In 1892, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about the paradigmatic British soldier, Tommy Atkins, and his paradigmatic treatment at the hands of an indolent democratic society that takes him for granted - until he is needed. It read in part:
"For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' ‘Chuck him out, the brute!' But it's ‘Saviour of 'is country,' when the guns begin to shoot."
Unfortunately, for the first time in a generation, Americans are behaving as though they can safely disdain Tommy's U.S. counterparts - "the troops" - even as the guns are shooting. All other things being equal, that appears likely to be one of the points on which President Obama will be seeking common ground with Republicans in the president's State of the Union address.
Oh, to be sure, there will be lip service paid to the troops on both sides of the aisle. Standing ovations will greet the President's obligatory declarations of support for them, appreciation for their sacrifice and commitment to their mission. If past bipartisan practice is any guide, one or more extraordinary individual in uniform will grace the First Lady's box in the House gallery, perhaps bearing the scars of terrible wounds suffered in the line of duty.
There may even be some fleeting, if basically hortatory, expressions about the dangers we face around the world. This treatment will be, at best, highly selective so as not to offend several sources of a significant part of that danger. That would include Communist China, whose increasingly - and ominously - contemptuous attitude towards the United States was perfectly captured during its president's state dinner at the White House: It featured the singing of a popular Chinese song set during the PRC's last war with us, Korea, in which Americans are depicted as "jackals."
Unmentioned foes will also likely include Vladimir Putin's Russia which, right after President Obama coerced sufficient Senate Republicans to approve his New START Treaty during the lame duck session, arranged for: 1) the Duma to affirm the Kremlin view that it now has a veto over U.S. missile defenses; and 2) its top general to announce that the Russians would have their own "impenetrable" missile defense by 2020.
Despite these and other threats and active combat operations in two theaters, it now seems pretty clear that, after the speechmaking ends, the applause dies away and the klieg lights go out in Washington, the troops are going to get screwed, not supported.
Some leading Republicans who should know better are signaling that they are going to join forces with the Obama administration and make significant cuts in defense spending. This is usually presented as a matter of equity: Everyone needs to make sacrifices. Democrats will have to take some hits to their social welfare priorities; Republicans will have to take some in defense. Everything has to be "on the table" when it comes to reducing our nation's red ink.
Now, no one is in favor of wasteful expenditures, in the Pentagon or elsewhere. But let's face it: There is no line item in the Defense Department's budget called "Waste, Fraud and Abuse." As a result, cuts that would eliminate unjustifiable spending by the military have to be wrung out from each and every item that actually is in the defense budget.
But most of those caviling for the budget to be balanced on the backs of our troops are not interested in such a tedious and time-consuming exercise. A much more convenient way to arrive at significant savings at the Pentagon's expense is to dramatically slow down, reduce or kill outright planned purchases of major weapon systems. Right on cue, several Washington think tanks - including the left-wing Brookings Institution and Stimson Center and the ostensibly centrist Bipartisan Policy Center - have recommended doing just that in recent days.
The sorts of cuts being proposed would decimate what little is left of the modernization of the U.S. military, a necessary reinvestment in materiel that has already been, for far too long, foolishly stretched out or thwarted in favor of some future plane, armored vehicle, ship, missile, etc. We are always assured that the latter birds-in-the- bush will be better and cheaper than the bird-in-the-hand.
Should the sorts of cuts being urged on Congress actually materialize, all of the armed services will be debilitated. The one that is arguably most feared by our enemies, the Marine Corps, could be reduced to ceremonial functions and protecting embassies. Its future means of performing amphibious assaults (the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle), its principal airborne assault vehicle (the V-22 Osprey) and the backbone of its dedicated ground-support aviation for decades to come (the F-35) would all be eliminated or rendered unaffordable. Say what you want, the people who will most immediately reap the whirlwind sown by such actions will be our troops. They may prove, as a result, unable safely and surely to meet the threats that will be given short shrift by politicians consumed with domestic considerations. They will be placed in greater jeopardy as a result, but ultimately so will be the nation they have volunteered to protect with their lives.
Lest our political leaders think our troops won't understand the nature or implications of this betrayal, they would do well to recall the closing stanza in Kipling's ode to those who fight and die for the rest of us:
"An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please; But Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees."