Asking Not What Our Country Can Do for Us

America's Military and the Fiscal Crisis
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General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, announced this weekend that future pay and benefit cuts would be needed to preserve military procurement and training programs.  Veterans groups and military supporters are already gearing up for a fight.  The case for preserving the future value of pay and benefits for our servicemen and military retirees is sure to be vigorous and loaded with moral overtones.

The advocates are right.  As General Dempsey acknowledges, it is particularly distasteful to ask those in uniform who have sacrificed so much since September 11th to give some more.  And let’s not forget those retirees who fought the Cold War and the bloody campaigns of the last century.  But this is an example where being right on an issue may be wrong for the country.  America is at an inflection point in which debt and long term commitments threaten to overwhelm and make future prosperity an uncertain proposition.

Virtually every politician and budget observer understands that discretionary spending (e.g., military pay and benefits) does not drive the debt.  Rather, it is the entitlement spending of Social Security, military retirement, and related programs that must be tamed.  But the two are inextricably linked because the fundamental question is whether “We the People” and our elected representatives can muster the courage to make the tough sacrifices that are required.  For that to happen, we must have leadership.

When it comes to debt and deficits, Americans are both demanding and self-interested.  People simultaneously demand that Washington balance the budget and get our fiscal commitments in order, but preserve this favored program or that group’s entitlement.  They are partial to political messaging that programs and benefits can be preserved while someone else pays the price.  That popular notion represents the single greatest obstacle to getting debt and deficits on a sustainable track. 

The “cut their fat, but save my bacon” predicament will persist until a favored interest group puts the country’s interest before its own.  People in uniform are, have been and always will be in the sacrifice business.  Whether overcoming the hardships of basic training, spending holidays away from home, or recovering from the mental and physical scars of combat, we all have demonstrated the ability to sacrifice for something more important than ourselves.  We are also all in the leadership business.  No institution in human history has expended more effort and had more success in developing leaders of character. Perhaps most importantly, we have all taken a solemn oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Although nontraditional in nature, the looming debt crisis certainly qualifies as a domestic enemy.

That is why military veterans past and present must lead the way out of the fiscal morass in which America is stuck.  It is our duty according to our oath and the life of selfless service that defines us.  It is a burden for sure.  But we, along with our families, know the way forward.  We have the character, resolve, and knowledge of what can be accomplished when we stick together.  And while our fellow citizens respect us more than ever, we should not take that for granted.  Respect is earned by doing hard things well without complaint or expectation of reward.  Here is another opportunity to earn that respect.

General Dempsey and the Service Chiefs shouldn’t take the case for reduced pay and benefits to the political class in Washington.  They should take it to the troops they lead and have led.  They should take it to military families past and present.  Their message is not difficult to find as we remember the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death: Your country needs you to set aside your personal interests, to take one more hill and to show everyone else the way. 

If these leaders ask, we will bear the burden.  We always have and always will.  And the story of our sacrifice in this instance would be very powerful indeed.

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