Three years ago, nature provided me a lesson in bird parasitism and its repercussions. Unbeknownst to me and especially to the yellow warblers I was watching, a cowbird snuck an egg into the warbler nest. The result is what you see in this photo I took:
Cowbird chicks generally hatch quicker, and of course they’re bigger and can fight harder for food. What generally happens is what happened to the nest I was watching. The yellow warbler chicks died as the cowbird chick ate just about all the food provided by its warbler “parents.” All that was left in the end was a rather surly-looking cowbird chick that was incongruously bigger than the warbler “parents” that fed it. Nature can be cruel.
And, as I wrote about here, that cowbird chick made me think of a certain entity in Washington DC that always clamors for money, and which in its sheer bellicosity and bottomless appetite always dominates the nest and crowds out and kills its weaker yet more deserving rivals for sustenance. Yes, you guessed it: the Pentagon and the National Security State.
There’s something about the gaping mouth of that cowbird that says it all. For example, the Biden administration was planning on spending $813 billion on the Pentagon in FY2023, an already enormous sum, only for it to be revealed this week that a bipartisan effort in the Senate is seeking to increase this by $45 billion. That’s on top of the $55 billion or so provided to Ukraine, roughly half of which is going directly to America’s merchants of death.
As Jimmy Dore points out in this segment, at the same time as the Pentagon cowbird cries for and consumes all the money, smaller, vulnerable programs (our yellow warbler chicks) like money for free school lunches for 10 million needy kids are allowed to wither and die.
I came across this quotation yesterday: “I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad,” Deputy SecDef nominee Kath Hicks tells the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, “and, if confirmed, that is an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away.”
The U.S. military plans to spend well over a trillion dollars over the next thirty years to “modernize” the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and sub-launched ballistic missiles. Long ago, I remember reading (from December 1982) that Charles Bennet, a Democratic Congressman, had said “The triad is not the Trinity.” But the Pentagon treats it as if it is a (un)Holy Trinity, shoveling money to build even more nuclear weapons to devastate and destroy humanity. I don’t use the concept of evil lightly, but I can’t think of policies much more evil than developing yet more genocidal weaponry at enormous cost.
We desperately need new thinking in America, which is why I wrote the following article for TomDispatch. Maybe some of these are pipe dreams; then again, maybe we should all be smoking peace pipes more often.
The Power of America’s Example
When it comes to war, if personnel is policy, America is yet again in deep trouble.
As retired Army Major Danny Sjursen recently pointed out at TomDispatch, when it comes to foreign policy, President Joe Biden’s new cabinet and advisers are well stocked with retired generals, reconstituted neocons, unapologetic hawks, and similar war enthusiasts. Biden himself has taken to asking God to protect the troops whenever he makes a major speech. (How about protecting them by bringing them home from our pointless wars?) “Defense” spending, as war spending is generally known in this country, remains at record levels at $740.5 billion for fiscal year 2021. Talk of a new cold war with Russia or China (or both) paradoxically warms Pentagon offices and corridors with yet more funds. The only visible dove of peace at Biden’s inaugural was the giant golden brooch worn by Lady Gaga. So what exactly is to be done?
Peace-driven progressive policies will not emerge easily from the rainbow kettle of hawks Biden has so far assembled, but his inaugural speech did mention leading and inspiring others globally “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” It would have been an apt rhetorical flourish indeed, if not for this country’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s harsh war-fighting reality suggests that “the example of our power” still remains standard operating procedure inside the Washington Beltway. How could this possibly be changed?
