The front page of today's New York Times has astonishing news for a nation accustomed to life on an eternal war footing: Defense secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed shrinking the United States military to a size, as the subheadline puts it, "Equal to That of 1940." Online, where the subheads are more expansive, the paper elaborates:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's budget proposal would eliminate an entire class of Air Force attack jets and scale back the size of the Army not just to pre-9/11 levels, but to the force's size in 1940.

So according to the Times, the Obama administration would be rolling back not just the recent military growth during the War on Terror, but nearly three-quarters of a century's worth of the expansion of the military-industrial complex. Can America really demobilize?

Uh, nope. Here is the graph accompanying the Times story (emphasis added):

You might notice that the leftmost bar, representing 1940 active Army troop levels, is substantially shorter than the rightmost bar, representing Hagel's proposed troop levels. This is because the Times graphics desk, unlike the editors who packaged the story, is able to grasp the difference between the Army having its "smallest force since before the World War II buildup"—which is what reporters Thom Shanker and Helene Cooper actually wrote—and the Army shrinking all the way down to match its pre-World War II size.

It's a pretty important difference. The prewar United States Army had some 230,000 active troops. Starting in 1941, the Army got very, very large. Even after the war and demobilization, the Army remained more than twice as big as it had been before. And the baseline has stayed somewhere around there, interrupted by spikes for shooting conflicts, from then on.

So the proposed cuts would give the country the smallest Army since 1940 in the same sense that Nate Robinson, at 5-foot-9, is the NBA player closest to being the shortest person in America.

What Hagel is proposing is that the Army's baseline be reduced a little, from its current 528,000 active personnel down to 440,000 or 450,000. This would be at least 210,000 more troops than there were in 1940.

And that's just the Army. Of course we still also have the Marines, and the Air Force, and the Navy (with its 11 aircraft carriers)—adding up to another 800,000 or so active personnel—and an ever-growing arsenal of drones and robots. The United States will remain the most heavily funded and most powerful military force on the planet, by a huge margin.

"Army to Employ Slightly Fewer Soldiers Than It Did in the 1990s" would have made a much less exciting headline. Definitely not as compelling, as front-page material, as the story of our impending disarmament and implied back-to-the-1930s vulnerability to some theoretical Hitler 2.0. But true.

[Image via Getty]