The Pentagon Budget Keeps Soaring Up, Up, and Away!
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War ended, I heard a lot about peace dividends. It was time to become a normal country in normal (more peaceful) times, said Jeanne Kirkpatrick, an early neocon who served under Ronald Reagan. More than thirty years later, America still awaits its peace dividends from the Cold War.
When the Afghan War came to a sputtering and ignominious end in 2021, I didn’t hear much at all about peace dividends. Even though the Afghan War was costing the United States almost $50 billion a year before it crashed and burned, the Pentagon budget for 2022 went up by that amount rather than down. You’d think the end of wars would lead to a decrease in military spending, but not in America.
And so we come to today, when I learned that the Pentagon budget for 2023, which sat at $802 billion per the request of the Biden administration, has been boosted big time to $847 billion by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. That’s $45 billion extra for more wars and weapons, a whopping sum of money that would likely end homelessness if it was invested in America.
One thing is certain: war dividends always come through. Peace dividends? Not so much.
How does the Washington Beltway crowd justify such enormous sums for “national defense”? Threat inflation, of course. Because of its debilitating war with Ukraine, Russia is weaker but somehow that means America must spend more because Putin or something. Chinese maneuvers near Taiwan are treated like direct incursions into U.S. coastal waters. A few North Korean missiles are enough to justify more than a trillion dollars for new or revamped nuclear forces over the next thirty years. And of course military Keynesianism is always a factor, as in Pentagon-related jobs spread as widely as possible through every Congressional district.
The Pentagon can’t even pass an audit (for the fifth year in a row!), yet it still gets more and more billions from you the taxpayer.
I took a quick look at NBC News online to see if there were any objections to this massive $847 billion budget for the Pentagon. The only story featured warned that “GOP senators threaten to delay military bill over vaccine mandate.” Yes, what’s truly worrisome is that a few troops might have to accept a COVID vaccine against their will. Geez, where were these senators when the military was jabbing me in the arm every year with a mandatory flu vaccine?
Trees are falling in the forest to print all the money the Pentagon wants (and then some), but few Americans hear a sound since the mainstream media refuses to cover wasteful military spending and disastrous American wars.
If you should want a sure bet in America, don’t toss money at your favorite sports team. Place your bet on America’s war horse. Whether it wins, places, or shows, or even comes up lame, it will always pay dividends.
Heroification of the military is a strange mindset for any self-avowed democracy
America is touched by a peculiar form of collective madness that sees military action as creative rather than destructive, desirable rather than deplorable, and constitutive to democracy rather than corrosive to it.
This madness, this hubris, this elevation or heroification of the military and war has to end, or it will most certainly end America, if not the world.
Related to this, America advances and sustains a historical narrative based on triumphalism, exceptionalism, and goodness. We Americans see total military dominance as something to crow about, even as we insist that it’s our birthright as “exceptional” Americans. This mindset, or Zeitgeist if you will, enables and empowers a national security state that easily consumes more than half of federal discretionary spending each year. As long as this mindset persists, the MICC or MICIMATT will persist and continue to grow in reach and power.
So that’s my first big step in taming the military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academia-think-tank complex. America’s mindset, its culture, must change. Change the mindset and you begin to change the deference if not adulation granted to the MICIMATT.
Change the mindset, weaken the blob. That was what Dwight D. Eisenhower had in mind in his “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953.1 Our peculiar form of militarized madness is simply no way of life at all for democracy or for the planet.
It won’t be easy because we’re taught to salute the military and support “our” beloved troops. We’re taught that corporations like Boeing and Raytheon are job-creators, even citizens. We look to Congress to represent us, even as its members thrive on corporate campaign contributions (bribes) while genuflecting to the generals and admirals. We look to the media for news and information even as those outlets are fueled by advertising dollars from companies like Boeing, if not owned by them. We look to “liberal” academia for new ideas even as colleges and universities compete for Pentagon research and development dollars. We look to think tanks for fresh approaches even as they’re funded by weapons contractors.
Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that the U.S. no longer sees peace as possible or even as desirable. Peace is rarely mentioned by U.S. political candidates or by the mainstream media. War is simply taken for granted; even worse, it’s seen as the health of the state.
That war is now seen as the health of the state is indeed a peculiar form of American madness. As the Christmas season approaches, is it too much to ask for sanity as in peace on earth and good will toward all?
Ike’s “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953 was brilliant in its clarity and power. Can you imagine any U.S. politician saying these words today?
“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. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. 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.”
Whatever else it is, the Russia-Ukraine War is a major money-making opportunity
Warfare is welfare for the merchants of death. Consider the Russia-Ukraine War. In the name of Ukrainian liberation, the U.S. Congress is preparing to approve another $37.7 billion in mostly military aid, bringing the total to nearly $100 billion in less than a year. This remarkable sum represents roughly 5% of federal discretionary spending, nearly the same as what the federal government spent on education in America this year. So far, all Democrats in Congress have supported aid to Ukraine, with only a minority of Republicans objecting.
Why is this? America is fertile ground for anti-Russian sentiment, but that’s not the main reason. It’s all about the Benjamins, as war is always immensely profitable for some sectors of society. Recall that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us of the disastrous rise of misplaced power represented by the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). Congress is heavily influenced by weapons contractors, not only through campaign contributions but by the jobs in their districts tied to the production of weapons of all sorts.
In a refreshing burst of honesty from the 1930s, the U.S. Senate referred to weapons contractors as “merchants of death,” and so they are. Weapons, from mundane bullets and artillery shells to “sexy” stealth fighters like the wildly expensive F-35, are designed to kill our fellow human beings. That’s why Eisenhower famously said in 1953 that humans essentially crucify themselves on a cross of iron when they prioritize weapons building over hospitals, schools, and other necessities of a civilized life.
More and more money to the merchants of death ensures three things: more power to weapons contractors, higher profits for them, and in this particular case a lot more dead Russians and Ukrainians. Some Americans seem to think it’s all worth it, though I’m skeptical about Ukrainian liberation being an important goal to officials in Washington.
Ike exhibited basic common sense when he noted the MICC is fundamentally anti-democratic. That it threatened our liberties and democratic processes. He told us to take nothing for granted, and challenged us to remain alert and knowledgeable. For when you empower the MICC, you weaken democracy. You also choose death over life.
Whether it’s the Russia-Ukraine War or previous ones like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the MICC has been and is making a killing in America and indeed across the globe— and in more ways than one. And as Ike said, that’s no way of life at all.
What is to be done? We need to start by recognizing that the MICC is fundamentally anti-democratic, often wasteful, driven by greed, and consistent with imperialism of the worst sort. Again, I’m not really saying anything new here; Ike, a five-star general and two-term president, said the same almost 70 years ago. His sentiments were echoed by James Madison when Madison wrote in 1795 that a large standing military and incessant warfare were deadly to democracy and liberty.1 Yet wars continue to find a way, and the MICC continues to thrive and expand its reach and power.
To resort to Scripture, not only is the flesh weak in America when it comes to reining in war and weapons: so too is the spirit. The spirit is unwilling because we are saturated in war and violence. An imperial vision like “full-spectrum dominance” has come to dominate American culture and society. Too many people believe that freedom is best projected and protected through the barrel of a gun.
The words of Ike come to me again when he said that only Americans could truly hurt America. The primary dangers are within not without. In that spirit, Ike warned us about a danger within, the MICC. We would do well to heed his warning if we wish to preserve and strengthen the tree of liberty.
How best to heed his warning? With respect to the Russia-Ukraine War, stop sending weapons that drive more killing. Put more effort on diplomacy. With respect to America itself, abandon the concept of a “new cold war” with Russia and China. Recognize America’s strength instead of focusing incessantly on hypothetical weaknesses. Stop listening to the screech of war hawks. Invest in life instead of death. Start from a place of life-affirming confidence rather than of fear and doubt.