I have a few ideas for Biden — a 10-point plan, in fact, for turning his softball rhetoric into hardball reality. Consider, Mr. President, the following powerful examples you could set as America’s latest commander-in-chief:
1. Stop the U.S. from building new generations of nuclear weapons and downsize the vast existing American arsenal, while launching global negotiations to work toward the elimination of all such arsenals. The U.S. military is set to spend well over a trillion dollars in the coming decades to “modernize” its nuclear triad of bombers and land-based and submarine-launched missiles. Such a staggering “investment” can only move the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. If America is to lead by example when it comes to the ultimate power on this planet, why not begin by cancelling this trillion-dollar-nightmare as part of a new global anti-nuclear initiative? Why not commit us, long term, to the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere, while moving to adopt a “no-first-use” policy?
2. When it comes to President Biden’s commitment to slow climate change and clean up the environment, why not do something in military terms? America’s armed forces have an enormous appetite for fossil fuels. The Pentagon also has a sordid record when it comes to the poisoning of the environment. (Consider the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the military’s burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the birth defects and severe health problems that were linked to the munitions its forces used in assaulting the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.) If the president wants to set an example when it comes to demilitarizing this over-armed, over-polluted planet of ours, reducing both the military’s fossil-fuel emissions and its poisonous munitions would be a powerful way to start.
3. End this century’s forever wars and radically downsize this country’s unprecedented global network of military bases. Driving the colossal size of today’s military is what my old service, the Air Force, likes to call its “global reach, global power” mission. At least in theory, that mission, in turn, helps justify the sprawling network of 800 or so overseas bases, a network that costs more than $100 billion a year to maintain. Such bases not only consume resources needed here in the U.S. and help stoke those forever wars, but they present high-value targets to opponents and incite ill-feeling and resistance from “host” countries. So, downsizing that global base structure would be an act of peace — and fiscal sanity.
4. Make major cuts in the country’s war budget. Fewer bases and fewer or no wars should translate into a far lower defense budget. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion annually to defend this country and cover its real “national security” interests seems reasonable for the self-styled lone superpower. The money saved (roughly $340 billion based on this year’s budget) could then perhaps be partly rebated directly to American families in need in this pandemic. Perhaps every American family earning less than $50,000 a year could see a rebate on their taxes directly attributable to downsizing that budget and America’s imperial footprint overseas. Taking a page from Donald Trump, President Biden, as America’s thrifty and giving commander-in-chief, could even have his name put on those rebate checks. Call it a long-delayed peace dividend. Regular Americans, after all, need such “dividends” far more than giant defense contractors like Boeing or Raytheon. And don’t get me started on the need to invest in rebuilding this nation’s infrastructure at a moment when the extremities associated with climate change threaten to devastate parts of the country.
5. Create a Department of Peace (here’s looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) with influence at least approaching that of the so-called Department of Defense. Currently, the U.S. military is all about power projection, domination of the global battlespace, and similar buzzwords that add up to exporting violence abroad, special op by special op, drone by drone. You are what you do and the U.S. military does permanent war with plenty of “collateral damage.” (Picture mutilated black and brown bodies and flattened and poisoned cities and towns.) If the U.S. government can create a Space Force just to fulfill the fantasies of Donald Trump, then why not a peace force, too? (America’s current, humble Peace Corps asked for $401 million for Fiscal Year 2021, roughly the cost of four underperforming F-35 jet fighters.) Peace, much like war, doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it — and that would be precisely the mission of the Department of Peace.
6.Pay attention, for once, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address and exert rigorous oversight and zealous control over the military-industrial complex. That means ending the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force that Congress passed in a climate of panic and revenge in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (though it was only to be against those associated in some fashion with those terror attacks), and the second one Congress authorized in 2002 in preparation for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. They have been misused and abused by presidents ever since. Furthermore, end any conflict that hasn’t been authorized by a direct Congressional declaration of war. That means withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s security is not, in fact, directly threatened by those countries. As a self-declared democracy, the United States should set an example by not fighting wars disconnected from the people’s will and the true needs of national defense.
7. And speaking of President Eisenhower, America needs to embrace his lesson that military spending represents a theft from Americans who are hungry, sick, and need help. For its “national security,” this country needs more hospitals, better education, safer food, a cleaner environment, and, most of all, clean water and fresh air. Eisenhower knew that warships and warplanes were simply not the answer to the American people’s real and pressing needs.
