War as a Business Opportunity

Pentagon-Money
There’s lots of money in war (and rumors of war)

W.J. Astore

A good friend passed along an article at Forbes from a month ago with the pregnant title, “U.S. Army Fears Major War Likely Within Five Years — But Lacks The Money To Prepare.” Basically, the article argues that war is possible — even likely — within five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran, or maybe all three, but that America’s army is short of money to prepare for these wars.  This despite the fact that America spends roughly $700 billion each and every year on defense and overseas wars.

Now, the author’s agenda is quite clear, as he states at the end of his article: “Several of the Army’s equipment suppliers are contributors to my think tank and/or consulting clients.”  He’s writing an alarmist article about the probability of future wars at the same time as he’s profiting from the sales of weaponry to the army.

As General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, said: War is a racket. Wars will persist as long as people see them as a “core product,” as a business opportunity.  In capitalism, the profit motive is often amoral; greed is good, even when it feeds war. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is willing to play along.  It always sees “vulnerabilities” and always wants more money.

But back to the Forbes article with its concerns about war(s) in five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran (or all three).  For what vital national interest should America fight against Russia? North Korea?  Iran?  A few quick reminders:

#1: Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia or with Russia (Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler all learned that lesson the hard way).

#2: North Korea? It’s a puppet regime that can’t feed its own people.  It might prefer war to distract the people from their parlous existence.

#3: Iran?  A regional power, already contained, with a young population that’s sympathetic to America, at least to our culture of relative openness and tolerance.  If the U.S. Army thinks tackling Iran would be relatively easy, just consider all those recent “easy” wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria …

Of course, the business aspect of this is selling the idea the U.S. Army isn’t prepared and therefore needs yet another new generation of expensive high-tech weaponry. It’s like convincing high-end consumers their three-year-old Audi or Lexus is obsolete so they must buy the latest model else lose face.

We see this all the time in the U.S. military.  It’s a version of planned or artificial obsolescence. Consider the Air Force.  It could easily defeat its enemies with updated versions of A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s, but instead the Pentagon plans to spend as much as $1.4 trillion on the shiny new and under-performing F-35. The Army has an enormous surplus of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, but the call goes forth for a “new generation.” No other navy comes close to the U.S. Navy, yet the call goes out for a new generation of ships.

The Pentagon mantra is always for more and better, which often turns out to be for less and much more expensive, e.g. the F-35 fighter.

Wars are always profitable for a few, but they are ruining democracy in America.  Sure, it’s a business opportunity: one that ends in national (and moral) bankruptcy.

The Pentagon’s Mantra: Spend, Spend, Spend

Pentagon-Money
It’s spend, spend, spend at the Pentagon

W.J. Astore

The United States is addicted to war — and to war-spending.  That’s the message of Bill Hartung’s latest article at TomDispatch.com.  Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, writes:

The more that’s spent on “defense”… the less the Pentagon wants us to know about how those mountains of money are actually being used.  As the only major federal agency that can’t pass an audit, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the poster child for irresponsible budgeting. 

It’s not just that its books don’t add up, however.  The DoD is taking active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year — from using the separate “war budget” as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret.  Add in dozens of other secret projects hidden in the department’s budget and the Pentagon’s poorly documented military aid programs, and it’s clear that the DoD believes it has something to hide.

Having served in the military and DoD for twenty years and having read about it for twenty more, none of this surprises me.

Here’s the thing: In the Pentagon and the wider military, there’s absolutely no incentive to save money.  Indeed, the incentive is to spend as much as possible, because that is the best way to increase next year’s budgetary allotment. The military is filled with “Type A” officers whose job it is to spend, spend, spend, while fighting sister services for a bigger slice of the budgetary pie.  The more money you get for your program and service, the more likely you’ll get pats on the back, a medal or two, and a glowing promotion recommendation.

Next, Members of Congress.  Their incentive is also to spend — to bring home the pork to their districts.  And the most lucrative source of pork is “defense” spending, which has the added benefit of being easily spun as “patriotic” and in “support” of the troops.

