Now that Washington is suddenly having a nervous breakdown over the long-term deficit, even military spending cuts are supposedly “on the table.” In any sane world, they should be, since 1) we shell out more on defense than every other nation in the world combined; 2) the Pentagon sucks up more dollars today than it did during the height of the Cold War, even though we don’t have an enemy remotely comparable to the U.S.S.R.; and 3) we don’t get a whole lot for our money (unless you count Iraq and Afghanistan as wild successes).
So, yeah, great that military spending is on the table. Except that it’s not. At least that’s what Andrew Bacevich is saying over at Tomdispatch, and he’s generally pretty reliable on these things. (A politically conservative former military man and B.U. professor, he’s the author of, among other books, The New American Militarism, The Limits of Power, and, most recently, Washington Rules.) For all the talk about no more sacred cows–even, sincerely, from the Defense Secretary himself–the Pentagon budget remains off-limits.
But why? For start, says Bacevich, the DOD has thrown up a four-layer protective shield that keeps it “untouched and untouchable.” The layers are:
1. Institutional self-interest: the Pentagon, Congress, lobbyists, the defense industry (the Military-Industrial Complex, if you will)–they all have a vested interest in maintaining the gold-plated status quo.
2. Strategic inertia: The U.S. came out of World War II as the richest, most powerful nation in the world. American policy makers quickly decided the best way to preserve this status was to project power–through fleets, military personnel, and bases–all over the world. Which costs a lot of money.
3. Cultural dissonance: We–ordinary Americans–used to serve in the military (as in World War II)–which is to say that patriotism meant some kind of sacrifice. No longer. But we can still feel good about the ourselves–and our country–by “supporting our troops” and reflecting that if young men and women are willing to fight and die for this country, then it must be worth fighting and dying for.
4. Misremembered history: For a long time, America had a robust and respectable anti-interventionist tradition (George Washington sits squarely in it). But then came World War II (“the Good war”), when anyone who’d argued against taking on Hitler looked, after the fact, like a dupe or worse. From then on, anti-interventionism got lumped in with (morally suspect) isolationism, and nobody wanted to touch it. Today, both political parties are “war parties.”
Taken together, says Bacevich, these four barriers “insulate the military budget from serious scrutiny. For advocates of a militarized approach to policy, they provide invaluable assets, to be defended at all costs.”
This post originally appeared on The Progressive Book Club.
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