“What are we fighting for?” Country Joe and the Fish memorably queried. The question we need to ask today is “What are spending for?”

In Slate, Fred Kaplan writes about Robert Gates, the departing Secretary of Defense, and a man who deserves his country’s gratitude for the thoughtful and professional way he has conducted his years in charge of a compromised, demoralized, Rumsfeldized Pentagon. Gates, says Kaplan, wants the country to have a real debate about defense spending–how much should we spend in coming years, and on what.

“For instance, the defense budget that Obama and Gates put forth in February includes $24.6 billion for 11 new ships, $4 billion for two new Virginia-class submarines, and $1 billion for a down payment on a new nuclear aircraft carrier. Are all these things really needed? What are the assumptions and scenarios that support the case? How valid are they? Do we need to spend $9.4 billion to buy 32 F-35 stealth fighter planes, when we’re also spending $2 billion to upgrade the older (but still world-class) F-15s? And what about the $1.4 billion for 24 new Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles? Is our nuclear deterrent degraded without them?”

Another way to ask these most excellent questions is this: what have we gotten for our money? How, specifically, have we benefited? What, for example, would the Chinese have done that would have hurt us if we didn’t have a whole much of heavy metal at our immediate disposal? The idea that is implicit in the questions asked above is that we need to stand ready to fight multiple wars at once, but it’s worth noting that other countries do not make this assumption, do not budget for weapons on the scale that we do, and yet do not seem to suffer for the lack. Great Britain, France, Germany, the Scandanavian countries–they seem to be happy and prosperous. How are they impaired by their inability to project massive amounts of force?

As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Perhaps not everything is a nail. One does not wish to be naive and to think that end of the 20th century brought to a complete end all the -isms bent on world domination. And certainly there will be outlaw bands like al-Qaeda who are determined to do us harm. But what exactly do we fear, and what exactly have we deterred with all our might?

Yes, let’s have a real debate. Perhaps we will conclude that we cannot risk any reduction in our preparedness; perhaps we will conclude that we need even more. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we at long last we could beat a few swords into ploughshares?

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

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Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.