Military Immorality

A Review of Colin Powell's "Bottom-Up Review"

Jesse Alan Gordon, 1994

I was in Hong Kong when the Berlin Wall fell in December 1989. "Yahoo! We've won the Cold War in Europe!," I thought, "and here I am, in the trenches of the Eastern Front!" That is, I thought that fighting the Communists in Beijing was best done by promoting capitalism and free trade. China did not turn out to be a Cold War enemy, because on that front, we have decided to deal with our ideological "enemies" by economic means rather than an arms race. That's my concept of the New World Order: using non-military means to achieve national security objectives.

Unfortunately, that concept of the New World Order is not reflected in the US military. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and then-Joint Chief of Staff Colin Powell got on TV in September and announced the results of their "Bottom-Up Review" of the US Armed Forces. That means that they re-examined the mission of the military for the post-Cold War era, and will revamp the military to fulfill that new mission. Guess what? Even though we won the Cold War, the military cannot be shrunk very much after all! Sorry, fellow taxpayers -- no Peace Dividend! Nope, even though we beat the Commies, and hence removed the entire pretext for keeping a large standing army, we've got to keep it anyway, to fight "two near-simultaneous wars" of the size of the Gulf War.

I don't blame the Pentagon for this farce of a "review" -- I think that Powell and most people in the Armed Forces believe that the army should be shrunk much more than it has been, and much more than the "Bottom-Up Review" calls for. The army's new mission is defined politically -- which means I do blame politicians for the farce.

I'd like to examine here the forces which are causing the political process in America to throw away our chance for a really new New World Order. First I'll describe the farcical "Bottom-Up Review" and how a non-farcical bottom-up review should work. Then I'll examine the external cost of keeping a large standing army in peacetime -- that it creates an entrenched interest in military solutions; that it causes us to look for other uses of the military; and that it creates a more militaristic society. That last one, the one that bothers me the most, is the hidden psychological cost of maintaining a large peacetime army -- it makes society more violent, more aggressive, more secretive, more hierarchical, more likely to go to war; that is, more like the military.


The basis of the "Bottom-Up Review" is that the new mission of the United States Armed Forces is to be able to fight and decisively win two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts. The idea is that, while we're busy bombing Baghdad, North Korea takes advantage of our preoccupation there to invade South Korea. Therefore, we have to be able to hold the line somewhere north of Seoul, and as soon as we finish off Saddam, we move our tanks and planes to Korea to push the line back to Pyongyang.

Let's look at that militarily first. We had a bigger army during the Gulf War than we do now, and we had to commit all of it to winning that war. We sent Divisions to Saudi Arabia and Carrier Groups to the Persian Gulf; we called up the Reserves; we transferred troops from Europe; we left only a skeleton force at home. Now imagine that during the height of, say, the Iraqi Air War component, we had to defend South Korea against a North Korean invasion. We couldn't have done it, not even with our larger army of 1991. If that's the contingency that we're preparing for, we need a bigger army than we had during the Gulf War, and a lot bigger army than is currently being planned. That's the first farce of the "Bottom-Up Review": it cannot accomplish its stated mission.

And let's look at the mission itself. I like the idea of protecting South Korea. I don't like the idea of protecting Kuwait, but I'll accept the idea that guys like Saddam should not be allowed free rein. The idea I don't accept is that we have to be the ones to do it, all by ourselves. That's called being "the World's Police." If we establish a Pax Americana, and police it ourselves, the cost will be the decline of America. If we take it upon ourselves to stop every aggression, to fight every battle, to right every wrong, then we will go broke doing so. Enforcing the Pax Romana killed ancient Rome; maintaining the British Empire caused England's decline; military overextension has bankrupted societies from Spain in the 1580s to the USSR in the 1980s. That's the second farce of the "Bottom-Up Review": it assumes that America must unilaterally enforce world peace, and it assumes that we can afford to do so.

Now let's look at the details of the "Bottom-Up Review." This is what Clinton promised in his campaign, and this is why Powell stayed on as JCS. They started out with the right idea, that we should re-assess the goals of the military in the post-Cold War era, and then design a defense system to meet those goals. They concluded, with the "two nearly simultaneous MRCs" idea, that we need (with net cuts in parentheses): 10 Army divisions (-2) plus 5 reserve (-1), 12 aircraft carrier groups (-1), 45 submarines plus 18 "boomer" subs and 346 other ships (-55 overall), 13 Air Force fighter wings (-3) plus 7 reserve (-4), and 5 Marine brigades (-0).

