The spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force.

Thomas Jefferson


No serious discussion about decreasing the deficit can fail to consider the biggest item of discretionary spending:  Defense

File:U.S. Federal Spending - FY 2007.png

~Defense spending is now the highest its ever been, though is historically small as a percent of gross domestic product:

File:U.S. Defense Spending - % to Outlays.png

Scanning through the history represented by the graph above, it seems we have spent less and less a percent of our gross domestic product on defense, while paradoxically becoming increasingly more secure.  Until about 1990, we faced an existential threat of annihilation by the Soviet Union’s nuclear weaponry.  Today, we face nothing of the sort, only a bare, rag-tag collection of ne’er do wells that have at their disposal only the few resources that are dribbled down to them from the flood of dollars that their (mostly unintentional) host nations receive/d from exporting oil or Asian opium poppy plants. 

Had we not decided to embark on two open-ended military operations such as we did after 9/11, the trend line down could have continued. 

The decrease in spending as a percent of GDP is testament to increases in efficiency at destroying things and killing people begat by technological innovations.  One atomic bomb provides as much defense as might have been required by half a million troops in days gone by.  Simply consider how vastly more efficient dropping two atom bombs on Japan was compared to having launched a full-scale invasion.  The fight for Tokyo might alone have taken a million casualties, and several multiples of that in total number of combat troops required to get the job done.

But to really capture the savings due to technological innovations, bring the troops home.

Item 51 of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform ‘s preliminary proposal offers an $8.5 billion savings for reducing military personnel stationed in Asia and Europe by a third.  But, why just a third?

What exisential threats does the US face from powers in Europe and Asia?  None?   Why then do we still have tens of thousands in Japan and South Korea, and hundreds of thousands in Europe, not to mention the legions we have in Iraq and Afghanistan?  The only existential threat we have really ever faced–annihilation in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union–ended two decades ago.  While the Cold War was raging, it might have made sense to keep thousands of troops stationed on the front lines of conventional threats posed by the Soviet Union.  If the old Soviet Union, with its vast stockpile of nuclear weapons, had attacked across the Fulda Gap with conventional forces (as my mates and I diligently trained and prepared for), we had either to be capable of meeting the challenge conventionally, or face the consequences of going nuclear.   Today, the remnants of the Soviet empire could hardly expect to succeed in a conventional war against us or any of our allies (Germany, England, Japan etc.), so why do we keep so many troops garrisoned around the world?

The answer to these questions strikes at the purpose of the US military:  Is it a defense force or an empire building and sustaining one?  Throughout much of our history, the military has served not to defend, but to aid in the expansion and consolidation of the empire.  It’s not for nothing that the “calvary riding to the rescue” is a cliche.  Colonizers pushing west depended on the federal government to fight their battles against the Native Americans they were trying to displace.   Ours is a history of expansion followed by consolidation, just the same as countless empires throughout history.   America, founded and populated by Northern Europeans, finally replaced the old European empires with victory in World War Two.   The huge expansion in empire that victory in World War Two represented was consolidated with victory in the Cold War.  Throughout its short history, the US military was almost never used for defense; instead it facilitated empire expansion and consolidation.  Defense against existential threats, as, excepting the Cold War, there mostly were none, was subordinate to facilitating empire expansion.

The empire is now at its outer limits.  It is consolidated.  It needs little defense, as the governments of its client states are allies, not enemies.  Iraq and Afghanistan, at the outer fringes of the empire, make little strategic sense, yet carry a great cost.   We need to bring home all the troops.  Fighting skirmishes at the outer limits of empire is wasteful and dangerous.  Better to save our resources for fighting existential threats as they arise.  Let the client states provide for their own conventional defense forces, while allowing them our nuclear umbrella of protection.    Cut the size of the active Army by 2/3’s, and instead build up the reserve and national guards.  Make the Marine Corps the quick-reaction, force-projection specialists–just as they have been for centuries–rushing to trouble spots to keep open the lines of commerce and communication across the empire. 

It’s impossible to tell how much savings would be realized by such a drastic reduction in American military presence across the globe and even at home, but it is likely to be many multiples higher than a measly $8.5 billion.  We could conceivably chop a third off the defense budget without impairing homeland security even a trifle.  Hanging up the badge as world’s policemen might actually make us more economically able to police the portion of the world we claim as empire.

According to 2009 estimates, the US spent more on defense than the next 17 highest-spending nations combined.  Tiny Israel, that faces real and viable existential threats in every direction, spent only 2% as much as did the US on defense.  The Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest famously described the secret to victory as “doing the mostest with the leastest”.  Clearly the US is doing just the opposite right now.  Forrest didn’t say, but I think we can safely assume that he would have considered the surest way to defeat is doing the leastest with the mostest–the US strategy since at least the end of the Cold War.