The Ghost Of The Athenian Past

Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 3438, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 3438, Hoover Institution Archives.

In 483 B.C. Athenians struck a particularly rich vein at their silver mine at Larium. The immediate political question confronting the Athenian democracy was what to do with the horde of silver that had just fallen into its hands. The obvious solution was to divide the riches among the citizens, but the great strategist and politician, Themistocles, argued for a different use of the money. He urged that it all be spent to build up the Athenian fleet. At the time, most Athenians believed their success at Marathon in 490 B.C. against the Persian invaders had eliminated the Asiatic threat. Unbeknownst to the Athenians, however, the Persian king was in fact in the first stages of assembling a massive invasion force to crush the Greeks and especially the Athenians who had had the temerity to win the Battle of Marathon. Nevertheless, even without this knowledge, in the end the Athenians voted against their own self-interest in favor of Themistocles’ proposal to build a great fleet. Three years later at the naval Battle of Salamis, the Athenian fleet won a decisive victory over the Persians, thus ending the Great King Xerxes’ naval threat to conquer Greece.

The American people confront a similar choice. Fourteen years of interminable struggle against guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have hollowed out the U.S. military. In some ways the current situation resembles the hollowing out of the military in the late 1970s. The one difference is today the personnel in the services are extraordinarily well-trained and combat ready. But their equipment is steadily deteriorating as a result of the stress of the past two decades. Marine pilots, who fly the ancient F-18, are flying aircraft that are broken more often than they are in commission. The Air Force’s F-15s and F-16s are old and difficult to keep in a flyable state. The number of ships the Navy possesses have reached a low not seen in decades, while a series of accidents in the Pacific have cast doubt on the Navy’s leadership. The Army’s Bradley and Abrams tanks came into the force in the early 1980s, over three decades ago. Yet, the world is far more dangerous than it was 20 years ago.

While the services are facing the serious need to renew their equipment, in a time of increasing threats, the nation as a whole is confronting the fact that the entitlements in the Federal budget—Medicare and Social Security, etc.—have been climbing steadily, taking a larger and larger cut out of the available funds, while the interest on the debt is also climbing. Meanwhile, both the Republicans and the Democrats seem eager to increase entitlements, while neither party seems to be willing to raise taxes to pay for programs that are immensely popular to the citizenry. However, the only way to pay the bills that are coming due to refurbish and re-equip America’s military will have to come by cutting back on entitlements and/or increasing taxes.

Will the American people display the same public spiritedness the Athenians did in 483 B.C. and support politicians who are willing to cut back on entitlements? The irresponsibility displayed by both the executive and legislative bodies over the past four decades suggests they will not. And so while all too many politicians are spouting patriotic slogans, America’s servicemen will likely find themselves engaged in the next war with outdated and warn out weapons. A sorry state of affairs indeed.