The Ivory Tower And Academic Ignorance Of What The Armed Forces Actually Do

The Long March
Flickr/Billie Grace Ward

I have heard a number of my colleagues at the University of Kansas voice their dissatisfaction with the defense budget and the armed forces. They tend to believe the nation spends too much on defense, and that the armed forces are involved in foreign lands doing things they should not be doing.


What bothers me most about these complaints is their ignorance of what the armed forces actually do, and how they benefit. They also tend to equate political decisions made in Washington with the actions of the men and women who serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

Since I am sure this situation is not unique to KU — when it comes to the military, people in Ivory Towers tend to be divorced from reality—I think a few facts would be valuable for all.

  1. The armed forces are considerably smaller than they were during the Reagan years. During the Reagan years the Army had 16 active duty combat divisions, now it has 10. The Army had almost 800,000 soldiers, now it has fewer than 500,000. The Navy had 16 fleet carriers, now it has 11. The Navy used to talk about a fleet of 600 ships, now it has fewer than 300. The Air Force has suffered similar cuts. 
  2. The current force is cheaper than war. The first half of the 20th century was the bloodiest in all of history. In World War II, 70 million people died. The armed forces of the United States provide the majority of the security on planet Earth. South Korea sells Americans KIA’s, Hyundai’s, and Samsung cell phones, because of the armed forces of the United States. South Korea would not exist today without the sacrifices of the U.S. Eighth Army. Europe has enjoyed more than 70 years of peace, because of the armed forces, something not found in any comparable period in European history. The world order that was put in place by Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower has been maintained daily in all parts of the world by the armed forces of the United States.
  3. The American people and world enjoy the technologies produced by the Armed Forces. They enjoy the satellite communications, imagery, and GPS. These are technologies pioneered by the armed forces. Americans and world enjoy the speed and comfort with which they fly between continents. Again, technologies pioneered and continuously updated by the armed forces. The Armed Forces continue to pioneer new technologies that benefit Americans and other peoples.
  4. Equipment wears out and becomes obsolete. After decades at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the Army’s equipment is worn out. The M1 Abrams main battle tank was designed and deployed in the 1970s. Since then, the Russians have designed and deployed two new MBT. The Navy has Trident Submarines that have seen more than 30 years of service. The B 52 was designed and deployed in the 1950s. The Air Force’s newest bombers, the B 1 and B 2, were designed and deployed in the 1970s-80s.  The computer technology that controls our ICBM systems is decades old. How many Americans drive a thirty-year-old car, or use a ten-year-old computer? To maintain the current force at a basic operational level requires investment.
  5. The defense industries employ tens of thousands of Americans. The United States is the largest arms dealer on the planet, in part, because of the quality of its technology. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Egypt, Turkey, Japan, and numerous other countries benefit from foreign military sales, but the American people also benefit. Boeing, General Dynamic, SAIC and other major American companies employ thousands of Americans.
  6. Sea lanes through which the world’s oil supply flows are maintained by the U.S. Navy. Sea lanes on which the world economy depends are maintained by the U.S. Navy.
  7. The peoples of Germany and Japan, Canada and Mexico, and numerous other countries have outsourced their security to the United States, allowing them to compete in industry, science, art, and other fields of human endeavor. Consider a rearmed Germany, a rearmed Japan. Consider the defense budgets if we had to maintain security against multiple major powers.

This brief summary is by no means complete. The Armed Forces of the United States have been a great deal for humanity since World War II. They have not been perfect. The Vietnam War, arguably a war we should not have fought. The second war in Iraq, arguably a war should have not have fought. And, yes.

There has been, and is, waste in the system. Yes, we have bought stuff we did not need. Yes. We have paid too much for some technologies. No system involving humans is perfect. Greed, selfishness, and arrogance influence every human endeavor, including the Ivory towers.

Still, the system that has maintained security on this planet since World War II is manned by the men and women of the armed forces of the United States. Consider what World War III will cost humanity, in lives and treasure.

Let me conclude with three points:

First, the all-volunteer force is expensive. Restoring the draft would decrease the defense budget. However, this may no longer be possible. Seventy percent of Americans are unqualified to serve in the armed forces, due primarily to obesity and drug use. And politically conscription is unacceptable to the American people. Hence, the high cost.   

Second, let me acknowledge that the University of Kansas, and some of its faculty, is a great supporter of our armed forces and veterans. We work closely with the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies, and Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, all of which have KU Ph.Ds.  

Finally, let me acknowledge my bias. I am a retired soldier. I served twenty years in the U.S. Army, from Korea to Germany, from Alaska to Panama. I fundamentally believed that the armed forces of the United States, that one percent of the population, are a force for good. The Navy’s television commercial is correct. It just needs to be expanded. The Armed forces of the United States are: “A Global Force for Good.” Humanity is deeply flawed. There will be wars, major wars. The men and women of the Armed Forces are a great deal for the American people and humanity, even with a $716 billion defense budget.   

Adrian R. Lewis is a Professor in the  Department of History at the University of Kansas, and is author of Omaha Beach: A Flawed Victory, and The American Culture of War. Retired soldier, U.S. Army Infantry (Ranger), Rank, Major.

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