodical exploration

The unknown factors facing each mission mean that Starfleet ships must stand ready to defend themselves, however, and with no standing army, it is logical that the Federation sees this highly mobile, widely spread fleet as its first line of defense in the event of attack. This means that Star fleet personnel must be as well versed in combat as they are in science and diplomacy.


Gene Roddenberry, in the series' original Writer/Director's Guide (the "bible") was very specific on the subject;

Starfleet is not a military organisation. It is a scientific research and diplomatic body.

Although the duties of the Enterprise may include some military responsibilities, the primary purpose of the Enterprise — as with all Starfleet vessels is to expand the body of human knowledge.

In practice this means that our armaments and militarism have been de-emphasized over the previous series and very much de-emphasized over the movies. We will not see saluting. We may hear the word "sir", but it is extended as the same kind of courtesy used by junior and senior officers on civilian airliners. It is traditional, however, to use ship's ranks on the bridge, an acknowledgment of the naval heritage of Starfleet.

As you can see, Starfleet's primary mandates are to keep the peace, to provide sufficient defence to Federation worlds and to conduct scientific research by studying and surveying the space within Federation territory.

None of those tasks would prevent them having a military structure, indeed our own present-day peacekeepers are drawn from military backgrounds and wear uniforms, etc.

enter image description here

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    Isn't it more a defense force then peacekeeping force? A peacekeeping force is usually used in regions with conflicts or catastrophes whilst a defense force has a somewhat different role. It also depends which era one talk about. FS main role started more as scientific development and exploration. Over time the role as a defense force grew stronger. It also seems like they are more into diplomacy then standing as a peacekeeping force. – user13500 Apr 15 '14 at 6:18
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    Sorry, I don't see any difference between "military" and "peacekeeping force". More specifically, the latter can be military or (rarely) not. They are not disjoint sets. Japanese Defence Force is wholly defensive (at least between 1950 and 2000) and they were in no way "not conventional military" – DVK-on-Ahch-To Apr 15 '14 at 14:53
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    @Richard: Yeah, StarFleet "is not a military organization" and the US only sent "advisors" to Vietnam, and at the School of the Americas they only train "police forces" to improve "security", etc. etc. – einpoklum Jan 14 '15 at 22:33
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    It's good to see that someone is willing to downvote a quote from the show's creator that specifically answers the question asked – Valorum Jan 14 '15 at 22:46
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    @Oldcat - I remain of the opinion that if people are downvoting a direct quote from both in-universe and out-of-universe, you seriously have to question what answer would ever satisfy them. Are they merely downvoting because they don't like that the answer doesn't conform with their headcanon. – Valorum Oct 28 '15 at 21:10
22

At first glance this question is easily answered: Gene Roddenberry says it isn't, Picard says it isn't, and so it isn't.

It is not that simple. It is completely dependent on how narrowly you define the word military.

  • Is Starfleet an armed force? Yes. (any episode where armaments are used)
  • Is it tasked with protecting the Federation from foreign enemies? Yes. (e.g. DS9's Dominion War, many Borg incursions).
  • Is it an authoritarian operations consistent with contemporary militaries? Yes. (Any episode where someone is threatened with an insubordination charge for disobeying orders).
  • Does it have a separate judicial system separate from civilian Federation courts? Yes. (TNG:The Measure of the Man, TNG:The Drumhead).

If you take the broadest definition of military - that is, armed forces - then Starfleet is clearly a military organization. Starfleet has similar structure, operations and authority to contemporary militaries.

However, if you narrow that definition of military to be: forces with the primary mission of making war, they absolutely are not.

It's not the size of your gun, it's how you use it.

The military in the United States is somewhat unique in the world because it does not engage in domestic police actions (this is reflected in the Posse Comitatus Act). The military training reflects their primary mission: destroy the enemy. It is a war-fighting force in the same way the militaries of this world's past: us versus them, destroy or be destroyed, and win at almost any cost.

Starfleet's primary mission isn't to make war - that is until the Federation is drawn into a war. DS9's Dominion War undeniably cast Starfleet as a military operation. Similarly, TNG:Yesterday's Enterprise shows Starfleet operating in a fully militarized manner. These are undeniable examples of Starfleet functioning as the de facto military of the Federation.

However, those exceptions seem to prove the rule that, when compared with contemporary and historical military forces, Starfleet is not about making war but enabling the Federation's peaceful exploration.

