By James R. Mismash and Nicholas J. Romanow

Skepticism toward the military is easy to find on college campuses like the University of Texas at Austin; even in the absence of a nationally omnipresent anti-war movement as in the 1960s, anti-military student groups have thrived in recent years. However, college students who desire a just and sustainable global future would be wise to temper and redirect their criticism of the military toward elected leaders responsible for making policy.

The Pentagon is frequently blamed for the over-militarized foreign policy blunders of the last two decades. However, this overlooks the relationship between the U.S. Government and its military. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed that “the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms.” Rather than being a cabal of jingoists, the military follows the President’s orders as overseen by Congress.

Uniformed service members did not decide to wage the wars of the 21st century—the U.S. military followed orders from the White House and Congress, supported by a majority of the American public. Eighty percent of Americans supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and 72 percent backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While public support for both wars has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years, Congress has not updated the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), and both the 2001 and 2002 declarations remain in effect. If one judges these decisions as grave failures, they are ultimately political failures with military ramifications.

It is difficult to see the military, and especially the military-industrial complex, as anything other than an institution outfitted for destruction and violence. However, emerging defense technologies—including robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning—can better equip the armed forces to execute their missions while limiting their potentially destructive effects. While science fiction leads us to fear the rise of killer robots, the reality is that more automation by definition means less human error, which will reduce  the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties. 

Progressive activists have also long quarreled with the military-industrial complex on climate change, but this military actually shares common interests with environmental advocates. The Combatant Commands—the entities that coordinate joint service activities across 11 geographic and functional regions—express that climate change multiplies current security threats by making base development and military operations more difficult to plan. US Central Command (CENTCOM) reports climate change as a key impact they consider in various planning exercises. The military’s logisticians are already well-versed in allocating resources across a vast, complex bureaucracy; this skillset is critical to combating climate change. 

According to a 2019 report, if the US military were a country, it would be the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. However, the military is also one of the most capable institutions to lead the climate battle. For decades, the military has recognized, tracked, and begun developing technology to understand and counteract the effects of climate change and emissions across the globe. For example, the Department of Defense, in tandem with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, runs the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program which is tasked with finding “solutions to the Department’s environmental challenges.” The military is not only capable of fighting climate change, it is already doing so by supporting critical innovation in the military-industrial base partially via its partnerships with schools like UT Austin. However, resource constraints imposed by Congress’s excessive budgetary earmarking can make shifting innovation to address climate change more difficult.

Many progressives want future administrations to demilitarize American foreign policy and re-appropriate defense funding for domestic policy priorities. This would be a mistake. While making these readjustments, students and policymakers should not ignore the fact that the military is postured to confront more than traditional security threats. Instead of punishing a nonpartisan institution through budget cuts, legislators should reclaim their constitutional authority to make foreign policy and realign the military’s objectives with the will of the public. 

Image Source: Dept. of Defense/Public Domain. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.