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Military Spending: Ignoring the $738 Billion Elephant in the Room

The Democrats running for president are busy stumping their way through the country. But despite all the issues they’re purporting to address, we’ve heard very little about how to manage our national debt, and whether the continued use of our current military force is sustainable. These are two “elephants in the room” that are being ignored. Shouldn’t they be discussed and debated?

President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi banged out a two-year budget deal [1] last month that includes $738 billion in Pentagon spending for Fiscal Year 2020, more than half of the entire budget. It was cleared by the House, and the Senate approved it [2] on August 1.

Even before the deal was announced, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal watchdog, said it had the potential to be “the worst budget agreement in our nation’s history,” and could add as much as $2 trillion to the deficit over the next decade.

The U.S. national debt was more than $7 trillion in 2004. In the years since, it has roughly tripled, and much of that growth is due to our continued military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

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As a Marine Corps captain who was stationed in Okinawa when the Vietnam War ended for our country in late January 1973, I am greatly concerned about our current military force. We are sustaining enormous costs in terms of the nation’s treasury, human lives, and misery for troops and families. How long can all of this be sustained?  

Contributing to this worrisome situation is an out-of-control desire to police the world, particularly the Middle East. Because of that appetite, our volunteer military force may be unsustainable unless we lower recruiting standards, increase enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses, require more frequent deployments, subcontract normal military tasks to private companies like Blackwater, and otherwise resort to lowering our standards. Such a shift would hardly make America more solvent or secure. 

Much of our military interference in foreign affairs is due to a perceived “imminent threat” to our national security. Yet the reality is that terrorists can train for and plan attacks on our country whether they are based in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else on earth. Should we continue spending billions or trillions more dollars and risk thousands more troops being killed in the name of these ineffective, costly missions in the Middle East? Where is the risk/reward assessment? 

Was Iraq really an imminent threat to our national security? Were any of the other half-dozen countries in which our forces have fought in the Middle East and North Africa over the last two decades? Is keeping some countries free of rule by the Taliban, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda worth bleeding our country to the point of bankruptcy?

Also ignored in the political debates is whether the current voluntary military force is sustainable. This vital question goes unnoticed because the vast majority of Americans have no skin in the game when it comes to our armed forces and the battles fought on our behalf. We are not required to send our sons or daughters to war, and with our policy of debt financing our military operations, we have not experienced any day-to-day financial burden.

If our country had a military draft in effect, or if we had to pay additional taxes to support our war efforts (as we did for a few years during the Vietnam War), I suspect our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond would have ended years ago. 

As it is, we continue outsourcing our wars to a physically and psychologically worn out voluntary military force. Our country needs to have a national debate on these issues instead of habitually approving larger and larger military budgets and relying heavily on an overworked volunteer force. It’s time we pushed our presidential candidates to acknowledge these elephants in the room.

David Nelson served three years in the Marine Corps in the early 1970s, attaining the rank of captain. He was stationed in Okinawa when the Vietnam War ended in late January 1973.