Victor Davis Hanson

Unfortunately, defense cuts do not occur in isolation. They feed a syndrome best typified by an insolvent and largely defenseless socialist Europe. The more that prosperous societies cut their defenses to expand social programs, the more the resulting dependency leads to even less defense and ever more benefits. Once the state promises to take care of the citizen, the citizen believes that more subsidies are still never enough. And once voters believe that defense spending is an impediment to greater entitlements, the fewer impediments they will pay for. The net result is something like the squabbling, soon-to-collapse European Union: trillions in unfunded entitlement liabilities, and unable to defend itself.

Many of the new cuts are aimed at the traditional ground forces, given that we are in a high-tech age of missiles, sophisticated drones and counterinsurgency missions. But the nature of war is neither static nor predictable. After World War II, Harry Truman wanted to do away with the Marines -- and then was glad he had not when they largely saved the reputation of the U.S. military during the unforeseen disaster in Korea in December 1950. After the Gulf War of 1990-91, we cut back on our ground forces, only to build them back up so that the Marines could deal with enemies in awful places like Anbar Province in Iraq.

The decline of civilizations of the past -- fourth-century-B.C. Athens, fifth-century-A.D. Rome, 15th-century Byzantium, or 1930s Western Europe -- was not caused by their spending too much money on defense or not spending enough on public entitlements. Rather, their expanding governments redistributed more borrowed money, while a dependent citizenry wanted even fewer soldiers to guarantee ever more handouts.

History's bleak lesson is that those societies with self-reliant citizens who protect themselves and their interests prosper; those who grow dependent cut back their defenses -- and waste away.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.