In 1947, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act, which in addition to creating the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, consolidated the Army and Navy into a new department, first called the National Military Establishment and finally renamed as the Department of Defense (DoD) in 1949. The Department of War, which had been established in 1789, ceased to exist. As actual threats to American territory grew dimmer and dimmer, we eventually stopped thinking about what the word "defense" actually means -- or what a distant relationship the war-making machinery we constructed really bore to any sane notion of what "defending" our country would require.
And what an awesome machinery it is. The neoconservatives may not have succeeded in their dream of creating a new hegemonic order to rival the glory days of Rome, but we've become so used to the idea of America as the world's sole superpower that we seldom step back and take in the true scope of our capacity for killing people and blowing things up. Our military is a colossus, its tentacles of technology and steel and fire encircling the globe, daring anyone to look at it cross-eyed.
In 2007 the DoD budget exceeded $500 billion -- which doesn't include the $170 billion we spent for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or military-related spending in other departments (like the Energy Department, where much of the spending on nuclear weapons goes). Although worldwide figures for 2007 are not yet available, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's comprehensive data indicate that in 2006, global military spending stood at $1.2 trillion. In other words, we've been spending as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. Our economic dominance may be threatened by the rise of China, India, and the European Union, but when it comes to the instruments of war, nobody else is even close.
Spending that much money takes personnel, of course. There are currently about 1,375,000 men and women in uniform, plus another 671,000 civilians working for DoD, for a total of over 2 million employees. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, another 1.4 million people work in defense-related industries in the private sector -- though we should grant that some of those people produce armaments for the overseas market. After all, America is still the world's leading arms dealer (though Russia is giving us a run for our money).
And if there is any doubt that America is still an empire, consider how far-flung our military power is. According to the Defense Department's 2007 Base Structure Report, we maintain 823 military facilities in 39 foreign countries, and another 86 facilities in seven U.S. territories. According to the document, "DoD occupies a reported 343,867 buildings throughout the world, valued at over $464 billion and comprising almost 2.4 billion square feet." The DoD also owns 32.4 million acres of land (nearly all of it in the U.S.), or over 50,000 square miles, an area about the size of Louisiana (or half of Colorado; or Delaware, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maryland combined).
You will not be surprised to learn that the remaining Republican contenders for the presidency all demonstrate a desire to make the military even bigger. John McCain says that he wants "a larger and more capable military," no shock from a man who barely ever met a military operation he didn't support. The one who actually provides some specificity is Mitt Romney, who wants to increase military spending to 4 percent of gross domestic product. According to the government's current projections, GDP in 2009 will be $15.3 trillion, which means Romney is proposing to boost military spending by about 20 percent, to $612 billion in his first year in office (not counting spending for Iraq). By 2012, four percent of GDP would mean a military budget of over $700 billion. (Incidentally, there is no reason you would want to peg military spending to a particular level of GDP -- after all, if the economy doubled in size, it wouldn't follow that we would need twice as many tanks, guns, and soldiers.)
But even if a Democrat wins the White House, we shouldn't expect any reductions in military spending any time soon. Though the prevailing Democratic wisdom of five years ago -- that the way to appear "strong" on national security is to go along with whatever harebrained scheme Republicans cook up, then hope to change the subject -- has been utterly discredited, no particular vision on military affairs has taken its place, particularly not one that involves overall cuts. The Republican candidates may be offering little but mindless militarism, but the Democrats don't have much to say -- although Barack Obama wants to add 65,000 Army soldiers and 27,000 Marines. A consistent hawk, Hillary Clinton evinces no particular desire to reduce the size of the military, either.
As we've learned in the last decade, an extra dollar of military spending doesn't necessarily buy you an extra measure of security; indeed, depending on how you use it, it can make you far less safe. Our worldwide footprint continually creates more enemies; particularly for people or societies that put a high value on pride and honor, the mere presence of foreign troops is an affront, a daily reminder that we are strong and they are weak. As citizens of the empire, it is hard for us to imagine just what it must be like to know that another nation can plant a military base in your homeland. Those governments may be happy to have Americans invested in their security. But it no doubt feels to many ordinary people as though they're shopkeepers, and the resident Mafioso has strolled into their store, stuffed a few items in his pockets, and told them that he'd like to hold some meetings in the back room. Not only that, they'll be hiring his nephew.
Back in 2003, Howard Dean caused an uproar when he said the United States "won't always have the strongest military." After the predictable faux-outrage from his primary opponents, he attempted to explain that he wasn't talking about his potential presidency or even his lifetime. But less than a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, our permanent military supremacy had already become part of the national identity, something no patriotic American could challenge.
When the only adversary who could seriously threaten us dissolved, we should have given up the pretension that our military is actually involved much in "defense." Outside of the fevered imagination of the Glenn Becks of the world, no sane person truly believes that if we don't play our cards right, our form of government could be overthrown and we could wind up living in an outpost of the world Islamic caliphate. Red Dawn may have been a silly movie in 1984, but think how ridiculous it would be today to imagine that America's enemies would actually take over our territory and herd us into reeducation camps.
Yet we still pretend that what the military does is "keep us safe." But with the exception of missile defense (a colossally stupid boondoggle that doesn't work, probably won't ever work, and couldn't accomplish its mission even if it worked perfectly, but that's a topic for another day), the portion of our "defense" spending that goes to actual defense is miniscule. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines aren't patrolling our borders and training to defend our cities. What they prepare for, and what they're called to do, is to project our extraordinary military power outward. Some of these missions are noble and some are tragically absurd, but no matter who gets elected in November, it won't be changing for a long time to come.