Slouching Towards Sparta


Title: How Everything Became The War And The Military Became Everything

Rating: 2 Stars

In my life, the United States military has changed tremendously. I came of age in the 1970s, during the worse of Vietnam and in its aftermath. I know that there are stories about people spitting on returning soldiers, calling them baby killers, etc. I was pretty young and it was a long time ago, so I don’t know how much truth there was to this and/or how common of a practice it really was.

Be that as it may, the image of the army by the end of the Vietnam War was an army of poor conscripts (the wealthy can always figure out how to get out of military service, from paying $300 to get out of the Civil War to getting medical deferments during the Vietnam War (how’s that heel spur, President Trump?)) composed of drug addicts that occasionally tried to frag their officers.

Of course, nowadays, it’s an all volunteer force (still comprised mostly of people of limited economic means, some things never change). Especially in the time of Reagan, in opposition to those flag burning liberals, Americans began to lionize military personnel. We now thank soldiers for their service and they are given great respect. Even the most flaming anti-war zealot will always make a point to say that they support the soldiers.

Lord help the politician who in any way seems to be weak on defense. In the year 2017, our defense budget is about $700 billion dollars, even though we have no real state enemies of any consequence, we have no border threats, and we are under absolutely no existential threat (I’m sorry, but the United States will not be handing over a ceremonial sword in surrender to ISIS anytime soon). Meanwhile, the State Department budget (you know, the guys that actually manage our affairs of state) is about $55 billion dollars.

How did we get here? That is the subject of the book.

First of all, we’ve been at war essentially non-stop for over fifteen years. That’s the problem with declaring a war on a noun (ie War on Terror). When does it end? Are we expecting Terror to surrender? If we quit fighting while acts of terror still occur (and let’s face it, they’re always going to be occurring, there is no other way to fight the world’s only superpower than asymmetrically), does that mean that we have given up and/or surrendered? What politician has the cojones to say that?

War itself has changed. In the olden times, two masses of men (yes, men) lined up and charged each other. Now, war can be economic. War can be cyber. War can be personalized (think of a predator drone hovering above a terrorist suspect, gathering enough information to provide a convincing case that he is indeed a terrorist, and then sending a missile to destroy only his house). Now, instead of making sure that we have the best ships, tanks, and planes, billions of dollars are invested in these traditionally non military activities.

We also now have the concept of Counter Insurgency (COIN). This is basically a newer version of winning the hearts and minds. If we can figure out how to improve the standard of living of people that could nominally becomes our enemies, than maybe they will be less likely to become our enemies. Maybe they can even become a bulwark against those that truly are our enemies. So, in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, more billions of dollars are spent building schools, hospitals, wells and the like, all done by the, you guessed it, military.

The final nail in the coffin is that budgets really are, to a certain extent, a zero sum game. It’s not completely true, but generally it’s true that every dollar that goes to defense means that someone else is losing a dollar.

The implication to this is that even if a function falls outside of the military normal duties, it devolves to the military because the normal department doesn’t have the money to do it any longer. The military has the budget and the manpower, so it, reluctantly, takes it on. For example, in some countries, it’s the military that runs a local radio station. From a COIN point of view, it’s a good tactic to have a medium to communicate locally. Historically, it’s the State Department that would perform this, but it has become so financially emasculated that the defense has picked up the function. Neither State nor Defense particularly like this, but it needs to be done and only the Defense Department has the capability to perform it.

What’s wrong with all of this, anyway? Well, the military is basically a hammer and to it, every problem looks like a nail. I’m not in any way knocking the troops (I support the troops! Thank you for your service!), but there are problems in the world that aren’t necessarily best solved by a strictly hierarchical, rigidly disciplined, gun toting group of men (OK, eighty-five percent men).

By constant war, scope creep, pouring funds to it while depriving others, the military has become the dominant government power in the United States. The impact that this has on a traditional Western democracy is something that should be and needs to be looked on with deep suspicion.

So, after all of this blather, why two stars? Well, there are five parts to this book. What I just described takes place in the first two. The author is a lawyer, and in the latter parts of the book, this shows. She goes on, at length, on the subject of the history of war and attempts made to wrap around it a legal framework. It was kind of interesting, but to me, not really all that germane to the urgent topic at hand. I felt that entire sections of the book were filler. It could have made a more powerful, cogent argument in half the length. Also, there was a bit of a travelogue element to it (Look, I went to Iraq! Look, I went to Afghanistan! Look, I went to Guantanamo!) that, again, detracted from the main argument.


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