Finally, the President.  His incentive is also to spend.  That’s the best way to avoid being charged as being “weak” on defense.  It’s also about the only leverage the US has left in foreign policy.  Just look at President Obama’s recent trip to Vietnam.  The headlines have focused on the US ending its 50-year arms embargo with Vietnam, as if that’s a wonderful thing for Americans and the Vietnamese.  As Peter Van Buren noted, normalizing relations with Vietnam by selling them lethal weapons is truly an exercise in cynicism by a declining American empire.

Whether it’s the Pentagon, the Congress, or the president, the whole defense wars and weapons complex is structured to spend the maximum amount of money possible while engorging and enlarging itself.  Small wonder it’s never passed an audit!

Making matters worse is how the Pentagon uses various shady practices (e.g. secret budgets) to hamstrung reformers seeking to corral the system’s excesses.  After detailing the Byzantine complexity of the budgetary process, Hartung concludes that:

If your head is spinning after this brief tour of the Pentagon’s budget labyrinth, it should be. That’s just what the Pentagon wants its painfully complicated budget practices to do: leave Congress, any administration, and the public too confused and exhausted to actually hold it accountable for how our tax dollars are being spent. So far, they’re getting away with it.

Put succinctly, the US National Security State may be losing its overseas wars, yet losing equates to winning when it comes to increased budgetary authority abetted by a Congress that prefers enablement to oversight.  And as any military officer knows, authority without responsibility is a recipe for serious abuse.

Plenty of Money for the Pentagon

101222_pentagon_605_reuters
Should we enlarge the military, buy more weapons, or fight more wars?  Heck, let’s do all three!

W.J. Astore

Inside the Washington beltway, the debate is never focused on making major cuts to the defense budget, then using that money to improve infrastructure, health care, education, and other projects that benefit all of us domestically. No: the debate is whether we should fight more wars overseas or buy more weapons and enlarge the military for those wars.

That is the lesson from the following summary at FP: Foreign Policy that I’m pasting below:

There’s a fight brewing over the 2017 Defense Department budget, and right in the middle of the scrum is how to use the $58 billion the White House has set aside to pay for military operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The House of Representatives votes this week on its version of the bill, which yanks $18 billion from that account and uses it to buy more ships, dozens of fighter jets, and adding about 50,000 more troops to the rolls.

The White House and Pentagon aren’t happy about the whole thing.

On Monday, the Office of Management and Budget released a memo threatening a presidential  veto of the bill, calling the move a “gimmick.” The memo added, “shortchanging wartime operations by $18 billion and cutting off funding in the middle of the year introduces a dangerous level of uncertainty for our men and women in uniform carrying out missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. ”

And there are lots of elsewheres. Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic, just to name a few. On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its own version of the 2017 defense policy bill, which rejects the House funding plan. The entire defense bill is $610 billion.

Indeed, there are lots of “elsewheres.”  And how are those “elsewhere” wars going for the United States?  As Peter Van Buren wrote on Sunday at TomDispatch.com, those wars have been repetitive disasters.

Peter-Van-Buren_4
Peter Van Buren

Van Buren, who learned firsthand about the folly and fruitlessness of US reconstruction efforts in Iraq while working for the State Department, writes that:

Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America’s global strategy that it’s barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and “nation-building”? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That’s now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate…

Or for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. has just put troops back on the ground in Yemen, part of what the Pentagon is describing as “limited support” for the U.S.-backed war the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched in that country.

The new story is also the old story: just as you can’t be a little pregnant, the mission never really turns out to be “limited,” and if Washington doesn’t know where the exit is, it’s going to be trapped yet again inside its own war, spinning in unpredictable and disturbing directions.

