The Pentagon as a Herd of Elephants

Now this makes me proud to be an American.  “Salute to service” during Ravens-Steelers game.

W.J. Astore

A few months ago, I was talking to a researcher about the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and America’s fourth (and most powerful?) branch of government: the national security state.  After talking about the enormous sweep and power of these entities, she said to me, it’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it?  More than that, I replied: It’s the rampaging herd of elephants in the room.  Even so, we prefer to ignore the herd, even as it dominates and destroys.

This thought came back to me as I read Danny Sjursen’s recent article at  His main point was that enormous Pentagon spending and endless wars went undebated during this election cycle.  President Trump preferred to talk of “invasions” by caravans of “criminals,” when not denigrating Democrats as a mutinous mob; the Democrats preferred to talk of health care and coverage for preexisting conditions, when not attacking Trump as hateful and reckless.  No one wanted to talk about never-ending and expanding wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa, and no one in the mainstream dared to call for significant reductions in military spending.

As Sjursen put it:

So long as there is no conscription of Americans’ sons and daughters, and so long as taxes don’t rise (we simply put our wars on the national credit card), the people are quite content to allow less than 1% of the population [to] fight the nation’s failing wars – with no questions asked. Both mainstream wings of the Republicans and Democrats like it that way. They practice the politics of distraction and go on tacitly supporting one indecisive intervention after another, all the while basking in the embarrassment of riches bestowed upon them by the corporate military industrial complex. Everyone wins, except, that is, the soldiers doing multiple tours of combat duty, and – dare I say – the people of the Greater Middle East, who live in an utterly destabilized nightmare of a region.

Why should we be surprised? The de facto “leaders” of both parties – the Chuck Schumers, Joe Bidens, Hillary Clintons and Mitch McConnells of the world – all voted for the 2002 Iraq War resolution, one of the worst foreign policy adventures in American History. Sure, on domestic issues – taxes, healthcare, immigration – there may be some distinction between Republican and Democratic policies; but on the profound issues of war and peace, there is precious little daylight between the two parties. That, right there, is a formula for perpetual war.

As we refuse to debate our wars while effectively handing blank checks to the Pentagon, we take pains to celebrate the military in various “salutes to service.”  These are justified as Veterans Day celebrations, but originally November 11th celebrated the end of war in 1918, not the glorification of it.  Consider these camouflage NFL hats and uniforms modeled on military clothing (courtesy of a good friend):


When I lived in England in the early 1990s, the way people marked Veterans or Armistice Day was with a simple poppy. I recall buying one from a veteran who went door-to-door to raise funds to support indigent vets.  Students of military history will know that many young men died in World War I in fields of poppies.  Thus the poppy has become a simple yet powerful symbol of sacrifice, loss, and gratitude for those who went before us to defend freedom.


No poppies for us.  Instead, Americans are encouraged to buy expensive NFL clothing that is modeled on military uniforms.  Once again, we turn war into sport, perhaps even into a fashion statement.

And the herd of elephants marches on …

9 thoughts on “The Pentagon as a Herd of Elephants

  1. Amusingly, one of our regulars pointed out to me that American troops have poppies — in Afghanistan. Yes, the heroin trade is flourishing there, a trade that was almost destroyed by the Taliban. Talk about bitter ironies …


  2. I’ll add my usual statistic here: more than 50% of the discretionary federal budget (paid for by our federal income taxes) goes to the Pentagon/DoD, which routinely hauls in 600-700 Billion $ annually. That comes to about $2,000 per American, per year. This figure does not include the Veterans Administration, which represents only about 6.5% of the total federal discretionary budget for 2019.

    For comparison, the cost of delivering reliable clean water to everyone on the planet presently lacking this basic human right is estimated (middle estimate) to cost about $100 billion per year.

    Were the Pentagon to decide that universal access to clean water represents a vital national security interest, it could pretty much solve that problem for the entire world.