8. Reject threat inflation, including the heightening talk of a “new cold war” with Russia or China or of an ongoing “generational” war on terror. Eliminate talk of a new Red Menace, of likely wars with Iran or North Korea, or of America’s backwardness in cyberwarfare research and development. Terrorism is nothing new and will always be with us in one form or another (including, vis-a-vis the Capitol on January 6th, domestic terrorism). Indeed, since war is terror, a war on terror should truly be considered an oxymoron. Terrorist acts are mostly the recourse of the weak when taking on the strong. The United States isn’t going to stop them by getting stronger yet. Nor are China and Russia about to invade this country. (This isn’t Red Dawn.) Iran is not coming to impose Sharia law and North Korea is not about to launch nukes against us. As for cyber-attacks, don’t worry: no matter what you’ve heard, no country does cyberwarfare better than the U.S.A.
9. End the practice of foreign aid taking the form of military aid. When taxpayers give aid to foreign countries, it should be in the form of food, medicine, and other essentials, not cluster bombs, F-16s, and Hellfire missiles.
10. Learn from Abraham Lincoln. In President Biden’s recent Inaugural Address, as a call to national unity, he made reference to Lincoln’s initial inaugural appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” But he should have focused on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the finest speech ever given by any president. As Lincoln put it then, when it came to ending the American Civil War:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln was unafraid of speaking of and seeking a just and lasting peace. In this century, until at least the Trump years, Americans often heard their leaders speak of this nation’s “exceptional” nature. What could be more exceptional, more laudable, than seeking a lasting global peace?
Biden, like me, is Roman Catholic. My Catholic bible (Matthew 5:9) tells me that Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Instead of beseeching God to protect the troops that American presidents have continually sent into harm’s way, Joe Biden might ask for blessings for America’s peace activists. To echo Lincoln again, that would indeed be a case of right making might, instead of the might-making-right vision that a militaristic America has grown far too comfortable with.
An Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry
So long ago, President Eisenhower spoke of the importance of having an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” Isn’t it time for mainstream media outlets to foster real, critical, investigative journalism that would truly inform those very citizens about America’s wanton military spending and endless wars, while providing educators with crucial material to teach their students about the horrific costs of militarism? This country needs to free its collective mind from the prevailing forever-war narrative. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, and Nash, if we teach the children well, perhaps they won’t repeat their father’s hell.
In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon asked us all to imagine a different world and said that it’s easy if you try. Lennon got the first and most important part right, but the second part sadly doesn’t apply, at least to this country in this century. Nowadays, Americans are so immersed in a culture driven by war, profit, and exploitation that it’s no longer easy to imagine anything but war. If Americans truly paid attention to war, up close and as personal as they could get, they’d begin to grasp the folly and wickedness of it and so perhaps relinquish what I’ve come to think of as their prisoner-of-war mentality in relation to it. They might actually begin breaking down mental barriers to peace.
Don’t count on Congress doing it, though. Congress is incestuously part of what should be renamed the military-industrial-congressional complex. Don’t count on the military doing it either. Its most senior men and women have been carefully selected, groomed, and promoted because they believe in the system, which includes incessant lobbying for more weaponry and exaggerating the threats to this country to get it. They exist to wage war; the rest of us should be willing to fight for peace.
Change, if and when it comes, will have to be driven by people like us.
It won’t be easy, but it is necessary for America’s survival. And it’s unlikely to come without campaign finance reform and the public funding of elections. In a “pay-to-play” oligarchy disguised as a democracy, the giant weapons-making corporations simply pay much more than you do and so speak through megaphones, leaving you with a dead mic. Unless the corporate dominance of our politics is curtailed, ordinary Americans will continue to be outshouted and overwhelmed by the bellicose and the greedy, leaving the country forever at war.
