Robert Gates, by all accounts, is as fine a public servant as can be found in Washington today, almost a throwback to a better time. He recently said at West Point that "any future Defense Secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it." Americans should have their heads examined if they think they can sustain the massive military establishment of today or the self-serving military-industrial complex behind it. As teachers are fired, infrastructure remains decades behind our competitors and the middle class is told it must bear the brunt of austerity, this is an urgent issue.
It's worth understanding the context in which President Eisenhower coined the term. In his farewell address, the retired five-star general said:
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction...
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.
This is the point where I say, I didn't serve in the Armed Forces. Conscription was abolished literally weeks after I got my draft card. (I did do public service, however: four years as an EMT and paramedic, usually in some of Phoenix's poorest neighborhoods). My father and uncle were combat Army officers in World War II and Korea. And my journalism career took me close to big Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force installations. I drank regularly with officers and NCOs in Lawton, Okla., and for years I had an account at the Marine Corps West Federal Credit Union — for what any of this is worth. But while we rightly "honor the troops," America's worship of the military is relatively new. U.S. Grant favored a private's uniform because he was ridiculed back home when he rode down main street in his finest tunic after graduating from West Point. The founding fathers were suspicious of a large standing army, a temperament that persisted until World War II.
This was a healthy thing for a democracy. The founders, after all, studied how military power destroyed the Roman republic and how the army, particularly the Praetorian Guard, made and unmade emperors, how military entanglements led to the fall of Athens. If we were to truly be novus ordo seclorum, a new order for the ages, America must avoid these snares. On the other hand, this continental republic could not isolate itself from a world growing closer together, and that conceit in the 1930s might have proven fatal if not for the wily Franklin Roosevelt. The Cold War, a genuine existential threat, led to the creation of a large military and national security state. But ironically it was after the end of the Cold War, with an attack by a few terrorists, that this vast establishment showed its hand as a genuine threat to our liberties and the sustainability of the nation. And no, I am not disparaging the "fine men and women in uniform" (although I worry about this cohort, so separate from the citizenry and infiltrated by evangelicals). I do accuse those who sent them into needless wars, asked for no sacrifice from other citizens, and used 9/11 as an excuse to raise defense spending to and above Cold War levels.
The budget cuts offered by Gates are a trifle. They are likely to be heavily resisted. Tightfisted Harry Truman provoked the "revolt of the admirals" in the late 1940s, partly by cutbacks aimed at the Navy and Army. The military didn't care much for Gen. Eisenhower, the Liberator of Europe, either. Ike fought military over-spending, settling on a nuclear deterrent partly to avoid the expense of large conventional forces. But the growth of the military-industrial complex continued, backed by an iron triangle of powerful lawmakers, business titans and hawks in the press.
We desperately need a searching national conversation about the future of the American military. On a cultural level, we need something like a draft, even if it includes civilian service options, so the military is not so isolated and tempted, at some future date, to repeat the experience of Rome. But on a sustainability level, what is our mission? What are our aims? Are we going to run the ship of state into the ground with unwinnable wars, a permanent huge military and bases all around the world? Apparently.
To be sure, we inherited global responsibilities when an exhausted Britain gave up its empire. As late as the 1960s, the Royal Navy was a substantial force, but the pullback started after World War II, when Britons were nearly starving, and has never ceased. Indeed, we hastened it with opposition to British imperialism. But somebody has to be the world cop. For all our blunders and the crimes committed in our name, Pax Americana has been real and has produced a long period of prosperity and absence of a general war. Yet it's instructive to note that Pax Britannica involved only a small army but a large navy and diplomatic reach. It did not face a world with 6.7 billion people in heavily armed nations all facing scarcity.
Do we see a future war with China as inevitable? If so, LA, San Francisco and Seattle may be ashes and what will it get us to incinerate several hundred million Chinese? This future conflict is not to be dismissed: Competition for energy sources, Chinese adventurism or regime destabilization, crazy North Korea, economic imbalances...all could lead to war. But the winner is likely to have a superior real economy, not a bunch of financial swindles and corporate welfare. And the enemy's "center of gravity" may well be reached by a computer virus, as the Israelis appear to have done with the nuclear labs of the Iranians. But if this war comes, it will represent the colossal failure of American foreign policy, just as World War I did for the British Empire. And we, like the British, will be a long-term loser.
If the future is small wars and anti-terrorism, we need a different force structure: Smaller Army and, a la, the British, reliance on the Navy (and, to an extent, the Air Force). We don't need to be spending more than all other nations combined on defense. We need real jobs and economic mobility in civilian life for the former military personnel who will result from a smaller force. We must rebuild a productive economy so our most robust export sector is not armaments. Of course we should retain a cadre of highly skilled NCOs, etc., if the military needed to be drastically increased in an emergency. But the reality is that we can't afford our current establishment, and its existence will continue to lead us to every dark place Ike foresaw.
A responsible, phased American drawdown would also force Europe and Japan to stop living off the commons we have policed these many decades. They can step up and be partners, as can even the Chinese and Russians. Or we can continue on, the generals screaming about this latest "draconian" cut, the white-right peddling fear and snatching liberties many Americans didn't realize they once enjoyed, and go the way of every permanently militarized nation in antiquity, just as the founders feared. The question asked Franklin as he left the Constitutional Convention and his response remain pertient: What have you given us, a monarchy or a republic? "A republic...if you can keep it."