President Bush's proposed defense budget for next year — an
inflation-adjusted $515 billion — stands as the most dollars ponied up
for the Pentagon since World War II. At first glance, that seems out of
whack. How can it cost almost as much to chase after Osama bin Laden as
it did to beat both Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo?
But what's out of whack isn't the spending, it's the comparison. We're talking apples-to-oranges.
the cost of today's military to what America spent to equip and deploy
GIs against the Nazis is like comparing today's home entertainment
center — plasma-screen, surround-sound HDTV with PlayStation 3 and Wii
— to Harry Truman's Philco radio. Sure, today's system costs a lot
more. But look what you're getting.
The high-tech gadgets
that amplify the power of our military aren't just bells and whistles
to brag about. Both "smart" weapons and battlefield medical advances,
for example, cost more in real dollars. But they dramatically reduce
the cost in lives — civilian as well as military.
and technology are now so calibrated and surgical that it's no longer
necessary to devastate entire cities, Dresden-style, to secure a
decisive victory for freedom. Fighting war more humanely isn't cheap.
more important, you're getting an all-volunteer force, better educated
and better trained the any of the conscript forces used in prior
conflicts. Highly skilled volunteers cost much more, but they're worth
And economies improve — just like technology and skills.
America's economy when almost everyone seemed to "like Ike" can't begin
to compare with that of today, when so many like to bash Bush.
cost almost 50 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) to
pay for World War II. Fighting the Korean War consumed about 14 percent
of GDP, Vietnam about 9 percent.
Even with supplemental spending to fight radical Islamist terrorists
in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president's defense budget is about 4
percent of GDP. America is engaged in a Long War. We should be prepared
to pay for it.
The good news is that, compared to the last
long war — the "Cold" one — the relative burden is far more bearable.
To hold off the Soviets, the United States averaged defense spending of
about 7½ percent of GDP for 40 years. Still, our economy grew.
fact, the economy did some of its fastest growing after President
Reagan defense build-up got under way. Today's $13 trillion economy is
more than 4 times bigger than the economy of 1983, Reagan's third year
Look at it this way: We dedicated more than
three-quarters of the federal budget to winning World War II. Today we
spend only one-fifth of the budget on defense, volunteer forces and
awesome weaponry included. Spending on Social Security, Medicare and
Medicaid dwarfs that.
Today's military is a bargain. America
is a global power with global responsibility. True, we spend far more
on defense than any other country. But America bears far more burdens
Over the long term, defense spending as a percentage
of GDP is the appropriate way to measure our national commitment to
keeping America safe, free and prosperous. That's the number
policymakers should keep in mind as they look at the president's budget.