Dreaming Big About the U.S. Military

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Let’s build two new faulty aircraft carriers at the same time.  Even before the bugs with the first one are worked out.  You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

W.J. Astore

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.

The Bankruptcy of Conventional Wisdom at the Pentagon

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A fair depiction of General Petraeus and the busy uniforms of America’s generals

W.J. Astore

Perhaps the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom at the Pentagon came from retired General David Petraeus in an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in June of 2017.  Petraeus spoke of a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan and the need for a “generational struggle” with Islamic terrorists who are located there.  Comparing Afghanistan to the U.S. commitment to South Korea, he hinted U.S. troops might be there for 60 or more years (though he backtracked on the 60-year figure when challenged by Woodruff).

Here’s a telling excerpt from his interview:

We need to recognize that we went there [Afghanistan] for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.

That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.

But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.

These statements are so wrongheaded it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them:

  1. The U.S. military went into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban after 9/11.  Punishment was administered and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, after which the U.S. military should have left.  The decision to stay was foolish and disastrous.  Extending a disastrous occupation is only aggravating the folly.
  2. “Transnational extremists”: According to the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region has exploded with terrorist elements, and indeed Petraeus and his fellow generals count twenty or more factions in Afghanistan.  In sum, rather than weakening Islamic extremism in the area, U.S. military action has served to strengthen it.
  3. “A very useful platform”: The U.S. has spent roughly a trillion dollars on its eighteen-year-old war in the Af-Pak region.  The results?  The Taliban has increased its hold over Afghan territory and Islamic extremism has flourished.  How is this “very useful” to the United States?
  4. A “long haul” that’s “sustainable”: What exactly is “sustainable” about a war you’ve been fighting — and losing — for nearly two decades?  Leaving aside the dead and maimed troops, how is a trillion dollars a “sustainable” price for a lost war?
  5. No “victory parade.”  At least Petraeus is right here, though I wouldn’t put it past Trump to have a military parade to celebrate some sort of “victory” somewhere.

It appears President Trump is finally fed up, suggesting a withdrawal of troops from Syria as well as a force drawdown in Afghanistan.  But it appears Trump is already caving to pressure from the Pentagon and the usual neo-con suspects, e.g. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests U.S. troops won’t withdraw from Syria without a guarantee from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies, which, according to the New York Times, may extend America’s troop commitment by “months or years.”

Trump needs to realize that, if it were up to the Pentagon, America today would still be fighting the Vietnam War, rather than working closely with Vietnam as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China.

The Pentagon’s conventional wisdom is that U.S. troops, once committed, must never leave a region.  Victory or defeat doesn’t matter.  What matters is “sustaining” a “sustainable” commitment.  Hence troops are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Syria, still in 800+ bases around the world, because any withdrawal is couched as surrender, a display of weakness, so says America’s military “experts.”

The U.S. doesn’t need a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to the Middle East or Central Asia or anywhere else for that matter, other than right here in the USA.  We need a sustainable, sustained commitment to a better health care system.  To better roads, bridges, airports. To affordable education.  To tax cuts that actually help the middle class.

When it comes to “generational struggles,” David Petraeus, let’s fight for a better America, not for sustaining troops in lost causes around the world.

Monday Military Musings

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Pentagon spending keeps rolling along …

W.J. Astore

I get “Air & Space Power Journal” electronically.  You might call it a professional journal for Air Force personnel.  The latest articles had these titles:

Character into Action: How Officers Demonstrate Strengths with Transformational Leadership

Multidomain Observing and Orienting: ISR to Meet the Emerging Battlespace

Preparing for Multidomain Warfare: Lessons from Space/Cyber Operations

An Ethical Decision-Making Tool for Offensive Cyberspace Operation

There’s something about military writing that loves pretentious jargon.  Not just leadership, but “transformational” leadership.  Combat or war must be “multidomain.”  Battle or battlefield isn’t enough: we must now talk of “battlespace.”  My automatic spell-check is having conniptions over these three words.

Instead of resorting to pretentious jargon in titles, why not go for the simple and direct?  Here are my suggested titles for the articles above:

* How to Lead.

*Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance in Battle.

*Lessons from Space/Cyber Warfare.

*Applying Ethics to Cyber Warfare.

(Here I think “warfare” is more honest than “operations.”)

One tiny reason the U.S. military continues to struggle in its various “overseas contingency operations,” i.e. wars, is the pretentiousness of its writing.

As the military drowns in words, it’s also drowning in money, though it’s already thinking about what will happen when the cash is curtailed.  A good friend of mine sent me an article with the title, “Pentagon, Defense Industry Brace for Expected Dip in Future Funding.”  Here’s an excerpt:

Without congressional action, the decrease in defense funding would be dramatic. The base Department of Defense budget would drop to $549 billion in FY 2020 and $564 billion in FY 2021, according to a July 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service. The FY 2019 defense budget, recently signed into law, set spending at $717 billion.

