“Listen to this,” I said. The opthalmologist had just walked into the room, and instead of a pliant patient waiting to be examined, found me up in arms. As it were. He and his technician stood stunned as I read them this passage from a speech by President Eisenhower in 1953, five years into the Cold War:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life in any true sense. Under the clouds of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
That is straight from the horse’s mouth — I mean, the five-star general’s mouth — and it features large in a superb piece by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker of a couple of weeks back (forgive me, I’ve been a tad distracted here with publication of The First Muslim, and am just beginning to catch up).
“How much military is enough?” reads the sub-heading of the piece. You know the answer already, sadly: the unholy alliance of military and industry means that there’s no such thing as enough.
The United States spends more on defense than all other countries combined, Lepore reports. Military spending doubled between 1998 and 2011. The United States sells more guns in foreign markets than any other country. As she puts it, “At home and abroad, in uniform and out, in war and in peace, Americans are armed to the teeth.” Make that the eyeballs.
Moreover, “much of the money that the federal government spends on ‘defense’ involves neither securing the nation’s borders nor protecting its citizens. Instead, the US military enforces American foreign policy.” Not least by dint of hundreds of military bases all over the world.
Lepore pays special attention to Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel who is now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. An avowed conservative “viscerally pained” by what he calls “Americans’ infatuation with military power,” Bacevich says that lately,
Americans have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in US history, Americans have come to define the nation’s strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals.
In an updated edition of his 2005 book The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (due out in a few weeks), Bacevich writes that “the surprises, disappointments, painful losses, and woeful, even shameless failures of the Iraq War” should have led to major rethinking of the use of force. But there’s been none, and that, he says, is a civic failure: “The citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.” As Lepore tartly notes: “Don’t ask, don’t tell. But especially, don’t ask.”
She’s written a densely argued article, one that I guess you’d call wonkish in its focus on the legislative debate over cuts in military spending. It’s a good thing my eyes were judged fit to serve, since this is not your usual bedtime reading. But then that’s Lepore’s point. Unless we can rouse ourselves to pay attention and to insist that “between militarism and pacifism lie diplomacy, accountability, and restraint,” we only enable those besotted by guns and war.
It’s been 60 years since Eisenhower’s remarks. What’s that compared with the whole span of history? Men have always loved war. But things change too, even though they have been a certain way for most of history: women’s rights, LGBT rights, children’s rights. I think we must keep talking about guns, and the environment, and all those important things if we want to see change. Despite of how long it takes to see that change.
Thanks for keeping the conversation going!
I wish the same conservatives who talk about waste and about cost/benefit analysis would use some of that analysis on the Pentagon. One could argue that the wars of the past 20 years have only made the US less secure.
The US is in an enviable position. We have no enemies on our borders and even our competitors aren’t enemies. China needs the US. We were able to make a real peace with our WWII enemies so even Japan and Germany are friendly. The end of the Soviet Union should have given us a peace dividend, but history shows that armies will be used. If we had less capability our leaders wouldn’t be so quick to go to war.
I don’t know if you know this but that used to be the Republican position. Robert Taft was against undeclared wars. He was suspicious of NATO.
I know — just the idea that there were once sane Republicans seems astonishing today. And the argument holds well, all the way from ICBM’s to individually owned handguns.
I have spent some time reading negative reviews of Bacevich’s books and I wonder how much history any of the reviewers knows. Any student of history knows that Russia doesn’t go in for international adventures and it never has. The entire cold war was a waste of money. The goal for Soviet Russia was to have a buffer against Germany and other Western European powers. Even if NATO never existed, the Red Army wasn’t going to go after Western Europe. Yes our enemies are sometimes evil, but in the past they weren’t looking to attack us and they weren’t looking to attack anything else. Once Eisenhower decided not to intervene in Hungary in 1956 the Soviet rulers knew that we had accepted their post war boundaries. Why the cold war needed to go on after that I will never know. If Eisenhower had explained to his fellow citizens in 1956 why he wouldn’t intervene he would have hurt his party but he would have ended the cold war. Oh well its all ancient history now.