It won’t be easy to work for peace, but it sure is worth the try. It sure as hell beats the alternative of guns, bombs, and missiles being produced like so many sausages in a militaristic country that ever more resembles George Orwell’s nightmarish image of the future as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
America’s new president has called for us to lead with the power of our example rather than just the example of our power. I can’t think of anything more exemplary and powerful than a strong commitment to making war no more.
As the U.S. military enjoys enormous budgets ($718 billion this year, rising possibly to $750 billion for 2020), Americans are told not to dream big. There might just be a connection here.
Due to budget deficits (aggravated by the Trump tax cut for the rich), Americans are warned against big projects. Single-payer health care? Forget about it! (Even though it would lead to lower health care costs in the future.) More government support for higher education? Too expensive! Infrastructure improvements? Ditto. Any ambitious government project to help improve the plight of working Americans is quickly dismissed as profligate and wasteful, unless, of course, you’re talking about national security. Then no price is too high to pay.
In short, you can only dream big in America when you focus on the military, weaponry, and war. For a democracy, however, is that not the very definition of insanity?
Consider the words of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic worker movement. She wrote in the early 1950s about poverty as a form of grace, that she was “convinced” America needed such grace, especially at a time “when expenditures reach into the billions to defend ‘our American way of life.’ Maybe this defense will bring down upon us the poverty we are afraid to pray for,” she concluded.
Speaking of “defense,” the title of a recent article at The Guardian put it well: Trump wants to give 62 cents of every dollar to the military. That’s immoral. As Joe Biden once said, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value. The U.S. government has made that plain: more weaponry and more wars. By wildly overspending on the military and driving up deficits, we just may find the grace of poverty that Dorothy Day spoke of. It will indeed come at a very high price, one that will be paid mainly by the already poor and vulnerable.
How to cut the colossal Pentagon budget? It’s not hard. The Air Force doesn’t need new bombers and fighters. The Navy doesn’t need two new aircraft carriers. The Army doesn’t need new tanks and similar “heavy” conventional weaponry. Get rid of the “Space” force. No service needs new “modernized” nuclear weapons. America should have a much smaller military “footprint” overseas. And, to state what should be obvious, America needs to withdraw military forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere while ending the bombing currently in progress in seven countries.
A sane national defense is probably achievable at roughly half of current spending levels. Just think what the U.S. could do with an extra $350 billion or so each year. A single-payer health care system that covers everyone. Better education. Improved infrastructure. A transition to greener fuels. Safe water and a cleaner environment.
But today, the only people lustily singing “Imagine” have changed the lyrics: they’re not dreaming of peace but of more nukes, more weapons, and more wars. And they’re winning.
How can Democrats win the presidency in 2020? The answer is simple: field a candidate who’s genuinely anti-war. A candidate focused on America and the domestic health of our country rather than on global empire. A candidate like Tulsi Gabbard, for example, who’s both a military veteran and who’s anti-war. (Gabbard does say, however, that she’s a hawk against terrorism.) Another possibility is Bernie Sanders, who’s beginning to hone his anti-war bona fides, and who’s always been focused on domestic issues that help ordinary Americans, e.g. a higher minimum wage, single-payer health care for all, and free college education at public institutions.
Many Democrats still don’t recognize that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 in part because she was more hawkish than Trump on foreign policy and wars. (As an aside, the burdens of war are most likely to fall on those people Hillary dismissed as “deplorables.”) Most Americans are tired of endless wars in faraway places like Afghanistan and Syria as well as endless global commitments that drive a “defense” budget that stands at $716 billion this year, increasing to $750 billion next year. Throwing more money at the Pentagon, to put it mildly, isn’t the wisest approach if your goal is to end wasteful wars and restore greatness here at home.
