The Hawkish, Historically Illiterate Case Against Defense Cuts

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Max Boot surveys American history and concludes that the U.S. military should have been bigger at all times.

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One of the strangest phenomena of our times is the weakness of the arguments constantly trotted out by hawkish "foreign-policy experts" who make their living writing about such matters but can't seem to put an argument together that withstands even cursory scrutiny from non-expert skeptics. The latest example is Max Boot's column, "Overspending the Peace Dividend," as superficial, misleading, and self-contradictory a piece of analysis as you'll ever encounter.

Seeking to prove that President Obama's proposed cuts to defense spending are a dangerous step toward unpreparedness and war, Boot looks back at history and says the following:

Some might argue that there is nothing wrong or damaging in this; that we always downsize our military after the conclusion of hostilities. But is it so wise to repeat history? Leave aside the fact that we are not really at peace -- troops are in combat every day in Afghanistan -- and simply consider the consequences of past draw-downs.

After the American Revolution, the military plummeted from 35,000 men in 1778 to 10,000 by 1800. As a result, the nascent republic had to scramble to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, fight a quasi-war with France, repress the Barbary pirates and, most spectacularly, defend the new national capital from British attack in the War of 1812. The burning of the White House stands as melancholy testimony to our military unpreparedness.

Where to begin? (1) Given the burdensome Revolutionary War debt owed to European allies, the fact that citizen militiamen were hardly going to just hang out in the army once the British were beat, and the general antagonism to standing armies in the Founding generation, it isn't as if trying to preserve Revolutionary War-era army levels was a better choice for the Americans of 1777. (2) The Whiskey Rebellion was a response to the taxes that Alexander Hamilton levied to pay down the national debt; it hardly would've improved the situation had the federal government demanded even more revenue to maintain a standing army. (3) It is misleading at best to say that Washington had to "scramble" to put down the Whiskey Rebellion -- in response to some rioting and attacks on federal tax collectors, he asked for and got a force of more than 10,000 men from the governors of several states, and never in fact had to use them in battle, because when he led them to confront the "rebels" they basically dispersed. (4) Does Boot seriously think that, had the United States for some reason maintained Gen. Washington's army after the revolution, it would've somehow dissuaded the Barbary pirates from demanding tribute on the other side of the globe? Does he suggest we should've built an imperial navy in 1777 in order to prevent that threat, which we dispatched in due time, from materializing? (5) Does Boot understand that after America declared war against Britain in 1812, it had two years to build up its army before the 1814 British counterattack that ended in Washington? (6) Is Boot blind to the fact that the course America actually took -- the post-Revolutionary War cutbacks in defense spending -- ultimately worked out well enough for America to grow in wealth, territory, and global influence?

Here's the next part in Boot's argument:

....We made the same mistake after the Civil War. The armed forces fell from more than 1 million men in 1865 to merely 50,000 in 1870. Luckily we did not face a foreign attack in the postwar decades. But we did face the challenge of Reconstruction. Its failure was made inevitable by Washington's inability (or unwillingness) to station enough federal troops in the South to repress the Ku Klux Klan. By 1876, all federal troops were withdrawn and the era of Jim Crow had begun.

If we discount the small-scale Indian Wars (the main focus of the U.S. Army from 1865 to 1890), the next major conflicts we faced were the Spanish-American and Philippine wars. Our army, which in the late 19th century numbered only 25,000 men -- smaller than today's New York Police Department -- was unready for both conflicts but did not pay too high a price for that because of the poor condition of its enemies (the decrepit Spanish army and the meagerly armed Filipino insurrections).

Rather than going into the problems with the Civil War argument, suffice it to say that today there is no need for a large federal army to suppress a de-facto regional rebellion against the Constitution. And the Spanish-American and Philippine wars? It's rather remarkable that Boot included them as if they bolster rather than discredit his argument, for after the Civil War, America cut the size of its military, and by Boot's own version of history didn't pay a price for it even decades later! Is it really his position that our resources would've been better spent bearing the cost of a large standing army for many decades with the ostensible benefit of triumphing more handily in wars that we in fact won decisively without bearing that cost? That he argues as much is proof enough that Boot has blinkered ideas about when bigger military outlays are worthwhile (always, in his view) and when they are needless (literally never).

Nor does it end there.

Boot acknowledges that the size of our military didn't particularly hurt us in World War I, then implausibly attributes World War II to America's post-World War I draw-down in troops. He has a point when he suggests that we'd have been better off with a bigger army in the late 1930s, on the eve of World War II, though that is little more than hindsight being 20-20. He goes on to write this:

American statesmen in the late 1940s were determined to maintain a presence in Europe after World War II. Still, they demobilized so rapidly that the armed forces shrank from a wartime high of 12 million to 1.4 million by 1950. Not coincidentally, that was the year that Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea, confident that American armed forces would not stand in his way. Eventually the U.S. recovered half the peninsula, but only at the cost of 36,000 dead Americans.

The decline in the size of the armed forces after the Korean War was less drastic than after World War II (from 3.6 million men in 1952 to 2.5 million in 1959), but the army still lost almost half its active-duty strength in the 1950s. President Eisenhower was enamored of a New Look strategy that sought to minimize conventional forces in favor of nuclear forces. That may have sufficed to deter a Red army invasion of Western Europe, but it did nothing to prevent the Soviet Union and China from pursuing proxy wars against the U.S., most successfully in Vietnam. This was not a conflict we were well prepared for, and we paid a high price because of it.

In fact, the post-World War II draw-down and the reintegration of World War II fighting men into civilian life spurred the Baby Boom and one of the most prosperous periods of economic growth, technological advancement, and rising living standards in American history. Again, it's always possible to second-guess strategic decisions in hindsight, but what we did post-World War II was good enough to facilitate our emergent status as the most prosperous country in the history of the world -- one that ultimately triumphed against our closest rival in the Cold War.

It is strange to look back on that period, as Boot does, and see a strategic failure to avoid repeating. This is especially so because, contra his narrative, we paid a high price in Vietnam because it was foolish to enter into and escalate the conflict. That war could not have been won at any price worth paying in blood and treasure, regardless of the size of our army when it began.

He goes on:

The 1970s saw yet another massive drawdown, with the military falling from 3.5 million in 1969 to 2 million in 1979. Drug use, racial tension, insubordination, even "fragging" (soldiers attacking officers) were hallmarks of this era, which culminated in a hollow army that could not deter the Soviet Union from invading Afghanistan or rescue the American hostages in Iran.

As it happens, it would have been foolhardy to maintain an army so big that we could've deterred the Soviet Union from invading Afghanistan, for as is clear in hindsight, that invasion was a disaster for the Evil Empire: it didn't help it at all, and in fact hastened its ultimate fall. It's also hard to figure how the size of the army was the obstacle to rescuing the hostages in Iran, unless Boot would've favored a large-scale invasion of that country and thinks it only would've been possible with more troops, both very strange positions to maintain.

In sum, Boot's argument from American history is absurd on its own terms. And it grows even more ridiculous when one remembers that, though he never mentions it, he is comparing reductions in military spending at times when the United States was a marginal power on the world stage to cuts at a time when, even if they all go through, we'll still be spending many times more than our closest rival. Indeed, we'll still be spending more on the military than all our ostensible rivals combined. If this is the best that a hawkish foreign-policy expert can do to argue against defense cuts, the case for a military rejiggered for the post-Iraq and Afghanistan era is even stronger than I imagined.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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