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Why are all these advocacy groups aligning themselves with the military?

With less than a month of campaigning to go, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are vying to demonstrate their love for all things military. For political candidates, this isn't so unusual: for as long as there have been soldiers, there have been politicians eager to stand beside them and soak up a bit of reflected glory. What's more unusual is how eagerly the rest of us have lined up to imitate the candidates. From human rights activists to nutritionists, everyone now seems to look to the military for some borrowed credibility.

Take human rights. During the Bush administration, human rights organizations struggled to convince Americans to oppose so-called "enhanced interrogation" (that's torture, when it's at home). In the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the American public appeared to have little sympathy for abstract arguments about the rights of suspected terrorists. Searching for a more effective way to change public opinion, Human Rights First assembled a group of retired generals and admirals willing to make the military case against torture. In a letter to then-President Bush, the group (which included the former commanding general of CENTCOM) asserted that the U.S. use of torture has "put American military personnel at greater risk [and] undermined U.S. intelligence gathering efforts."

The group of retired officers assembled by Human Rights First remains active today. A few weeks ago, for instance, General Charles Krulak, the former commandant of the Marine Corps, issued a statement under Human Rights First's auspices that called upon Mitt Romney to reject torture: it's "illegal [and] immoral," sure, but it also "undermines both our national security and the order and discipline of our armed forces....[I]t produces unreliable results and often impedes further intelligence collection."

It's not just human rights advocates who have sought to enhance their credibility with the American public by associating themselves with the military. With conservatives taking aim at recent efforts to reduce the caloric content of school lunches and public attention waning, health care advocates have also brought in the big guns: in their case, a group of senior officers who can frame obesity not as a health problem, but as a military recruitment and readiness problem. In a 2010 report called Too Fat to Fight, dozens of retired general and flag officers proclaimed the obesity epidemic a threat to national security. According to the report, more than a quarter of young Americans are now too fat to qualify for military service. This, obviously, is bad news for military recruiters, and for the rest of us, too -- how can a flabby bunch of couch potatoes defend America as we face off against the third world's lean, hungry masses?

Too Fat to Fight goes on to call for the kind of reforms the left generally loves and the right generally hates, such as greater attention to the relationship between poverty, hunger, and obesity; increased federal funding of school lunch programs for the poor; and more government money for "the development, testing and deployment of proven public-health interventions." In September 2012, a follow-up report (Still Too Fat to Fight) funded by foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called for the elimination of junk food in school vending machines -- again in the name of military readiness.

The last decade has seen similar efforts to frame everything from climate change to low-quality public education as military issues. And why not? Obesity and poor nutrition surely will hurt military recruitment and readiness, and the U.S. use of torture surely does endanger troops and produce unreliable information. Similarly, low-quality public education threatens military readiness -- illiterate and innumerate recruits are as bad as obese ones -- and climate change will certainly cause migration and conflict over resources, creating new challenges for the military.

It's more than that, though. In an era in which all military personnel have officially been labeled "heroes," former military personnel make fantastic spokespeople for causes that might otherwise languish. After all, Americans have lost faith in virtually every other profession and public institution: in Gallup's annual study of confidence in institutions, well under half of Americans surveyed in 2012 said they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the presidency, newspapers, public schools, television news, banks, business, unions, the criminal justice system, the medical system or organized religion. (Congress, as usual, garnered the confidence of just 13 percent of Americans.) Only the military seems to have been exempted from this epidemic of public cynicism: 75 percent of Americans say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military.

But though I take my hat off to the many organizations that have made creative use of the magic of military endorsements, the trend troubles me. What does it say about us, as a nation, that fewer and fewer issues can gain traction if they're not wrapped in the mantle of military effectiveness?

We see this played out on a larger scale in debates about the federal budget. Both political parties agree that the deficit needs to be brought under control, and though Republicans and Democrats differ in their views on the role of revenue collection (a.k.a. taxes), both parties assert a need for significant across-the-board federal budget cuts...for everything except defense spending, that is.

President Obama proposes slowing the rate of growth of defense spending, essentially by keeping future spending on the base defense budget at current levels, with increases to keep pace with inflation. Mitt Romney considers maintaining current levels of defense spending tantamount to stripping troops of their weapons and body armor, and proposes pegging the base defense budget at a floor of 4 percent of GDP -- essentially tossing another $ 2 trillion at DoD over the next decade.

Given that U.S. defense spending is already higher, in real dollars, than it has been at any time since World War II, it's a little odd that no one -- at least, no one hoping to win an election -- appears willing to contemplate the possibility of genuine cuts to the base defense budget. At least not publicly.

Contrast the Defense Department's future budget prospects with those of many other federal programs. President Obama's proposed budget includes sizeable cuts in many non-defense discretionary programs: the budget for toxic waste clean-up and safe drinking water programs would be slashed, for instance, along with initiatives to help low-income people keep the heat on during the winter and NASA's Mars exploration efforts. And those are nothing compared to the cuts proposed by Mitt Romney's running mate Paul Ryan: Ryan, as Daniel Altman has written, would slash the percentage of GDP that goes into domestic programs to the level prevailing in Equatorial Guinea.

Here's what it adds up to: if you want to get something funded in the United States today, you need to find a way to shoehorn it into the Defense budget. Ever wonder why the military is doing more and more not-so-militaryish things, like operating health clinics in Africa and funding economic development projects in the Philippines? In part, it's because no one else has the money to do it. Funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development has drastically fallen over the last two decades. Congress seems increasingly disinclined to fund civilian diplomacy and development initiatives -- but call something a military program, and presto, money falls from the heavens.

I exaggerate -- but not by much. As larger and larger swathes of the federal budget fall victim to Jack the Ripper-style cuts, it's the military that increasingly provides the vital services once provided by other parts of the federal government. Diplomacy and development? Check. Free or low-cost health care? The military provides it to active duty personnel, reservists, retirees, and their dependents -- but just try convincing Congress to fund similar programs outside the military. Military subsidies for higher education have become a route to college for hundreds of thousands of young people, even as federally subsidized grant and loan aid has shrunk in the civilian world. Subsidized childcare? Universal for the dependents of active duty military personnel, but practically extinct for most civilians.

Little wonder, then, that service members have become a must-have accessory for political candidates and issue advocates. Our cynical political culture devalues social welfare programs and snickers at communitarian impulses, and most of us trust neither our neighbors nor the public institutions that are meant to serve us. The distrust is not unmerited, but it's a vicious circle: the more we devalue public programs, the less we fund them and the less they can offer us, so the less we trust them, and so on. The military is all that's left: the last institution standing; the last part of the federal government that works.

No question, there's an element of self-serving jingoism in the efforts of politicians and interest groups to snuggle up with the military -- a desire to benefit from a little heroism-by-association, combined with a shameless appeal to the public's most bellicose and mindless "us versus them" instincts. But perhaps it's more than that. Perhaps we're simply desperate to be reassured that there is an "us" in the first place -- that the United States is something more than simply 300 million people who don't much like or trust one other (and who definitely don't trust their government).

Perhaps we try to associate every issue and platform with the military not because we're self-serving cynics, but because we secretly yearn for a domain that's free of cynicism. The military has come to symbolize those lost American virtues of public-spiritedness, generosity, sacrifice, self-discipline, and service to something larger than the self. It also represents that most elusive of American dreams: a government institution that actually works.

JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages

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