In the comments on Pie’s article about the Internet (Thursday, 5 Dec Noon Post), I saw some comments in a subthread about the size and composition of the military that sparked some thoughts I decided to share because I find it a fascinating discussion topic for libertarians. I hope it hasn’t already been covered before, but even if it does, I hope I can offer something new on the subject for the Glibertariat.
I first must ‘confess’ that I subscribe to agreeing (generally) with George Nash’s configuration of where libertarians fall in the political taxonomy in his seminal work “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945.” First published in 1976 as a graduate thesis, it’s been reprinted and I’ve read a more recent, updated edition. Some of you may disagree and that’s fair enough, but in any serious consideration of the size and scope of the military, undergirding has to be some coherent theory of valid political action of the government in the area of foreign affairs, trade, and immigration, all of which impact what specie of military you think is valid to have. As a concrete example, do you think the US military should protect US commercial shipping the world over? The Founding Fathers themselves certainly did, and since I consider myself a ‘constitutional libertarian,’ I note that even President ‘Mr. Yeoman Farmer’ Jefferson was willing to “send in the Marines!” to “the Shores of Tripoli” to stop the Barbary pirates from playing around with US shipping. It was an issue that Jefferson explicitly ran on against John Adams – the payment of US tribute of to the “petty tyrant of Algiers.” This dated to the Founding of the republic, by the way, and so it can’t be claimed this didn’t inform the creation of the Constitution itself. From the wiki:
The United States had signed treaties with all of the Barbary states after its independence was recognized between 1786-1794 to pay tribute in exchange for leaving American merchantmen alone, and by 1797, the United States had paid out $1.25 million or a fifth of the government’s annual budget then in tribute. These demands for tribute had imposed a heavy financial drain and by 1799 the U.S. was in arrears of $140,000 to Algiers and some $150,000 to Tripoli. Many Americans resented these payments, arguing that the money would be better spent on a navy that would protect American ships from the attacks of the Barbary pirates, and in the 1800 Presidential Election, Thomas Jefferson won against incumbent second President John Adams, in part by noting that the United States was “subjected to the spoliations of foreign cruisers” and was humiliated by paying “an enormous tribute to the petty tyrant of Algiers”.
Washington himself as the very first President asked Congress in 1794 – at the urging of the people – to appropriate money for a Navy to deal with the problem as the US tried to grow its economy by participating in international commerce.
Which brings us back again to a serious question about the size and scope of the military and what capabilities should the US military have. Should the US have some capability to do Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEOs, in military acronymese) from places like US Embassies around the globe? If so, what does that imply about the capability required to operate in the environments where embassies are found: from mountains, to jungles, to deserts, to large cities, to coastlines, in all weather conditions, in extremis, day or night? What about places from which one must be able to launch those operations if you don’t have bases around the world? Should this capability be expanded enough to cover the ability to pull out a large US expat population living abroad in a country that suddenly turns shitty in a short time? Or is your foreign policy one that includes the ability to tell the American people: “Meh. Tough shit. Shouldn’t live in those kinds of places.” Or does your foreign policy include only an economic response to such provocations? How about if someone shoots down/blows up a US commercial passenger jet in foreign airspace, for example, like the one over Locherbie, Scotland. As an interesting footnote, a high school classmate and friend of mine, Rob “Shaggy” Schlageter (with a pair of burgundy corduroys and green shirt, he would was a dead ringer for Sccoby’s partner!) was killed aboard that plane.
Which brings us to a much more interesting question, I think, about the size and scope of the US military and its capability. Most of us have grown up for most, if not all, of our lives with the US as an (or THE) unquestioned military superpower. It isn’t just the nukes, either. We can put a missile in your bedroom window or men with guns over your bed while you sleep anywhere in the world on relatively short notice. It is a truly awesome capability and I give you my solemn vow it is true as someone who has seen and been a part of what we can do at the very, very pointy tip of that spear. But it has always been an article of faith for me that the most powerful military in the world should be commanded, led by, and serve the most moral/ethical people. And I can’t envision any sane theory of morals or ethics in which it is any other way. That is to say, I would like to hear Sam Harris, or Zombie Hitchens, or any moral relativist defend the notion that it makes no difference whether the US had the stronger military or Imperial Japan did. Or Nazi Germany. Now if this all seems a bit farfetched or Ivory Tower, let me offer up the thought experiment that really has formed the basis for this entire piece:
Close your eyes and try imagine that the United States is NOT the world’s pre-eminent military. Imagine instead that Jane’s and all of the other publications that track such things consider the U.S. to be the 6th strongest/most capable military in the world. Once you have really got that in your head, the first thing that pops into my mind is ‘who are numbers 1 through 5?’ And if you can’t imagine five countries above you that make your blood run cold, I hope you will take my word and know it comes from a place of love when I say that you haven’t traveled enough to have an informed opinion on the debate about the size and scope of the U.S. military. Because I can sure imagine 5 countries I wouldn’t want to see above us on that list; and I can also imagine what it might mean if the list ever looked like that in some dystopian future, and what that would mean for human suffering the world over, much less right in our own backyards.
