War without End: The United States’ Embrace of Massive Military Power

While Americans’ attention was focused this past December on a president’s impeachment, a significant instance of bipartisan cooperation among both houses of Congress and the executive branch unfolded. In seeming defiance of the divided state of American political life, Congress passed and President Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This latest version of the annual legislation to fund the US military and enact other policies apparently demonstrated that both parties can sometimes agree. The 2020 NDAA demonstrated Democratic and Republican support for passing a gigantic $738 billion military budget—a roughly $20 billion increase over 2019—without imposing even some relatively minimal constraints on American military might.[1] Even in a bitterly polarized nation, maintaining the United States’ ability to use armed force around the world, regardless of cost, is accepted with relatively little controversy.

The 2020 NDAA is only one, impressively expensive, example of this general acceptance of American military power. The perpetual presence of American troops in various countries, including war zones, across the globe is another. Perhaps the most striking example of these accepted overseas military deployments is the 18-year-long involvement of US armed forces in Afghanistan’s civil war. Despite the general lack of progress in the US-supported Afghan government’s war against Taliban insurgents, and despite recent revelations that the US government has been deceiving the public about how badly the war has gone, when American troops in Afghanistan will return home remains murky. Evidence suggests we will simply continue to accept a massive, global-spanning military presence indefinitely.

Spending on an Unrestrained Military

If nothing else, the 2020 NDAA was a nice Christmas present for the Pentagon. The Act included $12.2 billion to fund a force of 90 F-35 fighter jets, $3 billion for the long-range stealth B-21 bomber, and $2.2 billion for 165 Abrams tanks, as well as $40 million to establish a new branch of the armed forces dedicated to operations in outer space.[2]

The money for the armed forces in the 2020 NDAA is part of a recent trend towards increased military spending. US military spending, which rose dramatically in the 2000s following the September 11th attacks and then fell somewhat in the 2010s (without ever returning to pre-9/11 levels), has risen again in the last few years.[3] Countering terrorism and fighting the associated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been a major object of military spending over the past few decades: Brown University’s The Costs of War Project estimates the war on terrorism has to date incurred cumulative costs of $6.4 trillion.[4]

A relatively more recent concern of US policymakers and military planners is countering Russia and China.[5] Both Pentagon officials and a Congressionally appointed outside commission have accordingly recommended increasing military spending partly to deal with these potential great power rivals.[6] 

To put this spending and desired spending in perspective, consider that the United States already spends far more money on its military than any other country on earth. The US military budget is more than triple that of China (estimated at roughly $230 billion in 2018) and almost 10 times that of Russia (roughly $64 billion in 2018).[7] Consider also that the United Nations estimates that an investment of $30 billion annually could help feed the 862 million hungry people in the world.[8]

Earlier in 2019, the House of Representatives had successfully included in the NDAA several provisions meant to restrain some of the more destructive tendencies in US military policy. One provision limited US support for the Saudi Arabian-led war on Yemen, which has created a devastating humanitarian crisis in that country. Another provision limited US sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia.[9] Yet another would have prohibited funding for waging war against Iran without Congressional approval.[10] A fourth would have prohibited funding for a new type of nuclear weapon that critics fear is more likely to be used in a conflict.[11]

All these provisions were removed from the final version of the 2020 NDAA. Politicians from both parties have therefore accepted not only continued expansion of an already huge military budget but the possibility of continued involvement in the Yemen war, war with Iran, and even the use of nuclear weapons.

Global American Reach

A gigantic military budget and expansive use of military power is nothing new for the United States. The 2020 NDAA’s passage is merely the latest episode in the United States’ roughly 75-year-long history as the dominant military power in the world. While marked with peaks and valleys, the overall trend in American military spending since the 1940s has been ever-upward, from a little over $100 billion in 1949 to a Cold War average of over $400 billion annually from 1950 to 1991 to a post-9/11 average of over $600 billion annually (all amounts are in 2017 prices).[12]

The American military reach resulting from this spending and the accompanying military interventions is reflected in the presence of US military personnel around the world. About 200,000 American troops are currently stationed overseas, their presence frequently a legacy of past wars or interventions. Japan is the location of the largest presence, with 50,000 US troops stationed there, half in Okinawa. South Korea has the next largest presence, with over 28,000 troops. Another 35,000 are stationed in various NATO member countries, 4,500 in Poland and the Baltics as a hedge against Russia.[13] Moreover, US military activity in Europe is set to grow in 2020, with more troops to be sent there to participate in the largest military exercise since the Cold War, involving 20,000 US troops—all of which is again presumably directed toward Russia.[14]

American intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia has led to a continuing military presence as well. About 12,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, 6,000 in Iraq, and 200 in Syria, as well as 45,000-65,000 stationed in the general Persian Gulf region. Thousands more troops are currently stationed in Somalia, Niger, Chad, Mali, and other countries.[15]

In short, whether the mission is fighting Russia, North Korea, or terrorism, the US military is likely to turn up in any given corner of the world. The Costs of War Project estimated that during 2015-2017, the United States engaged in some type of anti-terrorism activity in 76 different countries.[16] Given this context, perhaps it is no surprise that passing a $738 billion military budget should be so uncontroversial.

Questions and the Afghanistan Example

While some may accept the United States’ global military presence and the massive military that supports it as simply an inevitable part of the country’s superpower status, we would do well to ask some questions about both.    

