It was as quiet and calm as a cliche. Somewhere distant a train click-clacked in steady rhythm. Birds hopped between leafy old trees. Every minute or two an acorn dropped, each a little blip in the stillness.

Coates. Baker. Griffiths. Grimm.

The graves were set apart from the trees; the acorns never hit the headstones. Each headstone was neat and square, sure in place.

Clay. Poe. Wood. Walker.


Perfect rows of perfect white; at Arlington National Cemetery, war looks very clean.

Not every one of the 400,000 buried at Arlington is a veteran of conflict; regulations generally restrict admission to active service personnel and their spouses. But within the expansive grounds are the bodies and ashes of men from every war in US history. The military cemetery spreads more than 600 green acres (242 ha) in rows of ordered white.

The United States' military size and role is perhaps one of the defining differences in everyday American and New Zealand societies. The US 2012 military budget was more than two-and-a-half times that of any other country, and for many outside the US, an at-times-satirical image of the US military as self-appointed "World Police" has been reinforced by decades of foreign conflicts. For generations of Americans, world power and American greatness have been defined by aircraft carriers and F-18s, as much as by economic strength.

But as the presidential candidates scrap for office and the US involvement in Afghanistan trails towards an unconvincing end, the future role of the US military is increasingly unsure. Having withdrawn troops from Iraq and promised the same in Afghanistan, Barack Obama now plans almost US$500 billion ($610 billion) in cuts to military spending over the decade, in a decision favouring bigger domestic benefits.

Republican Mitt Romney, despite not specifying how he'd pay for the shortfall, pledges to cancel Obama's cuts and extend military funding to new missile defence systems. He wants to increase troop numbers by 100,000 and increase the production of Navy submarines. If he becomes President, Romney will impose a minimum level for defence budgets at 4 per cent of GDP, which by 2020 would lift the annual defence budget to at least US$900 billion ($1100 billion).

The budgetary differences contrast two very different sets of values. Obama's reduced military spending would save taxpayer dollars but cost military industry jobs, and risk an increased enemy strength and foreign instability. It could come at a moralistic cost, too. Reduced resources could influence a US decision not to intervene in the Syrian civil war or similar future foreign conflicts. Without American involvement, it seems unlikely any other nations will assume the intervening role, and the United Nations has so far proved toothless in defending Syria's innocent. But playing World Police isn't exactly working either. After 10 bloody years, continued instability and regular insider attacks make the prospect of civil war in Afghanistan still seem inevitable.

The US is grinding forth with little headway in what has become the longest war in its history. Suicide among US military personnel is at epidemic levels. This month, American losses in Afghanistan passed 2000, and that's without mentioning the thousands of Afghan civilian deaths.

An acorn dropped. Bourke. Jennison. O'Malley. Adams. Perhaps it's time for a change.