The United States spends 663,255,000,000 on defense. It’s 43% of world military spending. To put it in perspective, our nearest rival, China, accounts for only 6.6.% of world military spending. We spend over seven times more per year than our nearest rival. We were spending that much, roughly, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.
What if we were to imagine this not as “defense” spending, but as social spending? Job training, socialized healthcare benefits, cooperative discounted shopping at the PX: this isn’t something I’m making up, the Army advertises itself this way. See here, or here or here. The Army advertises itself as both a fighting force and a giant job corps.
And of course in many parts of the US the Army does what a social safety net does in Europe–it provides jobs. And not just the tens of thousands of jobs required to keep a modern army operating–food prep, auto mechanics, air conditioning repair, computer security, electricians, plumbers, guys who can do concrete work, etc.—it also employs people who service the bases. Where I live, in northern Virginia, it employs an vast array of military contractors in office towers up and down the major highways. And it provides secure pensions and subsidiary benefits for veterans.
This is what Eisenhower famously termed “the Military Industrial Complex,” the creation of a vast, permanent standing military apparatus. As a career military officer, Eisenhower knew perfectly well what a change this represented, a complete reversal of American tradition regarding the military.
Historically, while they admired military heroes Americans had always been deeply suspicious of large standing armies. England’s maintenance of standing armies in the colonies had been a major reason for the Revolutionary War. Armies were seen as an invitation to tyranny, and what’s more, service in the army, with its demands for instant obedience and its commitment to hierarchy, was seen as itself un-American. Revolutionary patriot Benjamin Rush wrote: “The militia began, and I sincerely hope the militia will end, the present war. I should despair of our cause if our country contained 60, 000 men abandoned enough to enlist for three years ” in the regular Army. A soldier in the Army surrendered all liberty and independence of mind, Rush thought; all the things for which the Revolution was fought.
So while Americans frequently elected military heroes to office, they also tended to disband the Army as soon as convenient. After the Revolutionary war, the army shrank to a tiny, poorly organized force. After the War of 1812, it largely disappeared. The Mexican War saw a very rapid build up and a just as rapid break down, and the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and WWI followed the same pattern: a very rapid build up followed by an equally rapid dismantling. The last thing Americans wanted was to pay taxes to support a huge, mostly idle Army.
After WWII, the historical pattern changed: indeed, the Cold War changed everything, as Eisenhower pointed out. Now we have thousands of soldiers stationed permanently all over the world, and military spending amounts to a permanent, institutionalized government stimulus plan.
Thinking in Keynesian terms, those billions of dollars go to hire people, to buy equipment and supplies. If you cut American military spending by, say, 50%, you’d vastly increase unemployment, depress manufactures, and open up an enormous hole in the economy. But you could also dramatically decrease the deficit and decrease taxes, which should have tea party activists scrambling to cut military spending.
But mostly they aren’t, because military spending enjoys a special exemption form other kinds of thinking about the budget. Americans, it turns out, seem to love socialism when it’s dressed in fatigues.
This is not an anti-military argument. Military service is honorable and essential. But what if we rethought of military service in the wider frame of social service? We could gain a lot if we rethought how military spending functions in our economy. If we looked at the armed services as both “military” and as a social services network/social safety network, the United States would look more like Europe than generally assumed.
UPDATE: I suppose what I’m arguing here is that rather than fight it, progressive types should go with it.
First, cutting military spending has for years been a bugaboo of the right: “liberals are soft on defense;” liberals spit on the troops etc. This tactic works largely because the military is the thinly disguised social safety net for lots of places. Bellicosity about military spending disguises that fact, and it’s been a really effective tool for beating liberals.
Second, the military industrial complex is most obviously not going anywhere. The horse has left the barn: we have and probably always will have an economy in which big government military spending is crucial to virtually everything.
So rather than try to return to a lost era, the logical course for progressive types would be to embrace the govt./military relationship. The military is now forced to do this anyway–it’s the testing ground for various types of social engineering: for example: racial, gender, and now same-sex integration. The military does charitable emergency work worldwide, for example in Japan. It offer college aid programs; it funds hi tech research of all kinds.
The logical course of action would be to argue for an enlarged military presence. Compulsory military service, coupled to domestic infrastructure improvements and educational benefits. This would not be welcomed by most career officers, who quite reasonably want to preserve the military as a volunteer fighting force with high standards. But they also want to preserve their budgets, and of course, rarely turn down money.