The baseball-philosopher Yogi Berra coined the motto for recent US military efforts in the Greater Middle East: It’s like deja-vu, all over again.  The same saying applies to Pentagon budget “debates.” It’s never about how to save money, or what “defense” truly means to America. It’s always about how to get more money, and whether it should be spent on enlarging the military, buying more weapons, or fighting more wars.  The perfect trifecta is doing all three. Perhaps that’s the true “triad” of US defense policy.

Lying and Deception in the Iraq War – and Today

pic-arendt2
Hannah Arendt, cigarette in hand (Arendt Center, Bard College)

W.J. Astore

(This is part 2 of 2 of an essay dealing with lying, politics, and war, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s writings on The Pentagon Papers.  For part 1, click here.)

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. government oversaw the creation of a post-democratic military, one that was less tied to the people, meaning that the government had even less cause to tell the truth about war.  Unsurprisingly, then, the hubris witnessed in Vietnam was repeated with Iraq, together with an even more sweeping ability to deny or disregard facts, as showcased best in a statement by Karl Rove in 2004.  The actions of the Bush/Cheney Administration, Rove suggested, bypassed the fact- or “reality-based” community of lesser humans precisely because their premises (the need to revolutionize the Middle East and to win the War on Terror through violence) were irrefutable and their motives unimpeachable.  In Rove’s words:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

So it was that the Bush/Cheney administration manufactured its own “facts” to create its own “reality,” as the Downing Street Memo revealed (according to a senior British official, U.S. intelligence was “fixed” in 2002 to justify a predetermined decision to invade Iraq in 2003).  Dubious intelligence about yellowcake uranium from Africa and mobile biological weapons production facilities in Iraq (both later proved false) became “slam dunk” proof that Iraq had active programs of WMD development.  These lies were then cited to justify a rapid invasion.  That there were no active WMD programs in Iraq meant there could be no true “mission accomplished” moment to the war – a fact George W. Bush lampooned by pretending to  “search” for WMD at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2004.  In this case, lies and self-deception coalesced in a wincing performance before chuckling Washington insiders that recalled the worst of vaudeville, except that Americans and Iraqis were dying for these lies.

Subsequent policy decisions in post-invasion Iraq didn’t fit the facts on the ground because those facts were simply denied.  Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in July 2003 he didn’t do quagmires even as Iraq was becoming one for U.S. forces.  Two years later, then-Vice President Cheney claimed the Iraq insurgency was “in the last throes” even as insurgent attacks began to accelerate.  Lies and deception, to include self-deception, doomed the U.S. government to quagmire in Iraq, just as it had in Vietnam forty years earlier.  Similar lies continue to bedevil U.S. efforts in Iraq today, as well as in Afghanistan and many other places.

Even as official lies and deception spread, whistleblowers who stepped forward were gagged and squashed.  Chelsea Manning, Stephen Kim, and John Kiriakou were imprisoned; Edward Snowden was forced into permanent exile in Russia. Meanwhile, officials who toed the government line, who agreed to dissemble, were rewarded.  Whether under Bush or Obama, government officials quickly learned that supporting the party line, no matter how fanciful, was and is rewarded – but that truth-telling would be punished severely.

Lying and Self-Deception Today

How are U.S. officials doing at truth-telling today?  Consider the war in Afghanistan.  Now in its 15th year, regress, not progress, is the reality on the ground.  The Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is exploding, and Afghan forces remain unreliable.  Yet the U.S. government continues to present the Afghan war as winnable and the situation as steadily improving.

Similarly, consider the war on terror, nowadays prosecuted mainly by drones and special ops.  Even as the U.S. government boasts of terrorists killed and plots prevented, radical Islam as represented by ISIS and the like continues to spread.  Indeed, as terrorism expert David Kilcullen recently admitted, ISIS didn’t exist until U.S. actions destabilized and radicalized Iraq after 2003.  More than anything, U.S. intervention and blundering in Iraq created ISIS, just as ongoing drone strikes and special ops raids contribute to radicalization in the Islamic world.

