when academics try to take on military history

Inertia applies not only to objects with mass, but to bureaucracy and large institutions that have grown out of control.

army graduation halo

There are few things more bizarre than watching academics trying to decipher military policies though a lens of philosophy and sociology, where rather than focusing on a chain of events and trying to walk through all the possible conclusions along that chain, they try to put entire ideologies on the couch. The result, as seen in a pair of essays on American ideas about the military and its use, comes off as convoluted to someone who isn’t interested in obtuse philosophical ruminations, and patronizing to the ideologies they try to analyze. In an effort to play therapist and throw around trendy geopolitical terms with which far too many pundits like to lard a particularly vague piece on foreign policy, they tend to miss some very obvious issues and flail in search of an answer they find satisfactory. Same goes for those who take their treatises and use them to weave elaborate webs of conspiracy theories which too often culminate in New World Orders ran by the Illuminati, or alien and human hybrids who secretly ruled the world for eons, or the vast, amorphous military-industrial complex.

Actually, I’ve lost count as to how many times Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the defense industry has been trotted out in the last six months, and consider it somewhat ironic when used by bloggers who will quote unnamed experts suggesting that the military could cut a trillion dollars from its budget, despite the fact that this proposed cut is about twice what the military actually spends in a given year, because under his reign, military spending in America was over half the national budget. Today, it’s about a quarter, and yet we’re being told that the United States has constantly growing military budgets and numerous alternative estimates inflate the numbers by rolling any agency which deals with law enforcement, aviation, space, and research of any kind under the military umbrella, in effect cooking the books to stick to the narrative. But then again, if you were to go by people’s budgetary estimates, you’d think NASA’s budget was $500 billion even though it’s not even in the same order of magnitude with $18 billion a year. Still, all that said, American military expenses are thought to account for anywhere between a third and half of all global defense spending, depending who does the number crunching, and no matter how you look at it, that’s an awful lot. But how did that happen?

Well, let’s go back to the often cited turning point in American military policy, the end of World War II, when the fate of entire nations lay in the hands of two superpowers which knew very little about each other and spent a few decades demonizing one another in their newspapers and radio shows. All they really knew with certainty was that their military might was nothing to be taken lightly, that both had found Nazi V2 rocket factories, that it was a near certainty that one side would use them to launch its newly developed nuclear arsenal at the other with its future long range missiles, and that the other side was building its own nukes and working on its own stockpile of future ICBMs. This is why they set about trying to carve out buffer zones and secure alliances and treaties that sought to extend their reach and put missiles and turrets closer to their enemies to make crucial, possibly deciding nuclear blows easier. The vast military build-up during the Cold War was the conclusion a pair of superpowers deeply suspicious and fearful of each other made. The bigger the military, and the more nukes, the greater the deterrent to direct warfare. Instead, the superpowers warred by proxy, requiring a new wave of military expansion during each conflict to warn the other not to take the proxy wars global.

Of course if we knew then what we know now, history may have been very different. But the real world doesn’t work in hindsight, and at the time, the only thing the superpowers could really do was to arm themselves for a potential World War III and hope it would never happen. Than, as the Cold War ended when the USSR finally imploded after decades of corruption, ineptitude, and terrible decisions by its paranoid gerontocracy, the U.S. found itself with a huge military, a booming voice in global affairs built by its investments and alliances, and a lack of an enemy against which to use all this clout. Or in other words, it was all dressed up but had nowhere to go. So, ask critics of military spending, why not just draw down the armed forces? Well, it’s not that easy to do that because once you set up a giant organization with hundreds of thousands of people on its payroll, it’ll take decades just to unwind it. Its weapons have to be fueled, maintained, and supported. Its veterans and all its employees must be paid. Its current apocalyptic stockpiles of horrifying nukes have to be watched. To use an IT term here, the American military is a legacy system and one that can’t be scaled down or phased out as easily as it seems on paper or in a blog post. Just cutting its costs is an expensive process in itself because someone will have to pay all those transitional expenses. Until another war comes along that is…

And that’s really the core of the issue. Over half a century of constant sparring and military buildup, the U.S. is now left in command of a vast military that its politicians have gotten used to presenting as a deterrent in the best of times, and sending off to unleash its firepower in the worst. And while we all too often assume that an immense war machine designed to level entire nations in weeks could easily handle insurgencies in a Third World country, that’s really not true. In fact, politicians and many commanders are finding out that you have to fight against superpowers and guerillas with very different militaries, and are now in the process of taking the existing structure of the armed forces and retooling them for different wars while creating another big wave of military buildup in the process. And this is when we start hearing the cries of imperialism, conspiracy theories about New World Order sponsored warfare, and academic over-analysis to fully explain why Americans keep maintaining its armed forces at such expense by pundits who for some reason think that once the Cold War’s end was finally here, we could’ve just dismissed half the military and thanked the soldiers for their service. In the post-Cold War world, as the political landscape was still uncertain and potentially threatening, Americans wanted to keep a vast military to safeguard themselves. And today, as the mistakes of the Cold War’s twilight days have returned as a new global menace, that military, originally intended to fight nation-states, is fighting new and different wars, and trying to retool itself for what it never really prepared.

Certainly, there’s something to be said about what sixty years of military-centric policies shaped by an always near-violent, or violence-by-proxy political turmoil does to a nation’s culture. But to squeeze the latest chapters of American history through the prisms of 19th century philosophers and not even mention the Cold War and its enormous influence on shaping the United States’ foreign policy and national identity, or discounting it for another exciting conspiracy theory, or elaborate sophistry that glosses over it, assuming that dismantling half a century of work and complex political entanglements can be done in just a few years, is just sloppy at best, and alarmingly inept at worst. And certainly not something that should be considered an academic thesis.

# politics // cold war / history / military / ussr

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