Monday, January 26, 2009

Working for the Meltdown: Too Late to Lose the Weight You Used to Need to Throw Around?

For the first installment of the America's Defense Meltdown series, I thought it would be useful to review some of the history applicable to the evolution of America's military institutions as presented in the anthology itself. That history provides a useful context within which to assess the range of options going forward, and perhaps appreciate some of the anachronistic aspects of our defense posture/industry that have long outlived their utility, passing from asset to hindrance. The establishment of a permanent standing military force of considerable size over the past century, coupled with the gradual consolidation of war making authority by the Executive branch, has distorted the policy making process to detrimental effect, all at enormous cost.

Lt. Col. John Sayen (US Marine Corps, ret.) provides a summary of the overall picture:

Our military has broken its constitutional controls. Our Founding Fathers wanted no more than a very limited size and role for a federal military. They feared standing armies not only because they might be used against the American public, i.e. to establish military rule, but also for their potential to involve us in costly foreign wars that would drain our treasury, erode our freedoms and involve us in the “entangling alliances” that George Washington warned of in his farewell address. At that time our armies were composed mainly of state militias that the president needed the cooperation of Congress and the state governors in order to use. Today, we have one large all-volunteer federal Army, which for all practical purposes responds only to the president and the executive branch. It has engaged in numerous foreign wars, involved us in many entangling alliances, drained our treasury and eroded our liberties just as our Founding Fathers foresaw. It has enabled the president to take the nation to war on little more than his own authority. The recent repeal of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 allows him to unilaterally use the military not only against foreigners, but against the American people as well.

While it is easy for children of the World War II/Cold War era who have grown accustomed to an enormous, permanent standing Army to assume that this was always the state of affairs, a closer look at the preceding decades reveals a different story. At the time of this nation's founding, there was only a nominal national force - with most arms residing with state-based militias. While this force was gradually augmented over time, even "as late as 1898 the Army was still authorized only 27,000 men." It is that point in time that marks the dramatic break from past traditions.

The state of military affairs prior to the turn of the 20th century reflected the prevailing political will: there was an overriding concern that a large standing Army could usurp representative government, exert outsized influence over that government and/or lead it into unnecessary adventurism through the seductive lure of martial power. Rather than constructing a force that could pose a threat to the republic, or facilitate far-flung folly, US leaders by and large relegated the military to one overriding purpose: defense of the nation's homeland.

A brief recounting:

Congress...established the relationship between the federal government and the state militias with two militia acts passed in 1792. The first gave the president the authority to call out the militia in response to foreign invasion or internal disorder. The second ordered that the militia consist of all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 18 and 45. Each member would arm and equip himself at his own expense and report for training twice a year. The state legislatures would prescribe the militia’s tactical organization (companies, battalions, regiments, etc.). As time went on, however, and the nation grew more secure, militia service effectively became voluntary. Militia units began to resemble social clubs more than military organizations, but even as late as 1898 the militia could field five times more troops than the U.S. Army.

If the president wanted to take the United States to war, he would need a national army that, unlike the militia, could fight anywhere, not just within its home states. Unless the war was to be of extremely limited scope and duration, the regular U.S. Army would be too small. To enlarge it, the president would have to go to Congress not only to obtain a declaration of war, but also the authority and funding needed to call for militia volunteers. Assuming that Congress was forthcoming, the president would then issue a call for volunteers, ordering each state governor to raise a fixed quota of men from their respective militias. These orders were difficult to enforce and during the war of 1812 and the Civil War several governors refused them. However, those that complied would call on the individual companies and regiments of their respective militias to volunteer for federal service. The members of those units would then vote on whether their units would become “U.S. Volunteers.” Individual members of units that volunteered could still excuse themselves from service for health or family reasons.

Given that most militia units were below their full strength in peacetime, and that a portion of their existing members would be unwilling or unable to serve, they would need a lot of new recruits if they were to go to war. They would also need time for training and “shaking down.” Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1818 noted that the United States had no significant continental enemies and was essentially an insular power. Thus, the Navy could ensure that an invader could not land in America before the U.S. Volunteers had time to prepare. The system certainly made it harder to go to war.

The structure of America's military apparatus made it difficult to go to war on a whim, or for anything less than a cause deemed vital by enough actors across a broad swath of geography, class and ideology. The warriors themselves had, in essence, veto power. The results that stemmed from this were unsurprising: "In the first 100 years of its existence the United States fought only two significant foreign wars."

Under our current system, on the other hand, the military lacks the same level of autonomy or prerogative when it comes to making decisions. Our modern day volunteer force receives orders, not ballots, when there is a call to arms. Further, whereas multiple actors needed convincing prior to fielding an army in the past (from Congress, to sate governors, to militiamen themselves), increasingly, in modern times, there is only the President.