There’s a powerful scene in “Enemy at the Gates” about the Battle of Stalingrad where Soviet political officers are debating how to inspire the troops to fight to the last. The Soviets had been relying on fear, and indeed at Stalingrad Soviet units killed thousands of their own troops for “cowardice” in the face of the Nazi enemy. One commissar is brave enough to offer something other than fear and death. “Give them hope!” he cries. Hope that they can and would prevail against a ruthless enemy.
That’s what we need in America today, a lot less fear and a lot more hope.
Madison wrote that: “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/To run where the brave dare not go …
Whether you call it the military-industrial complex (MIC), the national security state, the MICIMATT,1 the blob, or something else entirely, taking on the MIC and trying to restrain its influence and power is akin to dreaming the impossible dream.
President Eisenhower warned us about the grave threat posed to liberty and democracy by the MIC in 1961. In the early 1980s, as a college student, I wrote against the growth of the MIC and massive Pentagon spending under President Ronald Reagan. After I retired from the military, I started writing articles, giving interviews, etc. against the MIC and militarism in America. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years, and it hasn’t made any discernible difference. Why should it?
The MIC is massive and massively powerful. It consumes more than half of the federal discretionary budget. It employs millions of people. It is wildly profitable for major military contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. It is sold as essential to America’s national security and safety. Its uniformed members are lauded as heroes. We are all as Americans immersed in a matrix of militarism and imperialism since birth; to fight against it, then, is often seen as un-American.
Spoiler alert: I have no easy answers. There are no silver bullets. Ike called for an alert and knowledgable citizenry (that’s us) who would act as guards against the growing anti-democratic power of the MIC. The MIC responded by making sure we are kept largely docile and ignorant of its plans and actions.
When brave Americans do speak up, they are punished. Not people like me—I’m small fry. I mean people like Martin Luther King Jr., who called America the world’s greatest purveyor of violence during the Vietnam War. That speech made him unpopular even among many of his followers; exactly one year later, he was shot and killed.
People who truly pose a threat to the MIC are taught a lesson. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, at the time also a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, was smeared by NBC News as a Russian asset when she announced her candidacy for president in 2020. Gabbard was the only mainstream candidate criticizing the MIC and its disastrous regime-change wars. Dennis Kucinich, who bravely advocated for a Department of Peace, was sidelined and silenced by his own party (the Democrats). Jill Stein, who ran in 2016 as the Green Party candidate for the presidency, was also smeared as a “useful idiot” for Russia because she called for major reductions to war budgets.
There are many examples of brave Americans fighting the MIC. Edward Snowden told the truth about abuses of power by U.S. intelligence agencies; he’s in exile in Russia. Chelsea Manning went to prison for bravely exposing war crimes in Iraq. Daniel Hale is in prison for exposing the murderous results of America’s drone wars. Even foreign journalists like Julian Assange aren’t safe. Assange embarrassed the MIC and partially exposed the hideous face of war to Americans, and for that he’s being held in a maximum security prison under conditions meant to break him physically and mentally.
What is to be done? It’s flattering to me that a few readers think I might have answers. I have none. I’m not an organizer, I’m not an agitator or protester, I’m just a retired military schmuck looking for a new way forward for our country (and, by extension, for the planet). A new cold war is not a new way forward. Indeed, a new cold war will only ensure a hotter future for us all, if not an irradiated one.
I think George McGovern had the right approach in 1972. “Come home, America,” McGovern said. Stop trying to dominate the world. Stop claiming that democracy can be spread by bullets and bombs. Downsize the military and the whole MICIMATT and with the money saved send a check to every American. Call it a true peace dividend.
Support our troops—bring them home, is a commonsense message that holds appeal. Returning to Eisenhower, Ike once said that only Americans can truly hurt America. We hurt America when we exaggerate threats overseas, when we give blank checks to warmongers, indeed when we forget how hellish war truly is and how corrosive it is to our democracy (what’s left of it) and our way of life.
