How Awesome Is “Awesome”? Rating the US Military on Cost-Benefit TermsRoundup
tags: military history, war on terror, American Empire
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.
Professional sports is a cutthroat business. Succeed and the people running the show reap rich rewards. Fail to meet expectations and you get handed your walking papers. American-style war in the twenty-first century is quite a different matter.
Of course, war is not a game. The stakes on the battlefield are infinitely higher than on the playing field. When wars go wrong, “We’ll show ’em next year — just you wait!” is seldom a satisfactory response.
At least, it shouldn’t be. Yet somehow, the American people, our political establishment, and our military have all fallen into the habit of shrugging off or simply ignoring disappointing outcomes. A few years ago, a serving army officer of unusual courage published an essay — in Armed Forces Journal no less — in which he charged that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
The charge stung because it was irrefutably true then and it remains so today.
As American politics has become increasingly contentious, the range of issues on which citizens agree has narrowed to the point of invisibility. For Democrats, promoting diversity has become akin to a sacred obligation. For Republicans, the very term is synonymous with political correctness run amok. Meanwhile, GOP supporters treat the Second Amendment as if it were a text Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, while Democrats blame the so-called right to bear arms for a plague of school shootings in this country.
On one point, however, an unshakable consensus prevails: the U.S. military is tops. No less august a figure than General David Petraeus described our armed forces as “the best military in the world today, by far.” Nor, in his judgment, was “this situation likely to change anytime soon.” His one-word characterization for the military establishment: “awesome.”
The claim was anything but controversial. Indeed, Petraeus was merely echoing the views of politicians, pundits, and countless other senior officers. Praising the awesomeness of that military has become twenty-first-century America’s can’t miss applause line.
As it happens, though, a yawning gap looms between that military’s agreed upon reputation here and its actual performance. That the troops are dutiful, seasoned, and hardworking is indisputably so. Once upon a time, “soldiering” was a slang term for shirking or laziness. No longer. Today, America’s troops more than earn their pay.
And whether individually or collectively, they also lead the world in expenditures. Even a decade ago, it cost more than $2 million a year to keep a G.I. in a war zone like Afghanistan. And, of course, no other military on the planet — in fact, not even the militaries of the next 11 countries combined — can match Pentagon spending from one year to the next.
Is it impolite, then, to ask if the nation is getting an adequate return on its investment in military power? Simply put, are we getting our money’s worth? And what standard should we use in answering that question?
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