The U.S. Air Force's "boneyard" of surplus warplanes at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.
US Air Force
By Mark Thompson
December 28, 2014

New Year’s is a time for resolutions. But resolving requires introspection, something—despite reams of studies, reports and commissions—the U.S. national-security complex seems incapable of doing.

Too often, that’s because partisanship comes into play. As a rule, Republicans want a muscular national-security strategy, with the robust and more costly military that requires. Democrats tend to want the opposite. Those in charge routinely confirm the status quo as if on auto-pilot.

Given that this debate has teeter-tottered since the end of the Cold War, a quarter-century ago, without resolution, perhaps it’s time to ask a different question: is the U.S. military spending its money on the right stuff?

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend spending something around 4% of the nation’s gross domestic product makes sense (the CIA pegs it at 4.35% for 2012; many calculations exclude costs like nuclear warheads and veterans). We can debate the top line another day.

Yet when we contrast our wars with our weapons, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect. The U.S. Navy is spending $20 billion annually on blue-water warships and submarines, and counting on receiving one-third more than Congress has traditionally spent on vessels to maintain the fleet over the next 30 years. Blue-sky jet fighter-bombers are slated to cost more than $1 trillion to buy and operate, in part because flying them will cost nearly double the price of those it is replacing. Nuclear weapons are projected to cost $1 trillion over the coming 30 years.

What’s stunning about the scale of these figures is how sharply they contrast with the lack of armor U.S. troops faced in Afghanistan and Iraq. They also don’t square with the U.S. government’s inability to accomplish what it set out to do in either nation, despite spending $3 trillion or more (the meter is still running) there.

“From a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned,” James Fallows writes in the latest issue of The Atlantic. “…Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should,” he adds. “Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military.” The nation, Fallows notes, is spending 50% more on its military now than it did during the Cold War, after adjusting for inflation.

The warped investments the nation is now making in its armed forces are fueled, in part, by a pervasive sense of foreboding that the U.S. is about to be attacked, overrun and conquered.

“Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is `more dangerous than it has ever been,'” professor Steven Pinker of Harvard and Andrew Mack of Canada’s Simon Fraser University noted on Slate this weekend. “Why is the world always `more dangerous than it has ever been’—even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?”

It’s actually pretty simple, they answered:

Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from `experts’ with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.

The Pentagon’s big-ticket arms are designed for a World War III, where the U.S. would battle—perhaps to the death, this time around—China, or Russia. If that is a real threat requiring commensurate investment, fine. But history indicates otherwise. So why are we still building a 20th Century, industrial-scale military force to wage it? Something to ponder as you contemplate your own New Year’s irresolution.

Read next: The Growing Republican Divide on Criminal Justice Reform

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