How much military is enough?

Jill Lepore, “The Force,” The New Yorker, January 28 2013

The United States spends more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined. Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year—more, in adjusted dollars, than at any time since the Allies were fighting the Axis. …

The long history of military spending in the United States begins with the establishment of the War Department, in 1789. At first, the Secretary of War, a Cabinet member who, from the start, was a civilian, was called the Secretary at War, a holdover from the Revolution but also a prepositional manifestation of an ideological commitment: the department was chiefly to be called upon only if the nation was at war. Early Americans considered a standing army—a permanent army kept even in times of peace—to be a form of tyranny. “What a deformed monster is a standing army in a free nation,” Josiah Quincy, of Boston, wrote in 1774. Instead, they favored militias. About the first thing Henry Knox did when he became George Washington’s War Secretary was to draft a plan for establishing a uniform militia.

Beginning in 1822, congressional oversight was handled by two standing committees: one for the Army, the other for the Navy. A committee on the militia, established in 1815, was abolished in 1911—the militia itself having been essentially abandoned. Six years later, the United States entered the First World War, and the staggering devastation of that war raised both new and old fears about the business of arming men. In 1934, the publication of “Merchants of Death,” a best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, contributed to the formation, that year, of the Senate Munitions Committee, headed by Gerald P. Nye, a North Dakota Republican. Not coincidentally, that was also the year Congress passed the National Firearms Act, which, among other things, strictly regulated the private ownership of machine guns. (Keeping military weapons out of the hands of civilians seemed to the Supreme Court, when it upheld the Firearms Act, in 1939, entirely consistent with the Second Amendment, which provides for the arming of militias.) For two years, Nye led the most rigorous inquiry into the arms industry that any branch of the federal government has ever conducted. He convened ninety-three hearings. He thought the ability to manufacture weapons should be restricted to the government. “The removal of the element of profit from war would materially remove the danger of more war,” he said. That never came to pass, partly because Nye was unable to distinguish his opposition to arms profiteering from his advocacy of isolationism, a position that had become indefensible.

Not until the Second World War did the United States establish what would become a standing army. And even that didn’t happen without dissent. In May of 1941, Robert Taft, a Republican senator from Ohio, warned that America’s entry into the Second World War would mean, ultimately, that the United States “will have to maintain a police force perpetually in Germany and throughout Europe.” Taft, like Nye, was an ardent isolationist. “Frankly, the American people don’t want to rule the world, and we are not equipped to do it. Such imperialism is wholly foreign to our ideals of democracy and freedom,” he said. “It is not our manifest destiny or our national destiny.” In 1944, when Nye ran for reëlection, he was defeated. Taft three times failed to win the Republican Presidential nomination. The Second World War demonstrated the folly of their vantage on foreign policy. It also made it more difficult to speak out against arms manufacturers and proponents of boundless military spending.

A peace dividend expected after the Allied victory in 1945 never came. Instead, the fight against Communism arrived, as well as a new bureaucratic regime. In 1946, the standing committees on military and naval affairs combined to become the Armed Services Committee. Under amendments to the National Security Act of 1947, which created the position of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the War Department, now housed for the first time in a building of its own, became the Department of Defense.

Meanwhile, during Senate hearings concerning the future of the national defense, military contractors such as the Lockheed Corporation*—which was an object of Nye’s investigation in the nineteen-thirties, and built more than ten thousand aircraft during the Second World War—argued not only for military expansion but also for federal subsidies. In 1947, Lockheed’s chief executive told a Senate committee that the nation needed funding for military production that was “adequate, continuous, and permanent.”

In the nineteen-fifties, at the height of both the Korean War and McCarthyism, the United States’ foreign policy had become the containment of Communism the world over, and military spending made up close to three-quarters of the federal budget. “Defense,” no less than “national security,” is a product and an artifact of the Cold War. So, in large part, is the budget for it. …

Still, John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, who during the Vietnam War served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia, read aloud from “Chance for Peace,” Eisenhower’s first major address as President, delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953. Eisenhower had sought the Republican Presidential nomination in order to defeat Taft and the isolationist wing of the G.O.P., but, six years into the Cold War, he was as worried as Nye had been about what an arms race would cost. In the speech, Eisenhower reckoned the price of arms:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Eisenhower, a five-star general who during the Second World War had served as the Supreme Allied Commander, was the son of pacifist Mennonites who considered war a sin, as James Ledbetter reports in “Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex” (Yale). Ledbetter writes that “when, as a child, Dwight began to show a voracious appetite for military history, his mother was disturbed and tried to keep the family’s history books locked in a closet.” Better known, if less stark, than “Chance for Peace” is the farewell address that Eisenhower delivered when he left office, in 1961, after years of failing to end the U.S.-Soviet arms race. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower warned then. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

If any arms manufacturer today holds what Eisenhower called “unwarranted influence,” it is Lockheed Martin. The firm’s contracts with the Pentagon amount to some thirty billion dollars annually, as William D. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, reports in his book “Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex” (Nation). Today, Lockheed Martin spends fifteen million dollars a year on lobbying efforts and campaign contributions. The company was the single largest contributor to Buck McKeon’s last campaign. (Lockheed Martin has a major R. & D. center in McKeon’s congressional district.) This patronage hardly distinguishes McKeon from his colleagues on Capitol Hill. Lockheed Martin contributed to the campaigns of nine of the twelve members of the Supercommittee, fifty-one of the sixty-two members of the House Armed Services Committee, twenty-four of the twenty-five members of that committee’s Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces—in all, to three hundred and eighty-six of the four hundred and thirty-five members of the 112th Congress.