I am staunchly against military adventurism the world over because it costs lives and for over two decades a good chunk of those were my friends. Or at least it sure does seem like it because I have and know of a fair number of dead guys and gals, including some by their own hand. I have also seen the horrors of what people are capable of doing to each other the world over and I know that the US military acts as some kind of brake on those horrors, even if it’s just in an ancillary way by protecting sea lanes of commerce, for example. Piracy still claims a measurable chunk of the world’s commerce every year. I believe I’ve read that rust destroys 10% of the world’s (steel) infrastructure every year in a book called, boringly, “Rust.” It’s the bane of any salt-water Navy. For perspective, in the mid-1980’s Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy James Webb – yes, later Senator Webb (D. Va) and Dem. Presidential-candidate – quit in protest over the refusal of Congress to fund a 600-ship Navy. We are currently at 430 ships.
I want to add one final coda to this piece and that is to state that even in the principle of self-defense you can’t escape the costs necessary to engage in it. Thus, I believe any discussion about the Nation’s military should also include a discussion of how much GDP (as a percentage) one is willing to spend on it. The budget need not be anywhere near as complicated as it is if we simply allocated as a percentage of prior year’s GDP. It’s how NATO allocates its member funding requirements. Trump has made the point recently that we spend “4.2% GDP in real numbers” for our military. Google claims it is 3.145%. Whatever the number is, we could likely agree that some % is sufficient for our needs, set it there as a matter of statute or even Amendment, and allow for additional spending only in the event of a Congressional Declaration of War or contingency for 60 days or less (tie the Amendment to the War Powers Act for all I care). I will also set aside for the moment the notion that these kinds of discussions
The point is that if there is a justification for having a military then we, as a Nation, should have a conception of what that is in both a philosophical and a practical sense, which informs its missions and capabilities, as well as its costs. Clausewitz said famously: “We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. War is the continuation of politics by other means.” While one can argue about definitions enough to perhaps find some kinds of violence between people that doesn’t quite fit the definitions, for my purposes and those of this article it suffices to describe the relationship between a military and the political institutions of a modern nation-state. The Founding Fathers found out quite early on that the world would not simply let us ply our trade and mind our own isolationist business. The realities of modern shipping and aviation, along with the number of Americans living abroad, suggest that we must have some kind of military with some kind and level of capability, which implies training, equipment, etc. (It also implies a certain level of economy to produce material in peacetime sufficient to support those military capabilities, a place for them to be stationed, places to train, etc.)
Could it and should it cost less? Absolutely. I could tell stories to make you blush from my friends at the Pentagon in procurement. My own experiences in the military validate the notion of September splurging in order to maintain at least last year’s funding, as just one example. But I think sweeping statements about wiping out entire branches of the military need to be considered in light of both the needs and the capabilities of a military and what that really means. In my opinion, too many libertarians (at least that I’ve seen) simply wave this all away or argue for absolutes with nary a word turned toward what I see as essential considerations that any serious person would at least mention in broad discussion of these subjects.
Wanting to end the military adventurism abroad is a laudable goal, towards which we should all be working, but we undermine its cause with simplistic screeds. The people who wrote the Constitution were rightfully leery about standing armies, having just expelled one. They also conceived of – and led – a nation of independent-minded citizens who could and would defend themselves by force of arms on their own account and believed, as a people of commerce, that they would rather pay for a military than pay tributes to warlords attacking and kidnapping US citizens abroad.
I’ll let the Glibertariat hash out the details and point out the flaws in my thinking in the comments.