Many of Trump’s supporters get this. I was reading Ben Bradlee Jr.’s book, The Forgotten, which examines the roots of Trump’s victory by focusing on Pennsylvania. Bradlee interviews a Vietnam veteran, Ed Harry, who had this to say about war and supporting Trump:
“We’re tired. Since I’ve been born, we’ve been in a state of war almost all the time. When does it stop? We’re pissing away all our money building bombs that kill people, and we don’t take care of veterans at home that need the help.”
Harry says he voted for Trump “because he was a nonpolitician” rather than a liberal or conservative. Trump, the “nonpolitician,” dared to talk about America’s wasteful wars and the need to end them, whereas Hillary Clinton made the usual vague yet tough-sounding noises about staying the course and supporting the military.
Again, Democrats need to listen to and embrace veterans like Ed Harry when he says: “All the money pissed away on wars could be used here to take care of the needs of the people.”
I’d like to cite one more Vietnam veteran, Richard Brummett, who was interviewed in 2018 by Nick Turse at The Nation. Brummett, I think, would identify more as a liberal and Harry more as a conservative, but these labels really mean little because these veterans arrive at the same place: arguing against America’s endless wars.
Here’s what Brummett had to say about these wars: “I feel intense sadness that we’ve gotten the country into this. All these naive 20-year-olds, 18-year-olds, are getting chewed up by these wars–and then there’s what we’re doing to the people of all these countries. The list gets longer all the time: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria. Who is benefiting from all this agony? I had the naive hope, in the years after Vietnam, that when I died–as a really old guy–the obituary would read: ‘America’s last combat veteran of any war died today.'”
If Democrats want to lose again, they’ll run a “centrist” (i.e. a pseudo-Republican) like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris who’ll make the usual noises about having a strong military and keeping the world safe by bombing everywhere. But if they want to win, they’ll run a candidate who’s willing to tell the truth about endless wars and their incredibly high and debilitating costs. This candidate will promise an end to the madness, and as a result he or she will ignite a fire under a large and diverse group of voters, because there are a lot of people out there like Harry and Brummett who are fed up with forever war.
Three news items caught my eye, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy. The first involves the U.S. Navy, which has “inked a $14.9 billion contract for two Ford-class aircraft carriers, according to Defense News. The service claims the purchase of two carriers at once will save $4 billion.”
All credit to the Navy: As the Trump administration throws money at the Pentagon, to the tune of $750 billion next year, the Navy is moving at flank speed to order two new aircraft carriers of the Ford class. The problem is that first Ford-class carrier, which has been a $13 billion disaster: three years behind schedule, billions over budget, with catapults that don’t work, among other serious problems. But no matter. Let’s build another two of these mammoth ships while “saving” $4 billion in the process.
Three Ford-class carriers will cost at least $43 billion (despite the $4 billion “savings”), but you hear few dissenting voices in Congress. Anchors Aweigh, my boys!
The Navy says it needs at least twelve large carriers to perform its mission, but no rival navy has more than one. Carriers are all about imperial power projection across the globe; does the USA really need more of this for national “defense”?
The second news item comes from America’s endless Afghan war, in which the USA continues to throw billions of dollars at Afghan government security forces despite the always-disappointing results, as documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR):
“The size of Afghanistan’s armed forces is shrinking even as its military faces a sustained challenge from Taliban insurgents. The [SIGAR] report finds that ‘the [Afghan] army and police are at a combined total of just over 308,000, down from 312,000 a year earlier and nearly 316,000 in 2016,’ the AP reports. ‘The cost of arming, training, paying and sustaining those forces falls largely to the U.S. government at more than $4 billion a year.’”
To compensate for the poor performance of Afghan government security forces, the U.S. “has stepped up airstrikes and special operations raids in the country to the highest levels since 2014 in what Defense Department officials described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters. The surge, which began during the fall, is intended to give American negotiators leverage in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban, The New York Timesreports.”
