Unfortunately, defense cuts do not occur in isolation. They feed a syndrome best typified by an insolvent and largely defenseless socialist Europe. The more prosperous societies cut their defenses to expand social programs, the more the resulting dependency leads to even less defense and even more benefits. Once the state promises to take care of the citizen, the citizen starts to believe that more subsidies are still not enough. And once voters believe that defense spending is an impediment to greater entitlements, they will pay for fewer and fewer impediments. The net result is something like the squabbling, soon-to-collapse European Union: with trillions in unfunded entitlement liabilities, and unable to defend itself.
Many of the Obama administration’s new cuts are aimed at the traditional ground forces, given that we are in a high-tech age of missiles, sophisticated drones, and counterinsurgency missions. But the nature of war is neither static nor predictable. After World War II, Harry Truman wanted to do away with the Marines — and then was glad he had not when they largely saved the reputation of the U.S. military during the unforeseen disaster in Korea in December 1950. After the Gulf War of 1990–91, we cut back on our ground forces, only to build them back up so that the Marines could deal with enemies in awful places like Anbar Province in Iraq.
The decline of civilizations of the past — fourth-century-b.c. Athens, fifth-century-a.d. Rome, 15th-century Byzantium, 1930s Western Europe — was not caused by their spending too much money on defense or not spending enough on public entitlements. Rather, their expanding governments redistributed more borrowed money, while a dependent citizenry wanted even fewer soldiers so as to guarantee ever more handouts.
History’s bleak lesson is that those societies with self-reliant citizens who protect themselves and their interests prosper; those whose citizens grow dependent cut back their defenses — and waste away.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.