The long con of military decline: How the right uses the armed forces to lie about America

Listen to GOP and we're either the greatest fighting force ever, or on verge of decimation. So which one is it?

Published May 30, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

George W. Bush delivers a speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, May 1, 2003.             (Reuters/Larry Downing)
George W. Bush delivers a speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, May 1, 2003. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

If you set yourself the task of watching the Republican presidential debates, you may have noticed that when the candidates talk about the military they careen between declaring America as the greatest, most powerful military force in history and repeated declarations of decline, decimation, and degeneration. These ideas seem like unusual partners, perhaps even enemies, but the happy coexistence of contradictory propositions is one of the hallmarks of popular conservative thought.

Illogic is wonderful stuff as long as it generates political yardage and doesn’t upset the mental furniture.

So we are both a colossus without peer and a turtle forever on its back—which one depends on which prop is needed at the time.

Want to go to war? It’s all buffness and shock-and-awe and boom boom bam, home in time for Christmas. Need to knock down a smug Democrat? Suddenly our military is at the mercy of whatever third-rate, can’t-build-a-campfire army we’ve called a threat this week.

This talk has been going on for a long time, possibly for as long as the country has existed, and at least since 1927 as we’ll see. There is no time when decline is not already upon us, or about to land its grim claw on our weak shoulder.

Since this is campaign season, alarming weakness has been mentioned often (in between promises of how much bad-assery will be brought to bear on ISIS). Every Republican on the Big Stage (aside from Rand Paul) dutifully began carping about the catastrophic decline of our military.

Of course, this decline is always the fault of whichever quisling Democrat is warming the chair in the Oval Office. When the pretender is gone, the military will be funded. Decline will be reversed. The day will be saved.

Jeb Bush gives us the standard argument when he says, “The Navy has been gutted and decimated.” In a later debate sensing perhaps that he could sweeten the pot, he says more expansively, “We’re gutting our military.”

Trump in his usual binary manner says, “Our military is a disaster,” which isn’t surprising since, as he notes, “we can’t do anything right.” Trump, as always, has a subtle fix: he’ll make the military “bigger, better, stronger than ever before.”

Rubio, in particular, before his sad backyard Waterloo in Florida, was fond of suggesting that Obama was deliberately weakening the country and the military. He trotted out The Numbers Argument: “Our Air Force is about to be the smallest it's been in 100 years. I'm sorry, in our history. Our Army is set to be smaller than it's been since the Second World War, and our Navy is about to be the smallest than it's been in 100 years.”

Not once did any of our intrepid moderators challenge these assertions. It almost makes the debates seem like pointless theater.

The Numbers Argument, loved by Republicans, is severely dumb –there is no other word for it—and it relies on simplistic measures like the number of ships in service today versus some arbitrary time in the past when we had more. It generally seems to escape attention that modern ships are orders of magnitude more capable and powerful than any of the thousands of additional ships we had in 1945. I’ll give you 500 WW2 Yorktown-class aircraft carriers and I’ll take one modern Nimitz-class carrier. Five hundred to one and the Nimitz will win that fight every time as jets take on prop planes and missiles blow up everything from well out of sight.

That’s a silly, contrived example, but it’s the actual level of sophistication we get from the Numbers Argument which Obama so memorably mocked when he told Mitt Romney, “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.” This is about as damning as you can get; it’s embarrassing to have to tell grown, supposedly serious politicians rudimentary facts like this, but within no time at all, the Republicans were back at the military numbers game, unchastened and undaunted.

It’s a measurement completely devoid of meaning, yes, but it’s also selectively applied. In 2000 George W. Bush inherited a Navy with 318 ships and he handed off to Obama a Navy with 282 ships, but there was no alarmist chorus of national decline during the Bush years, or since, unless it was to blame Obama.

It also might be worth asking what possible good air-superiority fighters and “carpet bombing” are in counter-insurgency wars, the sort of wars that have been giving great military powers the shakes for centuries, and which today’s enemies seem intent on pursuing. But of course that question is never asked. All we’re told by our wannabe carpet bombers, who want to make the sand glow, or something, is we have less and we need more.