Today’s generation of “best and brightest” problem-solvers believes U.S. forces cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without the Afghan government collapsing, hence the misleading statements about progress being made in that war.  Radical Islamic terrorists, they believe, must be utterly destroyed by military means, hence deceptive statements about drone strikes and special ops raids as eliminating terrorism.

Accompanying lies and deception about progress being made in wars is image manipulation.  Military action inoculates the Washington establishment, from President Obama on down, from (most) charges of being soft on terror (just as military action against North Vietnam inoculated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson against charges of being soft on communism).  It also stokes the insatiable hunger of the military-industrial complex for bottomless resources and incessant action, a complex that the current crop of Republican and Democratic candidates for president (Bernie Sanders excepted) have vowed to feed and expand.

Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or in the war on terror today, lying and self-deception have led to wrongheaded action and wrongful lessons.  So, for example, rather than facing the quagmire of Afghanistan and extricating itself from it, Washington speaks of a generational war and staying the course until ultimate victory.  Instead of seeing the often counterproductive nature of violent military strikes against radical Islam, Washington calls for more U.S. troops, more bombing, more “shock and awe,” the approach that bred the Islamic State in the first place.

One thing is certain: The U.S. desperately needs leaders whose judgment is informed by uncomfortable truths.  Comfortable lies have been tried before, and look what they produced: lots of dead people, lost wars, and a crippling of America’s ability to govern itself as a democracy.

More than ever, hard facts are at a premium in U.S. politics.  But the higher premium is the exorbitant costs we pay as a people, and the pain we inflict on others, when we allow leaders to make lies and deception the foundation of U.S. foreign policy.

The Next Commander-in-Chief

Governor_John_Kasich
John Kasich

W.J. Astore

A reader wrote to ask my opinion on which presidential candidate would make the best commander-in-chief.  This is a speculative exercise, of course, but why not speculate? I’ve watched most of the debates and have a sense of the candidates, though of course I’ve never met them and have no direct experience with them.  (I once shook President Bill Clinton’s hand, and saw Hillary in the background, but that’s a story for another day.)  So let’s take the five remaining candidates in alphabetical order:

Hillary Clinton: Often wrong and too hawkish, which is a bad combination. She was wrong on the Iraq War, wrong on Libya, and unapologetic in her fondness for Henry Kissinger. Under Clinton, I see more wasteful military interventions.

Ted Cruz: Far too eager to use military force.  You’ll recall his posturing about “carpet bombing” and making the sand “glow” in the Middle East, apparently by using nuclear weapons.  The recent terrorist attacks in Belgium have him calling for a police state in U.S. neighborhoods where Muslim-Americans live.

John Kasich: Has experience working military matters while in Congress (18 years on the House Armed Services Committee).  Has executive experience as a governor.  Has had the temerity to criticize the Saudis for supporting radical elements in Islam.  Has opposed wasteful weapons systems (the B-2 and A-12, for example).  Speaks carefully and appears to be temperamentally suited to the job.

Bernie Sanders: He was right to oppose the Iraq War.  Thinks for himself.  Not a slave to neoconservative interventionism.  Yet he lacks experience dealing with the military and with foreign policy.  Has the capacity for growth.

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Of the five major candidates, and with Sanders somewhat of a blank slate, I think John Kasich has the best potential — in the short-term — to be an effective commander-in-chief.  This does not mean that I support Kasich for president, for I object to several of his domestic policies.

Not exactly a “bracing view,” perhaps, but it’s my honest attempt to answer a reader’s question.  I do think Sanders has considerable potential to be an excellent commander-in-chief because he possesses moral courage.

Sadly, the odds of either Kasich or Sanders winning in November seem very long indeed.

Today’s Pentagon as an Ant Farm

ant-farm

W.J. Astore

I was on active duty in the military for twenty years.  My experience: It’s very difficult to see the big picture in the military.  The everyday pressures of the mission keep you focused on the short term.  I recall writing many WARs (weekly activity reports) and being focused on the immediate.  Even the yearly budgetary process tends to keep you focused on the short term.  Assignments for officers and enlisted rarely last longer than three years, with combat tours typically much shorter.  Personnel are constantly changing: for one acquisition project I worked on, four program managers (colonels) rotated in and out in three years.