Put another way, by today's definition of military, which appears consistent with Gene Roddenberry's usage, Starfleet isn't a military.

What's in a name?

More importantly, Starfleet is a realization of changed values. Military tactics have evolved over time on Earth to recognize laws that define what sort of violence is allowed (chemical weapons are banned, for example). All of this points to a higher appreciation for life, the value of life, as expressed so often in Star Trek: to seek out new life and civilizations. Implied in that statement is that life of all kinds is to be valued. The Prime Directive indicates that life should be valued, even when we disagree with their values.

National military operations in the world today don't operate that way (World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). No contemporary military values life in the way that Starfleet does. Our military's primary mission is always to complete the objectives given, regardless of the number of casualties on the opposing side (and often without much consideration to risking civilian life).

That is a very distinct and profound difference. That is likely what Gene Roddenberry was referring to and the major difference Picard would understand when using the word "military."

In the same episode where Picard says, "Starfleet is not a military organization." Just prior to that line he also says:

Despite misgivings, I have agreed to Starfleet's request that we take part in these wargame exercises.

Wargames. Why does a non-military organization engage in war games?

He answers:

Because with the Borg threat, I have decided that my officers and I need to hone our tactical skills. In a crisis situation, it is prudent to have several options.

Starfleet clearly recognizes the safety and security of the Federation are important and that training for that possible military action is important.

Is Starfleet civilian or military?

The author's original question was which, civilian or military?

By today's standards, it is neither military or civilian.

The closest (poor) analog I could muster is the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which does conduct law enforcement operations (meaning they are armed) for limited purposes but NOAA's primary mission is scientific.

Using the 24th century standards, Starfleet is absolutely not like the Cardassian, Romulan, or Dominion operations which are very clearly military forces as we would define them today - meant for making war - so Picard's remarks are consistent with a more nuanced understanding of what a military does.

And so, in the 24th century, clearly Starfleet is not a military though it will engage in military operations when necessity dictates.

  • Lots of organisations engage in wargames including healthcare providers and financial services companies. The term simply means 'a live exercise' – Valorum Mar 22 '16 at 9:29
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    In the context of the episode, it's clear they were referring to real war. Specifically, battle tactics. Though I confess I had never heard the term used outside the military context and 'live exercise' is certainly not the dictionary definition of the word. That said, I am aware of an "emergency response and coordination center" that was referred to simply as the "war room." The examples you cite seem to refer to strategic response and their use of "war" is clearly hyperbolic (they seemed to have less to do with being 'live exercises' and more to do with testing contingency plans). – Captain P Mar 22 '16 at 15:09
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    The assertion that our military doesn't care about civilian casualties seems ridiculous. We have rules of engagement strict enough that some military personnel (and plenty warhawk politicians) believe that they are being kept from performing their duties. – DCShannon Mar 30 '16 at 22:05
  • Nor did I say that, DC. However, your follow-up that 'the rules are so strict that some military personnel believe they can't perform their duty' reflects exactly my point: If contemporary military personnel recognize their duty is to "win the war" then the best way to perform that duty means you must (sometimes) disregard civilian life. Caring about the public perception and caring about the deaths are distinct. – Captain P Apr 4 '16 at 0:51
  • Your answer is very thorough, and complements the accepted answer's unambiguous quotes with a philosophically and linguistically more complete write-up. However, I think that the modern-day, country-specific political musings and soapbox editorials are totally unnecessary. I don't think the OP was interested in the US Military's justification of the Doctrine of Double Effect (the ethical point at which civilian lives are worth the loss to attain a military goal) in Afghanistan. – Xodarap777 Oct 31 '16 at 21:09
10

The Federation Starfleet is a military organisation - but that doesn't mean their sole purpose is martial.

Their primary mission is exploration and humanitarian - but they also fight off threats as necessary (the Klingons, the Romulans, the Borg, the Dominion). It is this secondary role as defenders of the Federation that makes them military.