The merchants-of-death argument explains only so much, as the political scientist Daniel Wirls observes in “Irrational Security: The Politics of Defense from Reagan to Obama” (Johns Hopkins): “The military-industrial complex, such as it is, does not produce the propensity or predisposition for war or even hawkish policies short of conflict, as much as war or hawkish policies (driven primarily by political decisions) produce an opening for the military-industrial coalition to take advantage of the biases built into the system that favor, over the long run, hawkish policies.” Ledbetter is less concerned with Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex than with private contractors, abuses of civil liberties, and foreign arms sales (the U.S. sells more guns than any other country), which, he believes, together “constitute an overreaching military-industrial complex at least equal to the one Eisenhower warned against” and create “problems that cannot simply be resolved with more rational budgets.” Neither can these problems be solved without thinking about guns sold, owned, and carried within the United States. At home and abroad, in uniform and out, in war and in peace, Americans are armed to the teeth.

“Every gun that is made,” Eisenhower said, “signifies, in the final sense, a theft.” During that first hearing, when Garamendi finished quoting Eisenhower, he invited General Myers to comment. Myers said, “I wonder what President Eisenhower would have done in New York City on 9/12/2001.”

In 2001, military spending, as a function of the over-all American economy, was, at six per cent, the lowest it had been since the Second World War. Then, for a decade, it rose. In much the same way that the peace dividend expected with the Allied victory never came because of the Cold War (during most of which military spending made up roughly half the federal budget), a peace dividend expected after the end of the Warsaw Pact, in 1991, came but didn’t last. Instead, after 9/11 the United States declared a “global war on terror,” a fight against fear itself. The Iraq War, 2003-11, went on longer than the American Revolution. The war in Afghanistan, begun in 2001, isn’t over yet, making it the second-longest war in American history. (Only Vietnam lasted longer.) Troops may be withdrawn in 2014; the fighting will rage on. During George W. Bush’s second term, the National Defense Strategy of the United States became “ending tyranny in our world.” But a war to end tyranny has no end; it’s not even a war.

The United States, separated from much of the world by two oceans and bordered by allies, is, by dint of geography, among the best-protected countries on earth. Nevertheless, six decades after V-J Day nearly three hundred thousand American troops are stationed overseas, including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy. Much of the money that the federal government spends on “defense” involves neither securing the nation’s borders nor protecting its citizens. Instead, the U.S. military enforces American foreign policy. …

Lately, Bacevich argues, Americans “have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history, Americans have come to define the nation’s strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals.” Even as military spending has soared, war has become more distant: less known than imagined, less remembered than forgotten. War has become a fantasy: sleek, glossy, high-tech (more “Top Gun” than “Apocalypse Now”), and bloodless. Americans have less experience of war, and know less about the military, than at any point in the past century. Since 9/11, at any given time about one-half of one per cent of Americans have been on active duty. Only a tiny minority of members of Congress have known combat, or have family members who have. “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do,” Eisenhower once said. From Reagan to Obama, but especially during the Administrations of the past three Presidents, none of whom ever saw active duty, civilian thinking about foreign policy has been subordinated to military thinking. The State Department has deferred to the Department of Defense. And the Commander-in-Chief has deferred to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The United States, a nation founded on opposition to a standing army, is now a nation engaged in a standing war. Bacevich locates the origins of America’s permanent war more than a decade before 9/11. “During the entire Cold War era, from 1945 through 1988, large-scale U.S. military actions abroad totalled a scant six,” he reports. “Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, they have become almost annual events.” Bacevich places much of the blame for this state of affairs on intellectuals, especially neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz and Donald Rumsfeld, but also liberals, who, he points out, have eagerly supported the use of the military and of military force “not as an obstacle to social change but as a venue in which to promote it.” The resort to force is not a partisan position; it is a product of political failure. …

War, by its nature, is barbarous, grievous, and untamable. There never has been a “smart war.” Still, some wars are worse than others. “Surely, the surprises, disappointments, painful losses, and woeful, even shameful failures of the Iraq War make clear the need to rethink the fundamentals of U.S. military policy,” Bacevich suggested in his 2005 book “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.” That scrutiny has not yet been given, not least because, as Bacevich has observed, “The citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.” Don’t ask, don’t tell. But, especially, don’t ask. …

The war in Afghanistan, Bacevich said, reminded him of Vietnam and of how, in 1971, Kerry testified before this committee on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “Yet there’s one notable difference between today and the day, thirty-eight years ago, when the chairman of this committee testified against the then seemingly endless Vietnam War,” Bacevich said. “When the young John Kerry spoke, many of his contemporaries had angrily turned against their generation’s war. Today, most of the contemporaries of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply tuned out.”

Kerry picked up his pen.

Bacevich read on: “Recall that in his testimony before this committee, speaking on behalf of other antiwar veterans, the young John Kerry remarked that ‘we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam, and about the mystical war against Communism.’ ”

Kerry looked down at his notes.

“The mystical war against Communism,” Bacevich said, “finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism.” Mystification, he said, leads us to exaggerate threats and ignore costs. “It prevents us from seeing things as they are.”…

But by far the most adamant statement came from Dempsey. “I didn’t become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to oversee the decline of the Armed Forces of the United States, and an end state that would have this nation and its military not be a global power,” he said. “That is not who we are as a nation.”

Either the United States rules the world or Americans are no longer Americans? Happily, that’s not the choice the 113th Congress faces. The decision at hand concerns limits, not some kind of national, existential apocalypse. Force requires bounds. Between militarism and pacifism lie diplomacy, accountability, and restraint. Dempsey’s won’t be the last word.

Read the full article here.