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Cow Most Sacred: Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable
Posted on Jan 27, 2011
By Andrew Bacevich, TomDispatch
Politically, therefore, “supporting the troops” has become a categorical imperative across the political spectrum. In theory, such support might find expression in a determination to protect those troops from abuse, and so translate into wariness about committing soldiers to unnecessary or unnecessarily costly wars. In practice, however, “supporting the troops” has found expression in an insistence upon providing the Pentagon with open-ended drawing rights on the nation’s treasury, thereby creating massive barriers to any proposal to affect more than symbolic reductions in military spending.
Misremembered History: The duopoly of American politics no longer allows for a principled anti-interventionist position. Both parties are war parties. They differ mainly in the rationale they devise to argue for interventionism. The Republicans tout liberty; the Democrats emphasize human rights. The results tend to be the same: a penchant for activism that sustains a never-ending demand for high levels of military outlays.
American politics once nourished a lively anti-interventionist tradition. Leading proponents included luminaries such as George Washington and John Quincy Adams. That tradition found its basis not in principled pacifism, a position that has never attracted widespread support in this country, but in pragmatic realism. What happened to that realist tradition? Simply put, World War II killed it—or at least discredited it. In the intense and divisive debate that occurred in 1939-1941, the anti-interventionists lost, their cause thereafter tarred with the label “isolationism.”
The passage of time has transformed World War II from a massive tragedy into a morality tale, one that casts opponents of intervention as blackguards. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the debate over how the United States should respond to some ostensible threat—Iraq in 2003, Iran today—replays the debate finally ended by the events of Dec. 7, 1941. To express skepticism about the necessity and prudence of using military power is to invite the charge of being an appeaser or an isolationist. Few politicians or individuals aspiring to power will risk the consequences of being tagged with that label.
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Until Americans accept these facts, until they come to a more nuanced view of World War II that takes fully into account the political and moral implications of the U.S. alliance with the Soviet Union and the U.S. campaign of obliteration bombing directed against Germany and Japan, the mythic version of “the Good War” will continue to provide glib justifications for continuing to dodge that perennial question: How much is enough?
Like concentric security barriers arrayed around the Pentagon, these four factors—institutional self-interest, strategic inertia, cultural dissonance and misremembered history—insulate the military budget from serious scrutiny. For advocates of a militarized approach to policy, they provide invaluable assets, to be defended at all costs.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses the money that pours into the national security budget, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.
Copyright 2011 Andrew Bacevich
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