The US Military: American Boondoggle?

(Chart: 2002 Comparative military spending)

Sometimes you need to take step back and look at baseline assumptions. One of the things I hear most often from American politicians is some variation on ”œwe need a strong military to ensure our safety”. It’s one of those banal platitudes that even left-leaning Congress critters will use to pad their speeches and assure people that they aren’t some sort of crazy peacenik.

Yet it’s a strange assumption on two different fronts. The US military doesn’t seem to be protecting the US from much of anything, and the US military doesn’t seem to return much to the American people considering what they spend on it.


Let’s tackle the second first ”“ ROI ”“ which is the business acronym for return on investment; or rather ”œwhat am I getting for the money I invested?” As of 2005 the US was spending a little under 500 billion a year:

The USA is responsible for 48 per cent of the world total, distantly followed by the UK, France, Japan and China with 4”“5 per cent each.

So the US is spending almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. It also has more than half the naval tonnage in the world. If someone were to tell you that a nation was spending that much money on its military you would assume that it had a military which was unbeatable.

Yet, despite all this spending, the US is currently losing two wars ”“ the war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan. Iraq is lost, and while Afghanistan is theoretically winnable the trends are currently running against the US and NATO and if they continue, the US will lose that war as well.

So, for spending almost half of the entire world’s military budget, the US has created a military which can’t even defeat ”“ not the second or third or fourth spenders in the world ”“ but what amount to a bunch of armed rabble.

More After the Jump

Any rational perusal of that fact should outrage Americans ”“ that they are spending half a trillion dollars a year, and can’t even win against a bunch of Iraqi partisans indicates that something is fundamentally wrong. They aren’t getting much return for all that military spending.

Do a brief thought exercise. Imagine that the US, instead of having as high tech an army as it does, instead had an army that was five times as large and spent 50 billion a year on real aid that got to the Iraqi street right after the invasion. Would they have won the insurgency in Iraq?

Who knows? But odds are, yes. Put a squad on every street and make sure everyone is prosperous, and odds are you would now have a peaceful Iraq.

But hypotheticals aside, again, the US has lost a war against a bunch of partisans. Yes, guerrilla wars are hard, etc.. etc… but the last two significant wars the US fought ”“ Vietnam and Iraq, had significant guerrilla actions in them, and the US lost both of them.

The US has a military that can blow up anything in the world (mind you, so does Russia, if they’re willing to have it glow afterwards), which has a certain intimidation factor; and it has a decapitation military capable of striking the head off of any nation in the world (literally, in Iraq’s case) but the bottom line is the bottom line ”“ it has a military which has lost the two most important wars of the last forty years despite radically outspending its adversaries. And this isn’t a case of slightly outspending them, the people the US has actually fought haven’t even had military budgets that were rounding errors in the US military budget ”“ they couldn’t even afford a single bloated US military appropriation.

But they won. And the US lost. And as such one has to ask ”“ for this almost 500 billion dollars a year, what is the US getting?

Economists have a term called opportunity cost, which is just a fancy way of saying ”œhow much could you have gotten by spending that resource on something else?” Every dollar spent on the military is a dollar which doesn’t go to improving American schools; is a dollar which doesn’t go to helping America’s millions of uninsured get the healthcare they need; which doesn’t go towards expanding America’s Internet backbone so it can keep up with countries like South Korea, and so on. Every dollar spent on the military could have been spent on something which would have more return in the future ”“ which would make America economically stronger or a better place to live.

Perhaps that lost opportunity cost might be acceptable if the US military could win wars. If the US had gone into Iraq, won and the oil had flowed, and instead of the price of oil going through the roof, it had dropped, then perhaps those who boost a large military could make some sort of case that the military had provided some sort of return. But it didn’t, and effectively all it is a cost center.

The US of the US military has trashed the US’s reputation (call it your brand equity) throughout the world. This is not theoretical, the Edelman trust barometer has found that US corporation are perceived worse overseas than they are at home, while companies from other countries don’t have that negative perceptions and companies from countries like Canada and the Scandinavian nations actually are more trusted in foreign countries.

This isn’t to say the US military is worthless ”“ it does provide some R&D spending and that R&D spending, in the past, did help the US economy. It’s questionable whether spreading R&D money around that way is the best way to do R&D, but it does do something. The US Navy does keep the world’s trade lanes open and does help the fight against piracy (which is larger than most people realize) significantly. US bases do create governmental demand for services, though the multiplier effect (the number of downstream jobs created) is a lot less than certain types of direct civilian spending

So there are some benefits to all that money. Half a trillion is real money and some of it is bound to get into the hands of people who need it or will use it productively.

But at the end of the day it’s simply not credible to say the US couldn’t achieve more return on that money if it was used for other things, especially, again, since the US military has a very spotty record of actually winning wars.

Protecting Americans?

The second and more important claim about the US military is that it’s protecting Americans. Let me ask my readers this simple question ”“ what is it protecting you from? I can’t think of much, if anything, that a military can protect people from that requires the US to spend half a trillion dollars. So let’s run through the possibilities.