Along with being focused on the immediate, you are actively discouraged from criticizing the system in any fundamental way.  Of course, you’re not supposed to criticize the commander-in-chief, you’re not supposed to be insubordinate to your chain of command, you’re not supposed to undermine morale.  At the same time, one mistake can be deadly to a career.  People in the military therefore tend to play it safe.  Doubters tend to conform.  They shut their mouths.  Or they vote with their feet by leaving the military.

Critics with the best of intentions often get squashed.  Consider the Air Force pilot who found a problem with the F-22 Raptor’s cockpit oxygen supply system.  This was a top priority, safety of flight, issue, but the Air Force played down the problem so as to protect procurement for the Raptor.  The pilot eventually complained to CBS “60 Minutes” and saw his career stall as a result.  Or consider General Eric Shinseki, who as Army Chief of Staff had the temerity to disagree with the Bush Administration’s rosy talk of low troop requirements in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Shinseki was shunted aside by a system that had no room for well-informed dissent.

Pressures to conform and short-term planning and personnel cycles combine to produce mediocrity and to reproduce the past.  John Paul Vann, an expert on the Vietnam War who died in that war, noted the U.S. military didn’t have 12 years’ experience in Vietnam: it had one years’ experience repeated 12 times over.  Something similar is true in Afghanistan today: the U.S. doesn’t have 14 years’ experience fighting the Taliban and building Afghan security forces, but rather one years’ experience repeated 14 times.

U.S. military actions are sequential rather than synergistic.  It’s just one damn thing after another.  The reality of this is often seen more clearly by people who are outside of the military.  Outsiders aren’t caught up in everyday pressures or limited by conformism.  They’re not caught in a Pentagonal box in which misguided tactics and mistaken goals are accepted by insiders as SOP – standard operating procedure.

But perhaps “box” is the wrong image for the Pentagon and its unreflective busyness; ant farm might be better.  If you’re of a certain age, you may remember those old ant farms advertised in the back pages of comic books.  You could send away for a see-through container with sand and ants that allowed you to watch as your crew of ants busily worked away in your “farm.”

Today’s Pentagon reminds me of those old ant farms.  The ants work busily within it.  Anyone watching wouldn’t question their dedication.  Yet as you’re standing outside the farm, watching them, you can see how tightly their world is delimited and circumscribed.  What is obvious to you is simply beyond them.  The ants keep digging in and rolling along.

It’s well worth asking why the U.S. military puts so much pride on working to the point of exhaustion.  A friend of mine worked at the Pentagon.  He worked hard during his normal shift – but he left on-time to go home.  His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.”  He’d reply: I can leave on-time because I didn’t spend hours rotating between the coffee maker and the gym.

A mindless emphasis on over-caffeinated work and fitness, as another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to the McNamara “managerial” culture of the 1960s.  As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the right stuff is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.”  Recall that General David Petraeus made a moral fetish out of personal fitness and how that indirectly cost him his career (he made his initial connection to his mistress/biographer while running together).  Recall that General Stanley McChrystal was celebrated for his fitness regimen, which didn’t convey the smarts to rein in the insubordinate behavior of his men.

One more anecdote about incessant “army ant” work.  A Vietnam veteran told me this story about mindless work for the sake of show:

“One feature of my first Vietnam unit epitomized all this to me: the trucks in our motor pool were perfectly lined up. I don’t know how they did it. Must have had squads of soldiers pushing them to just the right spot then stuck chocks under the wheels to keep them there. The 4-star-corps commander used to drive by our motor pool frequently to go to USARV HQ. He never stopped to see if the trucks were drivable. They were not. Almost all deadlined.”

Lots of busy-work down on the ant farm may look good from a distance, but it does not produce victory.

