Memorial Day Lesson: Forever War is Forever Profitable — For Some

Long May It Wave.  Photo by the author in Maine, 2006
Long May It Wave. Photo by the author in Maine, 2006

Heading north from the Beltway via Highway 1 to the centers of US power in Washington, DC you’ll pass through trendy Alexandria, Virginia, before encountering scrappier neighborhoods closer in. But don’t worry, because within just a few miles, the glint of ultra-modern office buildings appears on the horizon.  Behold America’s own Emerald City, appropriately named Crystal City, Virginia!

The nameplates on the buildings there reveal powerful governmental (the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and corporate (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other major defense contractors) entities. Walking into the lobby of any of these defense industry titans reveals a level of swankiness that would not be out of place in a five-star luxury hotel. Conference rooms outfitted with the very latest technology enfold you in plush comfortable chairs. One can’t help but to conclude that business is going very well here. It’s crystal clear that you’ve arrived among the winners of America’s imperial moment.

A quick detour to the Pentagon, just on the outskirts of Crystal City, confirms that forever war continues to be forever profitable — for some. Just look at the constellations of stars — generals’ and admirals’ stars, that is — in the Pentagon’s corridors of power.  Since September 2001, Congressional authorizations of flag-rank, three- and four-star levels “have increased twice as fast as one- and two-star generals,” notes Dina Rasor, citing Congressional testimony from Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight.

Small wonder that governmental and corporate facilities in military-budget-fueled Crystal City shine so brightly.  The US military budget was $861 billion in fiscal year 2011, representing 58 percent of the federal discretionary budget.  By comparison, federal spending on education usually consumes a paltry four percent of that same budget.  And despite the so-called sequester “cuts” to the defense budget, America’s projected yearly defense budgets under President Obama continue to be larger than the projected military spending of the next ten highest-spending nations… combined.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower had it right when he said to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953 that:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children …. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Ike in 1959
Ike in 1959

Ike, a retired five-star general, was right. We must reverse an ethos in this country that sees cuts in war spending as emasculating. We must embrace the idea of a “peace dividend” that facilitates investment in our citizens and our communities. It sure beats payola to major corporations for their inflated weaponry.

For a nation hooked on warriors and warfighters and weapons, such a change in ethos won’t be easy.  But we need to make it. Because if we continue on our present path of blockbuster defense budgets and unending global military commitments, we know who loses – and it’s not the major defense contractors or the Pentagon brass.

Memorial Day reminds us who loses; we visit their graves, mourn their deaths, and vow to end the madness of war.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com, Huffington Post, History News Network, and Truthout, among other sites.

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