Several times over my 29 years in Congress I have wondered whether there are any fiscal conservatives at the Pentagon.
It seems that the Defense Department is just like every other gigantic bureaucracy. When it comes to money, the refrain is always "more, more, more."
On November 14, the House passed what one Capitol Hill paper described as a "$700 billion compromise defense bill." It was $80 billion over the budget caps and many billions more than even President Trump had requested.
I opposed almost all the major initiatives of the Obama administration. But it was false to say that the Defense Department was "depleted" or "eviscerated" during those years, or that now we must "rebuild the military."
In fact, public relations experts in future years should conduct studies about how the Defense Department has been able to convince the public it has been cut when it is getting more money than ever.
Defense Department appropriations have more than doubled since 2000. In addition, the Department has gotten extra billions in several supplemental or emergency appropriation bills.
The military construction bill is a separate bill that has added another $109.5 billion over the last 10 years. It would be hard to find any U.S. military base any place in the world that has not had several new buildings constructed over the last few years.
In fiscal year 2016, we spent over $177 billion on new equipment, guns, tanks, etc. We have spent similar amounts for many years. Most of this equipment does not wear out or have to be replaced after just one year.
It is ironic that the only President in the last 60 or 70 years who has tried to rein in defense spending is the only President in that period who spent most of his career in the military.
In Evan Thomas’ book, Ike’s Bluff, when told by his top staffer that he could not reduce defense spending, President Eisenhower said if he gave another star to every general who cut his budget, there would be "such a rush to cut costs you’ll have to get out of the way."
The book also quotes Eisenhower as saying "Heaven help us if we ever have a President who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do."
Therein lies an explanation for a big part of what has caused much excessive and/or wasteful defense spending and, the willingness, even at times eagerness, to go to war and support permanent, never-ending wars.
Only 18% of the current Congress has ever served in any branch of our military. Members are afraid if they do not vote for an increase in defense spending, or if they question waste by the military, some demagogue will accuse them of "not supporting the troops."
It would be a huge understatement to say that I usually do not agree with New York Times editorials.
But the Times Editorial Board on Oct. 22 published an editorial entitled "America’s Forever Wars," pointing out that the US"has been at war continuously since the attacks of 9/11" and now has troops in "at least 172 countries."
The Board wrote that so far the American people have "seemed to accept" all this militarism, but "it’s a very real question whether, in addition to endorsing these commitments, which have cost trillions of dollars and many lives over 16 years, they will embrace new entanglements…"
The Times added that the Congress "has spent little time considering such issues in a comprehensive way or debating why all these deployments are needed."
Backing these words up was a cartoon in the Oct. 25 issue of Politico, a Capitol Hill newspaper. The cartoon showed six senators sitting at a hearing.
The first senator, reading a newspaper, says "Who knew we had troops in Niger?!" The second says: "Heck, we don’t even know how the military budget gets spent."
Finally, the cartoon shows a senator who looks like Sen. Ted Cruz, saying "War is hell. I say we just give the Pentagon an extra $80 billion and call it a day."
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, himself a veteran, wrote on Oct. 23: "But there is something else at work here: the slavish veneration now accorded the military. You can see it every time someone in uniform testifies before Congress."
Since now less than one percent of the people serve in the military, it may be that many people who never served feel, perhaps even subconsciously, that they must bend over backwards to show their patriotism.
However, it is not unpatriotic to oppose wasteful defense spending or very unnecessary permanent, forever wars.
President Reagan once said "our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available."
We have far too many leaders today who seem to want to be new Winston Churchills and who are far too eager to send people to war.
No true fiscal conservative could ever justify spending many billions more than even President Trump requested.
Our national debt recently went over the $20 trillion level. A few days ago, it was reported that the deficit for fiscal 2017 was $666 billion. This fiscal year, it may be even higher.
Conservatives used to be against huge deficit spending. They also used to be against massive foreign aid. Much of what we have been doing in both Iraq and Afghanistan, training police and farmers, repairing electrical and water systems, even making small business loans, etc., is pure foreign aid.
Many of our foreign interventions have been done under the auspices or authority of the United Nations. Conservatives used to be the biggest critics of the U.N. and world government. Most of our so-called "coalitions" have been funded almost entirely by American taxpayers.
Most interventionists at some point resort to a slur referring to their opponents as isolationists. This is so false. Traditional conservatives support trade and tourism and cultural and educational exchanges with other countries and they agree with helping during humanitarian crises.
They just don’t believe in dragging war out forever, primarily so defense contractors, think tanks, and military bureaucrats can get more money.
One last point: We have far too many officers. In Scott Berg’s biography on Woodrow Wilson, it says during World War I, we had one officer for every 30 enlisted men. Eisenhower once said we had too many officers when there were nine enlisted for every officer. Now we have one officer for only four and a half to five and a half enlisted (varies by branch).
This is very expensive, both for active duty and retirement, but it also makes it much more likely that we will get involved in every little conflict around the world and/or continue basing troops in almost every country.
We simply do not have enough money to pay for defense of so many countries other than our own nor the authority under our Constitution to try to run the whole world.
Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN) represents Tennessee’s 2nd District. Congressman Duncan served honorably in both the US Army Reserve and the Army National Guard, starting as an enlisted man and rising to the rank of captain.