What a difference a year makes.
On Memorial Day 2011, many not only paused to remember the fallen, but lamented the fall of the American military. The perennial question about defense spending -- "How much is enough?" -- had been supplanted by "How low can you go?" This Memorial Day, the consensus that Washington is ready to reap another "peace dividend" is under assault.
How we got here from there matters. America became a different nation after 1945. The United States emerged from the ashes of World War II as a global power with global interests and responsibilities. That meant it would have to think about defense differently. So a nation that had averaged spending about 1 to 2 percent of its national wealth on defense began spending, on average, about 8.5 percent during the Cold War. A good chunk of that went to confronting the Soviet Union.
No one, however, had really done the math to figure out how big a military would have been required to secure U.S. global interests if the standoff with the Soviets had never happened. Consequently, when the wall fell, nobody knew the answer to that question -- except that it had to be "less." And, so, U.S. defense spending headed to under 3 percent of GDP, and U.S. defense capabilities began to contract.
The rise and fall of the Pentagon was, by and large, a bipartisan project -- albeit not always a pretty one. Robert Taft, the anti-New Deal Republican senator from Ohio, hated NATO, mostly because Truman was for it. Kennedy was more of a defense spending hawk than Eisenhower. Both the far-right and the far-left abandoned the war in Vietnam. It was not uncommon to find a hard-line "Scoop" Jackson who caucused with Democrats and an über-liberal Jacob Javits huddling in the Republican corner.
By the end of the 1990s, there was plenty of evidence that U.S. military capabilities were in the basement. "[O]ur forces are showing increasing signs of serious wear," Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Clinton, testified before Congress. "Anecdotal, initially, and now measurable evidence indicates that our readiness is frayed and that the long-term health of the total force is in jeopardy," he warned. But neither political party in Washington seemed terribly interested in doing anything about it.
Along came 9/11, boosting investments in the armed forces to a post-Cold War high. There was little doubt the tide had turned -- though challenges remained. The lion's share of additional spending went to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The preponderance of military aircraft, ships, and vehicles, bought in the 1980s, were now pushing 30 years of service and needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, that bill is still unpaid.