What’s the Military For?

David Tucker

October 1, 1999

When Madeleine Albright was Ambassador to the UN, she famously complained about the reluctance of Colin Powell to use the military overseas as frequently as she wanted him to by asking him, "What’s the military for?" Now that she is Secretary of State, we are discovering, as she has not yet, how important this question is.

The Department of Defense recently sent to Congress one of the reports on the readiness of our armed forces to fight that it must regularly file. The report covered the period last spring when we were bombing the Serbs. Not surprisingly, the report states that the military would have had trouble fighting and winning a war, in the Middle East, for example, because of our campaign against the Serbs. We would have suffered higher casualties, although ultimately we would have prevailed, according to the report.

The report is at pains to emphasize that this decline in war-winning ability and increase in potential casualties because of involvement in the Balkans was expected. It suggests that such operations have only a temporary effect. It would have said the same about Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia or any of the many other places that U.S. forces have been used over the last eight years. And in each individual case it would have been right.

But another view emerges from a report last August on military personnel by the Government Accounting Office, an agency that functions as a Congressional watchdog on the rest of the government. According to the GAO report, in the past 10 years, deployments of our military forces have increased 60% while military personnel have decreased 34%. Until recently, the defense budget was declining as well. The GAO’s investigators discovered that of those they surveyed, 62% of enlisted personnel and 40% of officers intended to leave the service when their current tour of duty ends. The reason? Not money. Only 23% cited pay as a problem. 62% of those surveyed cited "work factors," lack of equipment to do the job, undermanning of units, and frequency of deployments. This is a military at the breaking point.

What’s the military for? No one or two of the many peacekeeping or humanitarian missions that have consumed our military’s people and resources would have caused a problem. But a steady succession of them has. What have we gotten for this investment? Somalia is in better shape perhaps than before we intervened and Haiti probably worse off but neither was or is of any importance to the United States. In the Balkans, things are not going well and we are likely to be there for a long time trying to make them work. Meanwhile, the military’s ability to perform a function critical to our well-being in places that matter to us–win a war in the Middle East or the Far East–withers away.

The cause of this problem is not just the cumulative effect of budget cuts. It is also what has come to be called the Clinton Doctrine but could more justly perhaps be called the Albright doctrine. As the Secretary once put it, if "the United States can make a difference, we have a moral imperative to make a difference." This declaration of a supposed moral imperative to help the unfortunate of the world is in reality only a call to national exhaustion, if not national suicide. The needs of the world are endless. Trying to take care of them all would put an end to us rather than to them.

The solution to the problem of the Clinton Doctrine is to realize that no doctrine can be moral that is an encouragement to suicide. On the contrary, self-regard is a virtue. We should not be afraid to do what is necessary to ensure our well-being and to make that our priority. Doing so will allow us to be more selective about where we use our resources, including the military. Enhancing our well-being, after all, is what the military is for.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.