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By: inoljt,

One of the great themes in American politics involves national security. Right-wing hawks argue that America must increase military spending to protect itself from its enemies. This is a very common theme, and it works. America spends five dollars on military spending for every dollar that China (ranked #2 in military spending) does. It spends ten dollars for every dollar on the military that Russia (ranked #3) spends.

But this doesn’t mean that America will win the next big war.

More below.

If you look at history, military spending seems to have little correlation with military strength. There are tons and tons of examples of one country soundly winning a war against another country which outspent it militarily. These examples aren’t obscure. They’re some of the most famous events in world history.

Take the Roman Empire in the late fourth century. The Roman Empire arguably had the highest military budget of any entity in the world at the time. Military spending by the Romans certainly vastly outnumbered military spending by the barbarian tribes to their north.

We all know what happened next, however. The declining, decadent empire was repeatedly invaded and defeated by those tribes. Rome was sacked multiple times. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476.

Let’s take another example. The major regional powers of the West during the seventh century were the Byzantine and Persian Empires, locked in perpetual conflict. Nobody paid attention to the desert tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. Certainly nobody looking at their military budget. Yet those desert tribes had one thing that the Byzantines and Persians didn’t have: they had God. A century later the Islamic Caliphate, with its tiny amount of military spending, had destroyed the Persians and broken the Byzantines.

Then there were the Mongolians, who carved out the largest land empire the world has seen. Every single foe the Mongolians initially defeated – the Arabs, the Chinese, the Eastern Europeans, the Persians, the Russians – probably had a higher military budget. Yet as the Mongolian state grew and Mongolian military budgets with it, military success decreased conspicuously. Kublai Khan outspent the Japanese only to watch his fleet founder in a tsunami.


But things have changed, you might say. Today is the age of guns and atom bombs. No longer can a tribe of barbarian horseman topple an empire. Today the country with a higher military budget generally has the upper hand.

Which is why the United States, for instance, won the Vietnam War.

Military spending does do a lot of useful things. It helps the technology that a country’s soldiers have, for instance. But military spending provides no guarantee about the quality of those soldiers. It couldn’t make enlisted peasants able to resist Mongolian horse-archers. It couldn’t make the American elite willing to send their sons to die in Vietnam. That’s a lesson that many people would prefer to ignore.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (6+ / 0-)

    by Inoljt on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 10:57:54 PM PDT

  •  Yeah, the good ol Kami Kazi, (0+ / 0-)

    The devine wind.

  •  "The next big war" is not really the issue (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Osama bin Ladin was successful in his objective - terrorism - because he caused the US to ditch its Constitution, abandon its leadership role in international law, hurt its economy through a mind-blowing military spending spree, and have Americans become a nation of fearful Chicken Littles.  That is the threat to America's security, and its entirely self-inflicted.

    γνωθι σεαυτόν

    by halef on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 02:23:43 AM PDT

  •  Exactly. (0+ / 0-)
    Which is why the United States, for instance, won the Vietnam War.
    I could hardly believe that Romney said in his speech something like we will have a big enough military so that no nation will attack us. That shows a strange lack of comprehension of the last 11 years - to say nothing of past lessons such as Vietnam.

    You can't scare me, I'm sticking to the Union - Woody Guthrie

    by sewaneepat on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 04:27:51 AM PDT

  •  By and large, military spending does equal... (0+ / 0-)

    ....military strength.  The real question is how much military strength we need, and the answer is "a lot less than we currently have."

    Romney '12: Berlusconi without the sex and alcohol!

    by Rich in PA on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 04:41:49 AM PDT

  •  Sort of off-point (0+ / 0-)

    but sadly true nonetheless.

    A visitor from Mars could easily pick out the civilized nations. They have the best implements of war.
    Herbert V. Prochnow
  •  half the story (0+ / 0-)

    Remember that the Roman Empire was undone by internal squabbling and corruption, not by military incompetence.  

    As for Vietnam, while certainly a strategic defeat, tactically US force were never defeated on the ground.  The issue for the military was that they were fighting the wrong war (if winning was the objective).

    While spending does not correlate to strength, there is a tipping point where lack of spending equals weakness.  This brings up the cost of failure.  

    There are MANY places in the DoD budget where I think we can cut and have no impact on national security.  I know this because I have seen it personally in my 20+ years as a soldier.  On the other hand is is at times difficult to know what the future holds.

    In December 1989 I reported to language school to learn Russian.  In early 1989 when I got my orders this seemed like a very reasonable thing and one that would enhance my career.  In October of 89 when the wall came down I started to wonder if I might be a day late.  I was still in school when Iraq invaded Kuwait and suddenly Arabic was the place to be.  Yet Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) peaked in 1993 - AFTER the Soviet Union dissolved - and training in Arabic didnt peak until 2008 - 7 years after 9-11.  And since we generally believe that it takes 10 years to become a competent linguist, we are still 6 years from the payoff in Arabic.  Our Russian "payoff" should be happening right now except in our rush to declare them a friend we let go/retrained most of our Russian linguists.  Now instead of having a cadre of Russian experts we find ourselves short and in dire need.

    Predicting the future is tough.  Explaining to the nation why you failed to met a threat in order to save money is tougher.  I know cuts need to be made.  I'm glad I am not the one who has to choose where.

    It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it. Robert E. Lee

    by ksuwildkat on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 10:02:18 AM PDT

    •  Quite true. (0+ / 0-)

      But military spending doesn't solve internal squabbling and corruption, nor does it prevent you from fighting the wrong war (in fact, it probably does the opposite).

      It's awesome that you learned Russian, though.

      by Inoljt on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 09:42:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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