Tuesday, October 11, 2011

America's Unhealthy Love Affair With The Military

America was founded by people who had a healthy suspicion of a standing military. Many of the articles in the Bill of Rights had their genesis in the tendency toward corrupt rule by a government with a standing army, including mention of civilian militias in the Second Amendment (the best protection against a tyrant is an armed citizenry) and a specific article outlawing the quartering of troops in private homes in the Third Amendment. It is almost unthinkable today that the Third Article of the Bill of Rights, right after the protecting of freedom of speech, religion and assembly and the protection of the right of private citizens to be armed, is a protection against the excesses of a standing army. Of course we don't have soldiers being quartered in the homes of private citizens anymore. We just have hundreds of military bases around the world housing hundreds of thousands of soldiers at enormous expense paid for by the seizing of tax money from...private citizens.

Prior to the start of World War II, the United States military was barely a blip on the radar, smaller than many minor players in Europe. Some may argue that our relatively weak standing military was a provocation for Japan to attack what perhaps they saw as a toothless tiger. They quickly learned, as did Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, that poking the sleeping giant gets you stomped. The huge military build-up in the years leading to Pearl Harbor and then in the post Pearl Harbor entrance of the United States is remarkable. America at that time was uniquely suited with industrial capacity, a large population and a self-sufficient food supply to go from a military also-ran to an unstoppable fighting force. Furthermore we don’t face that sort of wide scale pitched warfare anymore. Who would we go to war with? China, our largest lender (and we are their largest consumer)? India? Russia? There is not a realistic scenario where we would face the sort of massive mobilization on the horizon. Suggest that maybe we can afford to cut back on military spending and you will find yourself accused of undermining the troops and outright “un-Americanism”.

Our current love affair with the military goes back oddly enough to the end of the Vietnam War and the popular culture that surrounds the treatment of returning Vietnam veterans. The well known events of people screaming at, spitting on and otherwise mistreating soldiers who by and large had been drafted into the war against their will is an ugly stain on our cultural history. I don’t know of anyone who is proud of those events outside of a few relics of the hippie era on the campus of some universities. Even if they are proud of that behavior they generally have the common sense to keep their mouths shut.

Today and really since the first Gulf War (perhaps even back to the Reagan Presidency) the attitude in America has changed. Today the military is revered above almost any other public institution by most Americans. “Support our troops” is assumed by most people. Citizens thank uniformed serviceman in public for their service. In an age when most public institutions are looked at with suspicion if not outright hostility (governments, schools, churches, sports, doctors), the military sits alone on a pedestal. Along with that comes with political cover that prevents any discussion of reducing the size and scope of our military or restraining military spending. In an era of record setting crippling deficits, cutting military spending is virtually off the board. Mitt Romney even called for increased military spending in a speech last week without a hint of where the money would come from.

The reverence for the military is understandable. With the death of the “Greatest Generation” of World War II vets and the near constant service of so many men and women in the years following September 11th, it is little wonder that the military holds a unique place of reverence in America in a time when few of our cultural pillars are unstained. How can one not see the young men and women in uniform in an airport, coming from or going to a new base or perhaps Afghanistan or Iraq and not be touched? However, this reverence has the potential for some serious problems.

First, the military budget. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the Federal government as something that is not realistically able to be handled by the states. That Constitutional function does not provide a blank check for military interventions and nation building. I have a hard time believing that the Founders would approve of a ten year war in Afghanistan. Given our trillions upon trillions of dollars in national debt that shows no sign of shrinking, we need to be willing to cut defense spending in a meaningful way. We can do so without putting our nation at risk and it is high time that the rest of our allies step up and shoulder some of the burden.

Second, a skewing of opinion when our troops are “in harms way”. When the military is in the field, we are supposed to rally around the flag and support them, no matter what. Questions about whether or not we should be engaged in a theater of operation is virtually forbidden and suggestions to that effect invariably lead to charges of “not supporting the troops”. This attitude quashes legitimate questions. A decision to put American troops into combat is by far the most critical decision a President can make and that decision needs to be open to discussion. That means that neither blind support nor blind opposition to any military action is a sign of a health republic.

Finally, although this seems unlikely, it should worry us that we have a huge and often politicized standing army in our midst. Too often around the world the government has seized power beyond its mandate by using the military. Of course that wouldn’t happen here, right? Almost certainly not but we are also facing a great deal of social unrest, discontentment, extended unemployment and almost certainly huge cuts to entitlements and benefits people expect from the Federal government. Never underestimate what fear and uncertainty can do to a populace and never underestimate what steps those in power will take to stay in power.

Americans should absolutely respect the service of those who serve in the military and remember the sacrifices they have made. We should also remember where we came from and remember that the military is for our national defense, a mandate that it has been called to exceed for my entire life. Likewise we should recall that the military is part of the government and that we should always pay attention to how it is run, where it is sent and how it is funded. The military is not and must not be above reproach or examination and we need to keep that in mind. Honor the troops but be realistic about the military.
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