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Yes, We Can Cut the Defense Budget


I love my fellow conservatives (well, most of them) but often find myself getting very frustrated over an apparent blind spot. There’s this idea that cutting spending is great, except for the military budget, which apparently is sacred. “How much is world order worth?” asked a prominent analyst in the Wall Street Journal the other day. Another big shot opined in Commentary that “serious cuts to the defense budget” necessarily mean that “the armed services are almost certainly going to have to make do in the future with even fewer resources than they have in the past few years.”

This is simply not true. The Department of Defense is a government bureaucracy, cousin to the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, and the rest. That means it has the same Dawn of the Dead–zombie instincts. Its underlying, primal, blind, grasping need is to feed and repel threats — and always, always to expand itself.

If the U.S. military seems perpetually short on money (as when soldiers in Iraq complained about not having hard-shelled vehicles), it’s because a top layer of bureaucracy soaks up most of the bucks before they can trickle down to the guys on the ground. Conservatives understand this dynamic when applied to the Department of Education, so why not the DOD?

I’m not a line-by-line expert on the military budget, but common sense says there’s a nice layer of lard that can be pared before we hit muscle and bone. Who knows, the services might even work better if forced to run a little leaner. The Marines, the service that gets the least money per capita, is also considered to be the most effective.

At least we could go over the budgets with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. At least we could talk about what we might cut. I put the question of possible cuts to military friends via that great world-changer and regime-toppler Facebook. Here are some of the suggestions they came up with — along with my notes:

— “How about the thousands of troops in Germany and the UK?”

 â— “All-Army Sports. We have a war going on. We don’t need professional sports teams.” [Did you know that the Army fields its own sports teams? I didn’t, but here’s their website.]

● “The US Army Soldier Show. Yes, it was founded by Irving Berlin, but we need Soldiers in our warfighting units, not tap dancing around the world (literally.)” [Their website. He is not talking about the hallowed USO Shows. Those are a private venture.]

● “The Commander of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. The PX system does not need a General Officer in command. Hire a competent executive away from Wal-Mart, Sears, or JCPenneys and let him go to town.” [While we’re at it, do we really need expensively-trained servicemen and women manning the base supermarkets and ship’s stores anyway? Isn’t this a job that we might consider privatizing?]

Speaking of wasting trained personnel, that same retired Army man recommends taking a look at “the number of aides-de-camp to General Officers who have that all important duty of holding hats, carrying briefcases, and basically being personal servants. Since most of the servants are commissioned officers, if the duties are so important, then assign them to some wounded enlisted soldiers who are not capable of combat duties.”

Then there are institutions like the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a group of civilian women assigned a military staff and then mandated to “examine and advise on matters relating to women in the Armed Forces of the United States.” To carry this out, they go on tours of bases, ask a lot of clueless questions to which they’re guaranteed not to get many honest answers, and have big meetings in hotels. Probing the needs of military women may be a worthy mission, but the DACOWITS are redundant. Military women have a lot of outlets for complaints these days, most notably an always receptive media. The DACOWITS’s yearly budget is “only” $700,000 but where there is one DACOWITS there are more.

Here’s another. Could we at least talk about the U.S. Army Veterinary Command? The U.S. military employs many noble animals: bomb-sniffing dogs, mine-spotting dolphins. They get sick, they get wounded (one would imagine especially the dogs deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan), but something about the U.S. Army Veterinary Command raises my excessive bureaucracy radar. Perhaps no one’s looked at its budget since we had a horse-drawn cavalry. Perhaps it’s due.

Just a thought.

— Stephanie Gutmann is author of The Kinder, Gentler Military (Scribner, 2000).