More is always the answer to our perpetual problem of less.

All of this this super-heated, super-repeated Chicken Little rhetoric does real damage by making it impossible to separate actual problems from the lies convenient for the usual political fish slapping. This is a problem of partisan political rhetoric in general, but in the case of the military it has very real effects that tend to waste money and can get people killed.

Like any organization, the military sometimes has problems that could use attention. There is the reliance on the M16 which tends to jam; the new F-35, a genuine disaster that Congress won’t kill because they’ve spread the butter (contracts) to as many congressional districts as possible across forty-five states; the badly bloated procurement process; and also culturally, the various flavors of our national chickenhawkness, detailed by James Fallows.

But all we get is talk of decline and calls for more and more and more.

Turns out, it’s all a con, one we’ve been hearing about for over eighty years.

In 1927 General Henry J. Reilly produced a series of long articles for The Century called Our Crumbling National Defense detailing all the ways our military was failing, sold out by a Congress with a too-tight grip on the purse strings. The preferred target for blame at that time was general government neglect—we had not yet fully entered the age of using the military as back alley political stiletto.

Reilly lodges complaint after complaint and even laments that 65% of the military’s 24,500 horses and mules are too old, thus starting a long tradition of complaining that our equipment is antiquated, which is also one of the favorite arguments used to demonstrate decline. Our mules were too old then, just as our bombers are too old now.

The LA Times in 1934 described the “pathetic picture” of Pacific coast defense.

Seven years later World War 2 started lasting until 1945. The voices of decline were silent for obvious reasons. But between 1950 and 1953, just a few years after demobilization, Truman increased defense spending from 5% of GDP to 14%. National Security Council Paper 68 (known as NSC-68), a national security memo from 1950, characterized the Soviet Union as a system “implacable in its purpose to destroy ours.” Basically, they hated our freedoms, which should sound familiar. We are very fond of reusing arguments.

NSC-68 essentially ended the practice of demobilizing after a war, and gave us permanent militarization. This matters, because assumptions about the intentions of the Soviet Union in NSC-68, which were contested by people like George Kennan who lost the argument, became the rationale for massive increases in military budgets. Coupled with the anti-Communist crusade, all the pieces were there to make any attempt to cut the military budget tantamount to betrayal of the country.

Still, the military budget was cut several times in response to wars ending (Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War), under Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan (second term), and Bush 1. The rhetoric of decline is almost entirely absent during these presidencies, which all have in common one thing—they were not Democratic, and thus above criticism on military budgets.

In the late '50s Kennedy and other Democrats used the “missile gap” (notice The Numbers Argument) with the Soviets to criticize Eisenhower, but this represented very nearly the start and the end of Democrats making such charges for partisan gain. The Washington Post, however, was practically hysterical in describing the 1957 Gaither Report prepared for Eisenhower on fallout shelters. In the midst of their work the committee decided that fallout shelters was a topic too puny, and decided to beat a bigger drum. The report they produced, according to the Post, warns that the U.S. is “…moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power. It shows America exposed to an almost immediate threat from the missile-bristling Soviet Union. It finds America’s long-term prospect one of cataclysmic peril in the face of rocketing Soviet military might…” All of which turned out to be false—the missile bristling, the missile gap, the intelligence on which it was based, all of it—which underscores the dangers of playing politics with the military.

In 1968, Gerald Ford told the Republican Convention, “Under the Democrats our military strength has dangerously declined compared to that of the Communist world.” James Kilpatrick in 1971 wrote about the “alarming decline in American power,” based on the warnings of seven US Senators—six Republicans and hawkish Democrat Henry Jackson. In 1974 George Wallace warned of military decline in a fundraising letter. In 1976 Reagan turned on Ford and Kissinger, saying that Ford did not have the ability to “halt and reverse the diplomatic and military decline,” and that Kissinger‘s time has “coincided precisely with the loss of U.S. military supremacy.”

