Media

No, the Pentagon Is NOT Cutting Army Budget to 1930s Levels: Media's Latest Big Lie Debunked

Meanwhile, there’s no coverage of a “peace dividend.”

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Copyright Tom Antos

On Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unveiled his 2015 Pentagon budget in a detailed speech where he proposed spending $496 billion—about $45 billion less than the White House, retiring a tank-shooting aircraft and spy plane, cutting the army’s size from 520,000 to 450,000 troops, and trimming subsidies for military housing and health care.

The rationale was that after America’s longest overseas war, 11 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military had to balance downsizing and modernizing. The coverage that ensued was anything but rational. “Pentagon set to Slash Military to Pre-World War II Levels,” blared NBCNews.com. The New York Times, Reuters, NewsMax.com, FoxNews, Time, CNN all had headlines that the Army reduction was to “pre-World War II levels.”

Following the media’s lead, Republican congressmen and ex-generals on prime time TV, predictably vented. The Army was being “cut to the bone,” said Retired Gen. Jack Keane on Fox. “This is not the time for us to begin to retreat,” said Rep. Michael Turner, R-OH. “It’s all being sacrificed… on the altar of entitlements,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-TX.

Even experts that sought to defend a trend that has follow every big American war recited the “pre-World War II levels” trope. “The news that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will propose to cut the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels is sure to generate much controversy,” wrote the WaPo’s David Edelstein, “despite the fact that the United States spends nearly five times as much on defense as the next country on the list.”    

The problem is that the “pre-WW II” claim is false. It’s not just sloppy headline writing. It’s not true—and not by a wide margin. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf was among the first writers to notice.

“So… will our national defense be roughly as strong as it was right before we fought Germany and Japan, as a casual reader might assume? Not even close,” he wrote. “What about the Army taken in isolation? No, that isn’t accurate either. If these accounts were trying to maximize confusion or alarm at proposed cuts, then mission accomplished.”

To fully grasp how absurd and filled with historical amnesia this “pre-World War II” claim is, just look at how the United States Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) characterized the challenge facing General George C. Marshall in 1939—before Germany invaded its first country and then-President Fraklin D. Roosevelt pretended that the U.S. was neutral while sending old Army planes to England.

“The U.S. Army in 1939 ranked 17th in the world in size, consisting of slightly more than 200,000 Regular Army soldiers and slightly less than 200,000 National Guardsmen—all organized in woefully understrength and undertrained formations,” a SSI paper by Col. John T. Nelson said. “The Army possessed ony 329 crude light tanks and only a handful of truly modern combat aircraft with a total inventory of just over 1,800 planes.”

It’s beyond an error in characterization to suggest that Hagel’s proposed Pentagon cuts will leave the Army in position that is weaker or even comparable to the late 1930s. It’s ludicrous. Looking beyond the troop totals, the training and the weaponry is night and day. The Air Force wasn’t created until after World War II. Still, the Army today has more than 4,000 active duty helicopters and the Air Force has thousands of planes.

Moreover, there are so many other differences between America’s military might before WW2 and today, starting with more than 5,000 nuclear weapons, more than 7,000 drones, nearly a dozen aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and on and on.

Peace Dividend?

While mainstream media’s headline writers are wringing their hands about an imaginary loss of military might, there’s a related topic that not getting covered at all: the perennial promise of a “peace dividend,” or redirecting Pentagon funds to domestic needs.

After every big American war has wound down since World War II, politicians have said it is now possible to invest in a peacetime economy. President Obama made this pledge as he accepted the Democratic Party’s 2012 presidential nomination.

“I’ll use the money that we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work—rebuilding roads and bridges, schools and runways,” Obama said. “After two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it’s time we do some nation-building right here at home.”

So where’s the dividend, or at least press coverage about it, as official Washington puts together its first newest post-war budget? It’s MIA—missing in action. Sadly, as anyone who has seen this discussion before may recall, such as after the Cold War ended, there’s really is no such thing as a peace dividend. That’s because the Pentagon and ever-fearful members of Congress always find a threat to sustain America’s war footing.

After Obama made his peace dividend pledge, the Associated Press “fact check” called it “phantom savings.” The AP’s Calvin Woodward wrote, “The idea of taking war savings to pay for other programs is budgetary sleight of hand, given that the wars were paid for with increased debt. Obama can essentially ‘pay down our debt,’ as he said, by borrowing less now that war is ending. But he still must borrow to do the extra ‘nation-building’ he envisions.”  

Another big American war is ending and military contractors, ex-generals and Congress’s hawk are all fretting about American weakness and in some case lobbying to protect wartime profiteering. Meanwhile, there is no peace dividend to be had, as America’s longest war was paid for with borrowed cash. And hardly anyone in the mainstream media is asking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).