What Would It Take for Military Spending in America to Go Down? A Thought Experiment on the Military-Industrial Complex
I have a question for you: What would it take in today’s world for America’s military spending to go down? Here’s one admittedly farfetched scenario: Vladimir Putin loses his grip on power and Russia retrenches militarily while reaching out to normalize relations with the West. At the same time, China prudently decides to spend less on its military, pursuing economic power while abandoning any pretense to a militarized superpower status. Assuming such an unlikely scenario, with a “new cold war” nipped in the bud and the U.S. as the world’s unchallenged global hegemon, Pentagon spending would surely shrink, right?
Well, I wouldn’t count on it. Based on developments after the Soviet Union’s collapse three decades ago, here’s what I suspect would be far more likely to happen. The U.S. military, aided by various strap-hanging think tanks, intelligence agencies, and weapons manufacturers, would simply shift into overdrive. As its spokespeople would explain to anyone who’d listen (especially in Congress), the disappearance of the Russian and Chinese threats would carry its own awesome dangers, leaving this country prospectively even less safe than before.
You’d hear things like: we’ve suddenly been plunged into a more complex multipolar world, significantly more chaotic now that our “near-peer” rivals are no longer challenging us, with even more asymmetrical threats to U.S. military dominance. The key word, of course, would be “more” — linked, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, to omnipresent Pentagon demands for yet more military spending. When it comes to weapons, budgets, and war, the military-industrial complex’s philosophy is captured by an arch comment of the legendary actress Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
Even without Russia and China as serious threats to American hegemony, you’d hear again about an “unbalanced” Kim Jong-un in North Korea and his deeply alarming ballistic missiles; you’d hear about Iran and its alleged urge to build nuclear weapons; and, if those two countries proved too little, perhaps the war on terror would be resuscitated. (Indeed, during the ongoing wall-to-wall coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea did test a ballistic missile, an event a distracted media greeted with a collective shrug.) My point is this: when you define the entire globe as your sphere of influence, as the U.S. government does, there will always be threats somewhere. It matters little, in budgetary terms, whether it’s terror, most often linked to radical Islam, or the struggle over resources linked to climate change, which the Pentagon has long recognized as a danger, even if it still burns carbon as if there were no tomorrow. And don’t discount a whole new set of dangers in space and cyberspace, the latest realms of combat.
Of course, this country is always allegedly falling behind in some vital realm of weapons research. Right now, it’s hypersonic missiles, just as in the early days of the Cold War bomber and missile “gaps” were falsely said to be endangering our security. Again, when national security is defined as full-spectrum dominance and America must reign supreme in all areas, you can always come up with realms where we’re allegedly lagging and where there’s a critical need for billions more of your taxpayer dollars. Consider the ongoing “modernization” of our nuclear arsenal, at a projected cost approaching $2 trillion over the coming decades. As a jobs program, as well as an advertisement of naked power, it may yet rival the Egyptian pyramids. (Of course, the pyramids became wonders of the world rather than threatening to end it.)
No Peace Dividends for You
While a young captain in the Air Force, I lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a romping, stomping performance by our military in the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. It felt great! I was teaching history at the Air Force Academy when President George H.W. Bush talked of a “new world order.” On a planet with no Soviet Union and no Cold War, we even briefly heard talk of “peace dividends” to come that echoed the historical response of Americans after prevailing in past wars. In the aftermath of the Civil War, as well as World Wars I and II, rapid demobilization and a dramatic downsizing of the military establishment had occurred.
And indeed, there was initially at least some modest shrinkage of our military after the Soviet collapse, though nothing like what most experts had expected. Personnel cuts came first. As a young officer, I well remember the Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP) and the Selective Early Retirement Board (SERB). VSIP offered money to entice officers like me to get out early, while SERB represented involuntary retirement for those judged to have overstayed their welcome. Then there was the dreaded RIF, or Reduction in Force, program, which involved involuntary separation without benefits.
Yet even as personnel were pruned from our military, the ambitions of the national security state only grew. As I wrote long ago, the U.S. didn’t just “contain” the Soviet empire during the Cold War; that empire also contained us. With its main enemy in tatters and facing virtually no restraint to its global ambitions, the military-industrial complex promptly began to search for new realms to dominate and new enemies to contain and defeat. Expansion, not shrinkage, soon became the byword, whether in Asia, Africa, or Europe, where, despite promises made to the last of the Soviet Union’s leaders, NATO’s growth took the lead.
So, let’s jump to 1998, just before the initial round of NATO expansion occurred. I’m a major in the Air Force now, on my second tour of teaching history to cadets and I’m attending a seminar on coalition warfare. Its concluding panel focused on the future of NATO and featured four generals who had served at the highest levels of that alliance. I was feverishly taking notes as one of them argued forcefully for NATO’s expansion despite Russian concerns. “Russia has nothing to fear,” he assured us and, far more important, could no longer prevent it. “If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite,” he concluded. Tell that to the people of Ukraine in 2022.
Retired Army General Andrew Goodpaster had a different view. He suggested that the U.S. could have fostered a peaceful “overarching relationship” with Russia after 1991 but chose antagonism and expansion instead. For him, NATO’s growth was only likely to antagonize a post-Soviet Russia further. Air Force General John Shaud largely agreed, suggesting that the U.S. should work to ensure that Russia didn’t become yet more isolated thanks to such a program of expansion.