The nuclear arsenal is not addressed. Powell says they ignored nukes because "that's START-driven." Military bases around the world (870 at home, 395 abroad) were also not addressed, because it's handled by the independent base-closing commission. That's the third farce of the "Bottom-Up Review": the single largest military threat to America, and the single largest expense in the military budget, were entirely ignored.

Let's look at some of the "cuts" next. We're going to keep twelve aircraft carriers. The rest of the world, all combined, has thirteen, and the four owned by Russia are rusting in port. But in order to cut the number of aircraft carriers, we're building three new ones -- two are currently under construction (the USS John Stennis and the USS United States), and one more (CVN-76) is allocated, at a cost of about $10 billion each. Similarly, we are cutting our submarine force by building a new Seawolf-class submarine, at a cost of $1.8 billion. The Pentagon has stated that there is no military need for another Seawolf submarine -- the rationale for building it, as for building the carriers, is to keep the industrial capacity alive. If the real purpose were to maintain the capacity, we could put a fence around the Groton shipyard, and pay a few guys to keep people out and keep the place clean, for a lot less than $1.8 billion. The real purpose is to maintain the flow of federal dollars to Connecticut. That's the biggest farce of the "Bottom-Up Review": it's supposed to be based on military objectives, but it's actually based on pork barrel politics.


The real Peace Dividend is peace. It would be nice to get some cash out of the deal, but I'll settle for peace. The mission of the military in the post-Cold War era should be to pay the Peace Dividend, i.e., to maintain peace. The New World Order should be based on using non-military means to prevent war. Diplomacy should be the first means; UN action should be the second; the US military should always be the last resort. Achieving peace by military means should be viewed as a failure. If we have to go to war, it means we have failed at diplomacy and at concerted world action.

The long-term means of maintaining peace is to foster worldwide economic growth. When we spend on our military, we are spending money which would otherwise create more growth. We didn't beat the Soviets with our army; we buried them economically. I don't mind paying for the Pax Americana, as long as we do so sustainably, and as long as we don't enforce it imperialistically.

How can we achieve the Pax Americana without bankrupting America? First, we can rely on our allies. Some of them do have their own armies, after all. The South Korean army can hold the line against the invading North Koreans until we get there; we don't need to keep a "forward presence" there ourselves. Because the Pax Americana benefits the rest of the world, the rest of the world should contribute to its upkeep. To do otherwise is not just unwise financially, it's also imperialistic. Enforcing our will without the participation of anyone else in the world -- that's the definition of hegemony.

As for the job of the World Police, that should be left to the UN. The role of World Police means that we must account for the good of the world, not just the good of America. We will always fight for our own interests, and we should not claim that we are doing so for the good of the world. The function of the World Police should be run by the World -- the UN -- and not America. The term "Police" further implies that the enforcers of the Pax Americana do not have a military role at all, but a policing function -- that is, that their job is to keep warring factions apart or to observe breaches in treaties, and not to fight wars. The mission of the US military should not include policing, but only military functions. The UN is as good as the US at policing, and we should leave that role to them. Let the US military stick to US goals and military goals -- now let's get to a real bottom-up review of those.


What would happen if the US had no army at all? A real bottom-up review should start at zero, like a zero-based budget, and work its way up from there. If we had no army at all, would the US government immediately get overthrown? Maybe Castro would invade Florida; maybe Saddam would land a few jets here. We need a small defensive army to repel silly invasions from crazy dictators.

What would happen if we had no nuclear weapons? Nuclear deterrence worked, dislike it though I did, so we should keep a few missiles. But we do not need to keep them poised and pre-targetted, with an army of men with funky-looking keys and an urgent fervency to follow orders to kill millions of people. Keeping men like that around is bad for democracy -- I'll get back to this point in the psychological section below. Keeping a few dozen nukes in storage is acceptable as a deterrent to countries who would cheat on non-proliferation treaties. We no longer need to keep missiles in silos, ready to launch on ten minutes notice.