    Or if we decide we don’t care about those other people, then how about doubling or tripling VA funding to improve care for the hundreds of thousands of veterans coping with physical and mental injuries that result from America’s endless wars.

    This wasted spending is very much the elephant in the national room. The opportunity costs associated with the Pentagon budget are astounding, especially when you consider that the National Guard and Reserves receive only 20% or so of the overall budget, yet they provide 40% of overall capabilities, and also provide vital services to states during natural disasters.

    Give me just the Guard and Reserve budgets, and I can defend the homeland. Two oceans represent an incredible defensive moat, even in an age of aircraft and ballistic missiles. Anti-access weapons are cheap and effective, and the most rudimentary nuclear deterrent is enough to deter most hypothetical aggressors.

    I say we double, even triple VA funding, slash the rest of the DoD budget by 2/3, and use the promise of cutbacks as leverage to get Russia and China to agree to limit their own military buildups.

    Failure to accomplish this crucial task represents a fundamental betrayal of generations of American veterans and everything they ever fought for. No amount of flag-waving, NFL uniform branding, or abusing serving personnel by using them as props in political speeches will substitute for meaningful reform.

    And for those taxpayers who don’t care about morality, here’s this material promise: how would you like your federal taxes slashed by $1,000 or more a year, while improving support for veterans?

    Good luck finding a politician who will make that argument, though.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, AT. Politicians aren’t dumb. They know if they challenge the herd of elephants, they will almost certainly be crushed underfoot. Far easier to climb on board and lead the charge.


      1. Saw this one today, seemed particularly relevant:

        At a minimum, those Stars and Stripes the NFL and our politician-jackals adore so much have killed at least half a million people over the course of the ‘War on Terror’ as well as sacrificing 7,000 American military personnel’s lives and the long-term health of hundreds of thousands of others. Vietnam all over again.

        Some days I hope very much that during some near-future State of the Union, a flight of ground-skimming, supersonic, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles pop up from under Delaware Bay and 5-ish minutes later put an end to the swamp once and for all.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Someone once asked U.S. President Lyndon Johnson why he didn’t speak to the nation more about the war in Vietnam. He answered: “Because when you have a mother-in-law and she has only one eye, and she has it in the center of her forehead, you don’t let her sit in the living room.” Still holds true about the unspeakable reality of the U.S. military’s many (and largely uncounted) blundering boondoggles abroad and shoddy weapons procurement scams at home.

    And speaking of the U.S. military and metaphorical elephants, how about the proverbial and legendary “white” ones? Otherwise known as …

    Albino Pachyderms
    (From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley)

    White elephants sit in the living room
    Like Johnson’s Cyclops mother of a wife,
    Inhibiting the conversation’s bloom

    Suggesting by their presence sordid strife:
    Returns upon investments others made,
    Supported troops supported out of life

    Supporting politicians in the shade
    Who can’t support enough to get their fill.
    Upon the treasury they make a raid

    To profit from supporting those who kill.
    With such support the troops deploy once more,
    Their stop-loss orders telling them they will:

    A back-door draft supporting troops galore,
    Their Raven contracts honored “Nevermore.”

    Supporters of the troops roll in the dough,
    Their carpetbagging no-bid contracts huge.
    It’s not the “what” but rather “whom” they know;

    Their lobby toilet swirl a centrifuge
    That separates no quo from any quid.
    They figure after them comes the deluge,

    So better get it now and get it hid;
    A last-chance grab at all the graft that spurts
    From under troop-supporting’s toilet lid.

    They chant their Mammon mantra till it hurts
    To grease the skids for their corrupt cohort.
    Out from their flapping lips their lying blurts:

    “Support! support! support! support! support!”
    For sport, for sport, for sport, for sport, for sport.

