In 1954, Congress passed, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed, a bill transforming Armistice Day — Nov. 11, a post-World-War I celebration of peace — into Veterans Day, a celebration of warriors.
Personally, I stick to the original name and the original purpose in my observation of the holiday. Looking at the numbers involved, though, it’s little wonder I find myself swimming against that particular tide.
In 1860, the U.S. armed forces comprised 27,958 soldiers, sailors, and Marines. That figure jumped by six figures each year throughout the Civil War to a high of 1,000,692 by 1865 — after which it fell to less than 40,000 a decade after that conflagration’s end.
Similarly, after growing to a strength of nearly 3 million for World War I (1917-18), the armed forces found themselves less than a tenth that size by 1928.
The post-World-War II establishment didn’t maintain that tradition. While there was indeed shrinkage from the wartime high of 12 million, the number has never since fallen below 1.3 million — a third again as many as put down half a seceded continent in arms, while simultaneously conquering the far west, 80 years before.
U.S. military spending followed the same track. Prior to World War II, outside of wartime or preparation for obviously impending war, U.S. “defense” spending seldom exceeded 2% of Gross Domestic Product and only once (in 1936) topped 3%. Since World War II, it’s never gone below 3% — since the second year of this century it’s never gone below 4%.
For some, though, too much is never enough. The Heritage Foundation warns that “[a]s currently postured, the U.S. military continues to be only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.”
What are those “vital national interests?” Heritage defines them in terms of “a return to long-term competition with major powers, explicitly naming China and Russia as primary competitors” and “[s]ufficient military capacity to deter or win against large conventional powers in geographically distant regions.”
That’s a far cry from Thomas Jefferson’s “essential principles of our government”: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations: entangling alliances with none.”
It’s also a repudiation of John Quincy Adams’s 1821 description of an America which “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
As the U.S. Senate considers the latest National “Defense” Authorization Act, Congress clearly intends to bestow more money, not less, on the armed forces. And this despite the end of America’s ruinous 20-year misadventure in Afghanistan.
That’s not just fiscally irresponsible, it’s physically dangerous to the very people “Veterans Day” purports to honor and the peace Armistice Day was intended to celebrate.
As Abraham Maslow wrote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
The continued maintenance of armed forces many times as large and expensive as any plausible claim of “national defense” could justify results in the use of those armed forces for everything but their supposed purpose.
It’s time to cut the U.S. military budget, deeply. That’s not enough to achieve lasting peace, but it’s the necessary first step.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.