I think that open communication had as much to do with, say, avoiding nuclear holocaust in the Cuban missile crisis as did the threat of mutual destruction. The New World Order should rely on things like the Moscow Hotline (you know, the red phone that the President picks up at the climactic moment, where the Kremlin is right there on the other end). Open communication and diplomacy is the post-Cold War replacement for Mutual Assured Destruction. During previous crises in the Soviet Union, the military would raise our "DefCon" status and press our finger a little tighter on the button to destroy Moscow. During the next crisis in Russia, we're not going to do that; we're going to pick up the telephone and say, "Hey, Vladimir, how about those nukes in Kazakhstan?" If, someday, we think that there's a serious nuclear threat in the making, we could make our point by dragging a few missiles from their warehouses and standing them upright in a silo. That would preserve the threat of escalation while removing the hair-trigger.

What about the CIA? They're not quite the military, but they are just as much a vestige of the Cold War, and should be just as much rethought for the New World Order. What was the purpose of the CIA? To keep tabs on major national security threats to the US, and then to do covert stuff about those threats, right? Well, we have no major national security threats any more, so I think that the CIA is a vast and very dangerous bureaucracy fighting for survival. The sad lesson of API-401 is that bureaucracies perpetuate themselves unless we actively destroy them. Think about what it means when the CIA tries to perpetuate itself.

The CIA is an extra-constitutional agency which achieves its goals by using extra-constitutional means, such as shooting people, blowing things up, lying, cheating, stealing, etc. During the Cold War, such nasty methods were questionable, but necessary in the face of serious threats. Now those methods are unquestionably unnecessary. There is, after all, an analogous intelligence agency within the army (the DIA, or Defense Intelligence Agency). There are also lots of electronic means of intelligence-gathering, from satellites, that decrease the need for people sneaking around foreign capitals. Since the need is less, I think the CIA has become redundant, and should be incorporated within the DIA as a component of the military. The CIA was created, during the Cold War, to address Cold War needs -- their function should now be put back where it came from. Our intelligence needs should be met by soldiers who are answerable to their commanders and ultimately answerable to the President and Congress. I was never quite sure who the CIA is answerable to -- and that kind of non-answerability is inconsistent with a democratic society.

What about military base closings? A zero-based rethinking means, bases stay open only if they serve an essential national security purpose. The base-closing commission is doing admirable work -- I calculate my tax savings every time they come up with another list. How many bases are needed for essential national security interests? I'm not an expert, but I know that most of these bases were built for political reasons -- to get a base in the home district of a legislator -- and now all of those should be closed. The base-closing commission should look at whether every base serves national security, and if not, slate it for closing. So far, only the most egregiously useless bases have been closed. Because military bases are such valuable political pork, the work of the base-closing commission should be separated from political considerations -- the decisions should be made for military reasons only.


The military provides employment for about 5 million people directly (pre-Bottom-Up Review): about 2 million in uniform, 11/2 million in the Reserves, and the rest in DoD civilian jobs. The military indirectly provides millions more jobs through defense contractors and support for personnel. The military injects billions of dollars into the economy, both as payroll and as payment for military hardware. And military spending creates technological spinoffs and promotes high-tech research. That's the pro-military economic argument -- I think it's all hogwash. Every dollar spent on anything related to the military is a dollar wasted. Some of the dollars wasted are necessary waste, for valid national security interests. Anything beyond that is unnecessary waste -- money that would be better spent on productive programs rather than destructive ones.

Let's look at jobs first. Any self-respecting Kennedy School student should dismiss keeping army jobs as an entirely invalid reason for maintaining a large military. "Jobs are a cost, not a benefit" -- that's the KSG mantra, and it applies considerably more when the jobs have no purpose except the maintenance of a system of destruction.

These are not good jobs at good wages. Most military jobs are just soldiers -- low-tech, low-paid, low-skill jobs, where guys are trained how to shoot guns and march through mud. These skills are not useful outside of the military. We could just as well employ people to dig holes and fill them up, and have a side benefit of people who know about digging, rather than people who know how to maim and kill.

Democrats who like the military claim that it provides opportunities for underprivileged youths. We could, however, provide job programs (like an Urban Peace Corps) for underprivileged youths which avoids teaching destructive skills, at the same cost as providing military jobs.

Republicans who like the military focus on the high-tech jobs which the military creates, and the technological spinoffs of building super-weapons. Again, we could provide high-tech jobs directly, rather than funnel them through the military, and we could fund technological research and development directly also (like fund a Mars project or a Nobel Prize in microtechnology). That sounds like a un-Republican "industrial policy," which indeed it is, and which indeed so is the military. Colin Powell was asked at the "Bottom-Up Review" press conference whether maintaining aircraft carrier and submarine construction facilities was an industrial policy. He said no, but of course that's exactly what it is.

