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Illusions about Pentagon spending

There is a contemporary school of thought which combines a natural abhorrence of war with a burning desire to elevate the human condition. Armed with high hopes, this view attributes an important array of social and economic problems to defense spending, the latter purportedly fueled by exaggerated fears. This perspective, which stresses the Pentagon's "awesome" political power and the burden of the military "drain," is apparently immune to changing domestic and international circumstances, representing more a system of belief than an analysis of events. It raises false hopes by alleging a simple cure to our myriad of economic difficulties. If widely held, it can also dangerously bias our national security.

* The first illusion generally is that the Defense Department's main argument in support of an increase budget is the fact that military outlays would only amount to about 6 percent of the GNP. This figure is considerably lower than in the 1960s and only a point above the 5 percent figure for much of the past decade.

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Well, it is certainly correct that the department has employed these numbers with frequency, but who's kidding whom? There are some very real, objective conditions in this world of our which strongly suggest that increases in the military budget are indeed warranted.

For starters, one can point to the unprecedented Soviet military buildup over the past 15-20 years. We can quibble about their intentions, but the power is real.

Secondly, our defense capabilities need modernization and the great experiment of the 1970s, the all-volunteer force, is in difficulty.The Army is roughly 50,000 short of its peacetime strength, the reserves are 125,000 below congressionally recognized staffing needs, and problems of quality and trained personnel are very real. These difficulties can only be addressed via increased budgetary outlays.

There is also a clearly greater dependence by the United States upon foreign suppliers, particularly of critical materials. Couple this with the erosion of American ties and support in much of the third world, and you get a serious vulnerability problem.

Lastly, there are Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The Russians are not terribly timid in employing the power they possess. Let us also not forget the American hostages in Iran.

None of these conditions is a figment of the military mind's imagination. There are real threats in the world, and it is these factors which mandate a renewed emphasis upon national security.

The statistics advanced only remind us that the burden is bearable. Indeed, in the past it has been much greater.

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* The second illusion involves the litany of economic woes which face our nation. One need not deny the view that American competitiveness has waned, that heavy dependence upon foreign oil is dangerous, that inflation is ruinous. We do have very serious economic problems, but the recently published claim that we are "barely able to support . . . current defense expenditures, and in real danger of collapse if that burden is substantially increased" is pure fiction.

This claim could have more justifiably been put forth in the late 1930s and early 1940s. With high joblessness and widespread misery, the defense "burden" of lend-lease and preparations for war were not easy. but they were necessary and took place without economic collapse.

Today our economy is so vast that it can and is supporting a wide range of activities, not all of which directly increase our rate of output or productive capacity. All such activities constitute burdens in that they lay a claim to resources. But there is no magic threshold, a critical point which if passed causes collapse. We have the capacity to fund greater defense outlays or more of anything -- welfare, education, or health -- if we so choose.

Of course, it is true that our resources, vast as they may be, are limited. This is a hard reality we are finally facing. Interestingly, the problems of inflation, unemployment, and lagging productivity became exacerbated during the 1970s, a decade in which real defense spending fell substantially for six years and remained essentially flat thereafter. National security outlays have not caused our current problems and we have the capacity to fund greater expenditures. But we do not have the capacity to fund everything.It is here that our politicians and citizens must be discerning.

* The last illusion claims that any rise in Pentagon spending will cause a proportional decrease in the general welfare. Did our forefathers not write into the preamble of our Constitution their intention to "insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense"? Americans spend billions on alarm systems, security services, and insurance. Apparently we feel that our welfare is enhanced by such expenditures. So, too, we were all quite relieved when the Soviets, facing American military and technical superiority, backed down in the Cuban missile crisis.

Defense spending is a form of insurance. It's first purpose is to deter aggression; second, to defend us if deterrence fails. Clearly we are all more desirous of preventive rather than remedial action. Just as insurance and loss prevention increase individual security and welfare, defense spending does indeed contribute to the general welfare. Like other inputs, it must be employed judiciously, commensurate with the need.

To nurture the illusion that our society is going down the drain because of military spending (or possible increases) is to indulge in a crude form of self-deception. The argument combines an ounce of fact with a pound of emotion, producing misleading and dangerous conclusions. It is folly to lay the bulk of the economic ills in our highly complex society at the feet of the military. The causes are deeper and far more widespread. There are real threats and active forces in the world inimical to America's best interests, variables which change depending upon the time and circumstances. Hence, national security is a vital ingredient in this country's overall well-being. It can only be provided at a cost and, like other vital aspects, there are times when it merits lesser or greater attention. During the latter periods, not only are we capable of funding budget increases, we cannot afford not to do so.

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