I find one particular phrase more autonomic than most: the reflexive “Thank you for your service” in response to an acquaintance who mentions time spent in one of the U.S. military branches. I suspect that the person thanking the military man has little grasp of what he is thankful for. All he knows is that the revelation elicits a vague sense of appreciation for which he feels obliged to express gratitude.
How are we to gauge whether our military man’s service created something of value for which we should give thanks? In private markets, value emerges through competing prices and voluntary exchange. When we purchase a good or service of our free will, we insist on paying no more than the value we expect to receive. Actually, we’re willing to pay only less. We expect to receive more than a dollar of value as we perceive the proposition. We have no similar device to value the services rendered by our military man. His compensation – stipend and benefits – are paid from taxes. Taxes are the product of a coerced transaction. His compensation is determined by government fiat. We have no idea if we are underpaying or overpaying. We have no say as to whether we value the service at all.
My hunch is that we vastly overpay for and under-utilize vast sums of resources – both human and capital – for security conjured from military service. I aver that far from “serving” to create value (mostly the value of security) most military personnel are, or have, destroyed value. The monstrous aggregated numbers alone hint at inefficiency: The U.S. military comprises over 1.4 million active personnel. Defense spending exceeds $750 billion annually. The U.S. defense budget exceeds the next 11 countries’ budgets combined. It is three times larger than the next most profligate military spender – China.
Defense implies a reactive response. It is active only in its ability to deter. Football offers a convenient analogy. The offense initiates the first move, the defense reacts. The offense is always the first mover, the defense the second. If the offense perceives the defense as especially formidable in preventing the success of a particular play, the offense will abstain from running the play. Its perceived formidability deters aggression. The simple act of defense derived from the analogy would confine the U.S. military to U.S. borders (until trespassed by an unwanted foreign entity), as opposed to the 80 foreign countries where it is found.
Military spending on inefficiency and overpriced hardware has a long history. Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire conceived his satiric Golden Fleece Award in 1975. Proxmire presented the award monthly through 1988 to the government department he deemed most self-serving and wasteful. The U.S. Department of Defense was a frequent winner. Little has changed over the subsequent 33 years. The Department of Defense continues to hold a top position on the totem of profligacy and waste.
It can’t be any other way, and it won’t be any other way. To compare a government agency to a private business and then try to reform the former to the latter is to reform an orangutan to an orange. It’s an impossibility. Incentives ensure it is so.
In private business, owners and managers are rewarded for satisfying customers’ explicit wants, evinced by the customers’ willingness to transact. But they are rewarded only when their output commands a price that exceeds their cost of inputs. The greater the spread between the two, the greater the business profit. The greater the reward to owners and managers.
Private businesses are naturally motivated to avoid waste and improve efficiency. A government agency, including the Department of Defense, lacks this vital incentive. Generals and admirals will spend what they can persuade Congress to budget. They are motivated to expand their empire more than anything. The larger the empire, the wider their sphere of influence, and the greater the potential for waste. Should a jet-fighter Congress agreed to fund run billions of dollars over budget or prove to be a boondoggle outright, the persuading military brass’s personal finances suffer not the least, nor do their reputations. An officer is more likely to suffer retribution than praise for seeking efficiency.
Milton Friedman revealed the nut of the problem when he stated his four ways we .spend money:
- Spend your money on yourself.
- Spend your money on someone else.
- Spend someone else’s money on you.
- Spend someone else’s money on someone else.
The military’s mandate is to provide national security. A massive, excessively funded defense tortures the mandate to promote the opposite. To be funded to the tune of a quarter-of-a-trillion dollars annually creates unease when everyone is mostly sitting on his hands, which the military should do most of the time. Everyone – Congress and military alike – feel compelled to do something when doing nothing would do the most to promote security. They feel that “doing something” justifies the three-quarters of a trillion annual budget.
But doing something means doing something only when the probability of retaliation on U.S. soil hovers near zero. The history of U.S. military conflicts since the War of 1812 (except the war between the states, which was a succession war, not a civil one) is a history of a military continually punching below its weight: Mexico, Spain, North Vietnam, North Korea, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan were flyweights lassoed and drug into the ring to square-off against a George-Foreman-size opponent (the United States). The enemies in the two world wars were slightly more formidable, but only slightly
This incarnation of bullying is sure to foment insecurity. Look no further than the latest rounds with Afghanistan. The war has created insecurity to federal-government finances, at the least. Researchers at Brown University estimate that the U.S. has spent $5.8 trillion on the Afghanistan war and other conflicts stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The tally includes direct and indirect spending on everything from military equipment to homeland security to death gratuities for the families of slain U.S. military. Some costs – such as ongoing medical care for veterans – will continue even though the U.S. military’s tour in Afghanistan has ended.
The most egregious costs transcend finance. Approximately 2,400 U.S. soldiers were killed during the 20-year Afghanistan war; more than 46,000 civilians were killed, the Brown report tells us. When the number of all war-related casualties is tallied, the toll rises to 900,000. The tally includes U.S. military members, allied fighters, opposition fighters, civilians, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers killed as a direct result of the war. The number excludes, the Brown researchers note, the many indirect deathshas caused by disease, displacement, and loss of access to food and potable water.
The U.S. military response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks can be likened to eliminating a hornet’s nest with machine-gun fire: a lot of collateral demand occurred at great cost, and yet the enemy remains. Is it beyond the realm of reason to think the foreign victims of the Afghanistan war (and all wars, really) feel only contempt for the United States and simmer with thoughts of revenge?
Culture provides the foundation for every nation. A nation of property-respecting, peace-appreciating, business-minding, comity-inclined citizens is sure to be more secure than a nation of the opposite. The personal and financial success a civilized culture produces is sure to foment some jealously among the inferior cultures, but jealously only rarely rouses aggression.
The military has always been inimical to civility. The military recruits impressionable, inchoate young males and then strips them of their moral compass. The military promotes not the best in man, but precisely the worst: all the savage instincts that civil societies condemn to the bottom-cellar. The military demands men to live for a time in unqualified obedience to their natural impulses – to ravage, to kill, to destroy. Our young soldier is indoctrinated to accept risk and horrors undismayed, even cheerfully and eagerly, with something approaching delight. The military debases him to the hedonistic opportunism that is native to man.
At the same time, our young soldier is stripped of his individuality and molded into a convenient, faceless tribe. His superiors now see him as a number. His living or dying is immaterial, as long as the death toll numbers remain within an analytics-approved range to complete the mission.. Whether he or the other guy is sacrificed for the greater good conjured by his superiors, makes no difference. His anonymity ensures his superiors suffer no recriminations, no pangs of guilt or empathy.
Our soldier suffers wantonness and cruelty only infrequently, but when he does, he has only wizened old men to blame. For it is the old men who instigate hostilities, knowing full well they are exempt from harm. Too frequently these same old men are the most cowardly and effeminate in the nation. They are strangers to the powder of battle; they blunder on the sands of the tournament. They lack the charisma and energy to direct men by persuasion. They possess no more virility than that of the court eunuch. The military provides a cover for their insecurity. The more young men who “serve”, the more inclined the old men are to strut and crow like hen-house roosters.
Only death is forever. The military life ends and the young soldier returns to civilian life, though he returns with a perverse moral perspective. He has been branded with a concept of morality that a civil society rejects and that is antithetical to security. He is convinced otherwise. He will likely perpetuate the myth that his service was of unquestionable value. Worse, his aging mind will exaggerate the value of his service as the years pass.
And for this we should say “thank you”?