Editor’s Note – Prior to World War II, despite FDR’s desires, the nation preferred to stay out of the war raging in Europe, for right or wrong. What we did not know was that Japan was about to make us enter, and FDR had already been supplying England through the Lend/Lease Act to avoid ceding so-called neutrality.
No matter what the tenor of the nation, the war was about to pull us in, and we were not prepared. The signs were there, in broad colors, and in large measure, the signs of World War are present today, some say in starker terms. Fortunately, when Japan unleashed the ‘sleeping giant’, we quickly turned the foremost industrial engine on the Earth into overdrive and we eventually overwhelmed our enemies and saved our allies.
Now, we are decreasing our military, at a time we should be modernizing it and insuring it fits the threat, not just a bottom line number, but we do not have the money allocated by threat priority in other budgets due to waste, fraud and abuse. At a time when our collective intelligence reports read that the threats are greater today than ever, supported by the Intelligence Community congressional testimony, what criteria did Hagel use?
It is also clear that our nation is considered weaker than ever, and now our enemies see us cut further. This emboldens the likes of Iran, Putin in Russia, China in the Pacific, and al Qaeda. Let us also not forget the Taliban threat once we leave Afghanistan.
Of course, past bad fiscal management by all parties has brought us to the brink of financial ruin, the Obama Administration has only deepened the abyss and now Secretary of Defense Hagel announced massive cuts; cuts that will place us right back in the pre-WWII levels. The question is, if World War comes again, we will be able to recover as quickly, and strike our enemies into total submission?
You be the judge, but you also need to ask why, that for at least three generations we have not reined in unreasonable spending in the Pentagon as well – a ‘perfect storm’ appears on the horizon, and we have a ‘paper tiger’ in the White House. Bad management has reduced our national security because of politics, not priorities.
The Defense Budget vs. History
Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?
Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war.
The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.
So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.
Actually the situation is even worse than the news would have you believe. Because the army’s plan to cut down to 440,000 to 450,000 is premised on the assumption that Congress will continue to provide relief from half a trillion dollars in sequestration cuts.
But the budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray only provides sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015; unless Congress is willing to turn off sequestration in future years, the army will have to go even lower in end-strength.
Moreover, the defense budget includes modest cuts in personnel spending–spending on pay, pensions, and health care–which are long overdue but which are likely to be blocked by Congress, as was the case with a recent attempt to cut cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees by a measly one percent.
Unless Congress goes along with cuts to personnel costs, which now constitute half of the defense budget, other parts of the budget–including, no doubt, the army’s end-strength–will have to endure further scaling back.
That is a responsible decline in military strength only if you assume that we will never fight another major land war, or engage in simultaneous stabilization and counterinsurgency operations. And that, in turn, is a tenable assumption only if you assume that the laws of history have been repealed and a new era is dawning in which the U.S. will be able to protect all of its vital interests through drone strikes and commando raids.
We all hope that’s the case but, as the saying has it, hope isn’t a strategy. Except, it seems, in Washington defense circles today.
If history teaches anything, it is that the era of land wars is not over and that we will pay a heavy price in the future for our unpreparedness–as we have paid in blood at the beginning of every major war in American history.
Our failure to learn from history is stunning and (from a historian’s standpoint) disheartening but not, alas, terribly surprising: Throughout history, supposedly enlightened elites have been able to convince themselves that the era of conflict is over and a new age is dawning.
The fact that they have always been wrong before does not, somehow, lead them to question those assumptions in the present day, because this is such a convenient belief to have.
Today, for both Republicans and Democrats, the president and Congress, these hope-based assumptions about defense spending allow them to put off the truly difficult decisions about cutting entitlement spending. But at what cost? If history is any guide, the cost of unpreparedness will be steep and will be borne by future generations of American troops.