The Military Sacred Cow

Lately there has been a fair bit of political hay made over the state of defence spending globally. Whenever an economic downturn happens and tax revenues fall, governments are forced to try to find savings wherever they can in order to keep budget deficits from spiralling out of control. With the global recession in 2008 we saw many nations experience a perfect storm of economic contraction, falling tax revenues, and the uncomfortable reality of needing to pump stimulus funds into several flailing industrial sectors.

What has now lately emerged in the United States is some controversy about a few policy decisions taken by President Obama which has prompted some serious consideration of the impact of defence spending on national economies.

In the US in particular, the military consumes an absolutely massive amount of resources. Someone recently told me that about a third of US tax revenue goes to funding the Armed Forces. It seems that this is the military-industrial complex of which Dwight D. Eisenhower warned after WW2. When the Cold War took the place of heated conflict, Ike saw the danger of focusing so much economic activity on the pursuit of ever newer and ever more powerful weaponry. The arms race between the US and the Soviet Union nearly bankrupted both nations as each sought to build a massive arsenal with which to deter the other’s ambitions.

In particular, what Eisenhower was concerned about was a sort of corporatism where the influence of the defence industry trumped that of the public in the eyes of the government, where they gained the sort of influence that in the classic economic debate of “guns or butter”, guns one every time. This isn’t hard to see happen. Military procurements are a tremendous form of pork and can have the perverse effect of giving the armed forces equipment they don’t even want or need to satisfy political goals. Canada’s LSVW truck is often pointed to as an example of this kind of development.

What astounds me is how supposedly fiscal conservative Americans in particular seem to want to treat the military like a sacred cow and treat any effort to contain spending on it like some kind of astounding act of treason. First I noticed this when President Obama made an agreement with Russia to cut nuclear arsenals dramatically and issued clarification on the circumstances under which the United States would use its nuclear weapons. If you read nothing but conservative extremist commentary you would think that he had renounced nukes entirely, disarmed the US, that sort of thing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This seems a continuous of the “support the troops” rhetoric that became so commonplace when the United States launched into the disastrous quagmire that is the Iraq War. I note with glee that amongst right wingers at the time it was considered unpatriotic and un-American to criticize a sitting President over policy decisions like that war. It seems they have forgotten this when they attack Barack Obama.

I always laugh at the “support our troops” concept because it can be so empty and rhetorical. It was something hurled at left-leaning protestors (or anyone sane who opposed the invasion of Iraq) so as to suggest that not “supporting the troops” was wrong or that whether you agreed with the policy or not “supporting the troops” was key.

I never really understood what supporting the troops actually meant. Did these people actually do anything “supportive”? No. They didn’t question the wisdom of the war in Iraq or the lies that propped it up. They didn’t demand a clear strategy for Afghanistan. They stuck flags and ribbons on their cars and contented themselves that somehow they had done some good. Now, I’m getting off a bit on a tangent – but there are ways this can be good. In Canada, for example, CANEX sells this merchandise and proceeds do in fact go to programs which benefit military families.

Back to the premise though. The reality is that when you look at the US’ military budget, which is almost 25% of the total federal budget, you have to know that there are plenty of ways to cut. There are plenty of capabilities that exist in surplus, like carrier battle groups in the US Navy, costing a fortune to maintain.

Talk about making these cuts though and many get incredibly defensive, as though shrinking the massive might of the US while still being far ahead of the rest of the world is somehow going to make America vulnerable. We’ve already seen that all the advanced F-22 fighters (another program scrapped, thankfully for US taxpayers) won’t end the war in Iraq, nor prevent terrorist attacks, nor support counterinsurgency efforts.

In Canada as well I suspect this kind of reckoning is coming soon. The floodgates for spending opened when Afghanistan heated up, but when the mission there winds down next year, there will be a lot of calls to curb the defence budget particularly since Canada is now in a deficit position. While disengaging from Afghanistan will save DND a lot of money in a lot of different ways, the argument will likely be made that some substantial capital reinvestments will be necessary in order to continue operations – worn out vehicles will need replacing, for example. There may be some challenges in getting this done – and all the while Canada’s Navy and Air Force will be looking for their share of the pie. The Navy, in particular, will probably want to get some attention as there has been no significant investment in them lately. They have an entirely rational interest in keeping themselves relevant and getting the largest possible piece of what is likely to be a shrinking pie.

The more fascinating thing – especially in the case of the US is the quandary of supposed fiscal conservatives not only resisting the idea of shrinking the US military, even while maintaining effective capabilities, but the fact that many of them didn’t see an issue with Iraq war – or more shockingly particularly in the case of the social conservative/religious right, they seem to want to wage war on Iran.

It’d be a whole other post to get into why invading Iran would be absolutely insane and stupid, never mind atrociously expensive and likely unsuccessful by any definition anyhow. I don’t know if this ties into some kind of effort to trigger their end of the world story (the only reason I can see for their “pro-Israel no matter what shite Netanyahu says” position).

The point of this is that I don’t understand the reason that these people blindly defend the unsustainable spending the US military consumes. It’s the one time they seem apt to suspend their fiscal conservative disbelief (and it undermines it altogether anyhow). If you want small government, it starts with getting the military right-sized and focused on its intended role: national defence.

Treating the military like a sacred cow when it comes to fiscal discipline is simply unrealistic. Berating spending on healthcare or education while continuing to blindly shovelling money into the military-industrial complex neither benefits economic competitiveness nor makes a country s better place to live. While it’s important to have an effective defence capability it makes no sense to bankrupt the treasury to maintain a capability far beyond any foreseeable threat.


2 comments so far

  1. milnewsca on

    Some of it must also be tied up in politics – nobody wants to be the one to say, “yeah, close the base in my backyard.” I would imagine acquisitions get the same sort of “what can I get for my backyard?” filter, too (like here).

    • warriorbanker on

      Without a doubt that’s a huge problem. Military procurements and installations are massive cash cows for the district in which they are located. In a lot of military communities as we both know they are really the only game in town. The political consequences of cuts are real and it’s easier to appeal to emotion on military issues, I think, than it is to prevent the shut down of some faceless bureaucracy even if the job count/economic impact is similar.

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