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Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable

Soldiers offer much-needed assurance that old-fashioned values still survive.

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 5:00 AM EST

Cultural Dissonance: The rise of the Tea Party movement should disabuse any American of the thought that the cleavages produced by the "culture wars" have healed. The cultural upheaval touched off by the 1960s and centered on Vietnam remains unfinished business in this country. 

Among other things, the sixties destroyed an American consensus, forged during World War II, about the meaning of patriotism. During the so-called Good War, love of country implied, even required, deference to the state, shown most clearly in the willingness of individuals to accept the government's authority to mandate military service. GI's, the vast majority of them draftees, were the embodiment of American patriotism, risking life and limb to defend the country. 

The GI of World War II had been an American Everyman. Those soldiers both represented and reflected the values of the nation from which they came (a perception affirmed by the ironic fact that the military adhered to prevailing standards of racial segregation). It was "our army" because that army was "us." 

With Vietnam, things became more complicated. The war's supporters argued that the World War II tradition still applied: patriotism required deference to the commands of the state. Opponents of the war, especially those facing the prospect of conscription, insisted otherwise. They revived the distinction, formulated a generation earlier by the radical journalist Randolph Bourne, that distinguished between the country and the state. Real patriots, the ones who most truly loved their country, were those who opposed state policies they regarded as misguided, illegal, or immoral. 

In many respects, the soldiers who fought the Vietnam War found themselves caught uncomfortably in the center of this dispute. Was the soldier who died in Vietnam a martyr, a tragic figure, or a sap? Who deserved greater admiration: the soldier who fought bravely and uncomplainingly or the one who served and then turned against the war? Or was the war resister – the one who never served at all – the real hero? 

War's end left these matters disconcertingly unresolved.  President Richard Nixon's 1971 decision to kill the draft in favor of an All-Volunteer Force, predicated on the notion that the country might be better served with a military that was no longer "us," only complicated things further. So, too, did the trends in American politics where bona fide war heroes (George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain) routinely lost to opponents whose military credentials were non-existent or exceedingly slight (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama), yet who demonstrated once in office a remarkable propensity for expending American blood (none belonging to members of their own families) in places like Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It was all more than a little unseemly.

Patriotism, once a simple concept, had become both confusing and contentious. What obligations, if any, did patriotism impose? And if the answer was none – the option Americans seemed increasingly to prefer – then was patriotism itself still a viable proposition? 

Wanting to answer that question in the affirmative – to distract attention from the fact that patriotism had become little more than an excuse for fireworks displays and taking the occasional day off from work – people and politicians alike found a way to do so by exalting those Americans actually choosing to serve in uniform. The thinking went this way: soldiers offer living proof that America is a place still worth dying for, that patriotism (at least in some quarters) remains alive and well; by common consent, therefore, soldiers are the nation's "best," committed to "something bigger than self" in a land otherwise increasingly absorbed in pursuing a material and narcissistic definition of self-fulfillment. 

In effect, soldiers offer much-needed assurance that old-fashioned values still survive, even if confined to a small and unrepresentative segment of American society. Rather than Everyman, today's warrior has ascended to the status of icon, deemed morally superior to the nation for which he or she fights, the repository of virtues that prop up, however precariously, the nation's increasingly sketchy claim to singularity.

Politically, therefore, "supporting the troops" has become a categorical imperative across the political spectrum. In theory, such support might find expression in a determination to protect those troops from abuse, and so translate into wariness about committing soldiers to unnecessary or unnecessarily costly wars. In practice, however, "supporting the troops" has found expression in an insistence upon providing the Pentagon with open-ended drawing rights on the nation's treasury, thereby creating massive barriers to any proposal to affect more than symbolic reductions in military spending. 

Misremembered History: The duopoly of American politics no longer allows for a principled anti-interventionist position. Both parties are war parties. They differ mainly in the rationale they devise to argue for interventionism. The Republicans tout liberty; the Democrats emphasize human rights. The results tend to be the same: a penchant for activism that sustains a never-ending demand for high levels of military outlays.

American politics once nourished a lively anti-interventionist tradition. Leading proponents included luminaries such as George Washington and John Quincy Adams. That tradition found its basis not in principled pacifism, a position that has never attracted widespread support in this country, but in pragmatic realism. What happened to that realist tradition? Simply put, World War II killed it – or at least discredited it.  In the intense and divisive debate that occurred in 1939-1941, the anti-interventionists lost, their cause thereafter tarred with the label "isolationism." 

The passage of time has transformed World War II from a massive tragedy into a morality tale, one that casts opponents of intervention as blackguards. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the debate over how the United States should respond to some ostensible threat – Iraq in 2003, Iran today – replays the debate finally ended by the events of December 7, 1941. To express skepticism about the necessity and prudence of using military power is to invite the charge of being an appeaser or an isolationist. Few politicians or individuals aspiring to power will risk the consequences of being tagged with that label. 

In this sense, American politics remains stuck in the 1930s – always discovering a new Hitler, always privileging Churchillian rhetoric – even though the circumstances in which we live today bear scant resemblance to that earlier time. There was only one Hitler and he's long dead. As for Churchill, his achievements and legacy are far more mixed than his battalions of defenders are willing to acknowledge.  And if any one figure deserves particular credit for demolishing Hitler's Reich and winning World War II, it's Josef Stalin, a dictator as vile and murderous as Hitler himself. 

Until Americans accept these facts, until they come to a more nuanced view of World War II that takes fully into account the political and moral implications of the US alliance with the Soviet Union and the US campaign of obliteration bombing directed against Germany and Japan, the mythic version of "the Good War" will continue to provide glib justifications for continuing to dodge that perennial question: How much is enough?

Like concentric security barriers arrayed around the Pentagon, these four factors – institutional self-interest, strategic inertia, cultural dissonance, and misremembered history – 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. 

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