THE BLOG

Demilitarizing America

11/11/2012 01:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

With the elections now over and a good many of us having performed our most fundamental act of national service in casting a ballot, the largest and most immediate challenge facing the New-Boss-Same-as-the-Old-Boss is the so-called "fiscal cliff" and the possibility -- if not probability -- of massive cuts to the federal budget under sequestration. The defense part of this is a great example of what the late writer John W. Gardner observed when secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the mid-1960s: "We are all faced with a series of great opportunities -- brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems."

What struck me during the election is how both candidates took up the position of making cuts to defense spending sacrosanct, never venturing beyond the notion that defense is national security and that the best way to ensure it is to keep throwing money at the Pentagon. You could understand this with Romney, but let's hope Obama's caving into this kind of ad baculum was not a change of heart from what he said at the Pentagon last January. Channeling Eisenhower's admonition about "the need to maintain balance in and among national programs," Obama declared: "After a decade of war, and as we rebuild the source of our strength, at home and abroad, it's time to restore that balance."

Given the enormity of what former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen called "the greatest long-term threat to our national security," it's "high time to start thinking about how to manage a serious draw-down, instead of pretending that it will not happen," as Gordon Adams, who leads the call for defense budget reform at Foreign Policy, insists. Even Grover Norquist argues that conservatives "... should insist that defense spending be examined with the same seriousness that we demand in examining the books of those government agencies that spend taxpayer money in the name of welfare, the environment, or education."

When it comes to defense spending, less may in fact be more. We have an opportunity, as a just-released study by the Center for American Progress, "Rebalancing Our National Security," concludes: "A responsible rollback of our military budget is achievable with no impact on our security ... Congress can rebalance the U.S. defense budget responsibly while at the same time enhancing our overall national security." It agrees with Adams' contention that the hullabaloo of late is little more than a campaign by powerful patrons in the military industrial complex and their political sponsors to scare us into maintaining unsustainable Pentagon spending by "defending defense" and keeping our military "second to none." "The American military is far and away the strongest in the world," Adams and others assert. "Moreover, in recent years the United States has been spending more on defense, in constant dollars, than at any time since 1945."

The Center for American Progress agrees: While "our dominance in every dimension of military power is clear, our current military expenditures account for nearly half of the world's total." We spend more now on average than during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was an existential threat. This is not a sign of a confident superpower, but one whose Weltanschauung is fear-factored and clings hopelessly to the status quo. Our love of enemies, which begins and ends with us, is a national neurosis.

If Tea Partiers are right in saying that politicians should, above all, heed the will of the people, then they should heed the consensus that we devote far too many resources to the military. A May 2012 poll, "Consulting the American People on National Defense Spending," determined that 76 percent of respondents, including 67 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats, want cuts in annual defense spending averaging $126.9-billion, or 18 percent -- twice the amount to be cut by sequestration.

The Center for American Progress also makes the point that rebalancing our fiscal resources "must include improving the current imbalance between the resources devoted to the military and nonmilitary components of our foreign and security policy." We commit precious few resources to ending and preventing wars than we do fighting them.

A well-managed drawdown presents many opportunities for defense sector reform at home and not just abroad. Adams notes that the U.S. "tooth-to-tail" ratio is worse than 27 of 28 other countries, including China and Russia. Despite countless stories about exhausted troops, 40 percent of our active duty forces have never deployed. And while it has been too politically easy to boost the troops' pay to keep up with civilian counterparts, in many ways the relationship is reversing as military pay has been immune to the reduction of civilian wage and salary scales resulting from the Great Recession. Besides, what corporation today could survive if it provided half their employees' pay and all their benefits in retirement, after an average of only 20 years and huge investments in education and training, for almost twice as long as they originally worked, meanwhile subsidizing about 80% of their health care premiums? This is indeed a noble thing to do, but can we sustain this when personnel-related costs are beginning to eat up nearly half of all defense spending, generating less and less bang for the buck?

Despite all the noise about defense industry job losses, there is much evidence that the ultimate result of prudent defense cuts and reinvestment elsewhere would yield significant benefits to economic competitiveness -- itself a more essential and higher-yielding investment than "national security." A shift of funding from military to climate security for example would result in a net increase in employment -- the University of Massachusetts found that $1 billion spent on the military generates about 11,000 jobs as compared to the nearly 17,000 jobs generated by the same amount invested in clean energy.

