There is an insidious and unspoken connection between our gun culture at home and abroad. U.S. politicians and pundits believe that huge defense budgets provide international security for the United States, and many Americans believe that personal weapons provide safety at home. We don’t question the use of deadly weaponry in unnecessary wars overseas; Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are the most recent examples. At home, there are more guns than people — 120 guns for every 100 people. The United States is exceptional because some of the same weapons designed for war are available to teenagers fighting their personal demons.
Campaigns for greater defense spending accompany every international crisis. David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s leading apologist for the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, is currently beating the drums for a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines that would cost more than $2 trillion over the next two decades and would increase the risk of nuclear war. In April, Ignatius argued that the “risks of nuclear war” created “extra urgency in developing a new generation of doomsday weapons that could maintain deterrence.” He praised the Pentagon’s budget request for 2023, which emphasized “stronger nuclear weapons,” including a new-generation intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known as the Sentinel, a new B-21 manned bomber, and an exotic mix of drones and manned fighters known as Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD.” The fact that nuclear weapons have no utilitarian value is completely lost on Ignatius and others.
Ignatius’ case for greater defense spending echoes the case made by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. Austin spoke at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii in April and summarized his views in a Post oped last month. Austin wants greater funding in order to expand U.S. security “not just through air, land and sea but also space and cyberspace.” His inexplicable label for this approach is “integrated deterrence,” designed to address the changing nature of warfare “that stretches from the heavens to cyberspace and far into the oceans’ depths.” Austin wants to invest in quantum computing and artificial intelligence to “enable us to find not just one needle in one haystack but ten needles in ten haystacks.” I have no idea what the Secretary of Defense is talking about, but Ignatius proclaims his support for all of it.
Tom Nichols, a former professor at the Naval War College who currently writes for The Atlantic, bemoans the fact that we have “no nuclear strategy” as if there were political and military objectives that could justify the wanton and indiscriminate use of nuclear weapons. In the 1980s, Robert Jervis argued that a “rational strategy for the employment of nuclear weapons is a contradiction in terms. What is missing from the writings of Nichols and others is the necessity of restoring the dialogue on arms control and disarmament. Nichols employs the canard that nuclear weapons are a “battlefield equalizer” and would allow significant reduction in U.S. conventional weaponry. In the 1950s, nuclear weapons were sold to the American public as a way to reduce spending on conventional arms. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
The United States is exceptional because we are unable to learn from experience. Decades of losing efforts in such far-flung places as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan haven’t led to a reassessment of the use of military power. Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin is trapped in a quagmire in Ukraine with no strategy for getting out, the United States is trapped in the belief that our military deployments provide strategic advantages. Instead of examining the cost of the Pentagon’s “high operational tempo” of the past two decades, our military planners and congressional sycophants stress the need for readiness and future capability against two adversaries—Russian and China. The mainstream media, led by Ignatius and others, support the use of artificial intelligence and data-driven readiness to justify ever greater defense budgets.
Only the United States pursues national security on a global basis. With over 700 military bases and facilities the world over, the United States can project power into every corner of the globe. Russia has access to naval and air facilities in Syria on the Mediterranean Sea, but its other facilities are located in the space of the former Soviet Union. China has a naval facility in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, and has signed an undefined security deal with the Solomon Islands for naval access. This very limited expansion, nevertheless, has caused the New York Times to warn that Chinese facilities in the Pacific Islands would allow Beijing to “intercept communications, block shipping lanes and engage in space combat.”
The military experience and power projection capabilities of Russia and China are extremely limited, particularly compared to U.S. dominance in the air and on the sea. The lack of experience may account for Russia’s pathetic performance in Ukraine as will as China’s failure in Vietnam in 1979. Meanwhile, the United States has taken the early 19th century Monroe Doctrine that made the Western Hemisphere a sphere of influence, and expanded that doctrine to the entire world. Must we dominate everywhere?
Domestically, campaigns for greater personal weaponry accompany every domestic crisis. The domestic gun culture has used the fractured syntax of the Second Amendment to argue that there are no limits to gun ownership, including the military-style assault weapons with high-capacity magazines designed for warfare. The United States is exceptional because it alone allows young people to purchase these weapons and even carry them in public without training or a permit. While the United States wastes time focusing on “motives” of mass murderers and seeking other fixes (hardening schools), other countries have moved quickly to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and to create databases that track all gun sales. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway and others have made sure that weapons of war are not going to be easily available.
The right to gun ownership is in the Constitution, but even Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 2008 that “Nothing in our Constitution…should be taken to cast doubt…on laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in the District of Columbia v. Heller allowed the government to restrict the kinds of firearms that can be purchased, and endorsed the “historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’” It is unlikely that the Second Amendment, which deals with arms for a “well regulated Militia,” was designed to permit the two most recent massacres (Buffalo and Uvalde), where law enforcement was outgunned and out armored by mentally ill teenagers with instruments of war. Then again, the United States is exceptional.