March 7, 2014 11:59 am

How to save the US

‘The solution to America’s problems is obvious – it should model itself on its military...’
Illustration by Luis Grañena of Americans looking at US flag©Luis Grañena

In two recent columns I explained how to save France and the UK. Now that’s done, it’s time to save America. The solution is obvious. The US needs to model itself on its most sanctified institution: the military. I speak from experience. In 2007 and 2008 I spent time on a US military base in a southern state, giving seminars to officers. Being a typical pinko anti-war European, I’d expected to hate the place. Instead I found it idyllic, intellectual and safe. Pottering about the base, I saw several things that the US could learn from its military:

1. Build socialism. Life in the US military is much like life in Sweden (unless you’re off in Afghanistan spreading democracy). The officers in my seminars spent a quarter of their careers in education, because the US military believes in life-long learning. The military also provides socialised healthcare, subsidised childcare, early pensions etc. I’ve never seen a socialist paradise like it, and I grew up in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Most of the military’s entitlements will survive the budget cuts now being proposed by Chuck Hagel, the defence secretary.

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Simon Kuper

2. Ban guns. I was surrounded by fearsome warriors yet I felt perfectly safe, partly because hardly anyone is allowed to carry guns on US military bases. The “right to bear arms” just doesn’t apply there.

3. Believe in science. Any institution that spends its time firing drones from Nevada at pedestrians in Yemen is going to be pro-science. The Pentagon frets about climate change, and the army aims to be “net zero energy” by 2030. The superhero-like Navy Seals are already fuelled partly by solar power.

4. Fight racism. A black officer in one of my classes said: “In my lifetime, the time I’ve felt most like an equal citizen is on a US military installation because, when I come through that gate, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Jones [name changed]. My race is irrelevant here.” In the local town, he added, things were different.

Admittedly, in practice the military’s racial structure mirrors that of the southern states: officers tend to be white southern middle class, ordinary soldiers white southern working class and the cooks and cleaners black or Hispanic. But that’s mostly because the military mirrors society. To paraphrase former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the society you have, not the society you wish you had.

5. Make love not war. During the Iraq war, a divide opened up in the US very much like the one in Britain during the first world war: civilians talked of war as a heroic, purifying, manly endeavour, and soldiers didn’t. Most American military people understand the horrors and limits of war. Robert Gates, the former defence secretary, spoke for soldiers when he chided many congressmen, officials in the executive branch and “ordinary citizens” for imagining war as “a kind of videogame or action movie”.

6. Ditch macho patriotic posturing. Although the military is pretty Republican, I didn’t hear anyone on base spout patriotic pieties. In one class I attended, an officer said that the war in Iraq was “lost”. I expected his classmates to erupt in anger. Nobody did. Instead they heard him out. People in the military tend to feel that they have proved their patriotism and therefore don’t have to trumpet it in the way certain civilians do. One officer told a story about the flag he flew in his front yard: soon after the attacks of 9/11, a local civilian in urgent need of patriotic colours stole it from his flagpole. Because the military doesn’t feel constantly obliged to wrap itself in the flag, it can discuss certain things more freely than, say, Congress can.

7. Cut military spending. In 2012 the US approved $646bn in military spending, or 41 per cent of the total for all countries. That’s more than $2,000 for every American. Many military people have been more open than Congress to reducing this figure.

Admiral Mike Mullen, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was part of a group that in 2012 took out newspaper ads saying that “increased defense spending” was no longer “required to maintain security”. Now Hagel has outraged congressional Republicans with his plan to shrink the army to 440,000-450,000 personnel. That would be its lowest level since 1940 – but exactly the number the army’s chief of staff Ray Odierno described last month as “right”. To save America, shrink the military.

8. Embrace big government. You get what you pay for. That $646bn in taxpayers’ money created the world’s strongest military. If the US lavished similar sums on trains or schools, they might be pretty good too.

In fact the US military is now so strong that even if Hagel shrinks it a bit, no adversary will ever again be dumb enough to fight a conventional war against it. Instead, one military academic explained to me, any country attacked by the US will simply respond with a cheery: “Welcome to my country!” No wonder the American military is turning against war.

simon.kuper@ft.com

Twitter @KuperSimon

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