How much is enough?

As he formally retired from the Army today with a 17-gun salute, Gen. David Petraeus, whom the New York Times accurately described as “the most influential general of his generation,” warned that talk of reducing U.S. military spending created the risk the U.S. would have a “hollowed-out Army.”

Would it be rude to point out at such a moment that the United States spends more on military hardware and personnel than the rest of the world combined. Not just far more than any other nation, but more than all the other nations of the world combined (a category that inclues, of course, many stalwart U.S. allies). But if the whole rest of the world decided to gang up on us, we would still have at least the dollar advantage, the most advanced equipment, the best-trained fighters and the larger nuclear arsenal and, by a ridiculous margin, the most expansive network of foreign bases.

Petraeus, by the way, wasn’t really retiring. Just switching to head of the CIA.

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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/02/2011 - 06:14 pm.

    Nicely done, Eric. That’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it?

    Estimates I’ve recently read place the cost of Iraq / Afghanistan in the trillions of dollars – a cost so high that the deficit would disappear were we to apply the cost of those wars to our national debt, which seems appropriate, since they’re in large measure the primary reason why national debt is currently such a hot issue.

    Aside from manipulating the public into supporting a war that had no basis in fact, Joseph Stiglitz is of the belief that George Bush’s decision to, in effect, pay for the war with the national credit card while simultaneously lowering taxes is unconscionable, and while my economic credentials pale next to those of Stiglitz, I’m inclined to agree.

    There are no credible (it’s important to emphasize that qualifier) enemies, immediate or on the horizon, that justify the level of military spending in which we’re currently engaged, and one of my serial disappointments with Obama has been his willingness to continue Bush military policies that do us no good – that do nothing to further our national interests. To cite just one example, we are NOT better off as a nation after a decade, thousands of deaths and injuries, and billions of dollars spent, in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, we’re spending millions, maybe billions, on weapons to use against enemies that have never appeared, and aren’t likely to appear.

    Terrorists are, for the most part, not part of any state-sponsored military force or operation. They’re criminals who commit murder, often on a spectacular scale, as we saw in this country a decade ago on September 11. But I have a friend in Oklahoma City, and I’ve been to the memorial there to the 168 killed by an American who convinced himself that our government was the enemy. A bloated military budget did nothing to prevent the bombing of the Murrah Building in 1995, when no one had heard of Al-Qaeda. Beyond that, the more we allow paranoia about terrorists to dominate our thinking, the more we’re likely to go overboard – as we’ve already demonstrated we can do with alacrity –  in dealing with terrorism’s genuine threat. It’s not entirely a rhetorical question to ask our “conservative” friends how many, and which ones, of their freedoms they’re willing to sacrifice on the altar of military preparedness against terrorists.

    Gary Hart has cogently observed that it makes little sense to put soldiers, sailors and marines into harm’s way to protect a society that provides increasingly little worth protecting for an increasing number of people. Not for a minute do I believe the troops in Afghanistan are protecting my freedom. Al-Qaeda, no matter how it’s spelled, doesn’t want to take over the United States and impose an Islamic government and Sharia law. It’s not capable of anything of the kind, and is a barely functional criminal organization that specialized in murder, usually killing numerous innocents in the process.

    Does that mean we should eliminate our military altogether? I think not, but we could easily – philosophically, and maybe practically – cut our military budget in half, at least as a beginning. There would be howls of protest from states with big military contracts, since those jobs would go away, but isn’t it interesting that the same Republicans that tell laid-off auto workers or city employees to suck it up and get on with their lives are curiously solicitous of the feelings of people who build bombs and their delivery systems? When World War 2 ended, millions of people found other things to do besides carry a rifle or fly a bomber. I have enough faith in my fellow Americans to think we could make a similar adjustment now.

    It would, of course, require the intervention of government, and certain of our citizens will tell us that government programs to ease the transition to a truly peacetime economy are evil incarnate at the same time they tell us government programs to help their state’s defense contractors maintain a wartime economy when there’s no reason to do so are a good thing. This is a country with huge needs for the rebuilding of infrastructure, huge needs for education, both K-12 and college, and similarly important reasons to get our manufacturing and industrial base back on track, rather than outsourcing work to the third world. Substantial cuts to our military budget would make a lot of things possible that we can’t even consider at the moment.

