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Losing Never Cost So Much…

World Military Spending 2002(Comparative Military spending, 2002)

Ian writes more regularly for The Agonist.

Last week I talked about the principles of guerrilla warfare. This week let’s talk about the US military.

Here’s the baseline fact that must be accounted for – the US is currently losing two wars against a bunch of armed rabble. Both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are being lost. The Iraq war will almost certainly be lost (though “declaring victory and leaving” might be the best path). Afghanistan, which I think is theoretically still winnable, will almost certainly be lost, since neither NATO in general, nor the US in specific is willing to spend the money or manpower necessary to win it.

Now the US is responsible for about half of all the military spending in the world. Even in purchasing parity terms, it spend as much as the next six combined. It certainly spends so much more than the Iraqi or Afghani guerrillas that they aren’t even rounding errors. And yet the US is losing.

Under such a circumstance the thing that strikes me, as something of an outsider, is not that people like Obama and Clinton are suggesting the military needs even more soldiers, but the questions no one asks.

Given that the US spends almost half the world’s entire military budget, how is it that it’s losing two wars to a bunch of rabble?


Are you getting your money’s worth?


What good is this military doing you, anyway?

How US taxes are spentSeriously – when you spend this much, and bear in mind that the cost of past and current military expenditures comes in at about 41% of all expenditures (28% if you just want to count current military spending) you have to turn around and ask – what are we getting for this?

The answer, as far as I can see, is “not much”.

Politicians often claim that military spending “makes Americans safer”. Let’s examine that.

Safe from what? Is anyone going to invade you? Is there anyone who is even remotely capable of invading you? No. Right, so it’s not about “defense” as traditionally understood.

Safe from terrorists? There’s an argument here, I suppose, but it’s not very strong. Certainly the use of military force over the last few years has increased the frequency of terrorist attacks throughout the world, not decreased them. One might argue that by “fighting them there” we aren’t “fighting them here.” I’m sure the Spanish and Brits might have something to say about that, but in fact, the odds of any attack from Islamic terrorists have always been low. How many terrorist attacks by foreigners (as opposed to Americans) have occurred on US soil over the last 20 years? Not many. It’s a low probability event and the lack of an attack since 9/11 on US soil reflects that. Mind you, the attack on Afghanistan did disrupt al-Qaeda, and that was a good thing. But that attack did not require the vast majority of the US military and an expedition multiple times that size could be done even if the US spent much less money on the military.

In fact the majority of actual terrorist captures have been the result, not of military action, but of the sort of police and intelligence work that mostly doesn’t require much in the way of military resources (special ops teams at most. And they aren’t expensive compared to the big iron.)

While the military has soaked up billions, things that might keep the “homeland” safe, like scanning all cargo containers, pushing the most advanced explosive sniffers out to airports, and so on, have been grossly underfunded.

And the use of the military, as is widely acknowledged, has plunged the US’s approval ratings to their lowest ever levels, spawned a whole new generation of guerrillas and terrorists with every reason to hate the US and has plunged the world’s most important oil producing region into chaos which threatens the oil markets, and thus the US economy.

Anything that needs to be done against terrorists by the military can be done with a lot less military than you have now. And, honestly, given blowback such as is occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan, anything the military can do against terrorists that requires large scale intervention, is almost certainly going to be counterproductive.

To a large extent this is because you don’t have a colonial anti-insurgency army. The US army is flat out awful at occupation. And this isn’t because of anything easily fixed – it permeates the army. It was built for open field combat against conventional forces. The troops and equipment are fantastically expensive, making attrition warfare against any US occupying force cost the US much more than their enemies – you could lose ten guerrillas per US casualty, and they’d be ahead (the Iraqis appear to have a much better ratio than this, by the way.) US military organization is not set up for insurgency warfare. The doctrine, while it’s just been re-written, is not understood by the majority of the officer corp and has not been tested in the field. And US troops have an awful attitude for 4th generation warfare, being trigger happy and far too willing to blow away civilians if they sense even the least possibility of danger to themselves. As a consequence they make enemies everywhere they go, and the longer they occupy an area, the more opposition there is, while a good occupation should do the opposite. The US also has an awful ratio of non-combatant to combatant troops and “moves heavy” with ridiculous over-use of civilian contractors who hamper it logistically, run up costs, and are not subject to military discipline, thus causing even further problems with the indigenous population.

The US military, in short, sucks at insurgency, occupation and colonial style warfare. It is brilliant at battlefield operations outside of major urban centers and is probably, as a whole, the premier battlefield supremacy army in the world today. The Gulf War showed that very clearly. And, indeed, if the US military had blown into Baghdad, toppled the regime and left in 6 months, everyone would still be trembling in fear.

What the US has, then, is a decapitation military. It’s very good at knocking off governments, but not so good at guaranteeing what happens afterwards.

Is this worth what you’re paying for it? Certainly the military has its uses. The navy, in particular, keeps trade lines open that are vital to the US economy. But do you need the world’s most expensive military? If you do, do you need a decapitation/battlefield supremacy army of the sort you have, or do you need to convert it into one suitable for fighting colonial anti-insurgency wars. Call it “peace making”, “nation building”, whatever – do you want an army capable of going into other nations and ruling them until a government is in place you can live with? Capable of fighting and defeating guerrillas?

Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama and most of the Republican field, want to increase the size of the US’s ground forces. That makes sense only if you expect to be involved in more wars on the Iraq model – occupations; guerrilla wars – or if you intend to be blowing over even more, and more powerful governments.

And there is an opportunity cost to the military. As Eisenhower pointed out so eloquently, every dollar spent on the military is a dollar that could have been spent helping someone who needed it – feeding the hungry, teaching those who need schooling, caring for the sick, or even just repairing roads or building high speed Internet so the US stops falling behind other 1st world nations.

A modern military is almost always a huge burden on the state and the people of the state. It produces nothing. It is nothing but a money suck. Sometimes it’s necessary – some nations really are in danger of being invaded. Other states have problems with internal order that require them to have an army to put down parts of their own population (Turkey and the Kurds, for example).

But the US doesn’t have any possibility of being invaded; doesn’t need an army for internal order (and is forbidden to use it for that purpose in any case); and is running significant trade; government and balance of payment deficits. Entitlements are currently under pressure, with much talk, still, in elite circles of ‘reforming” both social security and Medicare. And in this context, folks, reform always means providing less and taxing more.

At some point the US is going to have to make some hard decisions about what’s going to give. You can’t have all of – low taxes on the rich, a big military, entitlements spending, big deficit spending. One, or probably two, of those pillars, are going to have to go.

At the current time, elite thinking is that it’s going to be entitlements and maybe, just maybe, the deficit. It sure isn’t going to be low taxes on the rich or the military which makes so many corporations rich and which so many regard as “untouchable” and oh-so American (an attitude, by the way, that would have made most of America’s founders, with their profound distrust of standing armies, sick to their stomaches.)

Perhaps you think the military gives you something that’s worth all that money. To me all it does is tempt politicians to use it, suck money out of the rest of the economy, and endanger the remnants of the New Deal. Some might say that it endangers republican Democracy itself, as the march towards permanent war “the long war” along with arguments about the “Commander-in-Chief” has been used to undermine liberty at home.

The founders argued that large standing armies were inimical to liberty, to democracy, to the health of the economy and to peace itself. I’d say they knew what they were talking about.

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at