Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Unkindest Cut

Of all the ridiculous things in this season overflowing with the ridiculous, from Nick Kristof suggesting we reduce support for children with disabilities to round-about discussions over a 5% tax hike that seem to signal the end of the world, the most ridiculous has been near silence on the massive across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.  While we should all be a bit inured to squabbles over cuts in discretionary spending, that Congress set up the Department of Defense to be cut both deep and broad is not only amazing; that no one seems to be shouting about it is shocking.

Now, most on the Left carry on about the Pentagon budget without actually looking at the numbers.  I have actually skimmed a couple different years' budgets (it's impossible to read it thoroughly unless that's your job), and taking in to account several factors, it is actually surprising how economical the Pentagon is.  The first factor to consider before getting in to high dudgeon about defense spending is the previous question: Do we, as a nation, have either commitments or broad national goals that require a large military infrastructure?  In fact, we have both.  The second factor flows from the first: Do we wish to continue these commitments, i.e., do we wish to continue to exercise global power and influence?  It has always seemed to me that we need to talk about this question before any, Left, Right, or the Very Serious Center, start talking about how we spend money for guns and planes and things that go boom.

Despite having an election - you remember the election, right?  It was all over the news - most of our upper echelon press and far too much of the commentariat carry on as if nothing of note has occurred.  I mention this in passing not because it impacts any thoughts on defense sequestration, but because it's important to remember that we cannot have any kind of honest, robust discussion in our current climate.  All one need do is consider that much of the hoopla over Ambassador Susan Rice and Benghazi had to do with what the Ambassador said on a Sunday talk show.  Like any talk of defense sequestration, we should have a serious investigation of the events in Libya on September 11, find out what went wrong, if someone dropped the ball security-wise, they need to be held accountable, and put mechanisms in place to prevent another such event. Carrying on about what someone said on television, however, drained any serious criticism of real power; any time anyone says, "Benghazi," it sounds just the same as John McCain yelling at the clouds.

The facts are that, despite the enormity of our defense budget, both front-line and support personnel are operating at what can politely be called below optimum capacity.  That's a nice way to say that for all we have the weaponry and platforms for delivery, our force levels are far smaller than twenty years ago, even after a decade of war.  Indeed, even with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no movement to enlarge the actual numbers of troops; that's why there are service members and veterans with multiple tours, under combat conditions, in both theaters.  The mental and emotional toll this decision not to increase the size of the various branches is also in all the papers; the obscene and scandalous suicide and crime rates among both active duty and veteran service members due in no small part to PTSD and related phenomena can be laid at the feet of policy planners who insisted on doing these wars not just on credit cards, but even then, doing them on the cheap.  Because we didn't increase the size of any of the branches of the military, we were forced, as a nation, to dip again and again in the same pool both of reserve personnel and those who had already done time overseas in combat.

At the same time, support staff and others who do vital work, from security to logistics, are forced to do more with less.  Many tasks that were once part and parcel of the armed forces are being outsourced to contractors and subcontractors, whether it's janitorial services or "private security firms", a polite way of describing mercenaries.  With sequestration looming, the ability of the huge array of services the Pentagon provides will be drastically reduced; all the while, the needs for which they've been tasked will continue.  Whether that includes figuring out what threats our nation faces from yesterday's North Korean missile launch, or making sure enough food gets to our troops in Afghanistan, or getting needed medical supplies to troops doing covert ops in central Africa - these things still need to get done.  Fewer people will be available to do them, however, which means more work for those left behind.

A Pentagon spokesperson quote in a recent article at puts the matter quite plainly: 

“If this is triggered, even in light of this absurd mechanism that was created to avoid absurdities, our intent is to not implement sequestration in an absurd way … inside the Department of Defense,” Little said.  

While the post-Cold War defense draw down was needed, it became apparent fairly quickly that the United States continued to see itself as a superpower, with global commitments and therefore the need for a fairly large military infrastructure.  We have, I think, not faced the central question: Do we wish to continue to be a global power?  If so, then we should bite the bullet (so to speak) and be willing not only to pay for it, but to provide enough people to get the job done, and done well.  If we aren't willing to pay for it, then we shouldn't be a global power, and the assigned tasks to front line and support personnel grow fewer, and so we don't need as many people.  It seems to me, in other words, we have gone about the whole matter of defense spending half-assed; as the Pentagon spokesman said, we are now piling absurdities upon absurdities, and we have yet even to mention this in our public discussions.  It's all about a small tax hike on a very small percentage of the American public.

It would be nice if we could talk about these things without getting all hot and bothered.  It would be nice if we could actually consider these matters as they really are, rather than as we believe them to be.  It would be nice if "going over the fiscal cliff" didn't mean something horrible for our ability to defend ourselves, breaking faith with the men and women who have volunteered to protect us.

Virtual Tin Cup

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