...[T]he National Defense Act of 1916, passed in anticipation of America’s entry into World War I. In effect...transformed all militia units from individual state forces into a federal reserve force. The title of “National Guard” became mandatory for all militia units and, within the War Department the Division of Militia Affairs became the National Guard Bureau. Instead of the state titles that many had borne since the colonial era the former militia units received numbers in sequence with regular Army units. In addition, the act created a U.S. Army Reserve of trained individuals not organized into units and established a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in the colleges and universities.

...The political cost had been high. America now had the large professional standing army (with no counterbalancing militia) that our Founding Fathers warned us against. The president now controlled all of the nation’s armed forces in peacetime as well as in war. He would no longer have to beg either Congress or the state governors for troops.

Within a few years he would not have to ask Congress for a declaration of war, either. Yes, Congress still holds the purse strings but, as other chapters of this book will show, it has never gripped them very tightly...[T]he new U.S. Army was effectively accountable only to the executive branch of government.

With a new and powerful tool at its disposal, and with the removal of significant structural impediments, the executive branch began to use the US army more frequently, and in furtherance of objectives that bore an increasingly tenuous relationship with the primary mission of defense of the nation. These overall trends reached their zenith, at least thus far, under the Bush administration (although the FDR administration, and others, went further in some respects). The Bush team not only implemented tenets of the unitary executive model as none had before, thus assuming an even greater scope of military-related privilege for the executive branch, but also justified military action through the preventive war doctrine, thus loosening the already permissive standards for using force abroad.

While many might recognize a situation run amok, the question remains, where do we go from here? It would be next to impossible to turn back the clock to the state militia structure that dominated prior to World War I, and it is not even clear that such a move - were it possible - would be prudent. That's a discussion for another time. However, it is crucial that some semblance of balance is restored between the branches, and that some structural obstacles are reintroduced to make the decision to go to war more dependent on establishing a far reaching consensus, rather than the sole prerogative of the President. The better to ensure that such decisions are rare and only made when necessary.

It would certainly improve the dynamic were Congress to reclaim its war-making authority. It is not clear, though, that Congress has any desire to take back that decision making power - and the responsibility that flows from it - and to what extent such claims could withstand pressure from an Executive branch that has seen its war powers grow through legislative grants, as well as the laddering effect of precedent building on precedent, unchecked by an acquiescent or disengaged judiciary.

Perhaps more importantly, the US government needs to bring the military closer to its original mission: direct defense of the nation. In pursuit of this, we need to reduce the budget and revamp the spending priorities of a military establishment that is still stuck in a Cold War posture that began with the adoption of NSC 68 written by Paul Nitze back in 1950. NSC 68 called for a vast and ambitious military buildup in peacetime, and emphasized military approaches over diplomatic ones, in order to confront the Soviet Union.

Regardless of the wisdom of the Nitze approach to the Cold War, the hangover is unmistakable: despite the fact that the Soviet Union is no longer a threat, we are left with an exceedingly expensive military behemoth that looks for causes to justify its existence, rather than realign its mission to the narrow task of defense and/or small scale action. At the very least, we need to shift away from prioritizing the big ticket items more suited to large scale conventional war - a near moot endeavor with the demise of the USSR and, even where there are potential big power rivals, the existence of nuclear weapons.

We should not expect the military bureaucracy to make such changes on its own - there are no incentives to take such measures, and many forces actively resisting such changes. The military establishment is, by and large, more interested in maintaining the status quo than in making painful cuts or going through the complex and difficult task of shifting paradigms. Further, the entire defense establishment (from contractors, to lobbyists, to journalists, to the officer corps itself), is busy selling the next weapons system, or seeking out the next Hitler, in order to maintain its relevance and ensure the continuation of business as usual - business to the tune of roughly $1 trillion dollars a year.

Nor has been any pressure from the Executive or Congressional branches. Rather, empowered executives - be they Democrat or Republican - have shown little interest in reducing the size and scope of a military that is increasingly under its sole purview. Further, our legislators have grown accustomed to fighting for the dollars flowing from defense budgets rather than rethinking the big picture or wisdom of a given weapons system or conflict.

The net result is a military ill-suited to confront current exigencies, with failing equipment mixed in with exceedingly high tech systems that amount to overkill, all while neglecting the development and retention of enough free-thinking, high quality personnel. This dysfunctional dynamic is not making us any safer, though it does come at exorbitant costs at a time when every last federal dollar is already spoken for, and then some - to the tune of trillions more.

In an era of hard choices, re-shaping the defense landscape is an easy one.

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