Spoiling the Pentagon


W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I compare the Pentagon and the Department of Defense to Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager said to be suffering from “affluenza.”  Like Couch, the Pentagon has been showered with money and praise, yet despite all the preferential treatment, the Pentagon is never called to account for its mistakes and its crimes.  You can read the entire article here; what follows is an excerpt.

A Spoiled Pentagon Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

To complete our affluenza diagnosis, let’s add one more factor to boundless praise and a bountiful allowance: a total inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. This is, of course, the most repellent part of the Ethan Couch affluenza defense: the idea that he shouldn’t be held responsible precisely because he was so favored.

Think, then, of the Pentagon and the military as Couch writ large. No matter their mistakes, profligate expenditures, even crimes, neither institution is held accountable for anything.

Consider these facts: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are quagmires. The Islamic State is spreading. Foreign armies, trained and equipped at enormous expense by the U.S. military, continue to evaporate. A hospital, clearly identifiable as such, is destroyed “by accident.” Wedding parties are wiped out “by mistake.” Torture (a war crime) is committed in the field. Detainees are abused. And which senior leaders have been held accountable for any of this in any way? With the notable exception of Brigadier General Janis Karpinskiof Abu Ghraib infamy, not a one.

After lengthy investigations, the Pentagon will occasionally hold accountable a few individuals who pulled the triggers or dropped the bombs or abused the prisoners. Meanwhile, the generals and the top civilians in the Pentagon who made it all possible are immunized from either responsibility or penalty of any sort. This is precisely why Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling memorably wrote in 2007 that, in the U.S. military, “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” In fact, no matter what that military doesn’t accomplish, no matter how lacking its ultimate performance in the field, it keeps getting more money, resources, praise.

When it comes to such subjects, consider the Republican presidential debate in Iowa on January 28th. Jeb Bush led the rhetorical charge by claiming that President Obama was “gutting” the military. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio eagerly agreed, insisting that a “dramatically degraded” military had to be rebuilt. All the Republican candidates (Rand Paul excepted) piled on, calling for major increases in defense spending as well as looser “rules of engagement” in the field to empower local commanders to take the fight to the enemy. America’s “warfighters,” more than one candidate claimed, are fighting with one arm tied behind their backs, thanks to knots tightened by government lawyers. The final twist that supposedly tied the military up in a giant knot was, so they claim, applied by that lawyer-in-chief, Barack Obama himself.

Interestingly, there has been no talk of our burgeoning national debt, which former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen once identified as the biggest threat facing America. When asked during the debate which specific federal programs he would cut to reduce the deficit, Chris Christie came up with only one, Planned Parenthood, which at $500 million a year is the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters. (The military wants to buy more than 2,000 of them.)

Throwing yet more money at a spoiled military is precisely the worst thing we as “parents” can do. In this, we should resort to the fiscal wisdom of Army Major General Gerald Sajer, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner killed in the mines, a Korean War veteran and former Adjutant General of Pennsylvania. When his senior commanders pleaded for more money (during the leaner budget years before 9/11) to accomplish the tasks he had assigned them, General Sajer’s retort was simple: “We’re out of money; now we have to think.”

Accountability Is Everything

It’s high time to force the Pentagon to think. Yet when it comes to our relationship with the military, too many of us have acted like Ethan Couch’s mother. Out of a twisted sense of love or loyalty, she sought to shelter her son from his day of reckoning. But we know better. We know her son has to face the music.

Something similar is true of our relationship to the U.S. military. An institutional report card with so many deficits and failures, a record of deportment that has led to death and mayhem, should not be ignored. The military must be called to account.

How? By cutting its allowance. (That should make the brass sit up and take notice, perhaps even think.) By holding senior leaders accountable for mistakes. And by cutting the easy praise. Our military commanders know that they are not leading the finest fighting force since the dawn of history and it’s time our political leaders and the rest of us acknowledged that as well.

6 thoughts on “Spoiling the Pentagon

  1. A profligate military lies at the feet of Congress and ultimately the American people whose leaders and the mainstream media, especially the so-called public airwaves of the TV networks, promote essentially a one-sided ethnocentric viewpoint that has enormously damaged the nation in blood and treasure. The people are ruled by fear in foreign policy while independent, clear, unbiased and objective thinking is a lost world replaced by endless misrepresentations and lies. George Washington’s Farewell Address is truly a guidepost for the nation which has been discarded by nationally elected fools whose motives are often shrouded in profit and favoritism masquerading has national security.


  2. As I like to say, you can always tell when the U.S. military has lost another war the minute they start calling it “long.” Put more simply: “long equals lost.” I also like to say about our fuck-up-and-move-up officer corps that “if they knew what to do, they’d have done it already. If they could have, they would have; but they didn’t, so they can’t.” How much longer will the put-upon and robbed American people tolerate this sham military amoeba that keeps squandering half their national resources every year fighting someone they don’t know, someplace they don’t recognize, for some reason they could care less about and in a manner that guarantees losing practically from the start of the misbegotten adventure?

