Pearl Harbor Day +70 years
Posted by Euroranger on December 7, 2011
Today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese naval air attack on Pearl Harbor. I have made it a point to commemorate the date with a blog post (and previously, with a forum post here) of unusual facts and stories about WW2. I like to reveal the sorts of things they don’t cover in history class or that Hollywood either ignores or manages to completely crap on in their quest to dramatize (usually with car chases and high explosives) events. And while I had just such a story lined up for this year, I think it’s more fitting to mention just what effect Pearl Harbor has on us today and why. So, before we delve into the history, let’s look at our current situation.
Today, we spend roughly 20% of our federal budget on national defense. In 2010, that totaled $689 billion. That’s what was budgeted. That doesn’t include the emergency discretionary spending methods we use to fund our involvement in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, we spend around 20% of the federal budget on defense or, put another way, around 5% of the entire GDP of the United States. While 5% of GDP sounds high, it’s actually historically low. However, because our GDP is incredibly large, the amount of money that 5% represents is rather immense and comes out to about 43% of all military spending worldwide. That is, one country spends 43% of the money spent on militaries and the rest of the world spends the rest. That’s a fairly stark number when you get down to it and it all happens because of Pearl Harbor…and here’s why.
Before 1939 (when war broke out in Europe), the United States was pretty content to concern ourselves with the western hemisphere and maintained an Army sufficient to address the threats posed by those nations who could actually invade us overland: Canada and Mexico. In 1939, the United States Army was comprised of just 161,000 active duty soldiers and another 22,000 in the Army Air Corps. The Navy had 126,000 sailors in 1939 (although the Navy rapidly increased in size prior to Pearl Harbor). The point is that prior to the United States involvement in WW2, our policy was to keep to ourselves and mind the sage advice of George Washington per his Farewell Address particularly with respect to not getting entangled in treaties with foreign powers. For the most part, American politics had heeded that advice and Americans had been content to sit on our continent, well insulated from the affairs of Europe and elsewhere by our natural ocean boundaries.
However, WW1 showed that Europe seemed to have a never-ending appetite for war and slaughter and while we stayed out of that conflict for as long as we could, we were eventually drawn in and helped the Allies to finish the war defeating Germany. What we did after WW1 was suggest to the rest of the world that they needed a forum in which they could discuss things peaceably…and so we (via Woodrow Wilson) proposed the League of Nations…which America, in fact, never joined. It was our way of saying “you guys need a better way to settle your differences so we don’t have to help you resolve them via war”. This was a good idea but, naturally it failed, because hey, we left it to the rest of the world who had uniformly demonstrated that they were collectively unable to police their own behavior. Which is exactly where Pearl Harbor and WW2 come in. We all know the story of how we were attacked on that day and that brought us into the war and that we produced enormous amounts of arms and our armies, navies and air forces eventually prevailed. However, as the war was winding down we looked around and saw several score millions dead, shattered bankrupt countries and a genocide on top of it all and realized that we couldn’t allow the rest of the world to govern their own affairs. Whether that stands as incredible American hubris or not, the history of conflict around the world made clear that in the postwar years, the world couldn’t rely on good faith and cooler heads to prevail because they just didn’t have the knack for it. We proposed and hosted the United Nations. We set up the Marshall Plan (to rebuild Europe). We proposed and enacted Bretton Woods (stabilizing the world’s economies and putting forward the American dollar as the common unit of exchange for everyone else’s currency). But there had to be a stick to go with all those carrots and thus was born the United States as a superpower and our present day military strength…that so saps our own federal budgets.
Our military’s strength and force levels today are based on one simply requirement: that the United States be able to wage TWO wars simultaneously on opposite sides of the globe. Today we have 14 carrier air groups and 48 Army combat brigades. We have 2.28 million military personnel (active and reserve) and for what? To defend the territorial integrity of the United States? From whom? Canada? Mexico? Cuba? Al Qaeda? Do we need 14 carrier air groups to defend our east, west and southern coasts? No. We need 14 carrier air groups to defend places like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, Kuwait, Israel and Japan from their sometimes unsavory neighbors. The same argument goes for 48 Army combat brigades. Surely we can handle Mexico, Canada and Cuba with a few less soldiers, right? Of course we can. We have that many troops because we decided some time ago that we needed to be able to fight a war in Europe against the Soviet Union while also fighting one elsewhere (since WW2 that’s tended to be Asia). And we have this mindset simply because the last time we intervened in a war, finished it for everyone and then gave them advice for how to handle their future disagreements…they ignored us and we all got to witness the splendor of WW2. Prior to Pearl Harbor, American public opinion was very much against getting involved in Europe’s affairs (we really didn’t have much fear of Japan at the time) and there was little chance Roosevelt could have successfully talked the American public into getting involved. As most Americans saw it, we simply didn’t have any interests in Europe serious enough to justify Americans going over there and dying for it. After WW2 and the introduction of nuclear weapons (and especially after 1950 when Russia exploded their own A-bomb meaning the communists now had the ability to wipe out entire cities with the push of a button) America became, for better or worse, the guarantor of relative global peace. We fought in Korea to make sure everyone understood that we would not back down from any more tests. We fought in Vietnam for the same reason (but for less well defined aims). We went to the brink with the Russians over Cuba and kept hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in Europe to ensure that the world didn’t simply go up in flames. We fought in Iraq in Gulf War 1 to ensure that one dictator didn’t suddenly seize control over the most important source of energy on the planet (and thus threaten the economies of everyone else) and we fought in Afghanistan to let everyone know that proxy terrorists won’t be gaining ascendancy anytime soon either.
And all that fighting meant we needed a military ready and able to engage at a moment’s notice because the rest of the world, to this very day, hasn’t shown the restraint or foresight God gave a steaming pile of crap. We got to see Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor and other places and realize that while we may not be perfect by any stretch of the imagination, a world without the threat of the American military showing up the kick the everloving bejezus out of someone would be worse than it is today. Hell, just 2 years ago, there were those in the Arab world and Europe, not liking the show of American arms, suggesting that the world’s financial systems should switch from the dollar to the Euro. That would be the same Euro that, perhaps by this Friday, will collapse like the cheap copy of the American system it seeks to emulate but only does it half ass. And all that fighting and simply being ready to fight…well that costs money. It’s American taxpayers’ money and someday soon, we should begin discussing how some of our “allies” who spend far less than we do on defense, should begin perhaps recognizing our sacrifice and the benefits they enjoy from it. Remember WE don’t need 14 carrier air groups and 48 combat brigades to make sure Main Street USA is secure.
The lesson of America is that we have established (through our own Civil War) that we are the UNITED States of America (hell, our pledge says “indivisible”) and that our country is inviolate because our military stands ready to defend it. We extend the protection and benefit of that force, via friendships and treaties to other countries who, in turn, have a lessened concern about their neighbors attacking, sacking and looting them. In short, American arms enforce peace and continuity…and that’s all because Pearl Harbor showed us that without it, we’d be repeating Pearl Harbor every generation ad infinitum. In addition to all the usual reasons we should remember the sacrifices of our military on a day like today, that’s a bigger and often ignored one because it’s not very PC to say these days.
My name is Euroranger and I approved this message.