A few words about money. It's clearly on everyone's mind, and people are understandably concerned about their financial future. They're also concerned about their country's financial future.

Financial crises have, of course, political implications, the most important being the reordering of priorities. The people of a nation are told that they can no longer have this, or that, but instead must take something else. Or, they're told that they must do this, or that, to get out of the financial straits and produce a better society. One thing Americans are being told today, and have been told in the past, is that we can no longer afford large defense budgets, and must cut accordingly. We're being assured, at least by some, that this places us in no danger because potential adversaries are also in the midst of financial crises and can therefore not act against us. Iran's economy, we're told, depends on the price of oil, and look what's happened to that price?

This reasoning is false. It's worse than false. It's dangerous, and can provoke the very conflict that we seek to avoid. Consider:

• The Depression of the 1930s was far worse than what we face today, yet Japan and Germany rearmed in the face of that worldwide economic collapse. They rearmed enough to fight World War II.

• The Soviet Union, during the Second World War, had a centralized, poverty-stricken economy, yet made mincemeat of the German armies. Many Americans and Britons don't like to admit it, but more than 80 percent of the Nazi casualties were suffered at the hands of the Red Army.

• The United States faced both North Korea and the peasant society of China during the Korean War. While we achieved our objective, the continued independence of South Korea, we were fought to a standstill.

• In Vietnam we fought a tiny nation with an economy that was microscopic in comparison to ours. While we did not lose the Vietnam War militarily - we withdrew in frustration - the enemy never was short on fighting power.

John Kerry famously informed us that he had known the Soviet Union was no great threat to peace when he visited Moscow during the Cold War and found that half the airport lights were out. Presumably, Mr. Kerry was not escorted to one of the Soviet missile submarines, any one of which was undoubtedly equipped with both light bulbs and immense, fully operational nuclear firepower.

The point, of course, is that the size and even the health, of a nation's economy is but one measure of that nation's military potential, and says nothing about its intent. Of equal import is the list of economic priorities under which the nation operates. If military power is the highest priority, even an economy that has trouble feeding its own people can produce dramatic results, as the Soviets proved during World War II. That truth is magnified in an age of nuclear weapons. A poor country's bomb goes off with the same power as a rich country's. Pakistan is a nation with widespread poverty, yet its nuclear weapons are rightly feared.

A rich nation, if it places a low priority on military strength, can be pathetic in the early stages of a conflict. Recall that in 1941, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Army ranked 15th in the world. It held maneuvers in Louisiana in which ordinary cars bore signs saying TANK, and broom handles substituted for rifles.

The Pentagon today is already planning cuts. It is studying what weapons systems can be eliminated. We are again hearing that we can't afford more. We are still again hearing that there is no one out there to challenge us. And, again, we run the grave risk of tempting fate, of being unprepared, of being surprised.

And, once again, the forces that tell us that we can't afford a robust national defense always seem to find the funds for the projects they favor - witness the thousands of earmarks in the recently passed stimulus package and in the national budget currently under congressional review. These are the same forces that, for years, have told us that we are "overextended" in the world. In World War II we had 15 million men and women under arms, for a population of about 133 million. Today we have about 1.5 million men and women under arms, for a population of 305 million. Overextended?

We have been told, endlessly it seems, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about an industrial-military complex in his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961. He did issue that warning, but his words have been taken out of context. President Eisenhower was actually speaking about the need for an industrial-military complex, but simply cautioned that it had its risks. This is what Mr. Eisenhower said:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

It was only then that Eisenhower warned about the industrial-military complex. Taken in context, a context in which the president affirmed the need for our strong military, the warning was unexceptional.

Today, it is legitimate to fear that only the warning is being heard, and not the affirmation of the need for forces in being, and "ready for instant action."

The threats, from Iran, from North Korea, from a resurgent Russia, from militant Islam, are out there. Yet, under economic pressure, many Americans seem to be distracted, and ready to cut defense spending to the bone. They might recall the Biblical caution, from Corinthians, "If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" For there will certainly be battles ahead.

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