This post originally appeared as an op-ed in The Commercial Appeal on September 13th, 2012.
Joining the crowd fleeing Washington via Reagan National Airport a few weeks ago, I looked up to see a Marine missing both legs and an arm coming toward me. On his T-shirt were the words "I had a blast in Afghanistan." Stopping to talk, I thanked him for his sacrifice but the encounter made me even more disheartened at the spectacle of Americans degenerating into a squabbling mob during this presidential campaign season.
Our ability to govern has been progressively eroded by partisan positioning that puts fringe issues and ideological purity ahead of making the right decisions for our economic and security well-being, and for that Marine. Since the congressional recess in August, the vitriolic campaign rhetoric has increased without anything getting done. It must stop, and here is why.
This nation has been at war for nearly 11 years. The cost in our most precious national resource, blood, has been high. Over 6,461 men and women have died serving our country, with thousands more wounded, many grievously, in mind and body — typified by that gallant young Marine at the airport. Of those sons and daughters lost, 147 were from Tennessee.
Our government borrowed heavily to pay the $3 trillion cost of the war. And that amount does not count the bills that will keep coming once we leave Afghanistan. We must continue to care for our veterans like that Marine and prepare for the security challenges to come even as the available dollars are reduced.
We have built an unparalleled military force but it is expensive to recruit and maintain. The price for continuing to pay less than one-half of 1 percent of our population to shoulder the full burden of war will not diminish significantly even as we draw down. In 2001 our active duty and reserve personnel costs were just under $100 billion (adjusted to the value of 2013 dollars); by 2011 they had exceeded $150 billion.
The annual cost of veterans' benefits, education, pensions, medical care, etc., has grown from about $60 billion to over $120 billion in the same time period, and will exceed active duty personnel costs in 2014.
Without doing anything the total "people bill" for active duty, reserve, National Guard, veterans and retirees will reach $280 billion in 2014, and will continue to climb. For comparison, the total Department of Defense budget in 2001 was just over $300 billion.
It is not just about people. Our equipment is aging and the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused our airplanes, ships and armored vehicles to be "rode hard and put away wet." The average age of the Air Force's aerial refuelers is 47 years; nearly one-quarter of our ships fail regular materiel inspections; soldiers are driving their HUMVEEs at several times the programmed rate, literally running the wheels off. The challenge is to make hard trade-offs in buying people and equipment with fewer resources.
All this is difficult enough, but Congress has painted itself into a corner with the Budget Control Act of 2011. The congressional "Super Committee" the law created failed to find the mandated $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years, and Congress continued the failure by not acting on a deficit reduction plan.
Without legislation that makes hard choices, our country now depends on short-term "continuing resolutions" to fund the government. As a result, billions of dollars will be wasted, critical programs disrupted, lives put in turmoil and continued security of our citizens compromised.
These are the serious security challenges facing our nation, not paranoid efforts to root out "financial Jihadists" in Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's administration; find fellow travelers of the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S. State Department; or defend against the nonexistent dangers of the United Nations' Agenda 21. We need a practical plan to reduce the deficit and make the hard decisions on budgets to ensure our national security. As citizens, we must get real, focus on what counts and demand that our government do its job.