Just what we need: another American “surge” in Afghanistan. This time, it’s not to win the war; it’s all about gaining “leverage” in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban. This calls to mind all the bombing the Nixon administration did during its peace talks with North Vietnam in the early 1970s, also in the name of “leverage.” Look at how well that worked out.
Finally, the third item mentions America’s ongoing and undeclared drone war in Somalia. Citing a Nation report, FP: Foreign Policy notes that
“Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has approximately tripled the number of strikes that it conducts each year in Somalia, according to figures confirmed by the Pentagon, while such actions—and the reasons behind them—have become increasingly opaque.”
“An investigation by the magazine ‘identified strikes that went unreported until they were raised with AFRICOM, but also others that AFRICOM could not confirm—which suggests that another US agency may also be launching air attacks in the region. The investigation also tracked down evidence that AFRICOM’s claim of zero civilian casualties is almost certainly incorrect. And it found that the United States lacks a clear definition of terrorist, with neither AFRICOM, the Pentagon, nor the National Security Council willing to clarify the policies that underpin these strikes.’”
In other words, a war is being waged with no accountability to the American people. One has to admire the chutzpah of the Pentagon, however, in declaring these drone attacks have only killed “terrorists,” even if that term hasn’t even been defined clearly.
Well, there you have it: Overpriced ships that enable imperialism, overpriced foreign militaries that require more U.S. bombing and special ops raids as a prop “for peace,” and finally a wider, undeclared, war in Africa. Just another manic Monday in Empire America.
Over at Foreign Policy, there’s a good article on how the Pentagon gets so much money so easily. Basically, the Pentagon complains about lack of “readiness” for war, and Congress caves. But as the article’s author, Gordon Adams, notes, most of the boost in spending goes not to training and maintenance and other readiness issues but to expensive new weaponry:
But the big bucks, according to the Pentagon’s own briefing, will go into conventional military equipment. That means more F-35s and F-18s than planned, a new presidential helicopter, Navy surveillance planes and destroyers, Marine helicopters, space launch rockets, tank modifications, another Army multipurpose vehicle, and a joint tactical vehicle the Army, Marines, and Air Force can all use. Basically, the services will soon have shiny new hardware.
With its $160+ billion budgetary boost over the next two years, the U.S. military will soon have many more shiny toys, which pleases Congress (jobs) and of course the military-industrial complex (higher and higher profits).
All of this is par for the Pentagon course, yet there are other, cultural and societal, reasons why the Pentagon is winning all the budgetary battles at home. Here are seven key reasons:
The heroes narrative. Collectively and individually, U.S. troops have been branded as heroes. And who is churlish and ungenerous enough to underfund America’s heroes?
Military weaponry has been rebranded as being all about our “safety” and “security.” With spillover into the Homeland, and even America’s classrooms (think about how guns for teachers are now being equated with safety for America’s children).
Defense contractors increasingly influence (and even own) the media, ensuring “journalists” like Brian Williams will wax poetically about the inspiring beauty of weapons. Rarely do you hear sustained criticism from the mainstream media about wasteful spending at the Pentagon.
At the same time, the mainstream media relies on “retired” senior military officers for analysis and commentary. Some of these men have links to defense contractors, and all of them are loath to criticize the military. They are, in a word, conflicted.
Throughout U.S. popular culture, military hardware is portrayed as desirable and “cool.” Think of all the superhero movies featuring jet fighters and other military hardware, or all the jets and helicopters flying over sports stadiums across the USA. For that matter, think of all the video games that focus on war and weaponry.
Related to (5) is a collective fantasy of power based on violence in war. Most Americans are powerless when it comes to politics and decision-making. Here is where our “beautiful” weapons can serve as potent symbols for a largely impotent people.
Finally, the ever-present climate of fear: fear of terrorists, immigrants, missiles from North Korea, Russian nukes, and so forth, even as the real killers in the USA (opioid abuse, vehicle accidents, shootings, bad or no healthcare, poor diets, climate-change-driven catastrophes, and of course diseases, some of which are preventable) are downplayed.