The classic ”œprotective” use of a military is to protect a country from invasion. Realistically, who could invade the US? The USSR no longer exists. The only people with borders with the US which would allow for a ground invasion are Canada and Mexico. If the US spent 1/10th of what it spends now, it would still outspend both nations by a significant margin. There is no nation in the world, even if the US had 1/10th its current navy, which has the naval capacity to invade the US with an amphibious operation, and could then occupy a country the size of the US. The idea is frankly absurd. The US does need to maintain a nuclear umbrella, to convince other nations with nukes that using them would be a bad idea; but even there the US has more nukes than it needs. Being able to destroy the entire world hundreds or thousands of times is, forgive the word, overkill. Once is sufficient. So current US military expenditures aren’t for keeping the US safe from invasion or for nuclear deterrence.

The other argument a supporter of current military expenditures would probably make is that the military protects US citizens from the scourge of terrorism. The fact, however, is that since the US started using the military for anti-terrorism terrorist attacks have grown every year we are aware of (the State department declined to release last year’s report. I think we can safely assume that if the news had been good, they’d have released it.) Every terrorist attack which has been stopped, has been stopped by law enforcement actions. And, in fact, the attack on Iraq is generally considered to be the most significant recruiting bonanza terrorist organizations every received. This isn’t to say that the military has no use in fighting terrorism, but the use is limited and requires winning the sort of anti-insurgency warfare that the US military is so noticeably bad at.

Concluding Remarks

It’s hard, at the end of the day, not to come to the conclusion that US citizens are getting a horrible return on the money they spend on their military. It can’t win the wars it needs to. It doesn’t reduce terrorism. It doesn’t need to be nearly as large or expensive to protect the US from any conceivable invasion. It is unclear to me how anyone could make a credible argument that the US is receiving any sort of return on its military investment that could possibly justify spending almost half the money spent in the entire world on military expenditures.

I’m not a pacifist. I believe, for example, that my own country, Canada, should have a larger military. I have supported some wars. But I do believe that a military has a job to do and that job is to win wars. If it can’t do that, there’s a problem. I also believe that the military has a responsibility to be at least remotely efficient in its expenditures, because, as Eisenhower pointed out, every dollar which is spent on the military is a dollar which could have been used to feed someone who is hungry; to teach a child; or to give a sick man his daily medicine.

US citizens should be frankly outraged at their military’s performance. It can’t all be laid at the feet of George Bush ”“ there is something wrong with a military machine which costs almost 500 billion a year, which can’t even defeat an armed rabble in an anti-insurgency campaign. Yes, it’s hard to win guerrilla wars ”“ but if the US can’t win them spending this much money, what good is it when it doesn’t actually exist to protect the US from invasion and doesn’t reduce terrorism?

The onus is on supporters of the status quo, or of spending even more, to defend this. And those who do believe in a ”œstrong military” should explain what exactly it is for, and how they are going to reform the US military to actually be able to delivery on whatever it is. Because right now, in the cold hard light of day, I don’t see how anyone can argue that the US military isn’t the biggest boondoggle in the world ”“ gold plated, fantastically expensive, and delivers almost no return to its employers, the American people ”“ it neither makes them safer, nor makes them richer than an army that cost much, much less could do.

And if that’s the case, what’s that half trillion a year buying Americans?

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Ian Welsh

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The only care is advancement of killing technology and it’s increasingly Orwellian surrogates.
    Strategic Communications Laboratories
    HR 1 the green light to industry to build the perfect surveillance police state

  • it would be interesting to break down that single large figure and see where the defense money is going. for instance, if maintaing overseas bases was a large component. that’s a political expenditure in many ways. though it does have some connection to being able to get air power where you want it to go, i imagine.

  • Here is an interesting interview by Bill Moyers(PBS program NOW) of Chuck Spinny who worked for the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation (makes independent evaluations of Pentagon policy). A series of articles written for THE WASHINGTON POST by Spinney chronicled his findings over the next few years.
    In October 1988’s “Look What $2 Trillion Didn’t Buy for Defense,” Spinney summarized his defense spending philosophy, criticized the government’s obsession with defense spending as a distraction from meeting more pressing military needs and fulfilling Constitutional responsibility to account for expenditures.



  • Piracy in international waters declined steeply in the 19th century because of the rise of the British navy. By sailing widely, they swept the seas clean. The American navy has taken up the role.

    If the US navy were curtailed to a size that suffices to prevent overseas invasion, it will effectively relinquish control of the high seas to regional powers. The incidents of piracy of the sort we still get in Somalia and Malaysia will skyrocket. Minor powers will be able to harbour pirates, be bribed, and look the other way. This will not be good for international shipping.

    For commercial prosperity on land, you need a strong government with a monopoly on the use of force. It’s the same for the seas. UK and US have been that government.

  • Unilateral force has nothing to do with global democracy


    The US has overstepped its borders in every way. We must build a new world order to ensure security and prosperity for all

    The universal, indivisible character of security can be expressed as the basic principle that “security for one is security for all”. As Franklin D Roosevelt said at the onset of the second world war: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries is in danger.”

    These words remain relevant today. Only two decades ago the world was ideologically and economically divided and it was the huge strategic potential of two superpowers that ensured global security. This global standoff pushed the sharpest economic and social problems to the margins of the world’s agenda. And, just like any war, the cold war left behind live ammunition, figuratively speaking. It left ideological stereotypes, double standards and other remnants of cold war thinking.

    I did inhale.

  • Yes, that’s why I specifically mentioned piracy. Still, other nations can step it up. Anti-piracy efforts don’t require multiple aircraft carriers.

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