  2. Submitted by Tim Larson on 09/02/2011 - 09:19 pm.

    “Would it be rude to point out at such a moment that the United States spends more on military hardware and personnel than the rest of the world combined.”

    Yes. Because you are assuming that countries like China and Russia are accurately and honestly reporting their military budgets. For the record I don’t believe the U.S. is either.

    Got a source?

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/03/2011 - 06:49 am.

    //Military retirement is more generous and expensive compared to the private sector
    *DoD pays retirees 40 years of retirement benefits for 20 years of service
    –Military skills are transferable to the private sector
    –Second careers are now common for those retiring in their 40s
    –Payout after 20 years makes retention difficult – 76% leave between years 20 and 25
    –20 years of service earns a lifetime of payments of 50%, ramping up to 87.5% for 35 years of service
    *Retirement funds accrued for personnel serving less than 20 years are effectively applied to the benefits of those serving more than 20 years
    *For those serving more than 20 years, the retirement contribution is 10 times greater than the private sector
    –Average private sector pension contributions range from 4-12% per year; military retirement benefit equates to 75% of annual pay per year for those who retire
    –Immediate payout after 20 years has no comparison in the private sector

    For FY11, total government contribution will be $46B**//

  4. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/03/2011 - 07:19 am.

    //Economist Joseph E. Stiglitz calculated America’s war costs three years ago, the conservative tally was $3-5 trillion. Since then, the costs have mounted further. With almost 50% of returning troops eligible to receive some level of disability payment, and more than 600,000 treated so far in veterans’ medical facilities, he now estimates that future disability payments and health-care costs will total $600-900 billion.

    Today, America is focused on unemployment and the deficit. Both threats to America’s future can, in no small measure, be traced to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Increased defense spending, together with the Bush tax cuts, is a key reason why America went from a fiscal surplus of 2% of GDP when Bush was elected to its parlous deficit and debt position today. Direct government spending on those wars so far amounts to roughly $2 trillion – $17,000 for every US household – with bills yet to be received increasing this amount by more than 50%.//

    It seems clear that America’s mounting difficulty can be traced to the 9/11 incident, and the way we responded. The debt that America and the world face are largely thought to be caused by a housing bubble, yet the factors identified by Stiglitz appear unknown. Our political leaders seldom mention this debt directly tied to 9/11, so how can we expect more from the average citizen.

    Isn’t this exactly what Osama Bin Laden’s asymmetric warfare was intended to achieve? Invest a million and sacrifice a handful of people while causing your opponent to spend trillions, kill 10’s of thousands and effect millions more, yes that’s pretty much the definition of asymmetric warfare.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/03/2011 - 07:28 am.

    THE ten biggest defense budgets for 2010 add up to a total of more than $1.1 trillion, according to the latest Military Balance report(*) from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a think-tank. The defense budget of America alone, at $693 billion, accounts for more than 60% of the total. But when defense spending is compared to the overall size of each country’s economy, Saudi Arabia tops the list. It spends over 10% of GDP on defense, more than double the proportion spent by America.


    America’s military spending is about as efficient as its health care spending.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/03/2011 - 10:12 am.

    As usual, you’ve said it all!
    On the military value of the U.S. high tech military, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story about that more than half a century ago (see

    While all military budgets are suspect, there are products like number of airplanes (the biggest ticket item) that are fairly easy to verify.
    How many new military aircraft have the Chinese or Russians introduced in the past twenty years? Or the Europeans, for that matter?

  7. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/03/2011 - 11:47 am.

    Great empires fall for one reason more than any other: imperial overstretch. As their span of control grows, so does their military, until the cost of the military exceeds the carrying capacity of the economy, and the economy and thus the empire implode.

    The cold war has been over for a couple of decades. There is no current credible strategic threat. Russia is still willing to test us with a little chest-bumping, but they have no interest in launching a war. China naturally considers Asia to be their sphere of influence, and they wish to out-compete us, but primarily economically so. They also need us as customers; it hardly makes sense to choke off one’s biggest customer. The terrorist groups are not nations and “war” with them is not of the conventional variety (Iraq, for obvious reasons, doesn’t count as an anti-terrorist operation).