Five extremely short years after the end of the Vietnam War, Norman Podhoretz disgorged a book/pamphlet called The Present Danger: Do We Have the Will to Reverse the Decline of American Power? He warned of "moral disarmament" from learning the improper lessons from Vietnam, namely that we were wrong, a sentiment not much in favor in the circles of right-wing commentary where the only possible wrong is the wrong of being too weak (on drugs, blacks, Iran, immigration, protesters, women, the poor, Putin, China ... space limits the full list, even on the Internet).

In 1980 decline was in the air.

Reagan renewed his charge that we were in the midst of grave case of it, but now Carter was his whipping boy. Kissinger seems to have forgiven the previous sleight when he praised Reagan at the Republican convention and also saying of Carter that, “It is not political oratory to assert that another four years like the last four will make disaster irretrievable.”

George Will addressed the failed rescue attempt of the American hostages in Iran, where helicopters spectacularly crashed in the nighttime desert. Amidst complaints in his column of “unrelieved military decline” he invented a laughably bad phrase calling the failed rescue a “reverse moon landing.” Why this famous, but small incident should be labelled a reverse moon landing when there was a far more obvious candidate at hand—the Vietnam War—is only a mystery if you don’t understand how partisan hackery works.

Reagan, hailed today as a master of fiscal propriety, went on a wild military spending spree (tripling the deficit in the process), and like magic, no more talk of decline.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there was much talk about how to spend the “peace dividend,” which was the large decrease in military spending started under Bush 1 and continued under Clinton, but this was short-lived. First there were new enemies to soak up the military spending as there always are, and second we got Bush 2, the candidate, who, as you might guess by now started complaining about military decline. He said in 2000, “The facts are stark and the facts are real. The current administration inherited a military ready for the dangers and challenges facing our nation. The next president will inherit a military in decline.”

Of course this is the military he took to war in Afghanistan just a year later, routing the Taliban which suggests that his comments may not have been entirely accurate.

None of the critics of the peace dividend’s reduction in military spending, not Bush 2, not Romney, not the columnist Charles Krauthammer—none of them—bothered to note that the spending declines started under Bush 1; instead they all blamed Clinton for this military weakness.

The right also has their think tank apparatus, primarily The Heritage Foundation and The American Enterprise Institute, but also the Committee on the Present Danger, which seem to exist solely to pronounce on the doom of the American military.

The Heritage Foundation recently called the preparedness of all branches but the Air Force “marginal,” and the AEI says, “America’s military power has been declining ever since the first wave of cuts in the aftermath of the Cold War.” They soberly carry on doing something disguised as intellectual spadework, so the party hysterics can give their hysteria official-looking cover.

All of this is part of the persistent right-wing fantasy that sees existential danger in every possible threat and believes the US military should be able to go anywhere at any time and do anything it wants. This is a child’s view of how the world works. It’s worse than that. It’s an idea so amoeba-like in its vacuity that it leads Republicans to simply demand more and more regardless of our actual needs. There is no nuance in this world.

It’s a well-known fact that the $596 billion the US spent on defense in 2015 is more than the next seven countries combined (four of whom are allies, by the way), but the rhetoric of decline aims to obscure that fact and make it seem like we teeter on the edge of disaster and are about to be overtaken by any number of well-financed, ruthless enemies. It’s not true. It’s a dishonest show designed to scare us for political purposes.

Maybe, armed with a little of this history, we can focus on getting a better rifle, or keeping the much loved A-10 alive. Or maybe, instead of simply banking on every wild worst-case scenario, we can carefully assess our real, likely challenges. Maybe, instead of buying more broken F-35s and calling that strength, we could talk about the exorbitant costs of these weapons and how that causes the military to go wanting in other ways. But don’t bet on it. Before this campaign season is over you’ll be hearing about the smaller size of the Navy from whoever the Republicans nominate, even if that person is not currently running. And the next time a Democrat is in office, you’ll be hearing about decline all over again.


By Dan Ostlund

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