    A “higher” father George the Worst consults,
    Like Jesus putting Joseph in his place:
    A put-down of his dad that got results,

    Like Mama causin’ Joe to lose his face
    By fornicatin’ with a larger dude
    Who knocked her up and left Joe in disgrace,

    The butt of village jokes both lame and rude.
    A scarlet Hebrew letter marks his shame;
    A cuckold branded for ineptitude

    Whose ingrate stepson chooses to defame
    The carpenter whose work earned him release
    From doing business in the earthly game.

    Like Zeus seducing peasant girls in Greece,
    Old Yahweh came on down and got a piece.

    Thus satisfied in his own mind, George plays
    With legendary myths about his birth.
    His limited attention span betrays

    No grasp of any knowledge of the earth.
    But with the Big Spook coaching him at night
    He feels no consciousness of any dearth.

    So anything, he figures, adds up right
    As long as “up in heaven” Daddy grins
    And says to disregard the nation’s plight;

    For nothing that George does can count as sins
    To those who never think a dumb thing odd.
    For all the lies and bullshit that he spins

    They genuflect and kowtow to a fraud
    Who swears that late at night he talks to GAWD.

    White elephants mean waste on scales so vast
    That few can comprehend the sunken cost
    Or summon any samples from the past

    To illustrate just how much we have lost.
    But like the busted gambler who can’t quit,
    Dame Clinton hopes the sun will melt the frost.

    And so into the wringer goes her tit,
    While Betty Boops and pampered poops cavort;
    Like flies about an open wound, they flit.

    In pain, the faces of our troops contort
    While she supports King George’s contract firms.
    Such rank ingratitude at their “support”!

    They only hope to finish out their terms,
    These asinine albino pachyderms.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006-2010


  4. Will Democrats cut back on giving the Pentagon everything it wants? Fred Kaplan at Slate suggests they will — but time will tell.

    From Kaplan’s article:

    “One little-noted consequence of the Democrats’ victory in the House of Representatives on Tuesday is that, for the first time in several years, there will be serious oversight of the Defense Department and possibly some cuts in high-profile weapons systems and secret commando operations.

    At the Defense News Conference in September, Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who has been the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and is likely to become its chairman in January, listed his top priorities if his party took control of the House. They include:

    • Cuts in the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons modernization program—estimated to cost $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years—as strategically unnecessary (Smith believes we have more than enough nukes to deter an attack) and fiscally unsustainable.

    • Oversight of special operations missions worldwide, which are far more extensive than most people know, for reasons that officials haven’t been asked to explain.

    • More inclusive policies for women and LGBTQ personnel in the military.

    In other statements, op-eds, and legislative proposals, Smith has staked out critical positions on other controversial issues:

    • He and Rep. Eliot Engel, the New York Democrat who is likely to be the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have co-sponsored a bill to cut off military supplies to Saudi Arabia for its brutal war in Yemen.

    • He has denounced the Trump administration’s $716 billion defense budget as excessive, saying that $600 billion, if spent wisely, would probably be sufficient.

    • He has called for more transparency from the Defense Department, noting its failure to produce witnesses for congressional hearings or to provide information to the media.”


  5. Describing himself as a patriot, Macron said: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.

    “Old demons are resurfacing. History sometimes threatens to take its tragic course again and compromise our hope of peace. Let us vow to prioritize peace over everything.”
    It is highly unlikely most American politicians would have the courage to say the words Macron did.


    1. Right you are, ML. I noted that Trump is not going to a multilateral meeting on peace later today — but that Putin is.


      1. Putin is doing a decent job of pulling together alliances even as Trump burns them down. Russia and China are working together to build a Eurasian alliance capable of withstanding US/Western attempts to encircle and contain it. Russia provides the tech, oil, and gas, China provides the manufacturing and investment.

        As miserable as Tsar-wannabe Putin’s regime may be, it at least plays realpolitik by the traditional rules. And so its behavior is fairly predictable – at least in the middle to long run. Way things are headed, I would not be surprised if the ’20s end with whatever German-run EU still exists signing on with Russia and China, trading geopolitical predictability for the schizophrenic USA.


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