Magazine | January 28, 2013, Issue

Defense Is Different

Marshall in 1948 (Gerald Waller, Stars and Stripes)
A lesson learned, unlearned, relearned, painfully

In 1953, the Nobel committee in Oslo gave the Nobel Peace Prize to George C. Marshall: the former U.S. secretary of state and secretary of defense — and, before that, during the war, chief of staff of the Army. Churchill called him “the organizer of victory.” Marshall was the first career military man to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and he remains the only one.

His role in subduing the Nazis was surely a contribution to peace. But that’s not why he won the prize. He won it for the Marshall Plan, as he was the only one not to call it: A modest man, he referred to it by its formal name, the European Recovery Program. But in his Nobel lecture, he addressed military matters, and so did a committee member, C. J. Hambro, in his “presentation speech.”

Hambro was a Norwegian politician — a member of the Conservative party — who had done something important during the war. It was he who organized the escape of the royal family and key members of the government as the Nazis were closing in. In his presentation speech, he noted that Marshall had found the U.S. Army woefully unprepared when he became chief of staff — which he did on September 1, 1939, the day the Nazis launched the war. Hambro quoted what Marshall said in his “biennial report” of 1941: “As an army we were ineffective. Our equipment, modern at the conclusion of the World War, was now, in a large measure, obsolescent. In fact, during the post-war period, continuous paring of appropriations had reduced the Army virtually to the status of a third-rate power.”

Said Hambro, “The United States had no military strength that could prevent war or even an attack on America.” Marshall “saw the total war approaching and his own country powerless.”

In his lecture, Marshall said that “my military associates frequently tell me that we Americans have learned our lesson” — their lesson about military preparedness. “I completely disagree with this contention and point to the rapid disintegration between 1945 and 1950 of our once vast power for maintaining the peace.” Marshall continued, “As a direct consequence, in my opinion, there resulted the brutal invasion of South Korea, which for a time threatened the complete defeat of our hastily arranged forces in that field.”

He then said, “I speak of this with deep feeling because in 1939 and again in the early fall of 1950 it suddenly became my duty, my responsibility, to rebuild our national military strength in the very face of the gravest emergencies.”

Not very often does a Nobel peace laureate speak against demilitarization. Not very often does a laureate describe a mighty military as a “vast power for maintaining the peace.” Marshall was a very realistic and experienced peacemaker.

Our kids’ professors may tell them that America is a belligerent nation, always spoiling for a fight, but our record says otherwise: We tend to demobilize, disarm, and demilitarize as soon as we can — almost always to our sorrow. As Buck McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, says, we never think we’re going to have to fight another war. There is a cynical old saying, no less true for that: “You may not like war, but war likes you.” Moreover, war readiness is necessary for the prevention of war — a timeless truth, maddening and incomprehensible to some.

McKeon and other hawks point out that “defense is in the Constitution” — right there in black and white. You will not find “free false teeth,” as William F. Buckley Jr. was once heard to mutter. You will not find Head Start or Pell Grants. You will almost immediately find “provide for the common defence.” Ah, but right after that, you will find “promote the general welfare” — which some may interpret as a green light for a welfare state.

#page#In any case, few dispute that the national defense is a federal responsibility, a Washington responsibility: not to be farmed out to individuals, city councils, or governments in Sacramento, Des Moines, or Montpelier. In college terms, it is a core requirement, not an elective — though, to be sure, Congress and the president can elect to do almost whatever they like.

Last year’s Budget Control Act slashed about $500 billion from defense. It also included “sequestration” — a mechanism for automatic budget cuts, if Congress and the president are unable to reach an agreement. Half the cuts would fall on defense, though defense is only 19 percent of the budget. Entitlements would skate through. Defense would take a $500 billion hit on top of the identical hit it has just taken. This would alter the American standing dramatically. The defense budget, which is at 4.6 percent of GDP today, would be at 2.4 in ten years — the lowest percentage since 1940.

At the Eisenhower-Kennedy zenith, defense was at about 10 percent, and over 50 percent of the federal budget. In the last year of Carter, it was at 4.9 percent and 23 percent. Reagan ran on a military buildup, among other things. And he followed through. He did not consider defense part of ordinary budgeting: He thought it a necessity, not an option. His defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, had earned the nickname “Cap the Knife” as Nixon’s budget director. But he was happy and determined to spend on defense. As he saw it, you asked for what your security and strategy required, and if cuts needed to be made — well, let them come from elsewhere.

In those Reagan years, there was a bumper sticker: “Death is different.” It was a sticker protesting capital punishment. Some of us said, “Defense is different” — not just another line item.

Soon came the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the “peace dividend” — that bonanza of money that no longer needed to be spent on defense and could be devoted to light rail and the like. (The question of returning money to taxpayers never really arises.) The 1990s were our “holiday from history.” By the time Bill Clinton left office, defense was down to 3 percent of GDP and 16.5 percent of the budget. Weinberger charged that Clinton had “inexcusably hollowed out our military capability.” In 2000, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, ran on a beefing up. “Help is on the way,” they said.

Shortly after they took office, the holiday from history came to an awful end, and we were at war, in multiple ways.

These days, President Obama is eyeing a peace dividend, though we don’t use the phrase so much anymore. In his convention speech last September, he said, “I will use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work — rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways. Because after two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it’s time to do some nation-building right here at home.” Big cheers and applause.

On the question of sequestration, no one has been more dire in his warnings than Obama’s own defense secretary, Leon Panetta (soon to leave office). “These cuts would, in fact, hollow out the force and inflict severe damage to our national defense.” They would be “devastating,” “a disaster,” and so on. Sequestration would leave us with “the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest air force” we have ever had. And while we were reducing our military, “the threats to national security would not be reduced” — of course.

#page#In a speech last year, an undersecretary of defense, Frank Kendall, offered a memory: “In the Seventies, I was an Army captain deployed in Europe, and I saw what it was like to live within a hollow force. I saw what it was like to have no parts for our systems, not be able to do any training, and have very poor readiness. We don’t want to go back there.”

Do we? Some seem quite blasé about the gutting of our defense. This includes members of Congress, and it includes the president as well — at least it does as some of us observe him. What kind of military does he want, after all? What kind of American standing in the world would he like? Sequestration was supposed to be so bad that Congress and Obama would do anything to avoid it. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, does not seem so concerned: “Sequester’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a balanced approach to reduce the deficit that shares the pain as well as the responsibility.”

Entitlements are where the money is, actually. The year 1976 was fateful in that it was the first year in which entitlements outpaced defense as a percentage of GDP. The gap has been growing, and growing, ever since.

Like it or not, the conservative clichés are true: Weakness is provocative. Weakness invites aggression. Peace comes through strength. We don’t want a fair fight — we want an unfair fight, an overwhelming advantage. Unchallengeability, if we can get it. Moreover, you can never see what’s coming around the corner. Who really predicted 9/11 and the War on Terror? You have to keep your powder dry, and have plenty of it.

Year after year, democracies decide what they want to be. What does America want to be today? Last summer, while watching the London Olympics, the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman issued a much-quoted tweet: The Brits “show us how to lose global power gracefully.” The Brits, you will remember, had us cousins to hand off to. Whom would we hand power to, gracefully or not? China, Iran, al-Qaeda? The EU, the U.N.?

Above, I quoted a bumper sticker from Reagan days. Here is another one, wordier: “It will be a great day when the schools have all the money they need and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale.” We can discuss the federal role in education another time. But if the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale, so to speak, that will not be a great day but an awful day, a calamitous day. The jackals will run wild. You don’t want to see that day, and neither does your most “progressive” neighbor, whether he knows it or not.

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