Saturday, July 30, 2005

Defense: The Modern Cathedral

Americans take for granted that the military-industrial complex here is huge. What they simply aren't able to process is how huge. The numbers just get so large, they become meaningless. The US spend $455 billion dollars on the military (and related matters) in 2004 alone. That's over $1,500 for every man, woman, and child in the country (which currently number just shy of 300 million). But consider: publically, the US armed forces have somewhere in the ballpark of 1,430,000 active troops. That means that, in a year, for each enlisted soldier in our armed forces, we're spending $320,000 - this number drops, but only a little, when all army reserves and national guard are taken into consideration. By contrast, the biggest army in the world (China's) is spending about $13,288 per soldier. India (the 3rd-largest armed forces) is spending $12,907 per soldier. the obvious retort is that these countries have utterly different standards of living, so these figures are misleading. Keeping in mind comparable standards of living, the first European military force on the list (Germany, ranked 19th in the world) spends $105,729 per soldier. Much larger than China or Germany, but clearly still a huge drop from the States.

So the question is: why? Why does America spend 43.8% of the combined military spending of the entire world? It certainly isn't to give soldiers an opulent lifestyle. The classic joke, of course, is that the military spends $3,000 for a hammer. It's the old myth that state-run bureaucracies are infinitely more inefficient than private business, and that this inefficiency, combined with "special projects" that don't make it on the spreadsheet, inflate the prices. But look at America's recent plunge into deficit spending: we're creating the money from thin air by adding to our debt.

I posit that american military spending constitutes a very modern form of monument construction. Take, for example, the F/A-22 Raptor, said by some to be the most advanced fighter plane in the world. By the time the military's 280 or so planes are finished, they will have cost as much as $71.7 billion to develop and produce, to say nothing of the cost of their upkeep, making them by far the most expensive fighters ever created. Which begs the question: to what end? Did we really need to upgrade from F-16s? Probably not - but for the American military, being "the best of the best" is a matter of pride. So they've spent over $70 billion on a plane to one-up their apparently non-existent competition. After all, the Russian MiG-29 was the equivalent of the F-16, so apparently the US military just had to prove they're in a different ballpark. At the expense of its citizenry.

Amusingly, America is progressing toward some genuinely science-fiction-like behavior. With the advent of unmanned fighter craft, we'll soon be able to fight air-superiority wars (the only kind we seem to be really, really good at) simply by spending money on manufacturing robots. My economy vs. your military - fight! I find this amusing because life imitating science fiction always amuses me. It allows me to stick my tongue out at all those English teachers who asserted that science fiction was a waste of my time. But it raises concerns as well. When manpower stops limiting American military expansion, jus thow much will they be willing to spend?

It's like the Cathedrals in Europe. Sure, they're impressive now. They're treasured as wonders of their eras, and we weep at their destruction. But how many hundreds of years did they take to build? How many lives did they cost? And, honestly, what good did they do? I've always bee in the camp that says that glorifying the deity of your choice is best done through means other than centuries of manual labor by serfs. Is military one-upsmanship against enemies who use methods conventional military techniques fail to thwart (like terrorism) really worth glorifying by shaving off the top of every dollar than changes hands here?

Because let's face it - this is a cathedral that history won't look back as kindly at.


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