- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
With so much attention riveted on Election Day, some important contributions to our discourse are bound to get less attention than they deserve. Case in point: yesterday’s NYT op-ed by Aaron O’Connell on the "permanent militarization of America." It’s an excellent piece, and I just hope his arguments don’t fall into the memory hole while we’re all breathlessly awaiting the outcome in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or wherever.
Drawing in part on former president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous speech on the "military- industrial complex," O’Connell documents how far we have departed from the original traditions of the Founding Fathers and the first 150 years of our history. Men like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were deeply wary of a permanent military establishment, which they recognized as a threat to a republican order. Eisenhower also understood that a country cannot be at war more-or-less permanently without creating a gross imbalance between military institutions (including weapons labs, contractors, and even some universities feeding at the DoD trough), and becoming vulnerable to spiritual erosion. We’ve long since forgotten that our rise to world power was facilitated by staying out of wars (or getting into them late). And we’ve clearly lost sight of the fact that smart great powers make allies bear their full share of the collective burden, instead of taking pride in one’s own "indispensability" and rushing eagerly into the next quagmire.
The problem isn’t so much a misallocation of resources — defense spending is only about 4 percent of U.S. GDP — but rather the deference that the military now receives from nearly everyone. On the very same day that O’Connell’s piece appeared, Brooks Brothers ran an advertisement in the Times announcing a 25 percent off sale for active and retired military personnel. Not for firemen, police, EMTs, or other risky occupations (fishing, logging, coal mining, etc.): just for the military.
Don’t get me wrong: I think our soldiers should be treated with respect and the country as a whole should compensate them adequately and be grateful for their sacrifices. We certainly ought to make sure that we provide excellent care for those who are wounded in the wars in which they have fought, and provide them the other benefits they were promised when they signed up. But this isn’t a citizen army that has rallied to defend the nation against attack; it is a force made up solely of people who have voluntarily chosen a military career, with all the risks that this entails. They have done so in part because our country has offered them increasingly generous compensation packages, even though only a small percentage will ever serve in harm’s way. But aren’t we going just a bit overboard when joining the military gets you cheaper button-downs, early boarding privileges on civilian airlines, and endless words of praise from opportunistic politicians?
The final absurdity is the tendency to defer to military advice, even on matters where having worn a uniform confers no particular wisdom or insight. Veterans know a lot about the conduct of military operations, but serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else doesn’t give you any special insights into whether such wars are in the national interest or not.
Similarly, having served in the military doesn’t give you any special insight into who ought to govern the country. It was supposedly big news when a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and former Secretary of State), Colin Powell endorsed President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Not to be outdone, last week a bevy of retired generals and admirals endorsed Mitt Romney.
In fact, neither of these endorsements ought to carry much weight. Whatever his other virtues and achievements, Powell was an embarrassing failure as Secretary of State, and mostly because he misread the political tea leaves inside the Bush administration and didn’t have the good sense or integrity to resign when his counsel was rejected. As for all those retired officers who endorsed Romney, has anyone noticed that the United States has lost not one but two wars in the past decade, and that America’s senior military leaders did not exactly acquit themselves brilliantly in conducting either one? The civilian leadership (both Republican and Democratic) deserves plenty of blame too, but the quality of senior military advice that they received was often abysmal. One can be grateful for the sacrifices that our enlisted men have made, yet be underwhelmed by the strategic wisdom of their commanders.
As I noted last week, the composition, character, and current direction of the entire national security establishment is one of the big issues that the next president ought to address. But it’s hard to believe either Obama or Romney will. Why? Because questioning the current militarization of American society will make you plenty of enemies and won’t win you many friends. Which is precisely O’Connell’s point.
Postscript: I’m just back from my neighborhood polling station, and am now basking in the psychological income of exercising the franchise. Feels good. If you’re a U.S. citizen and registered to vote, don’t miss out. VOTE.