I’ve written so much about this that I know I’m repeating myself. And I’m probably preaching to the choir as well. But the choir must keep singing, even when the dogs of war howl to drown us out.
America needs a reformation or a revolution. A restoration of liberty where war and militarism are seen as the antithesis of liberty. Why can’t America be a shining city on a hill? Why do we instead choose to be a dark fortress bristling with cannons?
To dream the impossible dream/to fight the unbeatable foe …
Military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academia-think tank complex. An awkward acronym that does help to capture the size and reach of the national security state. The MIC itself is supported by the mainstream media, many colleges and universities that are funded by the DoD, and all those think tanks in the DC area that are often funded by major weapons makers. Truly a Goliath awaiting a David with a slingshot.
The key to getting elected in America is to raise lots of money. And you can’t do that by talking about poor people or the prospects for peace in the world.
Poor people have no powerful lobby or armies of lobbyists. With no access to the political game, they can be easily ignored. Those who advocate for peace also lack armies of lobbyists; they lack money as well compared to Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and similar giant weapons contractors. They can also be easily ignored.
When you look at Democrats and Republicans, both parties serve the privileged elites. Neither party is on the side of Aurora, a woman working two part-time jobs cleaning motel rooms while also cleaning houses on the side for affluent clients. She has no health care (she can’t afford it, and it doesn’t come with her part-time jobs) and she barely makes $30K a year despite working 70+ hours a week while trying to raise two kids.
Which political party is fighting (truly fighting, not just paying lip service) for higher pay for her? Which is fighting for single-payer health care for her that’s truly affordable? Child-care benefits? Anything at all? The answer is neither.
To America’s political establishment, Aurora doesn’t exist. She doesn’t count. She doesn’t matter.
This point was reinforced as I read an article by Chris Hedges on Father Michael Doyle. In Doyle’s words:
“There is a meanness that has raised its ugly head in the soul of America. Bobby Kennedy, even Lyndon Johnson, spoke about the poor. Now you can’t say the word poor and get elected. Let the poor suffer. They’re not important. Let the train roll over them.”
This is the crux. America, we’re told, is incredibly rich and noble and good. Yet we export wars and weapons and treat the most vulnerable among us like trash.
Speaking of wars and weapons, the Biden administration is asking for nearly $38 billion more in aid for Ukraine in its war against Russia. If approved, this will bring U.S. aid to Ukraine, mainly in the form of weapons, ammunition, and the like, to almost $100 billion in less than a year. People tell me this is because America cares about the Ukrainian people. But the U.S. government doesn’t care about Americans living on the streets: do you really think it cares about Ukrainians?
Aid to Ukraine gets approved with alacrity by Congress because most of the money goes to weapons contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. To those and similar corporations, war is profitable, peace isn’t. Talk of a new cold war with Russia and China drives war-based profits higher still. Few in Congress have the temerity to suggest that peace is ultimately better for Americans (and indeed Ukrainians, Russians, and all other life on earth) than incessant wars and preparations for the same.
Imagine what $100 billion could do for the homeless in America. Imagine the shelters that could be built, the aid that could be provided, the hope that could be instilled. I’m not saying government aid is the solution to homelessness, but it sure would help.
Perhaps we need to declare war on homelessness while creating an army of well-heeled lobbyists to attack Congress with the magic bullet that always gets attention: campaign contributions. Money. At the same time, let’s eliminate the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and replace them with a Department of Peace with an equivalent budgetary authority of roughly a trillion dollars a year.
Barring that, the poor will continue to suffer and wars and weapons will continue to find a way.
Perhaps America, Home of the Brave, Simply Fears Too Much
In 1961, in his famous farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned America about the military-industrial complex. He said it potentially posed a grave threat to liberty and democracy, noting that only an alert and knowledgable citizenry could keep its “disastrous rise” in check. In an earlier draft of his speech, Ike had included Congress as part of the complex, but he removed it from the final draft in the interest of parting with Congress on good terms.
