“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.