  • I don't quite know yet if they're a primarily military organization with exploration and humanitarian duties or a rigid civilian organization that can throw-down a bit. – Morgan Apr 15 '14 at 4:29
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    They're military, but their primary mission is exploration and humanitarian aid. – HorusKol Apr 15 '14 at 5:14
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    You are demonstrably correct. Starfleet is military at it's core... though they don't seem to be too good at it. – Morgan Apr 15 '14 at 5:56
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    When everyone in Starfleet's name starts with a military rank designation, that tends to tell me they're military first. – Morgan Apr 15 '14 at 9:43
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    When they send the real military after the enemy bent on destroying the home planet rather than a Starfleet vessel, then I'll buy the non military role of Starfleet. – Oldcat Aug 27 '15 at 21:11
5

I've always likened them to the Coast Guard, actually. A civilian organization, mainly for exploration, rescue, defending the border, and upholding maritime (or in this case, space) law. However, in times of conflict, the Coast Guard has been suborned to the Navy.

I kind of see that in TOS, even more so in TNG.

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    The US Coast Guard is one of the seven branches of the United States Armed Forces. It is unique among the military branches by having a maritime law enforcement mission. During peacetime, it is run from the Department of Homeland Security. It can be transferred to the Navy upon request by the President or the US Congress. Title 10 defines the Armed Services and Title 14 defines the USCGS as a military service that law enforcement powers (Title 18 prevents the other services from doing this). So it is always military, but civilian duties in addition to a military role. – Walter Jan 11 '16 at 2:33
  • Yep, fully aware. My son was a Coastie. :) – Bob Stout Jan 11 '16 at 13:17
4

Interestingly, this issue crops up briefly in the novel "Federation". Kirk and an admiral who came on board end up discussing the issue near the end of the main plotline, with Kirk arguing the military side and the admiral arguing (as she has repeatedly done elsewhere) the exploration side. Finally a tired Kirk says

“Admiral, we’re both part of Starfleet,” Kirk began after a long moment. “Perhaps the question is not whether or not we have to label ourselves as a military organization or a science organization. Perhaps we should just say we’re Starfleet and leave it at that. Something new. A label all its own. Let the conflict go.

I think that's the best take on the issue.

3

There are no real world equivalents, I think that is pretty clear at this point. By the Federation's own definition, Starfleet is legally the de jure armed forces of the Federation.

How starfleet discharges those responsibilities is a matter for the government of the Federation to decide. If it chose to do so, it's likely that they could do away with the "no first strike" policy if it so decided.

We've seen before that starfleet's purposes changes as the needs of the government changes, such as becoming fairly militarized during the Dominion War. There are many ways in which the terms 'peace-keeping' can be interpreted, and I'm sure that you could successfully argue that waging an offensive war could be one of those ways in ensuring that peace is kept.

As far as what Picard said: Starfleet is not a military organization. Our purpose is exploration. Well, he's downright wrong if we're to believe Chapter VIII of the charter, which states that the primary purpose of the organisation is to discharge 'the maintenance of interplanetary peace and security.' That is a military function. And while the argument could be made that Starfleet isn't a military organisation, it discharges duties that are military in nature.

As far as the peacekeeping line of questioning goes, I'll point out that peacekeeping forces are military forces who operate in a defensive posture under an international (and generally accepted) mandate granted to them by the UN. They can also be offensive forces operating under an international mandate, such as the mandate which was used during the 1991 Gulf War, or the US-led intervention in Korea in the 50's.

  • 1
    True - only military forces are 'peacekeepers'. Police forces enforce laws. – Oldcat Aug 27 '15 at 21:13
3

After carefully reading & considering the definition & factors that characterize military forces, I've come to the conclusion that Star Fleet is indeed a military organization.

"The military are forces authorized to use lethal force, and weapons, to support the interests of the state and some or all of its citizens. The task of the military is usually defined as defense of the state and its citizens, and the prosecution of war against another state. The military may also have additional sanctioned and non-sanctioned functions within a society, including, the promotion of a political agenda, protecting corporate economic interests, internal population control, construction, emergency services, social ceremonies, and guarding important areas. The military can also function as a discrete sub-culture within a larger civil society, through the development of separate infrastructures, which may include housing, schools, utilities, food production and banking."(Wikipedia)

2

Gene Roddenberry's claim that Starfleet is not military is of course laughable. Yes, it explores. Yes it does scientific inquiry. So do military vessels. In fact most of the world was explored by the British Navy. But Starfleet is an armed and uniformed service that defends its state from attack, and projects power beyond its borders. By modern definitions, that's a military force.

2

Starfleet is best understood as very similar to the JSDF (Japanese Self-Defense Force). After World War II the Japanese were banned from having a military, but the need of a way to defend themselves was eventually recognized and as such National Police was formed which eventually turned into the JSDF.

The JSDF is supposed to be purely "defensive", which like how MACO were the offensive arm of the United Earth with Starfleet vessel having minimal Armaments, but as time went on and threats became bigger MACOs were turned into a branch of Starfleet focusing solely on defense while simulatneously Starfleet buffed their weapons capabilities.

So MACOs no longer exist, but its recognized that a military of some sort is needed and military rankings are useful when dealing with a crew where if someone does something everyone can die. So the system and power is there, just not for military use, but rather defensive purposes.

There is a darker side to the whole thing though. The JSDF is allowed to and has taken part in "Peacekeeping" missions. Which means they can take hostile actions, so long as they can argue that it is for the betterment of longterm lasting peace... note: World Conquest would be a longterm lasting peace if successful ^.^ I don't believe we've seen the Starfleet used like this, but I could be mistaken...

Anyways, Starfleet is a Defense Force. So what exactly is a "Defense Force"? First we have to point out the difference between Police and Military.

Police - Civilian (we'll say compared to Military, but Police are also generally not considered Civilians with regard to non-police, in other words there is a heirachy here of who is and isn't a civilian to who), Authorized to use force to enforce the law and maintain peace domesticly. Military - Non-civilian (as per the abive, Military is always non-civilian and you can look at them as being at the top of heirarchy), authorized to use force against enemies of the state.

Or for a clearcut line. It means the following more or less... Police are for handling non-enemies.
Military is for handling enemies.

In the US our Military is only authorized to handle Foreign Enemies and are generally not allowed to be on missions within the borders of the US at all while we have non-military prganizations authorized to handle Foreign Enemies within the border of the US which are not the Police, but we generally lump them together. They include agencies like the FBI. But Military is generally authorized to deal with all enemies Foreign and domestic within and beyond their borders.

So the US Military and Police has a scope that is segmented and cut down or increased from the standard so it is not that great to use them as a blueprint for definitions, but its what most people are familiar with so we use them.

Now if we understand Military to mean dealing with enemies of the state, then this covers both, aggressive and defensive actions. This also covers domestic enemies and foreign enemies.

Usually when we think of Militaries we think of them attacking another country, but we have this separate term "Military Police" which is when the Military is tasked with the role of the Police, often times because the territory is somehow considered an enemy is some regard, where their job is to enforce the laws and maintain peace. They are Primarily there as a Military, but they are taking on the "civilian" duties of the Police. They're still Military, but are functioning to include traditionally civilian roles of authority.

On the opposite side we have the Police who's role is to enforce the law and maintain peace. While, not all of Starfleet's role, this is its main role with regards to what we're talking about. It doesn't push to expand its territory and isn't authorized to use force against enemies unless they are in some way disrupting peace or breaking laws. However, a Police agency that also acts in the role of military in some scenarios, such as defending against foreign enemies, is called a Defense Force.

So you have a spectrum that goes something like...
Military -Military
Military Police -Military
Defense Force -Civilian
Police -Civilian

Put succinctly, Starfleet is a Defense Force and as such, a Civilian organization and The Federation has no Military. But it would consider, non-Starfleet as Civilians vs them not being Civilians, but they wouldn't consider themselves Military.

1

What is meant by "military" or "non-military" as a descriptor of Starfleet calls to mind the euphemistic/ironic name "Klingon Defence Force" - that organization which apparently likes to go around conquering rather than merely defending. Starfleet is military in its resources (people, spacecraft, weaponry), organization, and role as defender of the Federation. Describing it as "non-military" is only verbal shorthand for its policy of not going around conquering, intervening in third-party conflicts, or otherwise interfering in the affairs of non-Federation worlds.

Kirk first describes their role in the non-military "Earth Space Probe Agency" in TOS:"Tomorrow is Yesterday" (out-of-universe: before the writers came up with "Starfleet"). This unfortunate little tidbit of canon is, in its literal interpretation, contradicted by almost every action or method Starfleet is ever seen to do or practice. The only reasonable way to reconcile it is to interpret "non-military" as more of a statement of policy than composition or organization.

