Most college students can hardly remember a time when America was not at war. To many of us, it may seem unfathomable, if the words of President Obama hold true, that the final withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014 will conclude the first chapter of the War on Terror. Even if potential conflicts with Iran or China remain on the distant horizon, and minor conflicts such as those in Libya and potentially Syria continue to demand United States military involvement, it is safe to say that America will not be engaging in a full-scale “war” any time soon. Peacetime may be on the horizon.
Nevertheless, reduced military engagement is unlikely to impact the United States as strongly as the end of previous conflicts in the past have. In 1945, defense spending represented a full 42 percent of national GDP, yet by 1952 it had dwindled to ten percent. Today’s defense spending represents only a mere four and half percent of GDP and participation in the military has dropped to less than half a percent of the U.S. population, down from nine percent at the height of WWII.
A peacetime America does pose several transitional challenges. The federal government will be forced to deal with the fiscal implications of a peace dividend, or lack thereof. Thousands of Americans will return from war with physical and mental burdens and finding ways to foot the bill for their treatment will test lawmakers. Most importantly, the military may face spending cuts, the transition or “pivot” to Asia, and ultimately, the rise of a new and profoundly different reliance on national defense, rather than warfare.
The National Defense
Most evidence suggests that the U.S. military has been preparing to reduce the number of troops currently deployed in combat. The Department of Defense has already undertaken systematic cuts, and the Obama Administration has proposed a further eight percent cut by 2020. To meet its tightening budget, the Pentagon has announced major troop reductions, including the severance of 20,000 Marines and 3,900 active-duty Air Force servicemen. The Army has been downsizing as well, with many servicemen being offered early retirement packages. As Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and Belfer Center fellow Troy Endicott told the HPR, these changes, when bolstered by fewer troop rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be part of America’s peacetime opportunity to “prepare for defense, rather than war.”
These changes are also a part of America’s larger policy shift or “pivot” towards Asia. In a recent address to the Australian parliament, President Obama sent a thinly veiled message to the People’s Republic of China, noting publicly that “prosperity without freedom is another form of poverty.” Obama’s rhetoric suggests that the United States is unwilling to accept the perceived totalitarian and oppressive nature of the Chinese government despite China’s growing influence on the international stage.
Considering that the United States is not prepared to get involved in another conflict, Colonel and Weatherhead Center Fellow David Krumm tells the HPR that the U.S is best served by a strategy of defensive deterrence, “Maintaining a military that can win any conflict overwhelmingly is no longer feasible.” The real goal, he says, will be to establish influence in major portions of Asia. He also suggested that as China’s economic growth slows due to unfavorable demographic shifts, the United States may simply be expecting China’s military buildup to shrink on its own.
A focus on deterrence, which aligns well with Asia’s vast island-centric geography, will lead the military to lessen its focus on ground troops and concentrate its resources instead on naval and air capacity. Under the Obama administration, this shift is evidenced by the military’s increased use of remotely piloted aircraft.
The Phantom Peace Dividend
Some of the criticisms of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have focused on the financial burdens and the contribution of these costs to the current recession. According to the Congressional Budget Office, however, the wars have cost the United States an estimated $1.3 trillion, only 4.4 percent of the nation’s defense spending over the last eleven years. Nevertheless, President Obama has repeatedly flaunted the end of wartime fiscal commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq as an opportunity to “free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges.” Many believe that the end of these wars will allow for the reallocation of defense spending to domestic causes as part of what they call a “peace dividend.”
It is not clear where the “peace dividend” will be found. Associated Press “Fact Check” noted that there is no direct peace dividend from ending the wars “because the government borrowed to pay for them” and military spending, overall, is likely to remain high even after the wars are over. Nevertheless, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that if military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq decrease from an average of about 180,000 in 2011 to 45,000 by 2015, outlays for defense will amount to only $716 billion in 2021, down to three percent of GDP, the lowest level since the beginning of World War II.
The Wounded Warrior
The lasting legacy of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq will be the physical and psychological tolls on veterans. According to the Cost of War Project, an initiative at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, over two million service members have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Among these returnees, the report notes a threefold increase in the likelihood of child abuse, and a 177 percent rise in partner abuse rates since 2003. Equally concerning are the psychological burdens veterans face. A study by the Pew Research Center reports that 37 percent of all post-9/11 veterans say they have suffered from post-traumatic stress, including a full 49 percent of veterans who served in a combat zone. Additionally, 46,000 veterans have been wounded over the course of the wars.
The Cost of War project estimates that the government will be obligated to pay $600 to $950 billion to treat veterans returning from the two wars. While a peacetime America may help scale down America’s conflicts abroad, great challenges, both human and financial, will need to be dealt with at home.