How Do You Justify A $750 Billion Budget?

Missile Envy

W.J. Astore

I grew up on a steady diet of threat inflation.  Before I was born, bomber and missile “gaps” had been falsely touted as showing the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in developing nuclear-capable weaponry (the reverse was true).  But those lies, which vastly exaggerated Soviet capabilities, perfectly served the needs of the military-industrial complex (hereafter, the Complex) in the USA.  Another example of threat inflation, common when I was a kid, was the Domino Theory, the idea that, if South Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region of Southeast Asia would fall as well, including Thailand and perhaps even countries like the Philippines.  Inflating the danger of communism was always a surefire method to promote U.S. defense spending and the interests of the Pentagon.

When I was in college, one book that opened my eyes was Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine.”  James Fallows’s “National Defense” was another book I read in those days, together with Helen Caldicott’s “Missile Envy.”  Early in the Reagan years, I recall those old charts that displayed Soviet ICBMs as being bigger than American ICBMs, as if missile size was everything.  The message was clear: the Soviets have more missiles, and they’re bigger!  Yet what really mattered was the accuracy and reliability of those missiles, areas where the U.S. had a decisive edge.  U.S. nuclear forces were also far more survivable than their Soviet counterparts, but such details were lost on most Americans.

Throughout my life, the U.S. “defense” establishment has consistently inflated the dangers presented by foreign powers, which brings me to the current Pentagon budget for 2020, which may reach $750 billion.  How to justify such an immense sum?  A large dollop of threat inflation might help…

With the Islamic State allegedly defeated in Syria and other terrorist forces more nuisances than existential threats, with the Afghan War apparently winding down (only 14,000 U.S. troops are deployed there) and with Trump professing a “love” fest with Kim Jong-un, where are today’s (and tomorrow’s) big threats?  Iran isn’t enough.  The only threats that seem big enough to justify colossal military spending are Russia and China.  Hence the new “cold war” we keep hearing about, which drives a “requirement” for big spending on lucrative weapons systems like new aircraft carriers, new fighters and bombers, newer and better nuclear warheads and missiles, and so forth.

Which brings me to the alleged Russian collusion story involving Trump.  As we now know, the Mueller Report found no collusion, but was that really the main point of the investigation and all the media hysteria?  The latter succeeded in painting Vladimir Putin and the Russians as enemies in pursuit of the death of American democracy.  Meanwhile Trump, who’d campaigned with some idea of a rapprochement with Russia, was driven by the investigation to take harsher stances against Russia, if only to prove he wasn’t a “Putin puppet.”  The result: most Americans today see Russia as a serious threat, even though the Russians spend far less on wars and weaponry than the U.S. does.

Threat inflation is nothing new, of course.  Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized it and did his best to control it in the 1950s, but even Ike had only limited success.  Other presidents, lacking Ike’s military experience and gravitas, have most frequently surrendered to the Complex.  The last president who tried with some consistency to control the Complex was Jimmy Carter, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis, and his own political fortunes drove him to launch a major military buildup, which was then accelerated by Reagan until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, I briefly heard about a peace dividend and America returning to being a normal country (i.e. anti-imperial) in normal times, but ambition and greed reared their ugly heads, and U.S. leaders became enamored with military power.  Rather than receding, America’s global empire grew, with no peace dividends forthcoming.  The attacks on 9/11 led the Bush/Cheney administration to double down on military action in its “global war on terror,” leading to disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that further served to engorge the Complex with money and power.

Today, faced with a debilitating national debt of $22 trillion and infrastructure that’s aptly described as “crumbling,” you’d think U.S. leaders would finally seek a peace dividend to lower our debt and rebuild our roads, bridges, dams, and related infrastructure.  But the Complex (including Congress, of course) is addicted to war and weapons spending, aided as ever by threat inflation and its close cousin, fearmongering about invading aliens at the border.

And there you have it: a $750 billion military budget sucking up more than sixty percent of discretionary spending by the federal government.  As Ike said, this is no way to live humanely, but it is a way for humanity to hang from a cross of iron.

19 thoughts on “How Do You Justify A $750 Billion Budget?

