‘A Different Country’
Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
The Weekly Standard has paid tribute to Philip Larkin’s great 1969 poem “Homage to a Government” before. In light of the release this week of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s strategic review laying out the dramatic reductions in our fundamental defense capabilities that current budget scenarios will produce, we’re not embarrassed to give it pride of place again. Indeed, given the broad acquiescence of our political leaders to the feckless hollowing-out of our military, we think it would be a dereliction of duty not to do so.
So here’s Larkin’s mordant lament over postwar Britain’s retreat from responsibility, not to say from greatness. Read it and weep:
Larkin wrote “Homage” almost a quarter-century after the end of World War II. In the darkest moments of that war, on June 18, 1940, when Britain stood alone, Churchill famously proclaimed: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ ” So it was, and so men say it still—but in a mood of nostalgia for past glory.
Is that our fate? It’s been almost a quarter-century since the American-led victory in the Cold War. Are we now “a different country” than the America that was willing and able to brace itself to its duties not so long ago?
We trust we are not. But the Obama defense review confirms the bleak analysis offered recently in these pages by Gary Schmitt and Thomas Donnelly:
In presenting his strategic review, Hagel admitted that no savings from reforms and efficiencies can make up for the shortfall in resources. He did speak of trade-offs between quantity and quality in the military and acknowledged those tradeoffs would be increasingly difficult. In fact, it’s worse than that. As the Foreign Policy Initiative explained in a staff analysis, “When it comes to national defense, quantity has a quality of its own, and reducing the Armed Forces to the point that they could no longer sustain critical operations would cripple America’s standing in the world.” As Hagel’s predecessor at the Pentagon, Leon Panetta, put it, we are heading to a situation in which the United States will have the smallest ground forces since 1940, the smallest fleet since 1915, and the smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force.
This is all utterly unnecessary and shockingly irresponsible. We have never been wealthier as a nation than we are today. We have never been technologically more advanced. The challenges we face are less daunting than those our forefathers dealt with. Our young men and women who have volunteered since 9/11 are at least the equals of the generations who have gone before. The attack on 9/11 is still fresh in mind, and the prospect of a world in which terror is rewarded, the enemies of liberty flourish, and nuclear weapons proliferate is clear enough ahead.
The good news is that all this is manageable at a far lower percentage of gdp, with a smaller military and with fewer troops in combat, than was required for most of the last 70 years. The good news is that our current enemies aren’t really that strong or clever or formidable. But they do need to be fought and deterred. That requires a military that is technologically preeminent and globally present. And if our enemies are not deterred, they can still produce terrible destruction and fearsome chaos.
But of course the problem isn’t our enemies. We have met the enemy of American greatness. The enemy is us.
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