The U.S. military has come under fire as their stated objectives in the world have failed to materialize in the eyes of many, both at home and abroad. According to a report by American journalist Gareth Porter, the violence in Afghanistan has continued to increase, with civilian casualties hitting a record high of more than 11,000 last year. The Pentagon’s mission of peace and stability through military intervention seems to have fallen short of success. Some, like Porter, have labeled it a total failure.
What’s more, according to a Gallup poll released on Presidents’ Day, less than half of Americans believe the U.S. military is the strongest in the world. Experts believe this reflects Americans’ concerns about the heightened risk of terror attacks at home, as well as those carried out around the world. The vast majority of Americans believe the U.S. needs to have the strongest military, though just over a third want to increase funding to achieve it.
It seems as though our military is having an existential crisis following their performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, a crisis not seen since the Vietnam War—another U.S. intervention that many consider the worst failure in American military history. To be clear, this perceived failure rests mainly on the shoulders of top-echelon brass and policymakers from both sides of the aisle, not on the faceless masses of troops who more often than not performed brilliantly in spite of the impossibility of the mission: bringing peace to a region plagued by conflict since time immemorial.
I am reminded of a warning given by two presidents separated by more than 170 years. During his farewell speech and among a list of warnings, General Washington advised to “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican liberty.” Wise advice, and as relevant now, two centuries later, as it was then, on the heels of the war that founded this nation.
Similarly, as the curtain closed on his presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of a great threat to democratic liberty: the military industrial complex. In a speech televised from the White House, Eisenhower recognized the dawn of a new age for America. He saw the need to maintain a military force to ensure peace, a force so mighty it would discourage potential aggressors without firing a shot.
However, Eisenhower saw a dark potential that could lead this newly minted superpower to its own destruction: the rise of misplaced power fueled by the unmitigated growth of the military industrial complex. President Eisenhower stated, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
He goes on to say, “[w]e must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
As the 21st century marches on, the importance of these warnings has not faded; on the contrary, they are more critical than ever. These words, voiced by two of this nation’s most powerful, influential, and admired military generals (both five-star generals, though Washington’s was awarded posthumously), will resonate for generations.
Both Washington and Eisenhower knew that a strong military is vital to ensuring the security of this nation. Eisenhower saw firsthand the necessity of maintaining a force which, by its might alone, could deter foreign aggression. The perception of Russian military weakness after their costly victory in Finland was a defining element in Hitler’s ultimate decision to invade. The same perception of military weakness was one deciding factor in Japan’s attack on America’s navy at Pearl Harbor. They reasoned that if America’s navy could be dealt a crippling blow, her citizens would force the hands of even the most hawkish in Washington, a gamble that proved a disaster for the empire but at the cost of many American lives. This was a cost Eisenhower saw avoidable in the future by maintaining a military of overwhelming force.
However, the conventional threat facing our nation has evolved. It is no longer a sovereign power with conventional forces that we must guard against, a threat which may be deterred by maintaining a force so powerful, no rational nation would risk their own destruction by attempting to overthrow it. Now we face a threat that leverages what on the outside seems a weakness—small in size and lacking massive resources—and exploits what we thought was our strength: our massive resources and size.
This new enemy has been more successful at forcing the hands of policymakers than all others combined, all while spending a tiny fraction in comparison to the U.S. military. Deterrence through military might has kept us safe in the past, but has proven impotent in our War on Terror.
As we complete our withdrawal of forces in Afghanistan and contemplate our continued role in the region and around the world as the world’s last superpower, the words of these two great military leaders should be carefully considered and applied as needed.