Our willingness to throw money at the military, heedless of the need or cost, reflects a deep anxiety about the changing world we live in, combined with a general sense that the military is one of the few remaining functional public institutions.
The world scares us, and for good reason: Economic collapse, political stalemate, rising powers poised to eat our national lunch, global instability, terrorism, violence in the Middle East, dwindling fossil fuels, climate change.... It's more than enough to leave you with the anxious sense that somebody needs to do something.
Americans look to the military to Fix Things. After all, the military can be relied on to go where it's told and do what it's asked to do. In 2012, 75 percent of Americans told Gallup that they had "a great deal" or "a lot" of confidence in the military. In contrast, only 37 percent had confidence in the presidency, and a mere 13 percent had confidence in Congress.
As a result, the military has become our go-to tool for fixing whatever happens to be broke. Today, we expect the military to plan agricultural programs in Afghanistan, protect us from cyber attack, sponsor radio talk-shows in Iraq, and run health clinics in Mali. We want the military to deliver humanitarian aid in Japan, collect human intelligence, and convince the Egyptian military to respect democracy. We want the military busy here at home, too, putting out summer forest fires, patrolling New York's Grand Central Station, and stopping illegal immigration in Arizona.
More and more, we're funding the military to take on a multitude of tasks that would once have been considered the province of civilian government agencies. Inevitably, this blurs the boundary of just what constitutes a military task and what constitutes a civilian task. Which in turn raises a deeper question: Should we view these developments as the militarization of American foreign policy (and, increasingly, of domestic policy as well)? Or is this phenomenon better understood as something different -- as, perhaps, the civilianization of the military, or the metamorphosis of the military into something still unknown, in support of ever-murkier strategic aims?
To put the question a little differently, in today's interconnected, globalized world -- in which the lines between "war" and other kinds of "security threat" have blurred, in which it's harder and harder to distinguish between battlefields and zones of peace, between foreign and domestic, between civilians and combatants -- what exactly is the American military? More to the point, what's it for? (And if the answer is, "everything," then what happens to our longstanding assumptions about civilian control of the military?)
Unfortunately, even as Americans ask the military to do more and more, we understand it less and less. Military personnel certainly feel misunderstood: in its 2012 annual survey, the Military Times found that more than 75 percent of all active duty personnel and reservists felt that "The military community has little in common with the rest of the country and most civilians do not understand the military."
Many civilians would no doubt say the same, and that's more than a little disturbing, given the military's perpetually expanding role. All most civilians really know, in the end, is that the military has more money. And sequestration talk notwithstanding, we seem determined to keep it that way.