WASHINGTON -- Americans spent as much on ''plastic Santa Clauses and tinsel" and other holiday niceties last Christmas season as they do on the US military for a year, the Army's top general said yesterday.
Responding to complaints about defense spending, General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told reporters: ''I just don't understand . . . what's the problem?"
Schoomaker said the defense budget the Bush administration requested this year -- nearly $440 billion, plus the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is 3.9 percent of the nation's near $13 trillion overall economy. Bush has requested $50 billion so far for the wars.
He said that during World War II, military expenditures accounted for 38 percent of the entire economy.
''Here's what is amazing to me . . . What do you think we spent on plastic Santa Clauses and tinsel and all this stuff for Christmas last year?" Schoomaker asked during a meeting with reporters. ''The answer is $438.5 billion, roughly equivalent to the defense budget."
The general said he got the figure on Christmas spending from a newspaper clipping.
''I've told Congress this," he said to a defense writers group. ''I've told everybody this: What's the problem?
''I mean, I don't get it," he said. ''We've got a lot to be thankful for in this country, and we've got a lot to lose. And one of the first responsibilities of government is to defend the country."
He was discussing his fears that it might take a fight to get enough money from Congress to rebuild the Army's equipment and supplies worn down in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the military would continue to submit requests for that money for at least two years after the last troops leave, which President Bush has said will probably be years from now.