The news: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel plans to announce billions of dollars in military spending cuts, reducing our armed forces to troop levels unseen since 1940— before America entered World War II. In addition to reducing the size of our standing army, he will also propose limiting pay raises, increasing health care premiums, reducing benefits like housing allowances, and eliminating the use of A-10 "tank killer" aircraft and the U-2 spy plane. That said, current pay scales and previously earned and/or promised soldiers' benefits will not be impacted.
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What this means historically: Before World War II, America would develop large military forces during significant wars (the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, etc.) and then return to a small standing army after the major armed conflicts had ended. This was entirely consistent with the intent of our founding fathers who believed, as George Washington summarized, that "altho' a large standing Army in time of Peace hath ever been considered dangerous to the liberties of a Country, yet a few Troops, under certain circumstances, are not only safe, but indispensably necessary."
Unfortunately, World War II was immediately followed by the Cold War, during which both sides united to create a permanently sizeable military establishment in our country. Although the national threat had changed from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia, and the ideological one from fascism to communism, the result was a half-century of America devoting more of its budget to military spending than any other single program. Idealists on the left and right may have opposed this, but mainstream Democrats and Republicans overwhelmed them.
Then, 23 years ago, the Cold War ended. The first president to inherit a post-Cold War America, Bill Clinton, implemented some military spending cuts, but nowhere near pre-Cold War levels.
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What this means for millennials: There are three noteworthy features of the world millennials have known:
1. Unlike with the Greatest Generation or Baby Boomers, no single nation or group of nations have posed an existential threat to our security. The closest equivalent has been the threat of terrorism, which as we have seen...
2. ... knows no country. What's more, as liberal and libertarian think tanks both agree, terrorism can only effectively be fought with strong intelligence gathering, not old-fashioned military might. Indeed, the attempts to treat terrorism as comparable to the major armed conflicts of World War II and the Cold War — i.e., to act as if it involved the kind of traditional on-the-ground military campaigns that justify a massive standing army — have been humiliating failures, from Afghanistan to Iraq.
3. Consequently, Millennials have grown up seeing our government construct increasingly flimsy excuses to justify its long-standing military establishment. While New Leftists and libertarians have been vocal in pointing out the unconstitutionality and danger of this development, it has been kept out of conventional political discourse. Just as a right-winger like Robert Taft was labeled a "Nazi sympathizer" and a left-winger like George McGovern was branded "soft on communism," so too were early 21st century critics of the military-industrial complex accused of "wanting the terrorists to win." This is the atmosphere of ideological fear tactics to which Millennials have grown accustomed.
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The bottom line: When history buffs try explaining the problem with the military arm of our government today, they frequently quote President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address, during which he warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." While those words are as true now as they were 53 years ago, they don't strike at the heart of what is so wrong with a government that is trillions of dollars in debt, and yet would rather snatch food stamps from single mothers than stop funding foreign interventions. To best encapsulate that, I close with a lesser-known Eisenhower quote, culled from his "Cross of Iron" speech:
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.