By Jeremiah Goulka. This article was first published on The American Prospect.

This is the first in a three-part series on how to fix the military’s budget.

Answering this question effectively requires a trip down a wormhole of other questions concerning United States defense spending. What does our military actually do and what do we as a nation want it to do?  What missions do we expect or want the military to serve in the coming years? What resources would they need to perform those missions? What are the real drivers of Pentagon growth? Why do even hesitant and careful efforts to rein in areas of obvious waste in Pentagon spending always seem to crash and burn? Why do we tolerate it? They’re not easy questions to answer, but they’re essential to understanding where our military needs to be heading in the future, whether in pursuit of retaining its global behemoth standing or a slim-down encouraged by changing international politics.

This is the first of a three-part Prospect series that seeks to answer some of these questions. These issues aren’t new, but they are ones that don’t get much airtime in Washington or in our national dialogue. Facing them directly is a violation of what Andrew Bacevich, one of the nation’s foremost national security thinkers, calls the “Washington Rules:” if you want to get ahead in politics or the national security establishment, you had better accept the rules or keep quiet. I gave up on running for office a while back, so here goes.

First things first—what does our military actually do?

Just ask Google. The top result is a page on a military-recruiting site,, declares: Its “primary mission of course is to defend the U.S. and U.S. interests.” Seems simple enough, but if your views have been shaped by popular culture or political rhetoric, it’s likely that you put the emphasis on the former part: defending the realm, or, as the constitution puts it, our “common defense.” “Our military’s highest priority is to defend the United States,” says Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy. In its own words, the mission of the Department of Defense (DoD) is “To provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of the United States.” Protecting us while we’re sleeping at home in our beds—and also defending “our freedoms”—this is what we were taught the military does. But even if this is the military’s highest priority—and it surely is for most individual servicemembers—is it the main focus of what the military does?

To “Defend the Homeland and Provide Support to Civil Authorities” is seventh on the 2012 National Security Strategy‘s list of “Primary Missions of the U.S. Armed Forces.” Its mission here is to “continue to defend U.S. territory from direct attack by state and non-state actors.” While it is obviously the role of the military to defend against state actors, the surge in security spending prompted by 9/11 has increasingly given the job of defending us against non-state actors to other government agencies, namely the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

A quick stroll through the non-DoD aspects of our national security apparatus makes it clear that much of it focuses on the common defense. Most obviously, there’s DHS and its various agencies, such as the Coast Guard (which is the equivalent of the navy in most other countries), the Customs and Border Control (the largest law-enforcement agency in the country), and the dearly-beloved TSA. Then add the other non-DoD agencies that do things like look for terrorists, such as the FBI and CIA; lots of state and local agencies get in the game on federal dollars, too. Add the folks who are trying to export American power, like the diplomats and strategic communications at the State Department and the folks at the financial agencies involved in what has been called the “Washington Consensus.” The list goes on—and many of these agencies face sequestration cuts, too.

The military certainly contributes to protecting us in our beds—but how? The National Guard and the Air National Guard are the most obvious examples; note that they aren’t a part of the regular active-duty military. The military contributes a tremendous amount of surveillance. To would-be invaders, the military contributes the deterrents of massive conventional forces and a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons.


But there aren’t any potential invaders. Thanks to our wonderful free-of-charge defense system—the oceans—we live in a geography that is inherently safe from aggression. It might possibly be different if the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan or the British Empire were looming, but that’s not the world we live in, and it’s not likely to be in any of our lifetimes, or our children’s lifetimes for that matter. The usual suspects, China and Russia, have more sensible things to do with their time.

Besides, Red Dawn notwithstanding, the risk would be of attack, not invasion and occupation; the United States is just too big. Japan learned that attacking a U.S. military base was a huge mistake, and Hawaii wasn’t even a state yet. Remember the last time any country tried to invade? We’re celebrating the bicentennial of that war right now.

It’s hard to precisely delineate, but aside from the Guard’s domestic work, a lot of what the military does is superfluous to defending the “homeland.” The Pentagon has seven geographically-based “joint commands” (if you include space); only two of these have any responsibility for U.S. territory (the Northern and Pacific Commands). And a fair chunk of what would be categorized as a military contribution to our common defense is of dubious value, such as its heavy involvement in the ineffective and wildly unpopular War on Drugs, the extremes of our growing surveillance state, and the excessive size of our nuclear “triad” and stockpile (if we can’t have nuclear zero).

So what do we really do with all those aircraft carrier groups and paratroopers and spy planes and bombers and armored divisions and howitzers if not protect the homeland?

How the Military Spends Most of its Time

We protect U.S. interests. And to do that, we project force abroad.

It’s almost funny how obvious and yet hidden this is—”part of the wallpaper of national life,” in Bacevich’s turn of phrase—lost to sight since the Department of War got renamed the Department of Defense. (Talk about a crafty branding decision.) Unlike almost every single country on the planet, whose military stays home to provide their common defense (and sometimes to pummel the domestic opposition), our military is spread all across the world. Rivers of rhetoric notwithstanding, our projection of force has relatively nothing to do with our common defense. It is about “interests.”

So what are these “U.S. interests” or the “national interest” or whatever term you might use? There isn’t a commonly-accepted definition, but it may generally be seen as encompassing the American economy and the wellbeing of American economic elites, with an emphasis on growth—though even here the rhetoric tends to focus on humanitarian and democratic concerns.

How does the military defend these interests? By grabbing and protecting trade routes, access to markets, and preferential access to resources. Since the Navy ordered its first frigates so that sailors and marines could fight the Barbary pirates on and off the shores of Tripoli to stop heckling our commercial shipping, our Navy has worked to protect trade. After Great Britain gave up the notion of invading us a couple of centuries ago, that’s been the lion’s share of its work. Keeping the Persian Gulf open for oil shipments with its threatening presence and shooting at pirates who menace commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden: this is the sweet spot of today’s Navy. Our ever-growing network of foreign bases and permissions to use foreign facilities is the land-based corollary; the new Africa Command aims at what has been called the new “Spice Route.”

Of course, anyone who wants to attract recruits or to initiate any variety of warfare knows that it sounds a lot nicer to talk about defending the people and our liberty, or about spreading freedom and democracy, than about deploying the military to secure access to natural resources and preferential contracts for American corporations.

Some readers may think that this analysis is too cynical or conspiratorial. I once did, truly believing in the myth of a military focused on protecting Americans and their liberties. But it’s all out there in plain sight. It’s in top-most policy declarations such as the Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary, which warned of U.S. intervention to protect its access to oil in the Middle East. It’s in openly-publicized military doctrine, such as the newly-christened “Anti-Access/Area-Denial” (or “A2/AD “in Milspeak), which is intended to “maintain [our] ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged.”

Defense at home, spreading democracy abroad: those form the dominant rhetoric but they are at most subsidiary activities, like a college student’s minor. Now that we’ve started thinking about the full scope of our military’s true responsibilities, we can talk about missions and budgets. We turn to those in the rest of this series.

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Jeremiah Goulka writes about American politics and culture, focusing on security, race, and the Republican Party, of which he is a former member.  He was formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a recovery worker in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.  He lives in Washington, D.C.  You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him at  His website is