Defense spending used to be examined closely, with many programs exposed as wasteful. This was common in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and early 1980s – remember Senator William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece awards? Now, it seems there’s no such thing as wasteful spending. It’s a remarkable change of narrative representing an amazing success story for the military-industrial complex.
It will take more than cutting the Pentagon’s budget to effect change. America needs to change its mindset, an ethos in which weapons, even wars, are equated with safety and security and potency, and even occasionally with entertainment and fun.
In sum, the Pentagon is doing what it’s always done: issuing demands for more and more money. It’s up to us (and Congress) to say “no.”
The new Congressional budget boosts military spending in a big way. Last night’s PBS News report documented how military spending is projected to increase by $160 billion over two years, but that doesn’t include “overseas contingency funding” for wars, which is another $160 billion over two years. Meanwhile, spending for the opioid crisis, which is killing roughly 60,000 Americans a year (more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam War), is set at a paltry $6 billion ($25 billion was requested).
One thing is certain: Ike was right about the undue influence of the military-industrial-Congressional complex.
The military talks about needing all these scores of billions to “rebuild.” And, sure, there are ships that need to be refitted, planes in need of repairs, equipment that needs to be restocked, and veterans who need to be cared for. But a massive increase in military and war spending, perhaps as high as $320 billion over two years, is a recipe for excessive waste and even more disastrous military adventurism.
Even if you’re a supporter of big military budgets, this massive boost in military spending is bad news. Why? It doesn’t force the military to think. To set priorities. To define limits. To be creative.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the expression, “Spending money like drunken sailors on shore leave.” Our military has been drunk with money since 9/11. Is it really wise to give those “sailors” an enormous boost in the loose change they’re carrying, trusting them to spend it wisely?
Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy. It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat. Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).
I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy. These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related. The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.
Threat inflation is a huge problem in America. The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea. If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents. Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings. How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?
North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power. Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country. He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally. Does he need to be deterred? Yes. Should Americans cower in fear? Of course not.
Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election. China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies. We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years. Why haven’t we?
Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex. Ike warned us about it in 1961. He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature. Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke. He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more. He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.
Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today. Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget). Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?
Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:
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 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 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.
What Ike said. The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.
And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war. Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.
So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:
Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
And add back one more: climate change/global warming. Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century. Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,
Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security. They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe. Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”
Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:
If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”
That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.
“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018. Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.
Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):
The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.
In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70. At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon. (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)
Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed. If you want to defend America, defend it. Strengthen the National Guard. Increase security at the border (including cyber security). Spend money on the Coast Guard. And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas. End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa. Bring ground troops home. And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).
This is not a plea for isolationism. It’s a quest for sanity. America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight. Quite the reverse.
Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.
Is Donald Trump putting coal in Lockheed Martin’s Christmas stocking?
Trump has sent another tweet about the F-35 jet fighter (Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor), this time asking Boeing to price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet as a possible replacement for that jet. Trump’s tweet caused Lockheed Martin shares to dive even as Boeing shares climbed.
Trump is right to pressure Lockheed Martin on the F-35, though I’m not sure tweets are the best way to do this. I remember planning for the F-35 twenty years ago when I was on active duty in the Air Force. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be a relatively low cost fighter/attack aircraft that would meet Air Force, Navy, and Marine needs. Back then, the flyaway cost was estimated at $40 million per plane, more expensive than the F-16 but roughly equivalent to the F-15E “Strike Eagle.” The current flyaway cost is roughly $200 million per plane,* and even higher for the Marine Corps version with its vertical landing/short takeoff capacity.
What happened? Everything went wrong as each service piled requirements onto the F-35 and all kinds of exotic features were added to it. Stealth capability. Loads of special software featuring millions of lines of code. Unique (and expensive) helmets for its pilots. Vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which drove an airframe configuration that made it less maneuverable for the Air Force. In short, the F-35 became like a Swiss army knife, featuring lots of tools and moving parts. Sure, in a pinch a Swiss army knife can be used as a screwdriver or what have you, but most of the time what you really need is the best screwdriver for the job.
