While I ate a simple breakfast and drank my coffee yesterday morning, I read an article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker for January 28: “The Force.” My breakfast went down easily enough, but the article was unsettling, and I haven’t been able to let go of the emotions it stirred up.
A subheading describes Lepore’s subject with a question: “How much military is enough?” As we enter protracted negotiations over deficit reduction and the federal budget, the question could not be more timely. Considering the amount of human effort and sacrifice that goes into our military establishment, and the money and other resources committed to its maintenance while other priorities are given short shrift, the question – just how much military is enough? – should concern us all.
“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.” Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard, and she puts these figures in a perspective that reaches back to the early years of our republic, when the presence of a ‘standing army’ in peacetime was regarded as tyranny: instead, a ‘well regulated militia’ was to be desired.
The two World Wars and the long, amorphous Cold War (leading, of course, to hot wars in Korea and Vietnam) transformed Americans’ thinking about the necessity of a military establishment, and transformed our economy as well, with many adverse consequences.
I have had no experience of military service, nor did my father, who was 4-F and a civilian employee of the federal government during World War II. I was ‘on the left’ and a protester against the war in Vietnam; I didn’t have to evade the draft, but my age and employment helped me avoid it.
Subsequently, I’ve been uninvolved in most of the public protests against American military adventures and the costs of our enormous military establishment. One groans and grumbles against the vested interests of the ‘military-industrial complex’ and one is shocked by the ordinary cruelties and sensational atrocities that occur in wars, especially when there are no front lines and civilians are exposed to the worst that can happen to them. But such unhappiness as mine goes nowhere; it accomplishes nothing.
While I paid close attention to the (mis)conduct of retaliatory and preemptive wars during the eight years of the second Bush administration, I regret to say that I’ve given the Obama administration carte blanche. Much has been accomplished and remarkable changes in policy have been effected, in spite of risks and opposition, but deeper changes are called for.
The hero in Jill Lepore’s article is Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, whose military career included fighting in Vietnam in 1970 and ’71; after leaving the army he earned a Ph. D. in history and international relations at Princeton. He is now a professor at Boston University, and the author of several books, including The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005). Lepore says of him, “A Catholic and a conservative, Bacevich is viscerally pained by Americans’ ‘infatuation with military power’.”
The most poignant and profound passage in Lepore’s article concerns Bacevich’s testimony on April 23, 2009, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concerning the protracted war in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan. (I dimly remember the stir made by that hearing at the time; I believe it had much to do with the still-controversial decision to withdraw American soldiers from the fighting there by 2014.)
Bacevich made good use of the fact that Senator John Kerry was chairing the meeting. He recalled that thirty-eight years earlier, the same man, much younger, testified before the same Senate committee “against the then seemingly endless war in Vietnam.” And he observed that between 1971 and 2009, the predominant American attitude toward involvement in a long war had shifted profoundly.
“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 the Long War.” Bacevich observed that there were many reasons for the change in American attitudes toward war, the most important being the end of the “citizen-soldier tradition” after Vietnam and the creation of a “professional” military consisting, in theory at least, of volunteers.
The trouble is, he said, this military “exists at some remove from American society. Americans today profess to ‘support the troops’ but that support is a mile wide and an inch deep. It rarely translates into serious public concern for whether the troops are being used wisely or well” (emphasis added).
Near the end of his testimony, Bacevich again quoted what John Kerry had said as an angry young man: “we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.” Then Bacevich added: “The mystical war against communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. As in the 1960s so too today: mystification breeds misunderstanding and misjudgment. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.” To see things as they are is to recognize that the grand goals of the long war on terrorism are unattainable by military means.
(Jill Lepore provides a brief, dramatic account of Bacevich’s testimony and its impact on Senator Kerry. I have quoted from the complete transcript of it, which is readily available online.)
There are indications that the Obama administration knows very well that current U. S. military expenditures are unsustainable. The trend in recent years is downward, but still incredibly high. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which publishes annually a list of the world’s top 15 military spenders, in 2012 the U. S. accounted for 41% of the world’s total, at $711billion (4.7% of GDP). Our closest competitor is China, with $143billion, which is 8.2% of the world’s share (2% of China’s GDP).
Apparently, our military leaders regard 4% of GDP as the absolute minimum for their share of the pie. Let’s see if negotiations get close to that in the coming months, and let’s see what course the Obama administration pursues in foreign affairs with John Kerry as Secretary of State (hopefully with Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense).
We need a strong military, and strong defenses against real enemies at home and abroad, but “power projection,” which preoccupies the adamant defenders of our military establishment, is not the only sign of American strength, and in some circumstances (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan) it may be dangerous and counter-productive.
I’ll end by harking back to some words of Paul Kingsnorth, as quoted in an earlier post, my “Dialogue of Hope with Doubt.” He said, “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side.” On such new paths we will certainly need courage; we will also need a questioning and imaginative approach to old certainties and unfamiliar circumstances.
Such a reorientation will take a long time and a great effort, which is why I’m writing about it now. To some, I know, I’m sounding like Chicken Little, or perhaps like Don Quixote. If so, help me find a new story.