Eisenhower understood the trade-offs between guns and butter. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” he warned in 1953, early in his presidency. “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”
He also knew that Congress was a big part of the problem. (In earlier drafts, he referred to the “military-industrial-Congressional” complex, but decided against alienating the legislature in his last days in office.) Today, there are just a select few in public life who are willing to question the military or its spending, and those who do — from the libertarian Ron Paul to the leftist Dennis J. Kucinich — are dismissed as unrealistic.
The fact that both President Obama and Mitt Romney are calling for increases to the defense budget (in the latter case, above what the military has asked for) is further proof that the military is the true “third rail” of American politics. In this strange universe where those without military credentials can’t endorse defense cuts, it took a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, to make the obvious point that the nation’s ballooning debt was the biggest threat to national security.
Uncritical support of all things martial is quickly becoming the new normal for our youth. Hardly any of my students at the Naval Academy remember a time when their nation wasn’t at war. Almost all think it ordinary to hear of drone strikes in Yemen or Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. The recent revelation of counterterrorism bases in Africa elicits no surprise in them, nor do the military ceremonies that are now regular features at sporting events. That which is left unexamined eventually becomes invisible, and as a result, few Americans today are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names.