On Monday, large swaths of the news media reported on the Obama Administration's proposed military budget using the same misleading frame. As the New York Times stated in its headline, "Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-World War II Level." Fox News chose the same emphasis. "The Army had already been preparing to shrink to 490,000 active-duty members from a wartime peak of 570,000," it stated, noting it will now be between 440,000 and 450,000. "That would make it the smallest since just before the U.S. entered World War II." Reuters' headline: "Budget cuts to slash U.S. Army to smallest since before World War Two."You know what's coming next, right? It turns out that by limiting the talking point to "Army," the headline news turns out to be grossly misleading. Pre-World War II, there was no separate Air Force. Pre-World-War II, the Marines were a small fraction of the size of the Army and Navy. You don't have to get into arguments over whether military forces are more capable now even in smaller numbers, or the relative efficiency of bayonets vs. cruise missiles or any of the rest of it. The combined personnel of the modern armed forces is about three times the size of the pre-1940s military, and even the steeper end of proposed cuts are in no danger of changing that:
In terms of manpower, if you'd totally eliminated the Army and the Navy on December 31, 2013, the combined total of the Marine Corps and the Air Force alone—523,425 people—would still be significantly bigger than the whole military circa 1940.More on this story below the fold.
Also, if the Army is indeed cut to between 440,000 and 450,000 personnel, as the Obama Administration has proposed, the Army could be characterized as operating with the smallest force "since just before the U.S. entered World War II," but it would also be accurate to say that the Army of 2014 will have 170,977 more people than the Army of 1940. And again, whereas the Army of 1940 encompassed the fighter pilots and bombers of that era, today we've got a whole separate Air Force composed of several hundred thousand uniformed men and women, plus a modern Navy and Marine Corps with significantly more personnel.
The Army also saw a substantial rise in personnel post-9/11; most of the drawdown is, in fact, an already planned-for event. To repeat:
The Army, which took on the brunt of the fighting and the casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, already was scheduled to drop to 490,000 troops from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000. Under Mr. Hagel’s proposals, the Army would drop over the coming years to between 440,000 and 450,000.So there are two ways you could characterize this. One, as a Pentagon proposal to cut the planned standing Army from 490,000 to 440,000 personnel, a 10%-ish cut which does not immediately sound all that catastrophic, given America's current decision that maybe we're done with the wars of choice for a while, or two, as a slashing of the Army to "pre-World War II" levels (by which we mean a standing force still twice as large as those pre-World War II levels, and that's not even including the Navy, Marines, or Air Force, all of that left unsaid), which sounds considerably more alarmist and, since every news outlet chose to characterize it according to that one very, very specific metric, like somebody's pushed bullet point.
We should probably not go with the more actively misleading characterization. Just saying; it's hard enough for the public to stay informed about things as it is, given all the forces acting to mislead them. Crafting headlines specifically formulated to promote paranoia over substance probably isn't going to do much to return the political sphere to the realm of the Not Batshit Insane.