The Trap of Rearmament

The Baroque Arsenal

by Mary Kaldor
Hill and Wang, 294 pp., $14.95

Soviet Military Power

by the US Department of Defense
US Government Printing Office, 99 pp., $6.50

The East-West Strategic Balance

by T.B. Millar
Allen & Unwin, 199 pp., $12.50 (paper)

Casper Weinberger
Casper Weinberger; drawing by David Levine

With the beginning of the government’s fiscal year on October 1, the first full year of the Reagan administration’s program to “rearm America” began as well. The American military budget for the year just begun is some $214 billion. That is 3 percent less than the administration had originally projected, before the revisions made while the president was in Santa Barbara this summer, but it is 24 percent larger than the budget of only two years ago.1

The political argument that has accompanied the administration’s budget proposal has generally conceded its basic premise: if the US hopes to be safe in the world, it should be spending more for defense. Most politicians have concentrated instead on how the extra money should be distributed among the services, or on the political dexterity that will be required to keep the defense budget rising while other forms of public spending are cut.

Some of this political debate reflects arguments that have raged for years within the military, about the kinds of machines the Pentagon buys. Specifically, the question is whether today’s weapons are too expensive and complicated to be of any practical value—or whether, on the contrary, their expense and complication are essential if American forces hope to prevail in the perilous world of modern warfare. Politicians have also paid increasing attention to the warnings, often originating on Wall Street, about the costs that will be borne by both public and private sectors of the economy if the military budget is to be raised to nearly $300 billion by 1985.2

The great virtue of Mary Kaldor’s book is to suggest a larger perspective from which to consider these disparate arguments, and to demonstrate how the decisions about the structure of our military force may have unforeseen and unwelcome implications for the nation’s industrial base.

Kaldor is a young British writer whose strength lies in delineating the economic causes, and consequences, of phenomena not obviously “economic” in nature—such as the weapons and strategies employed by a nation’s military. She is to that extent an economic determinist, which is not always the best background from which to address military questions; but in this case the benefits of her approach far outweigh its drawbacks.

One of Kaldor’s starting points is the notion of “long waves” in economic history—the cycles in which new technologies propel economic development and then eventually mature and peter out. Each wave is often associated with a specific geographical location: nineteenth-century engineering with Britain, early and mid-twentieth-century automobiles and airplanes with the United States, late twentieth-century electronics with Japan. In the early period of each cycle, growth is most dependent on “product improvements”—the inventions that push back the frontier of technology and enable companies to bring new products to the market. Later, growth depends more on “process improvements”—the techniques of mass production that were identified with America and Henry Ford early in…

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