The F-35 is reminiscent of another ill-fated effort to build a jet acceptable to all the services: the F-111 “swing-wing” program of the 1960s.
The Navy never deployed it, and the Air Force was never that happy with it, converting it to a fighter/bomber and an electronics warfare plane. The Navy went on to build its own fighter jet, the F-14, even as the Air Force built its fighter jet, the F-15. Then the Air Force and Navy got two decent fighter/attack jets, the F-16 and F-18, out of the lightweight fighter competition.**
Here’s the thing: Although jets like the F-15 and F-18 are not stealthy, they are very effective, especially when updated with the latest weaponry and avionics and flown by skilled pilots. Meanwhile, highly effective UAVs (drones) have emerged, e.g. Predators and Reapers, with long loiter times and no risk of U.S. casualties. To put it bluntly, does the U.S. really need the F-35, especially given its high cost and underwhelming performance?
Back to Donald Trump. Is he bluffing when he threatens to buy Boeing-made F-18s instead of the F-35? Is he posturing to get Lockheed Martin to cut the price of the F-35 (which, at this late stage of its development, may not even be possible)? One thing is certain: A lot of good American jobs are riding on Trump’s tweets. Expect Lockheed Martin to rally its Congressional allies to defend the program. The plane’s multitude of contracts were deliberately spread throughout the 50 states to gain as much Congressional support as possible.
For a little fun, go to the Lockheed Martin website at the following link:
Let’s put in Pennsylvania. Here’s what you get: 41 supplier locations, 2100 jobs, $172.5M in economic impact. How about New York? 77 suppliers, 8160 jobs, $695.2M in economic impact. How about Bernie Sanders’s state of Vermont? 3 suppliers, 1410 jobs, $124.5 million in economic impact. Small wonder that even Bernie Sanders during the campaign was an F-35 supporter.
One thing is certain: the stealthy F-35 has not evaded Trump’s radar. Whether Trump will shoot it down or simply watch it as it soars on by while burning through piles of money remains to be seen.
Note: For a more detailed report on the F-35’s performance issues, see “The F-35 Stealth Fighter May Never Be Ready for Combat: Testing report contradicts the U.S. Air Force’s rosy pronouncements,” by DAN GRAZIER & MANDY SMITHBERGER, available at this link. In short, the plane’s “requirement” to be stealthy is driving higher costs and lower performance. The plane gobbles gas so it has limited combat endurance. It’s a step backwards in effectiveness, at a much higher cost to the American taxpayer than previous planes such as the F-15, F-16, and A-10. Meanwhile, many of its missions are now filled by drones.
For a counterpoint in favor of the F-35, see this link. The F-35 has unique capabilities; it should, given its price tag. Leaving aside high cost and questionable performance, it’s vital to remember the mission. Are there really missions that only the F-35 can do, or that no plane can do as effectively? But the real case for the F-35 seems to come down to the fact that the program is simply too big to fail; the “sunk costs” are too high; its rivals are too old; and too many American jobs are dependent on it. In short, the U.S. military is stuck with the plane — and the American taxpayer is stuck with the bill.
*Estimates vary about the final flyaway cost since it’s ultimately dependent on how many F-35s are produced. Current estimates for the entire U.S. purchase are $400 billion, with another trillion dollars for maintenance and spares and related costs over the program’s lifetime.
**The most rugged and effective attack jet in the Air Force’s inventory, the A-10, was never much liked by the Air Force; generals have fought to eliminate it in favor of the much less effective F-35, but Congress has actually fought back to keep the A-10, affectionately known as the Warthog, a name and image contrary to the AF fighter pilot mystique of “eagles” and “fighting falcons.”