As I pointed out in an August, the "fiscal cliff" provides an historic opportunity finally to get it right, if we can understand that where defense ends, strategy can begin. Our constant state of warfare -- since 9/11 can be seen as indicative of strategic failure. Romney was right when he said during the final debate that "we can't kill our way out of this mess." George Friedman of STRATFOR agrees: "The constant warfare that has characterized the beginning of this century is strategically unsustainable ... This is not so much a policy as a reality. The United States cannot be the global policeman or the global social worker ... Knowing when to go to war is an art, the heart of which is knowing when not to go to war." He adds:

One of the hardest things for a young empire to master is the principle that, for the most part, there is nothing to be done. That is the phase in which the United States finds itself at the moment. It is coming to terms not so much with the limits of power as the nature of power. Great power derives from the understanding of the difference between those things that matter and those that don't, and a ruthless indifference to those that don't. It is a hard thing to learn, but history is teaching it to the United States.

Looking at it another way, having all this "strategic depth" and capability tempts fool's errands. As has become cliché: When you have a big hammer, you go out in constant search of nails. Until 1945, this was one of the very reasons the nation refrained from maintaining a large, standing professional fighting force at the beckon of a tempted chief executive. Or, as Rachel Maddow observed in Drift: "As the national security state has metastasized, decisions to use force have become painless and slick, almost automatic. The disincentives to war deliberately built into our American system of government -- particularly the citizen-soldier, and leaving the power to declare war with Congress instead of the president -- we've worked around them."

Among other things, this perpetual disparity tells the rest of the world a story about us that is entirely in contravention with our national values. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Naval Academy professor Aaron B. O'Connell points out:

Our culture has militarized considerably since Eisenhower's era, and civilians, not the armed services, have been the principal cause. From lawmakers' constant use of 'support our troops' to justify defense spending, to TV programs and video games like NCIS, Homeland and Call of Duty, to NBC's shameful and unreal reality show Stars Earn Stripes, Americans are subjected to a daily diet of stories that valorize the military while the storytellers pursue their own opportunistic political and commercial agendas. Of course, veterans should be thanked for serving their country, as should police officers, emergency workers and teachers. But no institution -- particularly one financed by the taxpayers -- should be immune from thoughtful criticism.

And yet:

Uncritical support of all things martial is quickly becoming the new normal for our youth. Hardly any of my students at the Naval Academy remember a time when their nation wasn't at war. Almost all think it ordinary to hear of drone strikes in Yemen or Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. The recent revelation of counterterrorism bases in Africa elicits no surprise in them, nor do the military ceremonies that are now regular features at sporting events. That which is left unexamined eventually becomes invisible, and as a result, few Americans today are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names.

To which military writer Tom Ricks adds, when talking about his new book, The Generals, with The Huffington Post: "We tend to venerate the military these days unthinkingly and that's not good for the military or the country."

The Hero Project, which Newsweek and The Daily Beast launched this past week, looks to "pay tribute to America's deep tradition of service, investigate the phenomenon of moral and physical courage under fire, and explore the very meaning of heroism." The problem is, its overwhelming focus on the military suggests that only those who go to war can be heroes.

Last year, I suggested that "we need to democratize -- and to some extent de-militarize -- our national service "ethic," noting "there are many ways to serve your country, other than wearing a uniform." Seizing the moment to re-balance our national resources towards peace as much as security helps us to do more than ensure our moral standing and strategic position in the world, as well as close our credibility gap by walking the talk when it comes to applied power.

With some fresh wind at its back, the (second) Obama administration now also has the historic opportunity, beyond re-balancing national strength and power, to transition the meaning of national service and the sacrifice that qualifies it by changing Veterans Day to National Service Day and revising the meaning of Memorial Day to make it more inclusive and whole-of-society.

Besides helping us to revitalize the meaning of citizenship, transforming these holidays to a greater level of inclusiveness will likewise help us find a basis of moral strength and unity in a dangerously divided nation. It will help put the unum back into e pluribus unum.

Just cutting the defense budget will make us neither stronger nor more free and secure. In both senses, de-militarizing America and democratizing national service and sacrifice will do more than restore enduring national strengths and regenerate the democratic civil-military relationship. It will bring us back to being more what we're about than what we're afraid of, allowing us and thus others to be touched by the better angels of our nature.