On Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced a sweeping plan for defense policy reform, including a plank that would shrink U.S. Army active duty personnel to what the New York Times called “pre-World War II levels.” That sounds scary to a lot of people, including House Homeland Security Committee chair Michael McCaul (R-TX), who told Fox News that American security was “being sacrificed … on the altar of entitlements.”
But that’s wrong. If Hagel’s plan makes it through Congress, it would represent a long overdue fix to America’s post-9/11 over-correction. Here’s five reasons why cutting the U.S. Army down to size won’t threaten American security — or the world’s.
1. The Army isn’t really going to pre-World War II levels.
From the headlines, you might think that the American army is shrinking to the level it was at when post-World War I isolationism carried the day. Not so: in fact, we’d be returning to a troop level higher than it was in the early days of World War II.
The 440,000–450,000 number of troops on active duty Hagel proposes is above the 426,000 troops that were in the Army by the end of 1940 — and well above the 280,000 it began that year with. That matters because, by the end of 1940, President Roosevelt and the Pentagon had begun a significant ramp-up designed to prepare America for involvement in the European and/or Asian theaters of history’s deadliest conflict. “By the time of Pearl Harbor,” an official U.S. army publication explains, “Congress had spent more for Army procurement than it had for the Army and the Navy during all of World War I.”
A return to pre-WWII isolationism this isn’t.
2. We need them less, because there’s less war.
Accuracy aside, the comparison to World War II is ridiculous on a deeper level: we’re not actually fighting World War II anymore. There’s no global conflict ongoing, nor is there one on the horizon. In fact, over the past several centuries — and particularly over the past 70 years — war casualties have declined precipitously. This chart of battle deaths per 100,000 people tells you everything you need to know:
Moreover, the kind of war you really worry about if you’re an American war planner — wars with another state, like China or Iran — are practically extinct. “Since the end of the Second World War, the number of ongoing interstate conflicts involving at least 25 battle casualties has ranged from zero to six,” war scholars Christian Davenport and Scott Gates write. “Moreover, the trend has been one of decline:” from 2003–2008, there wasn’t a single interstate war.
In short: we live in the safest time in human history. Hagel’s plan to limit (not end) America’s ability to fight two wars at once is hardly out of line.
3. But also because the Cold War is over.
The 50 years between 1939 and 1989 were dominated by the threat of fascist world domination and then, subsequently, the risk of nuclear war between superpowers. Neither of those are particularly plausible anymore, nor has any other ideological or security challenge risen to replace them. The United States and its liberal-democratic allies unquestionably lead the world both militarily and ideologically.
This is both a cause and a consequence of the world’s unprecedented stability. Cause, in the sense that the American alliance’s military dominance deters great power war. Consequence, in that the spread of democracy, capitalism, and international institutions make war less likely and less deadly. The global order works so well, in fact, that even rising states like China are more interested in working inside the existing world order than radically transforming it (though even if China wanted to, it couldn’t).
We live in a time, as Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko put it, of “clear and present safety.” We don’t depend on an oversized U.S. Army for security anymore.
4. Don’t forget science!
Military strength isn’t determined by troop numbers alone. American military superiority is underpinned by technology, alliances, and basing; the United States and its allies make up three-quarters of global military spending, and the United States alone has bases in the same percentage of countries worldwide. According to, respectively, the Pentagon and a cross-ideological consensus report, both basing and military spending could be cut without any meaningful harm done to U.S. security. So even if you think global peace depends on the force of American arms alone, there’s no reason to think cuts to the size of the Army should matter terribly much.
There’s also another important technology that separates today from the bad old days: the bomb. America’s nuclear stockpile means that, even if the regular military shrank enormously, no rational opponent would pick a fight with the U.S.
5. Finally, the things that are actually problems aren’t really solveable with lots of troops.
There are certainly some distinctively 21st century security challenges: climate change, most importantly, but also transnational terrorism and nuclear-armed rogue states. But these aren’t the sorts of threats large armies are good at solving. Climate change is a political/humanitarian problem, not something that Army artillery shells can pummel into oblivion. America’s track record in using ground invasions to address terrorism and rogue states since 9/11 has been pretty shoddy, to say the least.
Indeed, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars point to the real virtue of Hagel’s plan. Since 9/11, we’ve overspent massively on defense and homeland security — arguably playing into al-Qaeda’s hands. It’s time we recognized that throwing money at the Army isn’t a substitute for clear thinking about the threats, or lack thereof, to American and global security.