Today’s U.S. military has its enemies outgunned.  There’s little wrong with its work ethic.  What the U.S. military hasn’t done is to outthink its enemies.  Indeed, the military’s actions often conspire to create new ones.  To admit this is not to place the blame entirely on the military.  Its civilian leaders have to shoulder blame as well.  But ultimately it’s the military that advises the president and Congress, and I haven’t witnessed senior military officers resigning because their advice hasn’t been followed.

If the U.S. military is to be reformed, you can’t look to the ants to do it.  They’re too busy keeping the system running.  We must look beyond the farm, to outsiders who are able and willing to think freely.  Yet the military too needs to act, if for no other reason than to end a miserable run of defeats (or pyrrhic victories, if that sounds less harsh).  Rather than simply promoting loyal and hardworking ants, it needs to foster seers and thinkers – people willing to buck the system.

It won’t be easy – but it’s sure better than losing.

The Pentagon as Business and Church

Ike
Ike had it right

W.J. Astore

Military spending is supposed to be about keeping America safe.  It’s supposed to be tied to vital national interests.  And at roughly $750 billion a year (for defense, homeland security, wars overseas, the VA, and nuclear weapons), it’s a colossal chunk of money, representing nearly two-thirds of federal discretionary spending.

There’s also a colossal amount of waste in defense spending, and nearly all of the major candidates currently running for commander-in-chief want more.  Only Bernie Sanders has suggested, tepidly, that defense spending might be cut.

Why is this?  It’s because much of Pentagon spending is not about “keeping us safe.” Listen to the social critic and essayist Lewis Lapham.  For him, the U.S. military establishment is both “successful business enterprise and reformed church.”  In his words, “How well or how poorly the combined services perform their combat missions matters less than their capacity to generate cash and to sustain the images of omnipotence.  Wars, whether won or lost, and the rumors of war, whether true or false, increase the [defense] budget allocations, stimulate the economy, and add to the stockpile of fear that guarantees a steady demand for security and promotes a decent respect for authority.”

Is Lapham too cynical?

It’s true that the more ISIS or China or Russia are hyped as threats, the more money and authority the Pentagon gains.  Not much incentive – if any – exists within the Pentagon to play down the threats it perceives itself as facing.  Minimizing danger is not what the military is about.  Nor does it seek to minimize its funding or its authoritative position within the government or across American society.  Like a business, the Pentagon wants to enlarge its market share and power.  Like a church, it’s jealous of its authority and stocked with true believers.

There was a time when Americans, as well as their commander-in-chief, recognized the onerous burden of defense spending as a regressive tax on society and humanity.  That time was 1953, and that commander was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former five-star general who’d led the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

This is what Ike had to say about “defense” spending:

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 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. 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.

Economists use the term “opportunity cost,” and certainly massive spending on weapons and warfare is an opportunity lost for greater spending in needed areas such as education, infrastructure, environmental preservation, and alternative energies.

Keeping Ike’s words in mind, Americans may yet come to recognize that major cuts in the Pentagon “tax” are in the best interests of all.  Even, I daresay, the Pentagon.

 

Spoiling the Pentagon

Pentagon
Spoiled?

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I compare the Pentagon and the Department of Defense to Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager said to be suffering from “affluenza.”  Like Couch, the Pentagon has been showered with money and praise, yet despite all the preferential treatment, the Pentagon is never called to account for its mistakes and its crimes.  You can read the entire article here; what follows is an excerpt.

A Spoiled Pentagon Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

To complete our affluenza diagnosis, let’s add one more factor to boundless praise and a bountiful allowance: a total inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. This is, of course, the most repellent part of the Ethan Couch affluenza defense: the idea that he shouldn’t be held responsible precisely because he was so favored.

Think, then, of the Pentagon and the military as Couch writ large. No matter their mistakes, profligate expenditures, even crimes, neither institution is held accountable for anything.