  1. Be kind. Armaments are one of the few American exports that the rest of the world wants. 


  2. I fear the fear mongering is so advanced through a combination of weakened social systems and lowered educational standards, that the urge to buy more and more guns, missiles, tanks and aircraft carriers cannot be blunted by reason or fact. And I don’t see any political candidate even close to being in the limelight that has the fortitude, knowledge, strength of character or interest to try.

    The ignorant and fearful are always persuaded by chest thumping and scapegoating.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Buying weapons cannot be justified if they don’t work. Our current DoD strategy to acquire military hardware virtually guarantees budget-busting cost increases and funding for remedial engineering . The F-35 is a monument to Eisenhower’s Admonition, but the process for rendering weapon programs as being “Too Big to Fail” started long before that disaster materialized.


  3. It helps the MIC that the goalposts for “National Defence” are always vague, Americans are trained to think in Manichaean dichotomies, and basic education in military science is non-existent.

    Actually defending US territory against invasion is easy – missiles and other anti-access weapons are cheap and effective. And a simple second-strike nuclear capability is all that is needed for deterrence – it costs, sure, but less than keeping 2-3 aircraft carrier battle groups on constant deployment in range of hypothetical opponents’ anti-access weapons…

    The whole shebang is a massive transfer of wealth, nothing more, and has been since the Truman era. Look at where the money goes:

    To beat this, you need a Peace Dividend and the ability to promise to make enough Americans better off in enough areas that you can win majorities in Congress and the Senate for shifting expenditures.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ah, yes. I remember all the charts for the missile gap as well as conventional forces, which included tanks, submarines/aircraft carriers, aircraft, and personnel. Except for missile subs and aircraft carriers, the U.S. always came out on the short end of the equation. One wonders how we managed to survive.
    But there were “gaps” for everything when I was a kid: European & Asian kids were smarter than we were (especially in math & the sciences), they were also healthier and more physically fit than we were. We were told to be thankful for the President’s Council On Youth Fitness and, of course, the Olympics where we fought it out with the Commies and their Warsaw Pact minions. (For those too young to remember, they ruled the Winter Games but the Summer Games belonged to us.)
    And yes, the “domino theory,” which would carry all way south to our ANZAC buddies if left unchecked.
    Foreign aid was often referred to as “exporting democracy,” and who could argue with that?
    But then the USSR (CCCP) went down and yes, talk of a Peace Dividend rose from the ashes, which was to start showing up in tax returns because that was money that had been dedicated to the downfall of “the Evil Empire” which would no longer be needed. But that didn’t happen. Another promise that went the way of the great buffalo herds. And if you ask people about it now – those who are old enough to have been working and paying taxes back then – they don’t remember it which is so 1984 as to be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad.

    I don’t believe Congress worries about the National Debt, and why should they? The general populace doesn’t seem to and the numbers are so outlandish as to be beyond comprehension. And if the budget were to be balanced again, the checkbooks would come out before the ink was dry on the paperwork.
    As for The Pentagon and the Congressional members they have in their pocket, Jed Clampett said it best: “A hand full of ‘gimme’ and a mouth full of ‘much obliged’.”
    Forever wars need forever funding.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. America’s debt load isn’t a problem *so long as* the US is *perceived to be* a safe place to park capital.

      If/when the EU-China axis develops (America-Firsters in both parties are driving this) and creates a new and more competitive international monetary arrangement, US debt will start to get substantially more expensive – at the same time fewer buyers want in. That’s when debt service begins to bite, hard. As it did in Greece, Italy, Spain et al.

      This is why I’m pushing the Panarchy concept so hard these days – I’ve read enough evidence to be convinced this dynamic is inherent in all multi-agent systems (markets, geopolitics, social elite-ness)

      Ultimately my argument boils down to: the US is like a great, bloated organism. It persists so long as environmental conditions are stable (the post-WWII global order) but runs into serious trouble when they change. And they DO change – slowly, but they change.

      The European World-System appears particularly prone to spectacular crashes every 80-100 years (I call these Geoquakes) since the start of Colonialism/Westphalian sovereignty (for Europeans). Thirty Years’ War (ended 1648ish), Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), World Wars I and II (1914-1945).

      The global social order has already collapsed under the weight of the internet. The global economic order is stuttering, throwing fundamental crisis in the 1970s and 2008 that haven’t been fully redressed. And somewhere in 2012-2016, political collapse began.