    We will always have our strategic nuclear weapons, and that forecloses on the possibility of a military attack launched against the United States. We have our satellite surveillance and surface and submarine fleets, including a dozen carrier battle groups, which give us the capability of striking anywhere in the world on short notice. We do not need all these permanent bases scattered around the world. I would guess we could close half of them without significantly compromising our national security. Whatever the acceptable level of base closures may be, it needs to be determined with a clear eye and the process of closure begun asap.

    We need to learn the lessons of history and reduce our military budget significantly – to a level that is still adequate to our security but far less than its current gargantuan level – before it ruins us completely.

    Speaking of history, in the days of the Roman Republic, problems that were politically intractable or so serious as to threaten the survival of the Republic, or involved a constitutional crisis, were sometimes addressed by the appointment of a Dictator; a citizen hopefully free of corruption who was appointed for a limited term (no more than 6 months) with absolute power to solve the problem at hand. Even the Senate could not overrule the dictator’s decisions, thus avoiding political bickering and deadlock. Given our current political climate, I wonder if we ought not to consider reviving that tradition. Congress and the president try, sometimes, with the appointment of commissions that are supposed to solve tough problems, but in the end they are free to ignore the decisions of those appointed, and they almost always do. Perhaps, for those problems that have no chance of being solved in Congress, we should consider having representatives of both sides appoint a person of good character with power to make a decision and order it done. It will never happen, I know, but we need some way of busting through the gridlock in Washington before we go the way of the USSR.

  8. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 09/03/2011 - 09:46 pm.

    As far as the government is concerned, no level of military spending is too much, regardless of the consequences to the rest of the nation. Evidence be damned, but spending more money on “defense” is far more important, even when there’s nothing left to defend.

    Crumbling infrastructure; massive unemployment; the oceanic divide between rich and poor; homelessness; hunger, etc. All of these are at the bottom of the list of priorities.

    Military spending begets more military spending, the rise of more agencies with cryptic acronyms, no clear mandate, no plan, nobody in charge with a clue, no structure, no oversight, no accountability or consequences for screwing up, much less any care for the rule of law. And those agencies need ever-more employees to justify their existence and their ever-growing budgets. In turn, they fuel the need for the DoD, FBI, NSA, CIA, etc. to defend their existence and their spending, with doomsday claims that cuts to spending will lead to our certain destruction.

    Congress has no idea what they’re doing, since they can’t even wrap their heads around the limited information they get from these agencies, and there’s nobody with any critical thinking skills in Congress. Sure, we supposedly had a budget of $693 billion in 2010, but that’s only half of the real amount, since the rest of it is Black Ops money, so nobody knows where it goes, not even Congress.

    With a system like ours combined with inmates running the asylum, it’s no wonder we’re in an economic death spiral.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/04/2011 - 08:12 am.

    “//Military retirement is more generous and expensive compared to the private sector”

    A fairer comparison would be military retirement versus other government employee retirement, since private sector retirement is paid for by private sector money, not taxpayer money.

    So then if you’re comparing military retirement with other government employee retirement, you have to ask what other government employee is asked to risk their life everyday as part of the job description.

    Federal payrolls should be cut by 50%, which would include both military and non-military.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/04/2011 - 10:11 am.

    “Petraeus, by the way, wasn’t really retiring. Just switching to head of the CIA.”

    Eric- I think this sentence muddies the waters with respect to something I wasn’t clear about until I read the first part of your article. I was wondering whether Gen. Petraeus was retiring from the army. Other military leaders have served in top intelligence posts without retiring from the military.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/04/2011 - 10:26 am.

    “Would it be rude to point out at such a moment that the United States spends more on military hardware and personnel than the rest of the world combined.”

    No more so, I guess, than it is to point out that Minnesota spends 42% it it’s entire budget every year on public education.

    Comparing the two might be uncomfortable (for leftists), but probably not rude either.

    One system has succeeded for 100% of us for 235 years, while the other routinely fails more than 40% of it’s stakeholders.

  12. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/04/2011 - 05:16 pm.

    Thomas — I wouldn’t say that they military had performed quite that badly.