    I would list the medal-encrusted General David Petraeus as Exhibit One in America’s pantheon of loser military “minds,” but he’d have fierce competition from former Army general Wesley Clarke, who recentely penned an article in U.S.A. Today entitled: In Syria, Russia is the real threat (updated). What a ridiculous assertion! It reminds me of the Clinton Administration’s bombing of Serbia when General Clark commanded NATO forces and kept publicly trying to bully President Clinton into committing U.S. ground forces to the fight. U.S. Secretary of [War] William Cohen had to tell General Clark in no uncertain terms: “Get your fucking face off TV!” Too bad no one in the American government has seen fit to tell General Clark: “Quit writing your drivel about the Russians when they have taken over the job of eliminating ISIS for us. (as if we actually had any desire to do that). Even Donald Trump knows that the Russian military has succeeded in short order where ours has failed over years of supposedly “doing something.” The Donald has publicly said so. He has even gome so far as to remind our military that they don’t “win” any more and just fight for the sake of fighting, sort of “like vomiting.” I’ve got to hand it to the Donald. He sure has gotten that right.

    I don’t know where we get these incredibly dense military pretenders, but certainly not from the deep end of the nation’s intellectual gene pool. I think that they possess more than anything else a bureaucratic instinct for “kiss up and kick down” careerism, or nest-feathering, that combines the worst aspects of Parkinson’s Law and The Peter Principle. Way past time to RIF (Reduction In Force) their bloated ranks.


  3. On a related note concerning America’s military “hero,” General David Petraeus: during the U.S. military’s rush across the desert into Baghdad in 2003 — otherwise known in strategic circles as “taking the low ground” — Petraeus turned to an in-bed-with reporter and aksed, rhetorically: “Tell me how this ends.” I found it somewhat astonishing that the reporter didn’t reply (incredulously) to the American general: “Do you mean to tell me that you don’t know? Then what the hell are we doing here?”

    At about that same time, I had a conversation with a young Taiwanese schoolteacher (a relative through marriage) who said to me “It’s easy to rush into a trap, but not so easy to get out of it.” I agreed with him, adding that in America we have the instructive case of General George Armstrong Custer getting himself and his troops wiped out after rushing recklessly into the Valley of the Little Big Horn river. That “taking the low ground” thing usually ends disastrously for the “taker.” One would think that they teach this sort of thing at Weat Point. Perhaps the U.S. military could improve their curriculum by hiring a few young Taiwanese school teachers who obvjously know a great deal more about military disasters than certain highly “decorated” U.S. military officers.

    As we enlisted men used to say back in the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam: “We lost the day we started and we win the day we stop.” Thirteen years later in Iraq and fourteen years later in Afghanistan, we still haven’t stopped. Consequently, we go on losing because we won’t stop. Thus, the “way of war” as practiced by the self-styled “Greatest Military In the History of the World” (or GMIHW, in military-speak). Most expensive? Certainly. Greatest? Hardly.


  4. Mike: Yesterday, my wife and I went to a “family-owned” furniture store on Cape Cod. We saw a bed we were interested in buying. I looked at the back of the headboard and the sticker said: “Made in Vietnam.”

    Now, who would have thought in 1965 or 1975 that a unified Vietnam, a communist Vietnam, would be exporting beds to the USA, and Americans would be buying them with no hesitation?

    We decided on a different bed frame that was actually made in the USA, but I still thought it telling that we’re now a major trade partner with Vietnam, a people and a government we thought we had utterly to defeat five decades ago.


    1. Bill: I assume you’ve read the late Sheldon Wolin’s book: Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitariasm. Especially in Chapter Two: Totalitarianism’s Inversion” Professor Wolin notes that “the motive [for opposing Communism] was not solely geopolitical worries about the Bolshevik regime but that regime’s candidacy as an alternative to capitalism.” Professor Wolin went on to write:

      “The wartime imaginary was not abandoned after 1945 but reconceived as a “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union, a showdown between capitalism and anticapitalism. The undeclared stake concerned domestic policy.”

      For this reason, I like to say that “Politics does not stop at the water’s edge. It begins there.” None of the beligerent babbling we hear about imaginary foreign “threats” has anything to do with threatening foreigners. It has only to do with domestic policy affecting the distribution of wealth upward to the ruling oligarchy. Political and military talk of anything else amounts to nothing but deliberatly deployed distraction. “Follow the money,” as I thought we had all learned during the Nixon administration.

      I have to laugh and cry at the same time as I watch the U.S. Navy salivationg over the possiblity of mooring its ships at Cam Rahn Bay, one of my first duty stations in the now-defunct Republican of South Vietam. Ouch!

      At any rate, once the communist regimes in China and Vietnam became crony-capitalist (for the most part) offering guaranteed cheap labor for U.S. capitalists to exploit, the U.S. business community’s fear of workers having a say in the economic system went right out the window. Today “Communism” doesn’t scare anyone in the financial community, especially since “Communist” China, for example, pretty much makes everything Americans want to buy and loans Americans the money they need to pay for it. As Lenin said: “The capitalist will sell you the rope that you hang him with.” So it looks like the “communists” won after all, and not just on the battlefields of Southeast Asia. They won on the showroom floors of american shopping malls, as well. Good for them.


      1. Thanks, Mike. I know of Wolin’s book (from Chris Hedge’s writings) but I haven’t read it. Of course, you’re absolutely right about the DoD and foreign policy. It’s not about keeping America safe (or, it’s not only about that). It’s about money, about profit, about greed, about hegemony. And it’s about controlling the people at home. Again, as you know, Orwell had it pegged: divert the people’s attention with war. Focus their hate on an enemy. And while their attention is so focused, rob them blind.


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