Michael Walsh wrote an excellent article recently in which he did something that is essential to making America great again: he took on the military.
Walsh’s piece should be read in its entirety, but his point can be summed up, I think, by saying: something stinks in the military, but the military is still a powerful entity in American politics.
If we are to have any hope of restoring fiscal sanity to Washington, D.C., then we will have to continue to take on the military. Otherwise, the U.S. economy will suffer and political power will slip back into the hands of the suicidal Left. The problem is, as recent events have shown, if you want to cut the federal budget, you must cut the defense budget.
Don’t Hide Behind the Military
When Trump signed what he himself called a “ridiculous” omnibus bill, he said his “highest duty is to keep America safe” and the bill “increases total defense spending by more than $60 billion from last year and funds the addition of critically needed ships, planes, helicopters, tanks, and submarines.” There was no other way, said Trump. We need a strong military, and the only way to get it is to give into the demands of Democrats.
Trump may have had good, prudential reasons for signing the bill. Whatever they were, he chose instead to hide behind the military. That was a mistake he should not repeat. Americans need to divest themselves of the myths that enable that mistake.
In the coming months, Republicans and Americans need to realize the strength of our national defense is not the same thing as how much money we flush down the Pentagon’s toilet. As Brandon Weichert pointed out when Trump signed the omnibus,
While the Defense Department does need to shore up its war-making capabilities after nearly two decades of war, the Pentagon had more money going toward it than the defense establishments of the next five countries combined . . . The question should have been whether or not America’s bureaucracies were spending the money that they already were given wisely. They weren’t.
The idea that national defense is commensurate with the defense budget goes unchallenged in Washington. Like almost all established ideas in the swamp, it is silly. The much-vaunted greatness of the giant, all-volunteer “professional” Army and the thought that more ships in the Navy equal a better Navy is laughable to any sane person who has actually seen what government is and does. But our undying, uncritical adoration of the military blinds us to these facts.
Standing Army Follies
When it comes to land forces in a free society, smaller, and sometimes poorer, is better. The common claim made in defense of a large, professional army is that modern war is so complex that regular men cannot fight them and win. If that claim sounds familiar, it is because it is eerily similar to the progressive justification for its form of tyranny: modern life is so complex that men cannot rule themselves. A big standing Army is predicated on the same ridiculous notions as the rest of the administrative state: unbiased, apolitical altruism and “expertise.” Soldiers are not apolitical, and it’s dangerous to pretend otherwise. In fact, the soldier’s job is inherently political, for it is awfully hard to support and defend a thing for which you have no passion or understanding.
Soldiers are not experts, either. Any military veteran or family member of a service member may balk at my dismissing of military expertise, but don’t buy it. Any decent citizen with common virtue can become as good a soldier or officer as anyone else with relatively little training; members of the military have no monopoly on courage, ethics, or technical ability.
What’s more, armies have benefited historically from an influx of citizen soldiers in both the enlisted and commissioned ranks in times of war, since it helps break up the stagnant group-think and lack of creativity that dominate any large, bureaucratic institution.
What a Healthy Nation Needs
If you doubt all of this, just look at history. The citizen-soldier called into action won World War II. And the tribal shepherd in the mountains of Afghanistan and Iraq have given our professionals a rough go of it with homemade bombs, small arms, and cell-phones for the past 15 years.
History teaches that a small standing army supported by a large reserve corps of citizen-soldiers greatly improves free society. For one, it helps keep the military under civilian control. For another, free men must take responsibility for their nation, including its defense. A nation requires a political as well as a military will to survive. A society that farms out its defense to professional soldiers only is a sick one. If you make the vast bulk of the military inactive and push our divisions into the reserves, you might find that we have more men like Peter Wang, and fewer cowards like Scot Peterson.
Like the rest of progressive ideas, the value of a large, well-funded “professional” force is predicated on an unrealistic view of human nature. Men are not angels, and if you give them lots of power and money, they tend to become corrupt. If you shower them with adoration as you do it, they certainly will.
A Persistent, Strategic Force
As for the Navy, bigger might be better, but it isn’t necessarily so. Bigger also means a big bureaucracy just as it does with the Army, and bureaucracy breeds the corruption of incompetence, factionalism, and general ineffectiveness. It also breeds corruption of the more nefarious kind. Combine all of this with a bloated acquisitions process inherent in a giant military, and you don’t necessarily get more power from more ships. Instead, you get boondoggles like the littoral combat ship and the F-35 (the two things Trump thoughtlessly touted in his signing speech).
Unlike the Army, the Navy (and now parts of the Air Force) should be a persistent, strategic force. It is a standing institution in the Constitution, and it should be used well. That costs money. And size helps. But the things necessary for success at sea in a time of changing technology are innovation, skill, and courage. A big Navy, like any big human institution, will not breed these things. The careful balance that must be struck with the size of the Navy is a hard one, but bigger is not always better. Certainly, big budgets don’t equate to strength. Whatever is the right budget for our circumstances, audits help keep these institutions in top form.
The Air Force straddles both of these propositions because it is partially strategic and partially operational in nature. Both arguments apply to it. Parts of it would benefit from being small, poor, and largely in the reserves. Other parts would benefit from being smaller, poorer, and regularly audited.
Part of the problem is Trump seems deaf to this argument. He is completely surrounded by “his generals” who were raised in the factionalism of the U.S. military. They are not indecent men, but they are conditioned to believe that dollars equal strength and the military (like the FBI?) is pure. And they are well trained in promoting this myth. Most Americans are under this spell, too.
As long as this remains the case, Trump’s generals will trump him and anyone else who wants to reduce the budget and save our country from drowning in debt. As long as we demand ridiculous budgets for our military, which has a vested interest in the Pax Americana approach to foreign policy, Democrats will demand ridiculous budgets for the administrative and entitlement state here at home.
If Trump wants to have any teeth to his claim of “never again” signing such a bloated spending measure, he will need to divest himself of the myth that military strength is commensurate to the military budget. In the end, we will have a stronger military if we make it less rich and if use it less often. As Thomas Jefferson once advised, “the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images