One of the most surprising episodes of U.S. history is the Cold War, from the proxy wars that the U.S. always seemed more directly engaged in than the Russians to the nuclear brinkmanship and brushes with nuclear holocaust. It was also a time of great scientific progress and triumph, such as humanity putting the first satellite, monkeys, and humans into space eventually culminating with trips to the moon. Although, as humanity was reaching for space and extraterrestrial bodies, it was also utilizing those and other advances into ever more clever ways to annihilate one another.
It is therefore surprising in the four decades of military build-up and competition that the U.S. seemed to give so little planning to possibility that the U.S. might just win the Cold War. When victory was achieved and the Soviet Union fell, the U.S. seemed to be caught completely unaware. There was no large scale nuclear disarmament or serious reductions in military expenditures. In short, there was no peace dividend. In fact, I wouldn’t expect people under the age of twenty to even know what “peace dividend” meant in any tangible sense, no one speaks of it. It is truly a meme that died.
The fact that the U.S. did not have a strategy ready to execute in the event of the Soviet Union collapse is evidence of the existence of a vested military bureaucracy. Unlike other bureaucracies of the government that are overstaffed, inefficient and expand their missions, this one not only wastes money, it directly results in the loss of life and has a vested interest in endless war.
The standing U.S. military that we have today was justified in one mission: to win the Cold War. A war that was won. The continued existence of this largely vestigial public policy instrument leads to decreased, not increased, security (as argued in such books such as “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” by Robert Pape). Standing armies are a dangerous proposition for any country of liberty and one should not assume the United States is automatically immune from such abuses.
The U.S. build-up during the Cold War was arguably a necessary evil. It has become an unnecessary evil and has now turned into a cancer to such a degree that diplomacy and statesmanship seem alien in “serious” foreign policy debates as opposed to military might and unilateralism. The founders of this nation were aware of the perils we are now facing and sought to build a system to prevent such abuses. It is a tribute to their wisdom the system is still working to a degree, but one cannot help but be dismayed at how poorly. The real threat to the people of this country are not terrorists taking over this nation, but rather the government becoming a tyranny under the pretense of saving the people from internal and external threats.
It is therefore important to understand that the current attitudes and policies are aberrations. We built a machine to protect us from a threat that no longer exists, but we maintained because we can no longer imagine dismantling it. That is the legacy of the Cold War, and all wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union must be viewed in this context: as simply a continuation of Cold War era foreign policy with no equivalent justification. This is why the same rhetoric and fear-mongering is used, but there is such tortured logic to actually explain what the U.S. is accomplishing. Continuing on this misadventure will only lead to ruin.