Ike, of course, knew the military and loved it and had worked with industry as well. He knew of what he spoke. Every year when he was president, the military wanted more. So did the weapons manufacturers. And Congress was willing to give them more in the name of jobs and for that nebulous cause of national security. Ike did a decent job as president containing the ambitions of the military and the greed of America’s merchants of death. His speech in 1961 was his parting shot across the bow of the complex and a warning that’s largely been forgotten by Americans then and now.
Ike, I think, would be dismayed but not shocked at how the military-industrial complex or MIC has expanded its “misplaced” power over the last sixty years. The MIC is now the MICIMATT, or the military industrial congressional intelligence media academia think tank complex, employing millions of Americans in pursuit of full-spectrum dominance across the globe. In fact, America has proudly become a warrior nation (the citizen-soldier ideal is long dead) with 750 bases around the world and military budgets that routinely touch or exceed a trillion dollars. Permanent war is the new normal in America, justified as always in terms of making the world safe for democracy.
In the spirit of Ike, we should recognize the military or industry or Congress alone is not the enemy. It’s the conjunction of an immense military establishment with powerful industrial interests, and the enabling of the same by Congress, that needs to be addressed and reformed.
Yet, given its enormity and its power, the complex is remarkably resistant to change, let alone to being shrunk and weakened. It will take enormous national will, working against powerful propaganda forces that will paint every Pentagon budget reduction, large or small, as unsafe if not un-American.
So why did Ike fail? Or why did we fail Ike? He warned us in 1961. Why have we as “an alert and knowledgable citizenry” failed to guard against the acquisition of “disastrous” power by the MIC?
For the truth is America has become an Orwellian country where war is peace. War (or preparations for war) has been continuous since Ike’s speech. Our government wages war in the alleged cause of peace. It acts imperially in the name of democracy, and we collectively accept or tolerate the tale that Big Brother tells us.
Short of a revolution, what America needs is radical honesty. An awakening. If we truly want as a people to pursue peace, we can’t do that by constantly waging war. If we truly favor democracy, we can’t pursue one through militarism and imperialism.
What kind of nation — what kind of people — do we want to be? Judging by our federal discretionary budget and by the general affection for all things military in our nation, perhaps we want to be a bellicose empire. I’m not saying all Americans want this; even those who do probably wouldn’t state it so baldly. But maybe this is just who we are, a nation and a people convinced that it’s always at risk, and thus one that’s forever fearful, hyper-vigilant, coiled to strike and ready to rumble.
“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” So says Roy Batty, the doomed replicant in Blade Runner, played so brilliantly by Rutger Hauer. There’s a lesson here for all of us. The first step to heeding Ike’s warning, as well as his marching orders to us, is to control our collective fear. To stop listening to threat inflation about China or Russia or Iran or terrorism or whatever. Fear is the mind-killer, Frank Herbert noted in Dune, thus to think freely requires us to master that which kills thought. Fear, Master Po said in Kung Fu, is the only darkness.
We will only begin to downsize the military-industrial complex and end our pursuit of militarism when we acknowledge our fear, stop being slaves to it, and head away from the darkness.
America is the home of the brave, so we say. Isn’t it time we acted like it?
This Veterans Day, instead of thanking vets, ask instead how they’re doing
I served in the U.S. military for twenty years. It was the prime of my life, and I got a great education courtesy of you the American taxpayer. In the Air Force, I was a developmental engineer when I wasn’t teaching history (long story), and I never had to endure bullets and bombs and IEDs in a combat zone, for which I’m grateful. I really consider it an honor to have served, a privilege, because we in the military take an oath to the U.S. Constitution and to the high ideals that document represents.
So I’m always a bit surprised when someone thanks me for my service. I feel like saying, please don’t thank me, but thank you for putting your trust in me, for allowing me to serve and to uphold our nation’s highest ideals. The nation placed its special faith and trust in me, so thanks for doing that.
