Unicorn in Uniform has a great new post about "supporting the troops" that got me thinking. Her point is that we shouldn't take "supporting the troops" so far that it just becomes empty praise, a "thank you for your service" as automatic as sneezing, because what good does that do? She adds that we certainly shouldn't take it to so far that a moment's joke at the troops' expense is a life altering event, because actual servicemen and women don't want that kind of support-the-troops-or-else culture.
I'd take it one step further: we should support the individuals in the military because they are great, not because they are in the military. Most of the people I know in the military are smart and hard working and funny and thoughtful and conscientious. In most cases, I don't think that's because they are serving, it's just how they are (often I know this, because I knew them before they enlisted or got their commission). The military has been an important road out of poverty for a lot of people I know, but if we gave them a civilian road (better and less costly education options? More use of professional internships for high schoolers, along the German model?) I think they'd be just as well off.
I feel semi-comfortable generalizing my personal experiences, here. It's really hard to make a great person at the age of 18, so it makes sense that most soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines were probably pretty awesome from the get go (albeit needing a bit of maturing). Under this telling, it's more about great people being attracted to a life of service and sacrifice than it is great people being forged by a life of service and sacrifice and fighting lava monsters. So yes, the troops are impressive people doing a great thing and should be thanked and respected for it, but we should recognize that if this was pre-WWII and we didn't have a large standing military, most of them would still be impressive people doing something great and impressive and charitable for their fellow Americans. Or, you know, slaves. Things sucked back then.
Once you separate that, supporting the bad-ass people who are the troops from supporting the troops, two things happen. 1. You are a lot more prepared to encounter the (incredibly small) minority of people serving who suck. 2. The military, as opposed to the troops, looks less unambiguously good. The military isn't what made all these great troops we should support. They were already great. No, the military is what took all these great, hard working, smart, idealistic people out of the economy that builds things and put them in the economy that blows things up.
Maybe we are blowing up the right amount of things, and if we spent less on blowing things up we'd be less safe, less free, and less able to invest and trade. Maybe we are spending too much. But that calculation should be based on how much stuff we want and need to blow up, not on whether we support the troops. Once we start blowing up or preparing to blow up too much stuff, each extra servicewoman assigned to that task is a major waste, a transformation of one of our great creators into a great destroyer. And it doesn't do her many favors besides: giving the individuals in the military a robust economy and lots of alternative careers after military service is the single best way to support them, not wasting trillions on military spending.
So support the troops, they're great and we owe them. But don't let that support affect how you think about military spending. If we cut military spending and lose 5 combat brigades, that's not thousands of troops hurt; it's 1000s of great people who are going to get a chance to do great things for the civilian economy.
And yes, I realize that is a lot stronger argument at full employment than it is now, in an economy where laid of veterans risk unemployment. That's just reason 50000 to wait for the economy to improve before cutting spending, on the military or on anything else.