If we want an industrial policy (and I don't), we should fund it as an industrial policy and not as a military policy. And the same goes for Democrat job programs -- if we want the state to employ every underprivileged youth (and I don't), then we should fund that as an employment program and not as a military program. If the military is the means to fund otherwise worthy programs, then those programs should be worthy of being funded independently of the military. If the military is the means to fund programs which would never otherwise be politically acceptable, then using a military intermediary makes them even less acceptable because it hides their true purpose.

Now what about protecting "strategic resources." This has lately been billed as an important national security interest, and was a major justification for the Gulf War. I think it is an inadequate justification -- Saddam was not out to get us, he was out to get our money. We were not protecting a vital resource, we were protecting a low price for oil. If we feel it is necessary to ensure low gas prices (and I don't) then we should subsidize gasoline openly, rather than doing it through military action.

In general, I think we should trust the free market to supply us with "strategic resources." Even if Saddam had taken over Saudi Arabia, he would still have to sell us his oil, or his invasion would have been pointless. He would have learned, as have the Saudis, that keeping oil prices low ensures a continuing American dependency on oil. Other "strategic resources" are mostly exotic metals such as titanium and molybdenum. The primary uses of these resources are for military hardware -- that is, they are claimed to be essential for national security because the means by which we have previously provided national security makes them essential. Such circular logic reeks of a bureaucracy looking for pretexts for survival. Winning the Cold War means that the free market has been proven superior -- now let's trust it to provide us with all the molybdenum we really need, all by itself. If we believe that certain exotic metals are truly vital and are subject to supply disruption in a crisis, then we should establish stockpiles of them, and avoid the military necessary of protecting their continuous supply.


What are our costs of the military? Besides the economic cost of keeping two million men under arms, there is a much larger non-economic cost to society. A standing army of millions means that a large percentage of America has served in the military. That means that a lot of people have been through military training, with its emphasis on efficient destruction, its training of how to kill, and its culture of obedience, stratification, and secrecy.

Of course, having received military training doesn't necessarily make a person violent. I've had lunch with military classmates, and they usually don't punch me in the nose. But being trained to efficiently do violence to people means that, first, if you lose your temper, you're more likely to do serious damage, and second, you're more likely to lose your temper because violent aggressiveness is taught in military training as a valid means of accomplishing tasks. Consider if everyone in society received military training, and compare that society to one in which no one received military training. There are always going to be some kooks, in any large group -- the more people who receive military training, the more kooks will end up with knowledge of efficient violence. When you think of how violent a society America has, think of how many people have been trained to do violence -- I think they're connected. If we trained people in diplomacy and non-violent conflict resolution with the same fervency with which we currently train people for violent resolutions, we would have a very different society.

The prevalence of guns is a big problem in America today. People who own guns became familiar with them somewhere -- often in the military. People should be scared of guns; people who are familiar with guns, through military training, treat them more casually. The political strength of the NRA, I believe, depends on a continued introduction to guns via military training. Remove the source of gun familiarity, and the NRA becomes just a fringe lobbying group.

The biggest effect on society is from the psychological and cultural norms espoused in military training. The military requires secrecy. It enforces unquestioning obedience. Military society is a highly stratified and structured society. Are those values we want in America? I think that secrecy is inherently undemocratic. I think that questioning and disobeying authority is the cornerstone of American political progress. I think that a lack of stratification and structure is the basis of American economic opportunity. The culture of military society is against everything we value in American society. It's ironic that such a wholly un-American culture is charged with the protection of America. That sort of undemocratic, un-free culture is, of course, necessary to the functioning of the military. Minimizing the number of Americans who are inculcated with that foreign culture is the reason to keep the army small.

One final cost is "political capture." The more people who are in the military, who are associated with military spending, or who work for military suppliers, the more people will have an interest in maintaining a large military to maintain their jobs. That is what makes the military self-perpetuating, and that is why the current military reductions are so painstakingly slow.

But the momentum is worse with the military than with other redundant industries, because maintaining the existence of a large military means that large quantities of weapons are produced. These weapons will end up somewhere, performing the destructive tasks for which they were built. When we talk about slowly "phasing out" military spending, we should keep in mind that slowly turning our swords into plowshares means that there will be more swords that we have to get rid of.

If we have a large army, we will be tempted to use it. I heard this argument made during the buildup to the Gulf War: that we should establish the New World Order while we have the military capability to do so. Worse yet, if we keep a big army, we'll start using it for non-military reasons. The Drug War is even worse than the Cold War! Then the army isn't defeating fascism, it's creating it! On balance, the solution is to get rid of the army while we still can, that is, before other uses are found for it. Doing so will "demilitarize" American society and create more social benefits than are imagined for the Peace Dividend.


I think that promoting free democratic countries around the world is in our national security interest. I don't like totalitarian governments any more than any one else, and we should do our share to get rid of them. Occasionally, we may have to go out and beat up a dictator (no, not Saddam, that war just replaced one totalitarian regime with another totalitarian regime). But we do it by economic means, not militaristic ones. We don't have to do anything to defeat Cuba -- just let time take its course now, and Castro will fall as soon as the people get tired enough of riding bicycles around.

And what about when military force becomes necessary, because democracy would be doomed without it and totalitarianism will remain intact? I think that "promoting democracy" has been a pretext for America's long and rich history of military adventurism, from Teddy Roosevelt's Panama to Ronald Reagan's Grenada. Sure, sometimes promoting democracy worked, like the Berlin airlift, or the defense of South Korea, but all of the effective actions have been international efforts. Did we ultimately promote democracy by fighting the Sandinistas? If we had let them alone, Nicaragua would have been a little more socialist, but Oliver North would still be an obscure colonel. On balance, US military adventurism hurts democracy, because it causes anti-Americanism around the world. What we call "necessary to avoid totalitarianism," they often call imperialist hegemony or American arrogance. Does making enemies around the world promote our interests?

Deciding that military force is necessary for our national security should be a lengthy process, fraught with difficulties and indecisiveness. I approve of the process of military indecisiveness taken by the UN and NATO in Bosnia -- if ever there comes to be a military action, it certainly will have been well-considered.


What is the ideal picture of the US Armed Forces? My view is: Scrap all nukes! Close more bases! Mothball the fleet! Cancel all military R&D! Abolish the CIA!

The appropriate military for the post-Cold War era is a "framework army," that is, one which is capable of very little except expansion in a future crisis. Our nuclear weapons should be kept as separate components in storage, safe from a rash decision, but available for future deterrence. Our military bases should be kept open only if they serve to deter invasion or perform some other urgent security need. Our navy should be based in US ports and should stay there most of the time. We must have one aircraft carrier group in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific -- beyond those, we should carefully consider exactly how we benefit from each additional carrier group. Carrier groups were designed to counter the Soviet threat, and should go the way of the Soviet Union. Our military research and development programs should all be postponed, until there is a purpose for which to research and develop new weapons. Currently contracted expenditures, such as the B-1 bomber, the new nuclear submarines under construction, the Stealth air fleet, ad. inf., should all be cancelled, since we have no need for the weaponry produced. The CIA should be incorporated into the regular armed forces.

The result of all that would be a small army, and the Department of Defense would, for the first time in many decades, become concerned with defense rather than with maintaining a huge budget. The DoD recognizes that their new role should be much more limited, and has regularly requested less money than Congress has ended up giving them. That indicates that Congress is basing its spending decisions on politics rather than on what is ideal militarily. The new world order means that Congress must re-think the purpose of military spending -- it can no longer be used as a means of achieving other political objectives. The new military should be small and limited, and the old (big) military should be made a thing of the past.

Extremely tough soldiers and extremely sneaky spies are an extremely cool image, which is why a lot of people join the CIA and the army. Gunslingers in the old West were an extremely cool image, too, once, but I certainly wouldn't want to have any of them living in my apartment building. I don't want to have Rambos or 007s in my society either. Gunslingers were once necessary, since the old West was a tough place that needed tough people. Rambos and 007s were once necessary, but now they have become just as vestigial as Wyatt Earp. Gunslingers have been relegated to the realm of novels and movies. Let's do the same for their Cold-War descendants.

EJSCK Reprinted from "Spectrum: The Public Policy Journal of the Kennedy School of Government", Harvard University, 1994.
All material copyright 1994 by Kennedy School of Government and Jesse Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Jesse Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 354-2805

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