Posted by: Jeff | December 2, 2009

A Sad and Terrible Thing

Joe and I have already griped on several occasions, both in the podcast and on the blog, about the strange and unique way American politics does, or more precisely does not, grapple with the costs of our military actions. And exactly what it is we’re griping about can be difficult to pin down. You can describe it in political terms – the desire of politicians to appear “tough” and “patriotic” – or in economic terms – with the entanglement of defense spending in every corner of the American job market – or in cultural terms – in that we seem to view expenditures on the military as sacrosanct and unquestionable.

Or, taking a cue from Matt Yglesias, you can describe it in terms of prestige or even moral values. As a matter of what people we listen to without question, and what requests and priorities receive preeminence over all others.

It’s not a serious problem if a Republican president pursues a course that senior career officials at the Environment Protection Agency believe are destroying the planet. Nobody says we need to “support the Civil Rights Division litigators” or “give the social services workers the resources they need to finish the job” of fighting child poverty.

So you have a situation in which not only is the military’s budget dramatically larger than any other government agency, but one in which the senior defense department bureaucrats have wildly more social prestige and political influence than do comparable figure in other agencies. The idea that we should “fully resource” the Department of Education’s missions of providing decent schooling to all Americans constitutes some kind of nutty fringe idea and the political establishment (correctly, I might add) recognizes that “do whatever teachers want” is not the be-all and end-all of education policy. And you certainly don’t see Republican candidates rushing to get “cover” from retired public employees union officials as a way to establish their “credibility” on domestic policy. But in terms of America’s engagement with the rest of the world it’s more-or-less taken for granted that insofar as the military’s senior leadership isn’t too badly divided, it should have the predominant voice, and that when military leaders’ views are ignored they should be ignored in the direction of more aggressive use of military force. [Italics in original.]

There are times, and this morning is one of them, when I find it difficult to describe this problem in anything but the most simplistic terms: Americans like war. Perhaps that is juvenile of me or a gross generalization, but it seems inescapable. The simple, concrete ways in which we distribute and prioritize our resources, in which we construct our yearly budgets, show that we value the act of war-making over all other acts, and the needs of war-making over all other needs.

You can determine what a person – or a country – values by what priorities they will and will not sacrifice to other priorities. That is as straightforward as it gets. And given what we sacrifice and what we consider non-negotiable, it must be concluded that if we Americans do not like war, then we do not like anything. We are a pro-war people in the most basic and functional sense.



  1. Interesting take, Jeff. I wouldn’t say that Americans “like war”…I’d say Americans “like being *the* bad ass on the planet” and “need to feel assured that our way of life will be protected/perpetuated–through military force if necessary”.

    Some points to ponder…
    – Most of our military budget isn’t actually spent on killing/destroying, right? It’s spent maintaining a police presence around the world, building/maintaining equipment, and offering livelihoods to thousands of people (military and civilian). While the government isn’t the most efficient way of keeping an economy rolling, at least it does employ a lot of people in this case…offering them opportunities to learn skills and lead that they might not otherwise have…which often subsequently carries into the private sector. The pure guns-or-butter example doesn’t necessarily apply here, because the “guns” side actually has meaningful applications (the job/training opportunities I just mentioned, as well as R&D type stuff that goes commercial) and it’s not like we don’t already have enough “butter” (our problem as a country isn’t a lack of resources to maintain a generally wealthy, healthy society; it’s a lack of wisdom, teamwork, and compassion to actually do it).
    – Given that we are a global police presence, you can consider our defense spending as “foreign aid”. Does that make it more palatable? We spend a lot of money defending other countries and regions, who then don’t have to spend their own government budget on defense. They get to spend their money on other more worthwhile things for themselves; we get to call the shots and be a superpower.
    – Military spending isn’t entirely sacrosanct. Wasn’t one of the big knocks on President Clinton the fact that he cut the military budget drastically? And that was during a period when our economy was growing like a weed.
    – The military seemingly gets easy funding for a handful of reasons: effective scare tactics, they’re a federal operation, and they’re in the Constitution. If teachers were federalized, if the EPA could get in the Constitution, and if social workers could launch a really, really good scare campaign about the decay of our society, I’m sure they could get some more coin.


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