Written by Phil Guarnieri Friday, 09 September 2011 00:00
The one thing about the military, which rings absolutely true, is that you don’t need them until you need them. As America wearies over fighting two wars, breaking news that U.S. troops will be reduced to 3,000 in Iraq began to sizzle on the airwaves. These tidings will be welcomed by those who have found the death of American soldiers on foreign lands intolerable and an opportunity to reduce expenditures in an economy savaged by bad news.
Manacling the Pentagon has an interesting pedigree; a lineage that can be traced to Dwight Eisenhower who, in perhaps the second most famous Presidential Farewell Address ever delivered, warned about turning America into a “Military Industrial Complex.” The evidence, however, that the immense military establishment in the U.S. ever developed unwarranted but much less preponderant influence of American foreign policy is sorely anemic. The proper level of defense spending should be straightforward and uncomplicated: Military expenditures must be predicated upon what we need to fight present wars and to avoid future ones. This is neither a warmongering cry to arms or a Strangelovian proposition, but one that is shaped by the refractory and dangerous world we live in. It is not, moreover, an untried philosophy but one whose principles are axiomatic against those where militancy obstinately prevails. The fact that the United States is militarily the strongest nation on Earth (our navy makes all other navies look like the Coast Guard) has paid untold dividends in making aggressors more pacific and tractable even in a world of competing cultures and fighting faiths.
The lyrical pieties of “just give peace a chance” are a dangerous delusion and irrelevant sentimentality, a homiletic defeat that cannot crawl much less stand before the hard, unbending light of history. With a military constitutionally under civilian control, America was never prone to the fetishistic appetites of arms races or military adventure. Geographically insulated by two oceans and the prevailing tradition that large armies are incompatible with the democratic experiment, America took no account of European power struggles and steadfastly demobilized after each and every war of its history. The 20th century did not alter this reality. When the United States entered WWI in 1917, it was forced to use the guns of the French and English because it had failed to develop a military arsenal of its own even though the world had been at war for three years. Even after the Armistice of 1918, the United States plunged into a foolish spasm of isolationism even as Europe lapsed into the darkness of barbarism and philistinism.
This metaphysical amorality over the necessities of national defense, abetted somewhat by the exigencies of the Great Depression, was temporarily suspended by FDR’s clarion call that America must become the “arsenal of democracy” if Western Civilization was to be saved. Even after leading the allied powers to victory in WWII, America still had not absorbed the lessons of its military role or it being anchored to the international arena. Only with the emergence of revolutionary Communism that threatened Western Europe and Asia did the United States create the architecture, under the auspices of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, that fortified our allies, preserved their freedom and kept the peace. Without American military strength the political salvation of these democracies would not only have been implausible but impossible.
The muse of history is selective in imparting its wisdom; from it we know far more about what happened than what might have been avoided. That there was no Third World War in Europe during the whole span of the Cold War is too little appreciated, especially in light that such an eventuality seemed frighteningly inevitable. It didn’t happen because strategic clarity and military deterrence fused into a practical policy of containment and deterrence. While America was drawn into wars in Korea and Vietnam, those engagements, punishing as they were, never remotely resembled a global conflagration. Even more impressive was that this long, drawn out strategy undergirded by American military might ultimately have defeated the Soviet Union.
But what does this mean for today, in a world where threats are increasingly greater from rogue states and shadowy terrorists than they are from other potential superpowers? The axiom that generals are too absorbed in fighting the last war must not be summarily dismissed in context of America’s challenges today. While the strategic reality of the Cold War has passed into history, the need for effective and potent military deterrence has not. Weapon programs and troop levels remain as important as ever. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who skillfully and admirably served both Republican and Democratic administrations, repeatedly reminded us that the U.S. went on a procurement holiday in the 1990s with dire consequences. Weakness and provocation are cousins and the notion that we can look at today without visualizing tomorrow is self-defeating. With the nuclear threats of China and North Korea becoming more ominous, the vacuum of power that would result if the U.S. capitulates in Iraq and Afghanistan, a nuclear and relatively unstable Pakistan, a potential nuclear Iran and terrorists itching for apocalyptic technology, a strong and abiding U.S. military presence and its concomitant intelligence apparatus is not only desirable it is demanded.
Contrary to popular opinion, we do not spend a lot on defense even though only powerful economies can translate, in the long run, into a powerful military. Even with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the U.S. spends only 4.5 percent of its GDP on defense. We spent an average of 7.5 percent during the 40-year Cold War and 6.2 percent during the height of Ronald Reagan’s military build-up. The quixotic notion, usually found in Liberal Arts majors, that balancing the budget and cutting the military are inextricably tied, the facts are very different. Domestic entitlements are more than twice that of defense spending and to embark on such a fatuous course will give us neither balanced budgets nor the security upon which the fate of the nation rests.
The case for modernizing the military and missile defense is so compelling that those who deny its plausibility simply live, as JFK once said, in the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. It is not possible to change ancient hatreds by resorting to moral suasion or transmute the pornography of gratuitous violence and racial hatred, so pervasive and rampart in parts of the world, into an irenic landscape of bucolic serenity. The truth is that I have yet to hear any viable alternative other than an American leadership willing and able to defend civilization against its debasement and slaughter. The poetry of peace is no substitute for the prose of realpolitik and common sense. Soft power is important, diplomacy a vital tool; but both are impoverished without the oeuvre of possibilities that a modernized military could provide to counteract the various and even existential threats that confront us.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9-11, it pays to recall that we reacted to what happened that day not as a criminal act but for what it really was – an act of war. Because of this we have thus far avoided, what no one at the time thought possible, another major terrorist attack on American soil. This is not due to accident or our good fortune but because we soberly confronted the threat as it existed and not as we wished to imagine it. I’ve never believed in a fate that just happens regardless of how we act; but I do believe in a fate that will impose itself upon us if we refuse to act. Let it never be so.