      I’m not saying we’re doomed to a new Great War, post-collapse this systems framework predicts a period of experimentation and reconstruction, where society sort of collectively resets its expectations about reality and muddles its way into a new order, of sorts.

      Problem is, everyone competes to shape it, and nothing is guaranteed. A collapse can become self-sustaining and become a catastrophe (1914-1945) or it can be a bump, followed by a change of trajectory, or even a replay of the old dynamic (if conditions allow).

      OR, if you can hack the cycle and get people organized, there’s always the chance for radical and sustainable reform. Scandinavia didn’t become the happiest part of the world overnight, and the major reforms leading to their success were instituted mostly in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


  5. I remember when I wrote as well as you do, Butsudanbill. Concise & correct. Oh yeah, hiding under cheap desks as the Russkies bombed our school – with cement roofs. Never happened; in fact the community is stuck today with enormous costs of getting rid of asbestos – in the same school! (Ah! Maybe a Communist was the architect!)
    To some this Russiagate conspiracy was a fraud, as did I think. Or maybe….an EVIL GENIUS attempt to skyrocket the defence budget – for no valid reason at all.
    You say it all in your short essay, and it’s corrupted Americans into believing “Might is Right!” but that’s not what made America great. It was commerce & peace.
    I follow business more than politics, but today is a sad day for Boeing – and me if I’m honest. A (once) fine American company with not One but TWO new models; 737MAX & 787 grounded.
    So goes the MIC, where over chocolate cake he bragged about “beautiful Missiles” but in actuality hit less than 40%!


  6. Regarding pointless overindulgence in military spending/fearmongering, this says it all, and in delightful colorful graphics. My favorite comment – that the TNT equivalent of the nuclear weapons on earth right now would allow all the buildings on Manhattan Island to be built with sticks of dynamite. Since not one of these nukes can ever be used or an unlimited number will follow, they are all, literally, useless but now we are told we must renovate our inventory.

    Regarding the fear of communism, that system was (accurately as it turned out) said to be one that would keep the people in an iron grip without any possibility of the masses rising up to overthrow it. True enough it was a drab, unappealing system that people did not like as proven by the many Germans who rushed to the West before the Berlin wall went up.

    But as I write, that system is long gone, unexpectedly collapsing from the top down, and here we are in our much vaunted “freedom” being dominated by the 1% with it being proven starting with the Reagan Revolution that the few (the rich) can quite easily get their way in Congress over decades (continual tax breaks, the end of Glass-Steagall, the domination of huge drug and oil companies, Obamacare taking care of big insurance and big pharma first before taking care of us, the bank bailout) and we the people have been helpless to prevent it even as it was done in plain sight. Our fear of communism was being stoked while at home the rich were/are running away with the store. Communism and mind control were said to be closely connected but what do you call the phenomenon of so many average Americans opposing anything remotely “socialist” and cheering for not a finger being put on the billions of the 1%?

    I’m afraid we the people are on the outside looking in, directed in our gaze by the compliant media owned by the 1%. Consider the uproar over supposed Russian meddling while there isn’t a word said about tiny Israel dictating our policy toward Iran, a country that poses no threat at all to the United States. Move our embassy to Jerusalem, recognize Israeli control of the Golan heights and all but threaten Iran with war even as we stop every UN Security Council criticism of Israel by our veto. What else can we do for this “ally” that is always on the take?

    Americans are a free people? We have assuredly fallen and no dominoes were involved.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Right on cue to back up the thrust of your post, though regarding NATO rather than the US defense budget comes the secretary general of NATO giving all the good reasons the organization needs to keep right on pinning Russia down, while at the same time offering lip service to not going back to the cold war or starting another arms race. This is a classic instance of the head of a bureaucracy defending his turf.


  8. I apologise for my “fake news” post above. Though worldwide 737MAX is still firmly on the ground, Singapore Airlines decided to ground 8(?) of their B787’s. Some frightful engine problems. Regardless, that’s 1Bil$ of supposed “profit makers” collecting dust – & loan interest.


  9. The only way a divorce from the military industrial complex will occur will be total disclosure/disinvestment from our legislators. Their conflict of interest diminishes the conflict part and increases the interest the longer they’re in office which also increases their ability to form cozy relationships with interest groups (lobbyists). The constant inflating of the Pentagon budget to the detriment of infrastructure/social needs will be the undoing of our democracy.


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