  13. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/05/2011 - 08:40 am.

    While an army and navy are constitutionally mandated at the federal level, and a public education is mandated for all at the state level, Mr. Swift’s implied point is somewhat misleading. He makes an apples-to-oranges comparison.

    We haven’t won every war – unless Mr. Swift counts the British burning of the White House a “victory” in the War of 1812, and there seems little point in dwelling on the results in Vietnam and Afghanistan – but even if we had, the goal, means, and rationale for military force is, to be kind, somewhat different from the goal, means and rationale for public education.

    In yet another illustration of a difference between the military and the civilian, all the school system can do is offer an education to a child. My teaching career would have been so much easier if I merely had to order a student to learn ‘x’ by Tuesday in order for it to happen. Unlike the military, where coercion is a standard means of ensuring order and discipline, there’s no way to force a child to learn something, whether it’s punctuation or math or biology. If 40% of them refuse the offer – an offer, by the way, that is not only accepted in other parts of the world, but eagerly sought after where it’s not generally available – it might be prudent to examine other factors that might be contributing to that number besides the alleged “failure of the system.”

    Following Mr. Swift’s logic, the punctuation error in the last sentence of his post (“…40% of it’s stakeholders” should not have an apostrophe in “its”) is apparently the fault of an ineffective school system, rather than Mr. Swift’s failure to learn the relevant rules of punctuation.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/05/2011 - 09:00 am.

    //A fairer comparison would be military retirement versus other government employee retirement,

    Dennis, why is it when you complain about all other government worker benefits you compare them to the private sector, but for some reason military benefits can only be “fairly” compared to other government benefits?

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/05/2011 - 09:07 am.

    This business of “hollowing out” the army is funny and goes way back. For one thing, as far as Republicans are concerned the rest of the government can’t be hollowed-out enough. But really it’s an empty observation. Whenever I hear this I always think back to Al Franken’s observation that Clinton’s “gutted” military did a pretty job of winning the Iraq war- and invasion that Republicans and other military hawks warned would be impossible if required back in the 90s. I think it was Cheney who responded by telling Franken to go F*** himself.

    We could easily cut our military spending by one third without jeopardizing our security in any way. And the costs of the war, and the Bush tax cuts, are in fact almost completely responsible for our huge deficit.

  16. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/05/2011 - 09:13 am.

    How can anyone rationally discuss “military spending” when it’s not even clear what this country spends on the military? I’d like to know, for example, what happened to the $2.3 trillion in unaccounted for defense spending Rumsfelt admitted to on September 10, 2001?

  17. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/05/2011 - 12:34 pm.

    Public education has the stated mission of providing society with a populace knowledgeable enough to positively contribute to that society and, by extension, to the individual’s success and happiness.

    (Almost?) every student has passed at least one test while in public school, but more than 40% of the students from Minnesota’s two largest (and most lavishly funded) school districts fail to meet the minimum requirements set forth for proving the ultimate success of that mission (graduation).

    The military’s stated mission is to provide for the common defense of our country. In that they have never failed, as evidenced by the fact while it has lost battles and campaigns, we have never been conquered or subjugated.

    The conclusion of these valid arguments is, while we may agree that the cost of our military is exorbitant by some measures, return on investment as measured by mission success is not among them. Conversely, the return on our proportionately larger investment in public education is pathetic by almost any measure.

    So where is the leftist outrage?

    ps: Thanks for the punctuation correction, Ray.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/06/2011 - 08:41 am.


    You should study the difference between and argument and an observation.

    Regarding observations, the last time any tried to subjugate the US was 1812, and at that time most people didn’t believe in maintaining a large standing army. It’s easy to fulfill a mission when it’s only required once in over two hundred years… especially when you have such a huge budget.

  19. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/06/2011 - 08:30 pm.

    Wasn’t the UN’s airpower ability maxed out within a week early in the Libya war? Seems like the U.S. defenses need to be maintained until some other members start doing their part. Perhaps we should start billing them as a means to fund our necessary capabilities.

  20. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/07/2011 - 09:45 am.


    It’s an allocation problem.
    It’s not clear what we are defending (other that oil and opium income) in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have plenty of _defensive_ capability; we just have to use it judiciously.

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