Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NYT putting forward the heretical idea that the US should spend less on the military and more on diplomacy and education. The argument is obviously right as far as it goes, but it leaves one big question unasked. An obvious reason for the focus on military spending is that Americans have massive confidence in their military and much less in their education system, particularly the public school systems.
Yet judged by results, the opposite should surely be the case. Why is this so?
The US military has fought five large-scale wars in the past fifty years, resulting in a draw in Korea, a defeat in Vietnam, and three inconclusive outcomes in Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan. That’s a record that makes the worst inner-city public school look pretty good. At least the majority of students, even at the worst schools, end up more or less literate.
The US military does an excellent job in defeating anyone silly enough to put a conventional army in the field against it. But, as a result there aren’t many adversaries so silly (even Saddam didn’t expect war when he invaded Kuwait and did his best to avoid it in 2002-03). Potential opponents either try to acquire nukes or fight with IEDs and suicide bombers.
Kristof is right that even where the use of military power is successful in its own terms, it is unlikely to be cost-effective – his striking observation on this is that the cost of one US soldier in Afghanistan is the same as that of 20 schools. Similarly, Greg Mortensen observes that sending back 243 troops would be enough to finance the entire Afghan higher education system .
But the striking thing about military expenditure is that its failure rate is so high. More or less by definition, it’s impossible for both sides to win an armed conflict, but it’s certainly possible (and probably the par outcome) for both sides to lose. So, the US success rate since 1950 is probably about what would be expected. As I’ve mentioned previously, US experience of war (apart from the Civil War) before 1950 was by contrast exceptionally favorable – even the War of 1812 was claimed as a win
Moreover, in all sorts of respects the self-image of the US (as a land of opportunity and social mobility, a generous giver of foreign aid, a beacon of democracy in a generally undemocratic world and so on) seems in most respects to have been set in concrete by 1950. The failure to learn anything from a string of military failures and disappointments seems to fit with this.
I’m talking here mostly about the views of the American public, but these views are even more predominant among the policy elite and the Foreign Policy Community. I don’t think this is primarily because either the elite or the capitalist class they might be regarded as representing benefit from wars. It’s true that there is not much of a penalty for advocating disastrous wars, but as long as you steer clear of a handful of topics, there is not much of a penalty for anything in the US policy elite, once you are regarded as “serious”. And while some businesses obviously benefit from, and lobby for, war, there are plenty more who would prefer to make money trading with putative enemies like Iran and Iraq.
At least, the majority of Americans regard the Iraq and Afghan wars as mistakes where the costs have outweighed the benefits. If that (correct) judgement could be generalised into a recognition that military force rarely generates unequivocal victory, and is rarely worth the cost even when it does, arguments like those of Kristof might begin to prevail.
fn1. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to break the Korean War into two parts: a brief and victorious defensive war in 1950 in which the North’s invading army was thrown back across the border, and a counter-invasion of the North which resulted in a disastrous defeat, and three years of bloody struggle ending in the status quo ante. October 1950 marks the point when US military policy (at least as regards large-scale international conflicts) shifted from reluctant involvement in wars started by others to an increasing preference for pre-emptive military action.
fn2. I think this is an overestimate. Mortensen is estimating the cost of keeping a US soldier in the field at $1 million a year, but taking account of support costs and deferred costs, it’s probably closer to $5 million, which implies that withdrawing a single platoon would be enough.