The rhetorical power of “support our troops”

“AN INSULT to our troops” has long been a potent attack line in American politics. In recent days, President Donald Trump has deployed such rhetoric against National Football League (NFL) players who have knelt during the national anthem. “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag-we MUST honor and respect it!” he tweeted on September 24th. Responses to that from some of the country’s 21m veterans have ranged from avid support to complete disgust. But the argument over this supposed insult points to a wider problem: deserved respect for the sacrifice of soldiers can spill over in unhelpful ways. Beyond attacks on the right to protest, this includes the idea that the military as an institution is a model to be emulated and expanded—despite its chronic inefficiencies and inappropriate norms for domestic challenges.

The ultimate responsibility of an American soldier is to be willing to kill people on behalf of the United States. To carry out that function soldiers spend long tours in dangerous places and take considerable risks: in 2010, the fatality rate from accidents and combat combined in America’s armed forces was 52.2 deaths per 100,000 personnel. Amongst major careers, only fishing (55 deaths per 100,000) and logging (133 deaths per 100,000) are more lethal.

The respect that follows from this sacrifice infects the institution that soldiers work for: Gallup surveys suggest that 72% of Americans express quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in the military as compared to 12% who express similar confidence in Congress, 27% for newspapers and 16% for online news. 

This will be one reason why the military is continually asked to carry out functions outside its core mandate of war fighting. Abroad, it backs programmes to support small businesses and vaccinate livestock. In America, it finances cancer research and arts programmes. It is also a factor behind the political attractiveness of militarising domestic security institutions. But both approaches are a mistake: for all the bravery of America’s troops, the country’s military bureaucracy is nothing to emulate.

Take the efficiency with which the Pentagon spends its considerable financial resources. In 2014, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that over two fifths of Pentagon weapons systems procurements end up more than 25% over budget. The unit cost of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters is approximately double that forecast at the start of the programme in 2001, while estimated programme acquisition costs for the Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers climbed from $16bn to $115bn over the 33 years of the programme to 2014—in part because the Navy can’t afford Zumwalt-class destroyers, the over-priced successor, which has ended up costing $7.7bn per ship. It isn’t just weapons systems: in the same year, the GAO compared prices paid for the same drugs by the Department of Defence, Medicare and Medicaid. The Pentagon paid an average unit price 60% higher than Medicaid’s.

That inefficiency is despite rather than because of a lack of procurement expertise. The Pentagon’s purchasing bureaucracy alone has 207,000 employees, with another quarter of a million involved in human resources and property management. In total, there are over one million people providing back-office support to 1.3m troops on active duty. And about one quarter of the defence budget goes to overheads including functions such as accounting and property management. By comparison, Medicaid’s administrative costs are around 7% of its expenditure. A recent McKinsey analysis identified $25bn a year in wasteful bureaucratic spending in the Department of Defence. Asking the Pentagon to do more will only add to the bloat.

Nor is the military model a good one for domestic challenges—in particular for policing. A cop’s job is very different: it is about protecting civilians; not shooting soldiers. And the risks faced by police in America are less than those faced by the military overseas. The annual felonious death rate is about 5 per 100,000 police officers and the total on-the-job death rate was 12.6 per 100,000 in 2013. That compares to sanitation workers who suffer 39 deaths per 100,000 workers each year, or transportation and warehousing employees on 14 deaths per 100,000.   

But despite those comparatively low risks, a growing number of police forces in America routinely use heavily armed and armored SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams. There are now 50,000 to 80,0000 SWAT raids each year in the country. Jonathan Mummolo of Stanford University studied some of the few jurisdictions that report data on raids and found that they are most commonly used for routine functions—91% of Maryland SWAT deployments were in conjunction with a search warrant, the majority connected with typically nonviolent crimes like drug abuse or fraud.

There is little evidence that such militarisation reduces crime, and a considerable risk that it alienates communities and leads to an increased number of civilian deaths. Take the Department of Defence’s 1033 programme, which transfers surplus military equipment to police forces. Most of the transfers are of unarmored vehicles and miscellaneous equipment but they also include mine-resistant armored vehicles as well as firearms. Using county-level data on overall deaths caused by the police in four states, Casey Delehanty, a social scientists, and colleagues found that larger 1033 transfers are associated with more police killings. The risk of a civilian killing by the police is more than twice as high in counties receiving the maximum 1033 transfer compared to countries that receive no transfers. The authors show that this relationship is not simply caused by a higher risk of criminal violence in districts that receive larger transfers by demonstrating 1033 receipts are also associated with police forces killing more civilian dogs each year, as well.

The NFL protests were sparked in the first place by the fact that black Americans are disproportionately at risk of police killings. The militarisation of the police force is one factor behind that problem. And so it is an unpleasant irony that “support our troops” rhetoric is being used in an attempt to quiet the protests. Americans should respect the men and women of their armed forces—but they shouldn’t use the Defence Department as a model or its employees as an excuse.

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