Is spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year on the military the best use of national treasure? Would these sums, or at least a substantial part of them, be better spent on other goals, such as addressing poverty in the United States and abroad? Even if a large military budget is judged necessary, should it still perhaps be capped at some point? How sustainable is a perpetually rising military budget? For that matter, is it a sustainable strategy to respond to every possible rival or threat, from Russia to China to North Korea to Iran to terrorist groups, by building up and using military force? Is it sustainable for the United States to remain permanently involved in the security and conflicts of every country in which it intervenes, from South Korea to Afghanistan to Iraq?

The United States’ experience in Afghanistan over the past 18 years should be an occasion for special reflection on these questions. The United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime in late 2001 and has been involved ever since in propping up the new Afghan government while fighting the Taliban. What has become the longest war in American history has cost 2,300 American troops killed, 3,814 US contractors killed, and over $900 billion. Yet the Taliban continues to fight, the Afghan government remains unstable, and the US government’s own internal review office has found that the Afghanistan intervention has been marked by corruption and failure.[17]

As one government report rather blandly put it, “We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians.” Or as James Dobbins, who served as a US envoy to Afghanistan, put it more bluntly, “We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”

This failure was despite the United States spending more to rebuild Afghanistan than was spent on the post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe. Moreover, this failure was also despite repeated misleading assurances from US officials that the United States has been winning in Afghanistan.[18] Such a record in Afghanistan should make us all very skeptical about the wisdom of pouring American blood and treasure into similar interventions or preparations for them.

An End in Sight?

None of this means that an alternative to the United States global military presence will be easy to find. Simply withdrawing American power from Afghanistan or the many other arenas where the military is currently engaged will not automatically bring peace and stability to the world. Breaking with past American policy will doubtless involve sacrifices and hard choices. We should at least try to find such an alternative, however. We should no longer accept the costly, unsustainable, and frequently disastrous policy of global military dominance we have pursued for so long.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] Joe Gould, “Pentagon Finally Gets Its 2020 Budget from Congress,” DefenseNews, December 19, 2019, https://bit.ly/3k7l59e.

[2] Ibid.; Amanda Macias, “Trump Signs $738 Billion Defense Bill. Here’s What the Pentagon Is Poised to Get,” CNBC, December 20, 2019, https://cnb.cx/37zqm2Z.

[3] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database: Data for All Countries 1949–2018 (Excel Spreadsheet),” accessed January 4, 2020, https://bit.ly/2MUj0PO.

[4] Brown University, Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs, Costs of War Project, “Summary of War Spending, in Billions of Current Dollars,” November 13, 2019, https://bit.ly/2Fmeky0.

[5] See “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017, https://bit.ly/35wqyP2,  especially the section “Pillar III: Preserve Peace through Strength”; and Department of Defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America,” accessed January 6, 2020, https://bit.ly/2uqqFPt.

[6] Aaron Mehta, “DoD Needs 3-5 Percent Annual Growth through 2023, Top Officials Say,” DefenseNews, June 13, 2017, https://bit.ly/2rZf1Kr; Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Military’s Global Edge Has Diminished, Strategy Review Finds,” New York Times, November 14, 2018, https://nyti.ms/2QWah0y.

[7] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.”

[8] Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, “The World Only Needs 30 Billion Dollars a Year to Eradicate the Scourge of Hunger,” June 3, 2008,  https://bit.ly/2Qm0RfV; World Beyond War, “Statistic on Billboard Explained,” accessed January 3, 2020,  https://bit.ly/2ugQYaF.

[9] Alex Emmons, “Congress to Vote on $22 Billion Defense Increase One Week after Trump Slashed Food Stamps,” The Intercept, December 10, 2019, https://bit.ly/35onvsi.

[10] Jeffrey Martin, “Bernie Sanders and Ro Khanna Resubmit Legislation Blocking Funding for War with Iran That Previously Passed the House,” Newsweek, January 3, 2020, https://bit.ly/2QvtNST.

[11] Union of Concerned Scientists, “Will Congress Allow Trump Administration to Deploy New, More ‘Usable’ Nuclear Weapons?” November 1, 2019, https://bit.ly/2sUf5LV; Eric Gomez, “2020 NDAA Continues Questionable Nuclear, Missile Defense Policies,” Cato Institute, December 11, 2019, https://bit.ly/2twGOT9

[12] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.”

[13] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt, “Despite Vow to End ‘Endless Wars,’ Here’s Where about 200,000 Troops Remain,” New York Times, October 21, 2019, https://nyti.ms/37EydMX.

[14] John Vandiver, “Thousands of Troops to Take Part in Largest US-Led Exercise in Europe since the Cold War, EUCOM Says,” Stars and Stripes, October 7, 2019, https://bit.ly/2rT4TTt.   

[15] Gibbons-Neff and Schmitt, “Despite Vow to End ‘Endless Wars,’ Here’s Where about 200,000 Troops Remain.”

[16] Daniel Brown, “This Map Shows How the US Is Fighting Terrorism in 76 Countries around the World,” Business Insider, January 16, 2018, https://bit.ly/2ZUOJ8W.  

[17] Craig Whitlock, “At War with the Truth,” Washington Post, December 9, 2019, https://wapo.st/2sD9vxF.

[18] Ibid.

© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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