Defense Spending - Cutting Too Much Too Soon?

George Santayana once warned us about not learning the lessons of history: “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” Over 6 of the past 7 decades I've seen this axiom proven again and again, yet somehow we still ignore history and go on to repeat the mistakes of the past.

One of the biggest mistakes we, meaning the US, have made over and over again during the past 234 years of our nation has been cutting defense spending too deeply and too quickly after a conflict has ended. Every time we have done that we have been caught with an unprepared and undermanned military that ended up causing much greater loss of American lives than if we had been prepared. That presumes, of course, that such an event would even have occurred if we'd still had a credible military. History abounds with examples where we made the wrong decision and ended up paying the price for it, sometimes for decades.

The prospect of an exit from Iraq and Afghanistan has sparked rumblings on Capitol Hill that it's time to cut the defense budget.

If there were ever evidence that it's impossible to learn from history -- or at least that it's difficult for politicians to do so -- this is it. Before they rush to cut defense spending, lawmakers should consider the consequences of previous attempts to cash in on a "peace dividend."

After the American Revolution, our armed forces shrank from 35,00 men in 1778 (plus tens of thousands of militiamen) to just 10,000 by 1800. The result was that we were ill-prepared to fight the Whiskey Rebellion, the quasi-war with France, the Barbary wars and the War of 1812 -- all of which might have been averted if the new republic had had an army and a navy that commanded the respect of prospective enemies, foreign and domestic.

After the Civil War, our armed forces shrank from more than a million men in 1865 to just 50,000 in 1870. This made the failure of Reconstruction inevitable -- there were simply too few federal troops left to enforce the rule of law in the South and to overcome the ruthless terrorist campaign waged by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. Segregation would remain a blot on U.S. history for another century.

The same thing happened after World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Gulf War. And each time it ended up crippling our military and causing far more problems and costing more than if we'd maintained some semblance of a strong military.

As the old saying goes, “If you want to preserve peace, prepare for war.”

With a weak military, or one perceived as weak, enemies are more likely to push the limits, up to and including an attack on American forces or civilian targets. That has been the pattern throughout history, where an aggressor takes advantage of nation's weakness. Just because it's the 21st Century doesn't mean there aren't nations or ideological groups out there waiting for us to cripple ourselves, allowing them to move with impunity. But if they know without a shadow of doubt that we would retaliate with the full force of our superior military forces, such an attack would be far less likely.

It's too bad our present occupant of the White House and the members of Congress are choosing to ignore the lessons of history and will be trying to send us down the same path to the same ends as many of their predecessors have.