Of course, I say nothing like that in reply. What I typically say is “You’re welcome,” and then I move on. I don’t tell people: Please, don’t thank me, because that would be rude. My experience is that people want to thank me for sincere if sometimes vague reasons, and that’s OK with me. It’s not the time to launch into a diatribe about the military-industrial-Congressional complex or war crimes or imperialism. I have my blog for that. (Smile.)
Sometimes, though, I think thought (and responsibility) begins and ends with “thank you for your service.” For some people, it means something like this:
Thank you for your service — so I don’t have to think about your service and America’s many wars — and so I don’t have to think about my loved ones having to serve and kill and die in them.
Veterans Day started as Armistice Day, a solemn occasion to mark the end of massive bloodletting in World War I and a return to normalcy, i.e. peace. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars; the armistice on 11 November 1918 was idealistically thought to be the beginning of eternal peace. Today, “peace” is a word you almost never hear in American political discourse. Our new normal is war, which is just about the most horrible thought I could write about U.S. society and culture today.
Why? Partly because veterans often pay “an intolerable price” for their awful experiences in war, notes Kelly Denton-Borhaug at TomDispatch. That’s why most combat veterans don’t want to talk about their experiences, especially with civilians. They’d rather forget, yet it’s so hard to forget or even to forgive yourself when your mind has been scorched by the fires of war.
And it’s not just veterans who pay the price of endless war. Young people turning 21 today have never known a time when America hasn’t been at war with somebody somewhere. They’ve never known a time when massive military budgets were considered abnormal. They’ve never known, in a word, peace.
So, instead of thanking veterans for their service today, perhaps you should simply ask them how they’re doing. Be ready to lend a sympathetic ear, or a helping hand, if they admit to feeling “not so well.”
Thank you for doing this. Thank you for your service.
With Veterans Day in mind, I was asked as a retired U.S. military officer for a comment on the 2022 election results, which produced this:
When both political parties pose as pro-military, when both are pro-war, when both are enablers of record-high Pentagon spending, when both act as if a new cold war with China and Russia is inevitable, do election results even matter? No matter which party claims victory, the true victor remains the military-industrial-Congressional complex.
To paraphrase Joe Biden, nothing fundamentally changed in the 2022 elections when it comes to colossal military spending, incessant wars and preparations for the same, and non-stop imperialism around the globe. There is no new vision for lower Pentagon spending, for fewer wars and weapons exports, and for a smaller, less domineering, imperial mission.
As General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us in 1961, the military-industrial-Congressional complex represents a disastrous rise of misplaced power that is profoundly anti-democratic. Collectively, we’ve failed to heed Ike’s warning. The result has been one unnecessary and disastrous war after another, even as democracy in America withers. The Vietnam War—disaster. The Iraq War—disaster. The Afghan War—disaster. The War on Terror—disaster. Even the war America ostensibly won, the Cold War against the USSR, is now apparently about to be refought.
I suppose we need to refight the Cold War we “won” thirty years ago so we can lose that one too.
With the Democrats doing somewhat better than expected at the polls, war business should continue to grow in Washington, D.C. Most political commentators seem to think this is a good thing, when they think about it at all. Few seem to recall Ike’s warning that a military establishment of vast proportions is antithetical to democracy.
In this election cycle, I’ve heard nothing about peace. I’ve heard nothing about strengthening and preserving democracy by downsizing our military and imperial presence around the globe. Not from Democrats and Republicans.
So the winner in 2022 is the same winner as always: the military-industrial-Congressional complex. It’s a sad result to contemplate with Veterans Day looming.
There’s more to military history than decisive battles, great captains, and sexy weapons
We sure could use honest and critical teaching about military history and war in America.
I don’t mean celebratory BS. I don’t mean potted histories of the American Revolution and its freedom fighters, the Civil War and its freeing of the slaves, World War II and America’s greatest generation and so on. I mean history that highlights the importance of war together with its bloody awfulness.
