Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Provocative Question

I love a good provocative question, and I ran across one: Do we need a military? The question prompted some interesting discussion on Kos, but I wanted to add my 2 cents... well, OK more like a buck fifty, but well, here's my thoughts on the matter.

The central argument of this diary has great merit, but it asks the wrong question. The question should be, 'why do we need a standing army?'

Even if we did not have an standing army, airforce, or marine corps, or even a coast guard (which I would argue for keeping in any case), America still has two devastating weapons to keep any enemies in check. Our nuclear missile fleet, deliverable anywhere in the world, is the ultimate deterent. Second is our military CAPACITY due to our economic might. By increasing the size and efficiency of our economy in ridding ourselves of the inefficient military-industrial complex, that capacity for military action might even be enhanced. I would thus argue that scrapping our standing army could enhance our military power in the long run, especially if the redirected revenues allowed us to improve our trade position and free ourselves from dependence on petroleum.

When we entered the penultimate military struggle of the last century, WWII, we had only a bare remnant of the military machine we built for WWI. We had to rebuild the military from the ground up in order to enter that war. In many ways that process helped us. Our opponents, having recently built up their own militaries, were using the latest technology. If we had been fighting from stocks from the last war, we would have been slaughtered. Our industrialists, weapons labs, and commanders had to build from the ground up to meet the particular threat and create new ways of war-fighting as they went.

Now, there is a good argument that the professionalization of the officer corps and the stability of demand for weaponry created by a standing army has pushed our military tech and tactics far beyond our competition, but that ever-widening advantage must be balanced against the 50% of Federal revenues devoted to the project. Is complete dominance worth the costs? Perhaps we can find good ways to maintain dominance without the standing army? Computer modelling? Limited production proto-typing? Redoubling research and bypassing production cycles entirely? Who knows what might be accomplished with 100 billion a year of pure defense research?

I believe that we must retain a professional corps of officers to seed needed force expansions in a crisis, and that we should continue to spend substantially on defense-related research, but I think that people would not politically tolerate the abscence of a ready reserve of troops. Even if it were only a reasonably sized militia and not a volunteer professional standing army people have to feel protected. National service with non-military options would spread the burden and eliminate the unhealthy insulation of our professional soldiery. You can reduce the army to a nub if people feel secure, but you can never eliminate it. Many of the resources and personnel used for a standing army which does not actually meet the current crop of realistic security threats, most notably terrorism, could be redirected into programs of homeland security which are actually well-funded and properly designed, rather than purely political ass-coverage.

To accomplish a massive reduction in forces, materiel, and acquisitions, you would have to close several hundred bases around the world, having an unknown impact on world stability and economics. You would have cast loose major industries to compete in consumer markets causing massive economic dislocations, however dampened by the international arms markets. There are likely to be economic consequences of some significance as hundreds of thousands of soliders hit the labor market, bases are closed all over the country, and local markets lose the revenues from arms industries. It would be a political feat of major proportions.

Unfortunately, the only circumstances in which I see it occuring is if our balance of payments get so out of control that creditors demand austerity measures including major budget cuts. Defense spending may then be the only viable target for major cuts to Federal spending. If we HAVE to wack 100 billion or more out of the Federal budget, we mght have a chance to eliminate the standing army created as a response to the Cold War, in favor of a 'Virtual Army' which can spring into being to meet serious threats to American security. A lovely side effect is that Cowboy Presidents won't have nearly so great means to meddle in the affairs of other nations and trash international law. Denying the Executive a standing army to thrash about with is not only fiscally prudent, it is politically sound, too.

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