To say that the military is what makes America great could perhaps give other nations the wrong impression, but it is true all the same. This is not because Americans are a particularly militaristic people. Nor is it because other aspects of the national identity — our freedoms, our ingenuity and our entrepreneurship — are less important. Rather, it is because the right to practice all of these virtues has been purchased on battlefields, with the blood of those whom we commemorate on Memorial Day.
Our military rightly subordinates itself to the day-to-day prerequisites of civilian life. The very fact that Americans seldom encounter uniformed soldiers on the streets is itself a result of those soldiers’ enormous contribution. Thanks to the sacrifices of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, the rule of law and respect for our Constitution are firmly established. Thanks to the military, Americans do not live under martial law. Military coups and the civil instability that is commonplace in other parts of the world are not a concern in the U.S. What’s more, the American military is a model for the world in that it is a loyally disinterested party in all domestic matters. It follows in the sacred tradition George Washington established when he surrendered his command to the Continental Congress in 1783, after the American Revolution.
That does not mean that the military’s fortunes are not intertwined with domestic politics. In his recent commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that “a strong military cannot exist without a strong economy underpinning it. At some point fiscal insolvency at home translates into strategic insolvency abroad.” This underscores the need for the budget reforms we expect to see in the coming months. Current projections suggest that entitlement spending will, within decades, consume the entire federal budget. Without serious reforms — including reforms of and cuts to defense spending — the U.S. could eventually lack the means to maintain a strong military.
That would be a tragedy for America and the rest of the world. Gates, citing historian Donald Kagan, noted that “the preservation of peace depends upon those states seeking that goal having both the preponderant power and the will to accept the burdens and responsibilities required to achieve it.”
The U.S. is a nation dedicated to the preservation of peace, a burden and responsibility we place on the shoulders of so many 20-something servicemen and women. The nation owes it to them to honor their sacrifice and that of those who went before them.