Afghanistan: Two Implications for National Defense

The United States did not have a Department of Defense until 1947. Prior to that time, the nation had a Department of War. The name change is somewhat ironic and Orwellian, in that since the name change the Department has done little to actually defend the nation’s borders but has fought war after war in other nations that posed no real threat to ours.

The Cold War against the Soviet Union is probably the best example of the Department’s defense, but even there, the threat was not that the Soviet Union would invade and take over the US, it was that the Soviet Union was using its military power to dominate other nations. And even that threat has been gone for three decades.

The United States faces no threat of actual invasion, so we do not need a military force to protect our borders. One lesson from Afghanistan is that it is very difficult to take over another nation. If the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, could not take over and control Afghanistan after a 20-year effort, what chance would any other nation have of invading and taking control of the United States?

The reason we have a military is not to defend our shores, it is to fight wars overseas to protect our interests abroad. Therein lies a second lesson from Afghanistan: our military is not very effective at doing that either. We tried, and just as in Vietnam half a century ago, we failed.

We don’t need a military force to protect us from foreign invaders. That’s not a real threat. And, our use of military force to advance our overseas interests has shown, at best, mixed results. Our military budget devotes a lot of money to something that provides little in the way of benefits.

I foresee at least a few objections to what I’ve said. One is that we need to protect our borders, and without disagreeing, we do not need a military force to do that. We’re not going to be invaded, and immigration control, customs, etc., are all different issues.

Another argument might be that our military has provided benefits to others, and that’s true. Israel and South Korea are prime examples, and even in Afghanistan, one could argue that ordinary Afghans (especially women) were better off because of our two-decade foray there. OK, but that’s not “defense,” and we might want to have a more realistic discussion about the degree to which we think the United States should use military force to promote the interests of those in other countries.

What about the threat of terrorism? The main reason foreign terrorists target the US is because of our military involvement abroad, so in that sense, our “defense” is putting us in more danger.

The current calamity in Afghanistan raises questions not just about our mission there, but about the costs and benefits of our “Department of Defense” more generally. It is really a Department of War, and not a very effective one at that.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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