Consider these facts: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are quagmires. The Islamic State is spreading. Foreign armies, trained and equipped at enormous expense by the U.S. military, continue to evaporate. A hospital, clearly identifiable as such, is destroyed “by accident.” Wedding parties are wiped out “by mistake.” Torture (a war crime) is committed in the field. Detainees are abused. And which senior leaders have been held accountable for any of this in any way? With the notable exception of Brigadier General Janis Karpinskiof Abu Ghraib infamy, not a one.

After lengthy investigations, the Pentagon will occasionally hold accountable a few individuals who pulled the triggers or dropped the bombs or abused the prisoners. Meanwhile, the generals and the top civilians in the Pentagon who made it all possible are immunized from either responsibility or penalty of any sort. This is precisely why Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling memorably wrote in 2007 that, in the U.S. military, “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” In fact, no matter what that military doesn’t accomplish, no matter how lacking its ultimate performance in the field, it keeps getting more money, resources, praise.

When it comes to such subjects, consider the Republican presidential debate in Iowa on January 28th. Jeb Bush led the rhetorical charge by claiming that President Obama was “gutting” the military. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio eagerly agreed, insisting that a “dramatically degraded” military had to be rebuilt. All the Republican candidates (Rand Paul excepted) piled on, calling for major increases in defense spending as well as looser “rules of engagement” in the field to empower local commanders to take the fight to the enemy. America’s “warfighters,” more than one candidate claimed, are fighting with one arm tied behind their backs, thanks to knots tightened by government lawyers. The final twist that supposedly tied the military up in a giant knot was, so they claim, applied by that lawyer-in-chief, Barack Obama himself.

Interestingly, there has been no talk of our burgeoning national debt, which former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen once identified as the biggest threat facing America. When asked during the debate which specific federal programs he would cut to reduce the deficit, Chris Christie came up with only one, Planned Parenthood, which at $500 million a year is the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters. (The military wants to buy more than 2,000 of them.)

Throwing yet more money at a spoiled military is precisely the worst thing we as “parents” can do. In this, we should resort to the fiscal wisdom of Army Major General Gerald Sajer, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner killed in the mines, a Korean War veteran and former Adjutant General of Pennsylvania. When his senior commanders pleaded for more money (during the leaner budget years before 9/11) to accomplish the tasks he had assigned them, General Sajer’s retort was simple: “We’re out of money; now we have to think.”

Accountability Is Everything

It’s high time to force the Pentagon to think. Yet when it comes to our relationship with the military, too many of us have acted like Ethan Couch’s mother. Out of a twisted sense of love or loyalty, she sought to shelter her son from his day of reckoning. But we know better. We know her son has to face the music.

Something similar is true of our relationship to the U.S. military. An institutional report card with so many deficits and failures, a record of deportment that has led to death and mayhem, should not be ignored. The military must be called to account.

How? By cutting its allowance. (That should make the brass sit up and take notice, perhaps even think.) By holding senior leaders accountable for mistakes. And by cutting the easy praise. Our military commanders know that they are not leading the finest fighting force since the dawn of history and it’s time our political leaders and the rest of us acknowledged that as well.

Tourists of Empire

On the road again ...
On the road again …

W.J. Astore

I recently received an update from the National Priorities Project reminding me of this startling fact:

“The president announced last week that American troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal at the end of 2016. This is a devastating blow. We’ve already spent $716 billion and counting on the war in Afghanistan alone, plus countless lives lost and derailed.”

Of course, not the same American troops will “remain” in Afghanistan until 2017 (or 2024, or who knows what year).  U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, privatized paramilitaries, and assorted imperial straphangers are constantly rotating in and out of war zones around the world, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones.  This reality got me to thinking about American imperialism as a peculiar form of global tourism.  All those repetitive, fairly short-term, “tours” to foreign countries, followed by new American tour groups (fresh deployments of new combat units).  The result is needless repetition, endless waste, and flat learning curves for Americans.  For the locals who have to endure America’s “tours,” the results are often far worse — and unlike Americans they usually can’t get on a boat or helicopter or jet and leave.

