For much of its history, the United States was a big country with a small peacetime military. World War II changed that permanently: American leaders decided that a country with new global obligations needed a very large peacetime military, including a nuclear arsenal and a worldwide network of bases. They hoped overwhelming military capacity would avert another world war, deter adversaries and encourage foreign countries to follow our wishes.
Yet this military dominance has hardly yielded the promised benefits. The collapse of the American-supported government in Afghanistan, after 20 years of effort and billions of dollars, is just the latest setback in a long narrative of failure.
The war in Afghanistan is much more than a failed intervention. It is stark evidence of how counterproductive global military dominance is to American interests. This military hegemony has brought more defeats than victories and undermined democratic values at home and abroad.
The reliance on military force has repeatedly entangled the United States in distant, costly, long conflicts with self-defeating consequences — in Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. American leaders have consistently assumed that military superiority will compensate for diplomatic and political limitations. Time and again, despite battlefield successes, our military has come up short in achieving stated goals.
In the Korean War, the overestimation of American military power convinced President Harry Truman to authorize the Army to cross into North Korea and approach the border of China. He hoped American soldiers could reunite the divided Korean Peninsula, but instead the incursion set off a wider war with China and a stalemated conflict. Now, after seven decades of American military deployments on the peninsula, the Communist regime in North Korea is as strong as ever, with a growing nuclear arsenal.
In Vietnam, the “best and brightest” experts around President Lyndon Johnson advised him that America’s overwhelming power would crush the insurgency and bolster anti-Communist defenses. The opposite was true. American military escalation increased the popularity of the insurgency while also creating greater South Vietnamese dependence on the United States. Following an offensive by North Vietnam in 1975, American-trained allies collapsed, much as they did in Afghanistan this summer.
The fault lies not with the soldiers, but with the mission. Military forces are not a substitute for the hard work of building representative and effective institutions of governance. Stable societies need to have a foundation of peaceful forms of trade, education and citizen participation.
If anything, the record shows that a large military presence distorts political development, directing it toward combat and policing, not social development. American military occupations have worked best where the governing institutions preceded the arrival of foreign soldiers, as in Germany and Japan after World War II.
American leaders have depended on our armed forces so much because they are so vast and easy to deploy. This is the peril of creating such a large force: The annual budget for the U.S. military has grown to more than a gargantuan $700 billion, and we are more likely to use it, and less likely to build better substitutes.
This means that when nonmilitary overseas jobs like training local government administrators are required, the U.S. military steps in. Other agencies do not have the same capacity. We send soldiers where we need civilians because the soldiers get the resources. And that problem grows worse as the military uses its heft to lobby for yet more money from Congress.
At home, the growth of the armed forces means that American society has become more militarized. Police departments are now equipped with battlefield gear and military equipment, some of it surplus from the Army. Former soldiers have joined the violent extremist groups that have multiplied over the last decade. Less than 10 percent of Americans have served in the military, but 12 percent of those charged in the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 had military experience.
Of course, the U.S. military is one of the most professional and patriotic parts of our society. Our uniformed leaders have consistently defended the rule of law, including against a president trying to undermine an election. The trouble stems from how bloated their organizations have become, and how often they are misused.
We must be honest about what the military cannot do. We should allocate our resources to other organizations and agencies that will actually make our country more resilient, prosperous and secure. We will benefit by returning to our history as a big country with a small peacetime military.