Straining At A Gnat
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.
In the Gospel of S. Matthew, Jesus takes to task hypocrites who "strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel," the point being that they focus on minutiae while ignoring much larger problems. He could have been talking about the current crop of budget analysts who, concerned about the soaring defense budget, aspire to cost efficiency by cutting or eliminating funds for military bands.
Without question, we do spend a good bit of money on military bands. One estimate suggests the total is north of $500 million a year. I must admit that is a tidy piece of change and worth review. No doubt some of those bands could be zeroed out and some of that money could be saved without undue harm to the Republic.
But taking on the bands will not make a dent in the defense budget. The big cost items are the nuclear carrier fleets of which we have too many and the advanced weapons systems like the F-35 that consume vast sums of money in cost overruns. Congress routinely forces the Pentagon to build ships and aircrafts it does not need or want, and to maintain military bases that should be closed, because they provide jobs to constituents. For as long as I can remember, the military has bent over backwards to accommodate members of Congress in exchange for support for military spending, but it is a devil's bargain that does not serve us well - especially in this time of soaring deficits and declining revenues.
As for the bands, they serve a real purpose. Any and all who attended the Fourth of July celebration on the Washington Mall would have seen the power of a military band, in company with a military chorus, celebrating our heritage with patriotic music. Military bands are much on display all over the country - indeed all over the world at some 140 military bases - on national holidays and other special events infusing them with patriotic tributes.
We live in the era of the volunteer army in which about 1 percent of the nation's population has a direct connection to the military in terms of having at least one family member in one of the military services. The volunteer army was created in the wake of the Vietnam War when draft riots were commonplace. It solved the political problem, but left us with the current situation in which the same small cadre of warriors must return to the battlefields time and time again. It takes a terrible toll on them and their families.
Military bands provide a badly-needed connection between our military and the public at large. They remind us all of our military heritage and of the sacrifices our small forces make for our defense. They also are a great morale booster for citizens in the services, and a powerful recruiting tool in a time when most young people shun military service.
To the budget cutters in Congress, I can only say by all means cut the military budget. Zero out unneeded weapons systems and close redundant military bases. But leave the bands alone. They earn their pay and perform a valuable service to the country.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.