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:
Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.
It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.
Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
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 2012, the Department of Defense spent a total of $651 billion, including the costs of fighting in Afghanistan. According to the budget plan submitted by the White House a few months ago, projected 2014 spending will be $547 billion. If, as seems nearly inevitable, the “sequestration” provision of the Budget Control Act is triggered, that figure will fall below $500 billion, a loss of more than 20 percent in just two years. . . . Alas, no conceivable amount of reform can possibly make up for the deep cuts. . . . No budgetary efficiencies can make up for the cuts now already in law and the resulting hollowing-out of the American military.
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.