National Defense & National Security

These words carry particular emotional weight in very different ways (and directions) across the political spectrum. Conservative-leaning folks often use and reference the military-related words as reflecting an almost sacred trust that merits our highest respect, investment, and appreciation. Progressive-leaning folks often use the same words to reference what they see as broken promises by institutions that should have earned our caution and concern by now.  

These contrasting usages of words coincide with vastly different narratives of the larger history of military encounters involved in both national defense and security in the past. From the recent Iraqi wars, moving back through major and minor conflicts, the history told by conservative voices tends to emphasize American courage, resolve, and virtue - with a focus on all the benefits they see as arising from the interventions. By contrast, these same events interpreted historically by liberal voices tend to emphasize American power, self-interest, and aggression - with a focus on all the damaging consequences they see as arising from the interventions.

This helps explain why references to national defense or security can evoke such opposing emotional responses - from entreaties to increase (inadequate) investment out of worries about diminishing strength … to entreaties to decrease (excessive) investment out of worries the U.S. military is already too strong for the good of the citizens it claims to protect.   

To complicate things further, use of the phrase “in the interest of national security” has been criticized by people across the political spectrum as an ineffective prop for dubious proposals. People on all sides of the immigration debate, for instance, have called on national security to support their views of what should be done. Recently some progressives have represented action on climate change as being in the interests of national security, and this has drawn ire from conservatives who see such usage as a distortion of the term’s meaning. (As one opinion piece asked, “Do Democrats even understand national security?”) Thus to some, the term “national security” has been usefully broadened to encompass the variety of threats our nation faces, while to others the term has been perversely distorted to support particular political views.


-Have you ever heard someone say something should be done “in the interests of our national security” when you didn’t agree - either that it should be done, or that it had anything to do with national security? What would you say to them if you were sure they would listen?

-What would you be willing to give up for national security? What would you be willing to ask your neighbors to give up? Why?

-What fits within the scope of national security for you? What lies outside it? How do you see other views that define the term with a wider or narrower scope?