The defense industry knows what a looming congressional budget fight could do to the Pentagon’s current high levels of spending. Executives are preparing Wall Street analysts for what likely lays ahead: Congress reducing the cash flow to the Pentagon and what that will mean to corporate bottom lines.

Yes — we must defend those “corporate bottom lines”!

Defense contractors have to be prudent and prepare for the future.  That said, a decline in defense spending should be good news to the American taxpayer.  Old-school Republicans, who used to fight for smaller government and lower deficits, should also be pleased at the prospect of lower spending.

Except it doesn’t work that way anymore. Few if any Members of Congress of either party want to see a decline in spending.  And of course defense contractors want to keep the money flowing — as President Eisenhower famously warned us about in his military-industrial-Congressional complex speech of 1961.

The rest of the world could declare “peace forever” tomorrow and Ike’s complex would still roll along.  The U.S. economy is now linked (forever?) to inflated spending on weapons and war.

Inflated war/weapons spending and inflated prose about “transformational multidomain battlespace” what-have-yous.  All that’s missing in our military are the victories.

Why the Pentagon Gets So Much Money So Easily

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The five-sided puzzle palace on the Potomac is about to be flooded with new money

W.J. Astore

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”

A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money

Imacon Color Scanner
Painting of Everett Dirksen, a thrifty Republican.  Remember those?

W.J. Astore

Though it’s unconfirmed that Congressman Everett M. Dirksen ever uttered perhaps the most famous words attributed to him: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money,” the sentiment surely needs to be updated for America’s profligate military moment.  Replace “billion” with “trillion” and you have the perfect catchphrase for today’s Pentagon.

Consider the following facts:

  1. The F-35 jet fighter is projected to cost $1.45 trillion over the life of the program.
  2. Modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is projected to cost $1.2 trillion, though some estimates suggest $1.7 trillion as the more likely sum.
  3. America’s Afghan War has already cost $1 trillion.  Add to that another $45+ billion to support war ops for this year, and perhaps the same amount of spending each year for the next decade.
  4. A low-ball estimate for America’s Iraq War is $1 trillion, but when one adds in veterans health care and similar long-term issues, the cost rises into the $2-3 trillion range.
  5.  Each year, spending on the Pentagon, Homeland Security, wars, nuclear weapons, the VA, and interest on the national debt associated with previous military spending approaches $1 trillion.

We’re talking about real money, right?

Yet all this spending is scarcely debated within Congress.  Together with the Trump administration, Congress is a rubber stamp for the Pentagon.  Meanwhile, Congress will fight tooth and nail over a few million dollars to support the arts, humanities, and similar “wasteful” programs.  Planned Parenthood is always under attack, despite the paltry sum they receive (roughly half a billion) to provide vital functions for women’s health.  Even the $200 billion promised by Trump to support infrastructure improvements is a trickle of money compared to the gusher of funds dedicated to the Pentagon and all of its exotic WMD.

People laughed at Bernie Sanders when he proposed health care for all and free education in state colleges.  That socialist fool!  America can’t afford that!  Indeed, much better for people to go into debt as they struggle to pay for health care or college.  That’s private enterprise and “freedom” for you.  Own the debt and you can own the world.

No — Bernie Sanders wasn’t crazy.  America could easily afford universal health care and virtually free education at state colleges and universities.  Our elites simply choose not to consider these proposals, let alone fund them.  But more nukes?  More wars?  More jets and subs and tanks?  Right this way, my boy!

All these trillions for weapons and wars — one thing is certain: “freedom,” as they say, sure isn’t free.

Update (2/27/18): At TomDispatch.com, Bill Hartung goes into greater detail on the Pentagon’s massive budget for 2018 and 2019.  As he notes: “The figures contained in the recent budget deal that kept Congress open, as well as in President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, are a case in point: $700 billion for the Pentagon and related programs in 2018 and $716 billion the following year. Remarkably, such numbers far exceeded even the Pentagon’s own expansive expectations. According to Donald Trump, admittedly not the most reliable source in all cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we got everything we wanted’ — a rare admission from the head of an organization whose only response to virtually any budget proposal is to ask for more.”

The title of Hartung’s article sums it up: The Pentagon Budget as Corporate Welfare for Weapons Makers.

Put succinctly, it’s warfare as welfare — and wealth-care — for the military-industrial complex.

Ike’s Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex Is Alive and Very Well

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Look, Ma: More Money!  Don’t Worry: We’ll Spend It Wisely

W.J. Astore

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?

The Biggest National Security Threats

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Trump, surrounded by the military, vows to give it more (and more!) money

W.J. Astore

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:

  1. Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
  2. The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
  3. Trump.

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,