-1

I think, and this isn't just me as far as I know, that Starfleet is a mix of many things. Peace-keeper, military, civilian administration, exploration, Diplomatic Envoy, Scientific Experimentation, ETC. while not a Military organization in the most common sense, they still preform as (at minimum) a para-military Organization during times of great strife. Examples would be The Dominion War, the first war against the Klingons, the Suliban, etc. They strive for peace and unity, but will not hesitate to use military force when they have to protect others, be this though MACO units on the ground or though Starfleet vessels in space.

-1

First, everyone knows that in order to keep peace across vast distances, there must exist a layered structure of government (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial; local, provincial, and national), The Roman's knew it, the Babylonians knew it, the Egyptians knew it, the Han Chinese, early Russians, Maya and Inca, and so on throughout history, though most combined Legislative and Executive (but that's hardly the point). The UFP keeps Legislative (Federation Council), Executive (President of the UFP) and Judicial (Federation Supreme Court) branches, however, due to it's size, Local is Planetary, provincial is either star system or sector, and national is across the Federation itself. So each planet and habitable body will have it's own localized government and Law Enforcement; however, the Federation employs it's own "national level" Law Enforcement as well. Now, I'm not comparing Star Fleet to a national police force (though we see them acting as such in both canon and Reboot - think of Tom Paris' back story in ST:Voyager for canon), nor would I be so dense as to compare them with the Merchant Marines.

Star Fleet, from any sense, would be best depicted as a nations Coast Guard. Neither civil nor military, but a combination of both, not under the jurisdiction of the nations military, but having the big guns required to execute the laws of the land.

However, it IS important to note that the Federation has no other space faring defensive force (or offensive for that matter) and therefore, with no other Naval force when the Federation is threatened, there is no other recourse than to issue Star Fleet into a military capacity, just as in the initial days of the United States shortly after it's founding, the Coast Guard was just that, a guard against invading forces during times of maritime strife equipped well enough to repel attacks along U.S. shores in the event the Navy was somehow unable to meet this need.

If you've read this far, I applaud your enthusiasm in this topic, and thank you for reading - whether you agree or disagree.

-1

Yes, Starfleet is a military organization.

As you point out, the have military style uniforms, military style hierarchy, military style command, military rank structures, and amilitary style Academy. Everyone in Starfleet knows that if there is a war to be fought, they will be the ones doing the fighting. If it looks like a duck...

Whenever someone says that they are NOT military, they are always talking about warmongering imperialism. They aren't talking about organizational structure.

As far as organizational structure goes, in Wrath of Khan, Kirk's son repeatedly talks about how you can't trust a military organization and that even if they are claiming to be a peacful organization.

"I've tried to tell you before, scientists have always been pawns of the military!"

-

"Every time we have dealings with Starfleet, I get nervous. We are dealing with something that... could be perverted into a dreadful weapon. Remember that overgrown Boy Scout you used to hang around with? That's exactly the kind of man..."

-David to Carol (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

Importantly, while David is portrayed as distrustful of Starfleet, no one bothers to correct him and say they aren't a military.

So it looks like a military, acts like a military, the civilians view it as their military, and the only times it is claimed to not be a military they are refferring to the organizations goals - not its structure.

  • 1
    The possession of a "military style hierarchy", ranks and uniforms doesn't make one a military. If that were the case, the Boy Scouts would be the third largest military in the world with the Salvation Army coming in a close fifth. – Valorum Sep 29 '16 at 16:53
  • @Valorum: ME: "A Square is a 4 sided shape, with all sides the same length, and all 4 corners at 90deg angles." YOU: "No, a square isn't just a 4 sided shape. If that were true rhombuses, parallelograms, and rectangles would all be squares." – Shane Oct 3 '16 at 13:46
  • You can't use the "walks like a duck" argument if there are multiple cases where the thing turns out not to be a duck. At best it's a zebra. – Valorum Oct 3 '16 at 14:20
  • @Valorum Ok. If you can show me any examples of an organization that looks like a military, acts like a military, whose civilians view it as their military, and that fights the war when attacked by foreign powers, that also turned out to not be a military, I'd love to hear about them. – Shane May 4 '17 at 14:25
  • Your description perfectly matches the United Nations Peacekeeping force. They look and act like a military (and even fight in a concerted fashion when attacked) but they're not a military force, they're.... something else – Valorum May 4 '17 at 14:39

protected by Skooba Oct 8 '18 at 14:17

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