When a New York Times op-ed columnist starts celebrating the virtues of the U.S. military, Dorothy, you know you’re not in Kansas any more.

On the other hand, the virtue celebrated by Nicholas Kristof in “Our Lefty Military” is hardly a martial one, but rather “one that emphasizes universal health care and educational opportunity.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Kristof laments the “innately hierarchical” organization of the armed forces, and admits that “it may seem odd to seek a model of compassion in an organization whose mission involves killing people” and that it is “unwelcoming to gays and lesbians.” Yet, despite these down sides, he applauds the military’s “day care system for working parents” and its “single-payer universal health care.” In this, he sees a model for the future: “So as the United States armed forces try to pull Iraqi and Afghan societies into the 21st century, maybe they could do the same for America.”

Well, if there is a lesson for society writ large, it’s that a universal, single-payer system is a bankrupting system, to the point where the killing-people part is in danger of falling by the wayside. Over the past decade, the Defense Department’s spending on health care has tripled, approaching an estimated $51 billion per year. It continues to rise even faster than health care costs in the civilian world, and will push to about $65 billion by 2015 – probably more than 10 percent of the baseline (that is, excluding war costs) Pentagon budget.

Departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been trying to include defense health reforms in his money saving “efficiencies.” This week, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the defense health system is “not sustainable” without higher fees from troops, their families, and the retirees who benefit from very lost-cost programs like “TRICARE for Life.” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed that military health care costs are “eating us alive.”

The voracious costs of military health care have been an increasing problem ever since the Republican Congresses of the 1990s began to add benefits to an already generous system; new benefits granted in the post-9/11 years have only aggravated the situation.Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation has estimated that annual costs will rise to $90 billion by 2028. Even the liberal Center for American Progress concluded in a recent study that “[t]he cost of military health care could eventually begin to divert funding away from other crucial national security initiatives.” Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general and member of the Defense Business Board, a group that advises the Pentagon on its finances, recently summed the problem:

We in the Defense Department are on the same path that General Motors found itself on. General Motors did not start out to be a health care company that occasionally built an automobile. Today, we’re on the path in the Department of Defense to turn it into a benefits company that may occasionally kill a terrorist.

That’s probably fine with Kristof, who is ambivalent, at best, about the core mission of the U.S. military. But he’d also, apparently, like to see the entire American republic turned into a health care delivery vehicle.

Finally, the “camaraderie” that Kristof is so fond of is a military means, not a military end. The end, the larger purpose, is killing our enemies.

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