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Money, threats, and military power

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Top military brass demand more and more funding without any real improvements in our armed forces' fighting power.

If Americans pause to listen to the nation’s four star generals and admirals testify on the Hill or speak in public, it sounds as though the senior military leaders are asking for a fight with China, Russia, Iran, and any number of countries in Africa, the Near East, or Latin America. But that’s not actually the case.

America’s senior military leaders are really just asking for more money. They know that big defense budgets channel defense dollars to campaign donors, constituents, and political allies. Like politics, conflict tends to be local, but senior military leaders know how to spin-meister localized conflicts with little importance to U.S. strategic interests into imminent, existential threats.

The elaborate theater on the Hill is critical because members of the Senate and the House behave like a litter of puppies that bark if their food dish is empty. And America’s senior military leaders know they must keep the congressional food dishes filled.

Oklahoma’s Senator Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, knows the process well. All five of Oklahoma’s military installations will prosper under the latest annual defense appropriation bill.

Washington Democrat Congressman Adam Smith also understands the process. It’s why Smith promised in 2019 that, “Pricey programs the Pentagon deems absolutely necessary to eliminate a threat will face closer scrutiny.” It did not happen. Now, as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), Smith is still bashing the F-35 program for outrageous cost overruns and sustainment costs.

The HASC Chairman is probably right. Still, it’s a good bet that the next defense budget will end up including significantly more money than even President Biden’s request of $752.9 billion for national defense, $715 billion of which is for the Department of Defense.

The key question, is will the massive influx of dollars into DOD make any difference to the armed forces’ warfighting readiness? The answer is almost certainly “no.”

A Report on the Fighting Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet commissioned by Republican members of Congress makes this point. The report contends that sailors are being exposed more to the left-wing “woke” culture of critical race theory than to realistic wartime training. The report also identifies problems in the fleet such as micromanagement, toxic leadership, and weak maintenance practices, along with a lack of accountability and initiative in the Navy’s warfighting command hierarchy—all are problems that span decades.

In fact, lots of problems in defense span decades. A report conducted by the Army War College in 1970 quoted a captain who said, “It’s necessary today, to lie, cheat, and steal to meet the impossible demands of higher officers or continue to meet the statistical requirements.” In a 2015 report entitled “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” the authors concluded that leaders lie “in the routine performance of their duties” and “ethical and moral transgressions [occur] across all levels” of the organization.

No less important is the struggle to integrate women into the armed forces and the service academies. All four of the nation’s service academies prohibit cadets or midshipmen from marrying until they graduate and are commissioned. As a result, women at the service academies who become pregnant must choose between their military education at the service academies and retaining custody of their out-of-wedlock child.

Two senators, Texas Republican Ted Cruz and New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, are teaming up to change what the pair insist is an “unfair, antiquated” policy. The two Senators, neither of whom have any personal experience of military service, want women at the service academies to have the option to continue their education while also maintaining their parental rights.

Reactions to the senators’ planned legislation from service academy graduates are mixed. One recently retired officer with 30 years’ service as a combat soldier offered the following comment:

Why don’t they just set up private nursing and breast milk pumping rooms near each cadet company’s orderly room, and day care centers for all those babies? That way, women cadets could remain in school on track with their peers, continue to make their critical contributions to national defense, and not lose the vital bonding time with their infants. That’s what the Army does. C’mon West Point, get with the Army standard!

The comment is somewhat facetious, but General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs, in recent testimony referred to West Point as a university, not as a military academy.

If General Milley, a former Army chief of staff, thinks the U.S. Military Academy is a university, then, it may be time to reexamine West Point’s mission and raison d’etre.

In the 1970s, Americans in uniform struggled with the demoralized, hollow armed forces that emerged after Vietnam during the Carter Administration.

In the ’90s Congress spent billions of dollars on ill-advised, dubious, pie-in-the-sky military transformation programs based on technological makeovers to fulfill the promise of quick and bloodless wars fought from 30,000 feet using laser designators.

Today, Americans are struggling with a new problem: military institutions and organizations that are facades. The facades are symbolic fronts designed to reassure the American public that the armed forces are powerful warfighting instruments when in reality the armed forces may not be what Americans think they are.

This is dangerous because politicians with a cocktail level of familiarity with military power are inclined to make decisions based primarily on facades crafted by senior military leaders, rather than on what lies behind them. Those politicians charged with oversight equivocate to avoid antagonizing potential voters.

The truth is that, to be effective, armed forces must be cohesive, inspired, undemocratic, and coercive in character. To cultivate integrity and selfless devotion to duty, the U.S. Armed Forces must be separate and distinct from the ultra-democratic and materialistic society they defend. Measuring morals and values by what is fair to a specific group based on race, religion, ethnicity, or gender can only compromise the strength and power of the U.S. Armed Forces.

In sum, simply shoveling money at the Defense Department and expecting effective military power to result from it is a recipe for defeat. Between 1918 and 1938, the British and the French both outspent the Germans in defense. As Churchill warned in the years leading up to World War II, “the habit of saying smooth things and uttering pious platitudes and sentiments to gain applause, without relation to the underlying facts” is the road to perdition.


Douglas Macgregor, Col. (ret.) is a senior fellow with The American Conservative, the former advisor to the secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, a decorated combat veteran, and the author of five books.

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