Waste land: The Pentagon’s unprecedented spending spree

That the U.S. military is strong and honorable does not, however, mean the price is justified. Moscow and Washington just shook hands on another nuclear arms reduction agreement. Iran is a cause of enormous stress but does not threaten the United States. China, vaguely a potential adversary, is mainly on good terms with America. In June, I spoke at a flag officers’ forum at the Naval War College in Newport, where Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, explained that naval intelligence believes Beijing’s long-term goal is to avoid war: China is building weapons appropriate to defend its coasts, not to contest the United States in the air or on “the blue water.” Such indicators, combined with the drawdown in Iraq, suggest the defense budget should be falling, not climbing. Instead, most U.S. defense expenditures are on the rise. As Gates has remarked, “It is reasonable to wonder whether the nation is getting a commensurate increase in capability in exchange for these spiraling costs.” This turns out to be a colossal understatement…

Why does Washington assume that use of its fantastically capable military will always bring positive results? We keep sending our forces far away to insert themselves into other people’s fights. Because we are the good guys, we can’t face the reality that, most of the time, this doesn’t work. This is no failing of U.S. forces; it is simply the limit of power. Some problems cannot be solved with soldiers and air crew, no matter how well-equipped and skilled they are. And when we choose to deploy forces, vast costs follow: increased military health care expenditures, the long-term financial burden of looking after injured veterans, and the construction and maintenance of expensive bases in war zones. Asking why we are doing this could lead to many constructive reforms.

Yet these questions go unasked, because they are in no one’s interest in institutional Washington. Congress wants to spend money; the Defense Department and its sister organizations in intelligence want to command money; contractors want to receive money. Figuring out cost-effective alternatives is practically unpatriotic.