In the end, three of those four retired generals urged varying degrees of caution. In an addendum to my notes, I scribbled this: “NATO expansion, from the perspective of many in the West, gathers the flock and unites them against an impending storm. From the Russian perspective, NATO expansion, beyond a certain point, is intolerable; it is the storm.” If three of four former senior NATO commanders and a young Air Force major could see that clearly almost 25 years ago, surely senior government officials of the day could, too.
Unfortunately, it turned out that they simply didn’t care. For the military-industrial complex, as journalist Andrew Cockburn noted in 2015, such expansion was simply too lucrative to pass up. It meant more money, profits, and jobs, as Eastern European militaries retooled with weaponry from the West, much of it made in the USA. It didn’t matter that Russia was prostrate and posed no threat; it didn’t matter that NATO’s main reason for being had disappeared. What mattered was more: more countries in NATO, meaning more weapons sold, more money made, more influence peddled. Who cared if expansion pissed off the Russians? What was a toothless “circus tiger” going to do about it anyway, gum us to death?
If there ever was a time for peace dividends and military demobilization, the 1990s were it. This country even had a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who was focused far more on domestic concerns than foreign policy. And there’s the rub. He simply had no desire to challenge the military-industrial complex. Few presidents do.
Early in his first term, he’d already lost big-time in arguing for gays to serve openly in the ranks, leading to his ignominious surrender and the institutionalization of “don’t ask, don’t tell” as military policy. As that complex then frog-marched Clinton through what remained of the twentieth century, hardheaded hawks like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz were already hatching their plans for America’s triumphant return to a policy of complete unipolar dominance empowered by a kick-ass military. Their time came with George W. Bush’s less than legitimate election in 2000, accelerated by the September 11th tragedy the following year.
America’s New Normal Is War
Ever since 9/11, endless conflict has been this country’s new normal. If you’re an American 21 years of age or younger, you’ve never known a time when your country hasn’t been at war, even if, thanks to the end of the draft in the previous century, you stand no chance of being called to arms yourself. You’ve never known a time of “normal” defense budgets. You have no conception of what military demobilization, no less peacetime might actually be like. Your normal is only reflected in the Biden administration’s staggering $813 billion Pentagon budget proposal for the next fiscal year. Naturally, many congressional Republicans are already clamoring for even higher military spending. Remember that Mae West quip? What a “wonderful” world!
And you’re supposed to take pride in this. As President Biden recently told soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division now stationed in Poland, this country has the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Even with the mountains of cash we give to that military, the nation still “owes you big,” he assured them.
Well, I’m gobsmacked. During my 20-year career in the military, I never thought my nation owed me a thing, let alone owed me big. Now that I think of it, however, I can say that this nation owed me (and today’s troops as well) one very big thing: not to waste my life; not to send me to fight undeclared, arguably unconstitutional, wars; not to treat me like a foreign legionnaire or an imperial errand-boy. That’s what we, the people, really owe “our” troops. It should be our duty to treat their service, and potentially their deaths, with the utmost care, meaning that our leaders should wage war only as a last, not a first, resort and only in defense of our most cherished ideals.
This was anything but the case of the interminable Afghan and Iraq wars, reckless conflicts of choice that burned through trillions of dollars, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops killed and wounded, and millions of foreigners either dead or transformed into refugees, all for what turned out to be absolutely nothing. Small wonder today that a growing number of Americans want to see less military spending, not more. Citizen.org, representing 86 national and state organizations, has called on President Biden to decrease military spending. Joining that call was POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, as well as William Hartung at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. And they couldn’t be more on target, though they’re certain to be ignored in Washington.
Consider the recent disastrous end to the Afghan War. Viewing that conflict in the aggregate, what you see is widespread corruption and untold waste, all facilitated by generals who lied openly and consistently to the rest of us about “progress,” even as they spoke frankly in private about a lost war, a reality the Afghan War Papers all too tellingly revealed. That harsh story of abysmal failure, however, highlights something far worse: a devastating record of lying on a massive scale within the highest ranks of the military and government. And are those liars and deceivers being called to account? Perish the thought! Instead, they’ve generally been rewarded with yet more money, promotions, and praise.
So, what would it take for the Pentagon budget to shrink? Blowing the whistle on wasteful and underperforming weaponry hasn’t been enough. Witnessing murderous and disastrous wars hasn’t been enough. To my mind, at this point, only a full-scale collapse of the U.S. economy might truly shrink that budget and that would be a Pyrrhic victory for the American people.
In closing, let me return to President Biden’s remark that the nation owes our troops big. There’s an element of truth there, perhaps, if you’re referring to the soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen, many of whom have served selflessly within its ranks. It sure as hell isn’t true, though, of the self-serving strivers and liars at or near the top, or the weapons-making corporations who profited off it all, or the politicians in Washington who kept crying out for more. They owe the rest of us and America big.
My fellow Americans, we have now reached the point in our collective history where we face three certainties: death, taxes, and ever-soaring spending on weaponry and war. In that sense, we have become George Orwell’s Oceania, where war is peace, surveillance is privacy, and censorship is free speech.
Such is the fate of a people who make war and empire their way of life.