Two books (and book titles) come to mind: “War is a force that gives us meaning,” by Chris Hedges, and “A country made by war,” by Geoffrey Perret. Hedges is right to argue that war often provides meaning to our lives: meaning that we often don’t scrutinize closely enough, if at all. And Perret is right to argue that America was (and is), in very important ways, made by war, brutally so in fact.
Why study war? Shouldn’t we affirm that we ain’t gonna study war no more? Well, as Leon Trotsky is rumored to have said: You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. Among other reasons, students of history should study war as a way of demystifying it, of reducing its allure, of debunking its alleged glories. War is always a bad choice, though there may be times when war is the least bad in a series of bad choices. (U.S. involvement in World War II was, I believe, less bad than alternatives like pursuing isolationism.)
How are we to make sense and reach sound decisions about war if we refuse to study and understand it? A colleague sent along an interesting article (from 2016) that argues there’s not enough military history being taught in U.S. colleges and universities, especially at elite private schools. Here’s the link: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-us-military-is-everywhere-except-history-books
Visit your local bookstore and you’ll probably see lots of military history — it’s very popular in America! — but critical military history within college settings is much less common. This is so for a few reasons, I think:
1. Many professors don’t like the “stench” of military history. When I was at Oxford in the early 1990s, I had a professor who basically apologized for spending so much time talking about mercenary-captains and war in early modern Europe. Yet war and controlling it was a key reason for the growth of strong, centralized nation-states in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
2. Many professors simply have no exposure to the military — they’re ignorant of it, almost proudly so. Having taught college myself for fifteen years, including survey subjects like world history, I know the difficulty of teaching topics and subjects where your knowledge is shallow or dodgy. Far easier to stand on firm ground and teach what you know and ignore what you don’t know — or don’t like. But the easier road isn’t always the best one.
3. Critical military history suggests lack of patriotism. I taught college as a civilian professor for nine years, and I was once told to “watch my back” because I wrote articles that were critical of the U.S. military’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’m a retired Air Force officer!
So, with history professors often preferring to ignore or elide military subjects, military history is left to buffs and enthusiasts who focus on great captains, exciting battles, and famous weapons (often featured in glossy coffee-table books) like Tiger tanks and Spitfire fighters. Such books often sell well and make for exciting reads. What they don’t do is to make us think critically about the costs of war and how disastrous wars often prove.
A subject I taught at the USAF Academy was technology and warfare, and one of my concerns was (and remains) America’s blind faith in technology and the enormous sums of money dedicated to the same. The Pentagon will spend untold billions on the latest deadly gadgets (actually, as much as $1.7 trillion alone on the F-35 jet fighterthroughout its lifespan) but academia won’t spend millions to think and teach more critically about war.
As an aside, weapons alone don’t make an effective military. It’s not the gladius sword that made Rome dominant but the citizen-soldier wielding it, empowered by republican ideals, iron discipline, and a proven system of leadership by example.
When the principled citizen-soldier ideal died in Rome, a warrior ideal consistent with a hegemonic empire replaced it. There’s much for Americans to learn here, as its own military today identifies as warriors and finds itself in the service of a global empire.
There’s more to military history than drums and trumpets — or bullets and bombs. For better or for worse, and usually for worse, we as a people are made and defined by war. We would all do well to study and understand it better.
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Perhaps it will help me to spread my message.
I think some of you will prefer the comments section there.
It’s easier to monetize Substack, should I choose to go that route.
At this point, I plan on continuing to post new articles here at WordPress and at Substack. At some point, I may decide to post certain articles only at Substack, which has a “subscription only” option.
To be honest, I pay $5.00 a month to subscribe to Matt Taibbi because I really admire his work. I’m a “free” subscriber to other Substack sites. I haven’t decided yet whether to pursue the “subscription only” option for Bracing Views. Yes, I like to think I should be paid for my writing, but I also know that most of my readers aren’t exactly rolling in the dough, and making money from blogging has never been a motivation for me.
Anyhow, if you wish, please go to my site on Substack and subscribe. Also, if anyone has any experience with Substack or a preference for it, please let me know in the “comments” section below.