I was stimulated to write this new article on America’s “tourists of empire,” which appears at TomDispatch.com today.  You can read it in full here.  I’ve included some excerpts below.  I hope this article provides a contrary perspective on U.S. military efforts around the world.

Tourists of Empire: America’s Peculiar Brand of Global Imperialism

W.J. Astore.  Courtesy of TomDispatch.com.

The United States is a peculiar sort of empire.  As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before.  Empire — us?  We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago.  Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology.  In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers.  There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.

Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted.  As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists.  Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long…

Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic.  To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while).  If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).

And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end.  In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.

The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won.  Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.  They miss the point.  Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary.  If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq …

It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught.  Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay.  The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.”  For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down.  It was home.  They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.

Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat.  And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands.  Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones.  There’s often a new one every year.  (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area.  Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat…

At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed.  That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics.  It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us).  Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.

But foreign lands and peoples?  We can’t control them.  We don’t understand them.  We can’t count on them.  They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy.  What they aren’t is truly real.  They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.

And that is precisely why we fail.

America’s Overseas Military Bases: The 51st State

The true American Flag?
The true American Flag?

W.J. Astore

As David Vine reports for TomDispatch.com, the U.S. has roughly 800 military bases in foreign countries. Maintaining these bases costs upwards of $100 billion each year, more than the federal government spends on U.S. education.

The sheer extent and cost of these bases got me to thinking.  Each base is basically a “little America,” with a few of those bases being large enough to constitute an American city. If we can envision them collectively, would they not constitute America’s 51st state?  But instead of adding one more star to the American flag, we’d have to add a white Pentagon to the field of blue to represent the controlling interest of “base world,” our 51st state.

Fifty stars and one Pentagon: Or, if you prefer, 51 stars arranged in the shape of a Pentagon.

Sound crazy?  Not when you consider “base world’s” population, its corporate interests, its influence on American politics, and its leading role in American foreign policy. “Base world” is at least as significant to U.S. interests as real states like Wyoming. We really should have two U.S. senators elected from “base world.”  Then again, they’re not really needed, since all 100 of our current U.S. senators represent the Pentagon (as long as the Pentagon keeps funneling money to their respective states, of course).

We have all these foreign bases because America needs them to protect our far-flung national interests against evil-doers.  Right? Let’s think about these bases for a moment, the influence they wield, and the image they present of America.  After all, for many foreigners, the USA = base world.  What they know of America is represented by our military facilities and our troops.  Most of our troops are decent individuals; believe me, I’ve known a lot of them.  But there’s a reason why the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the quartering of troops in American households.

Ever been around a major military base in the USA?  Often it’s easy to find them. Look for pawn shops, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, payday loan shops, and predatory car dealers. And if you think such “attractions” are a little sordid, perhaps you best not go overseas. This may surprise a few people, but young troops overseas are not always chaste and sage ambassadors of democracy.  America’s “base world” is often not pretty, as young troops look for cheap suits and cheaper women, among other “bennies” (benefits) of an overseas deployment.

Statement of the obvious: Young troops of any nationality misbehave, especially when abroad.  And that’s how many foreigners come to know America: through the misbehavior of our young troops from “base world.”

And here’s another point about “base world” that’s as obvious as it’s rarely made: How many Americans would like it if foreign troops had major military facilities near or within our cities?  Perhaps some Russians or Saudis or Iranians in LA and Chicago and NYC.  Because those “allies” would be “protecting” us with their bases on American soil.  Right?  Let’s add some foreign fighter jets into the mix, and perhaps some aerial drones as well.  Surely we can trust our allies and their jets armed with bombs above our heads — right?

Incredibly expensive, often counterproductive, and sometimes disruptive, America’s “base world” needs to be downsized dramatically.  If you truly want to shrink government, don’t start with your local post office.  Start with America’s mega military bases overseas.