Nanny Statism or National Security Imperative?

Though enlisted servicemen are more likely to be Republican than Democratic,* US military officials have recently taken some leftish stances on big issues. Consider:

1) Disgusted by repeated exploitation of soldiers, Pentagon officials have asked the Senate to use financial reform to crack down on shady car dealers.

2) Distressed by the childhood obesity epidemic, the group “Mission: Readinessreports that “9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24, are too fat to join the military.” Could the American Beverage Association be a threat to national security?

3) The Pentagon is also worried about losing access to critical commodities, so it is stockpiling minerals. Market forces are apparently not enough to guarantee a steady supply of key commodities, or to stimulate development of alternatives.

4) Military hospitals offer the nation’s “purest form” of “socialized medicine.”

5) Global warming has become a “national security issue.”

While the issues may seem disparate, they ultimately cohere around a single concern: individual persons’ or corporations’ bad choices can have cumulative negative impacts that threaten the security of the collective. Moreover, military leaders appear to believe that forms of self-denial now practiced in extreme ways by soldiers ought to be reflected in some small ways in the lives of those they protect. Military historian Andrew Bacevich (who retired as a colonel after spending 23 years in service) puts it this way:

The ethic of self-gratification has firmly entrenched itself as the defining feature of the American way of life. . . . Others have described, dissected, and typically bemoaned the cultural—and even moral—implications of this development. Few, however, have considered how an American preoccupation with “more” has affected U.S. relations with rest of the world. Yet the foreign policy implications of our present-day penchant for consumption and self-indulgence are almost entirely negative. Over the past six decades, efforts to satisfy spiraling consumer demand have given birth to a condition of profound dependency. The United States may still remain the mightiest power the world has ever seen, but the fact is that Americans are no longer masters of their own fate. . . .

The reciprocal relationship between expansionism, abundance, and freedom—each reinforcing the other—no longer exists. If anything, the reverse is true: Expansionism squanders American wealth and power, while putting freedom at risk. As a consequence, the strategic tradition to which Jefferson and Polk, Lincoln and McKinley, TR and FDR all subscribed has been rendered not only obsolete but pernicious.

Rather than confronting this reality head-on, American grand strategy since the era of Ronald Reagan, and especially throughout the era of George W. Bush, has been characterized by attempts to wish reality away. Policy makers have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme intended to extend indefinitely the American line of credit. The fiasco of the Iraq War and the quasi-permanent U.S. occupation of Afghanistan illustrate the results and prefigure what is yet to come if the crisis of American profligacy continues unabated.

Bacevich’s oeuvre is an unremittingly sobering read, but one can take his thought in some hopeful directions. For example, Cohen & Delong’s compelling brief for military-led industrial policy (at the conclusion of their book The End of Influence) illuminates a practical way forward for patriotic progressives. The best way to promote America’s interests may well be to stop shopping for imported luxuries, take some exercise, and press for the type of green energy and cost-conscious health care that will save the resources we need to maintain the fragile infrastructure we all too frequently take for granted. Though Bacevich says that “the politics of progress have passed the point of exhaustion” in the Age of Obama, we can at least hope for small steps toward a broader understanding of national security.

Photo from Wall-E.

*An earlier version of this post stated that the military is “predominantly Republican,” but as the linked article notes, the partisan composition of the armed forces has changed significantly in the past few years.

You may also like...