Imagine If America Had A Real Department of Defense

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I ask a simple question: What would real national defense look like? Here are some answers.

What would real national defense for this country look like?  Rarely do any of us pose this question, no less examine what it might truly mean.  Rarely do we think about all the changes we’d have to make as a nation and a people if we were to put defense first, second, and last, while leaving behind both our imperial wars and domestic militarism.

I know what it wouldn’t look like.  It wouldn’t look like today’s grossly inflated military.  A true Department of Defense wouldn’t need 800 foreign military bases, nor would the national security state need a budget that routinely exceeds a trillion dollars annually.  We wouldn’t need a huge, mechanized army, a navy built around aircraft carriers, or an air force that boasts of its global reach and global power, all of it created not for defense but for offense — for destruction, anytime, anywhere.

As a country, we would need to imagine a new “people’s” military as a force that could truly defend the American republic. That would obviously mean one focused above all on supporting the Constitution and the rights we (at least theoretically) hold sacred like freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, the right to privacy and due process, and of course the right to justice for all, not just for the highest bidder or those with the deepest pockets.

What might such a new military look like?  First, it would be much smaller.  America’s current military, including troops on active duty, reservists, and members of the National Guard, consists of roughly 2.4 million men and women.  Those numbers should gradually be cut at least in half.  Second, its budget should similarly be dramatically cut, the end goal being to have it 50% lower than next year’s proposed budget of $715 billion.  Third, it wouldn’t be based and deployed around the world. As a republican force (note the lower-case “r”), it would instead serve democratic ends rather than imperial ones.  It would certainly need far fewer generals and admirals.  Its mission wouldn’t involve “global reach,” but would be defensive, focused on our borders and this hemisphere.

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A friend of mine, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, speaks of a military that would consist of a Coast Guard, “militias” (that is, the National Guard) for each of the fifty states, and little else.  Yes, in this America, that sounds beyond extreme, but he has a point.  Consider our unique advantages in terms of geography.  Our continent is protected by two vast oceans.  We share a long and peaceful border with Canada.  While the border with Mexico is certainly troubled, we’re talking about unarmed, desperate migrants, not a military invasion flooding into Texas to retake the Alamo. 

Here, then, are just 10 ways America’s military could change under a vision that would put the defense of America first and free up some genuine funds for domestic needs as well:

  1. No more new nuclear weapons.  It’s time to stop “modernizing” that arsenal to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over the next three decades.  Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, expected to cost more than $264 billion during its lifetime, and “strategic” (nuclear) bombers like the Air Force’s proposed B-21 Raider should be eliminated.  The Trident submarine force should also be made smaller, with limited modernization to improve its survivability.
  2. All Army divisions should be reduced to cadres (smaller units capable of expansion in times of war), except the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 10th Mountain Division.
  3. The Navy should largely be redeployed to our hemisphere, while aircraft carriers and related major surface ships are significantly reduced in number.
  4. The Air Force should be redesigned around the defense of America’s air space, rather than attacking others across the planet at any time.  Meanwhile, costly offensive fighter-bombers like the F-35, itself a potential $1.7 trillion boondoggle, should simply be eliminated and the habit of committing drone assassinations across the planet ended. Similarly, the separate space force created by President Trump should be folded back into a much-reduced Air Force.
  5. The training of foreign militaries and police forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be stopped.  The utter collapse of the U.S.-trained forces in Iraqin the face of the Islamic State in 2014 and the ongoing collapse of the U.S.-trained Afghan military today have made a mockery of this whole process.
  6. Military missions launched by intelligence agencies like the CIA, including those drone assassination programs overseas, should be halted and the urge to intervene secretly in the political and military lives of so many other countries finally brought under some kind of control.
  7. The “industrial” part of the military-industrial complex should also be brought under control, so that taxpayer dollars don’t go to fabulously expensive, largely useless weaponry. At the same time, the U.S. government should stop promoting the products of our major weapons makers around the planet.
  8. Above all, in a democracy like ours, a future defensive military should only fight in a war when Congress, as the Constitution demands, formally declares one.
  9. The military draft should be restored.  With a far smaller force, such a draft should have a limited impact, but it would ensure that the working classes of America, which have historically shouldered a heavy burden in military service, will no longer do so alone. In the future America of my military dreams, a draft would take the eligible sons and daughters of our politicians first, followed by all eligible students enrolled in elite prep schools and private colleges and universities, beginning with the Ivy League.  After all, America’s best and brightest will surely want to serve in a military devoted to defending their way of life.
  10. Finally, there should be only one four-star general or admiral in each of the three services. Currently, believe it or not, there are an astonishing 44 four-star generals and admirals in America’s imperial forces. There are also hundreds of one-star, two-star, and three-star officers.  This top-heavy structure inhibits reform even as the highest-ranking officers never take responsibility for America’s lost wars.

Pivoting to America

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration — the idea of redeploying U.S. military forces from the Greater Middle East and elsewhere in response to perceived threats from China.  As it happened, it took the new Biden administration to begin to pull off that particular pivot, but America’s imperial military regularly seems to be pivoting somewhere or other.  It’s time to pivot to this country instead.

Echoing the words of George McGovern, a highly decorated World War II bomber pilot who unsuccessfully ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972, “Come home, America.” Close all those foreign military bases.  Redirect resources from wars and weapons to peace and prosperity.  Focus on restoring the republic.  That’s how Americans working together could truly defend ourselves, not only from our “enemies” overseas, almost always much exaggerated, but from ourselves, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and all our fears.

Please read all of this article at TomDispatch.com.

Pentagon Spending: Up, Up, and Away!

roosevelt
The Navy at flank speed, in pursuit of more money

W.J. Astore

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  Under the Trump administration, what is valued is spending on military weaponry and wars.  The Pentagon is due to get a major boost under Trump, as reported by the Associated Press and FP: Foreign Policy:

Money train. It’s looking like it might be Christmas in February for the U.S. defense industry. The Pentagon has delivered a $30 billion wish list to Congress that would fund more ships, planes, helicopters, drones, and missiles, the AP reports.

And that might only be the beginning.

President Trump has already ordered the Pentagon to draft a “supplemental” budget for 2017 that would include billions more for the U.S. military on top of the $600 billion the Obama administration budgeted for… 

As FP’s Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce recently reported, there are proposals floating around for a defense budget as high as $640 billion for 2018, which would bust through congressionally-mandated spending caps that Democrats — and many Republicans — are happy to keep in place. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been tasked with completing the supplemental request by March 1.

The Pentagon, which has never passed a financial audit and which has wasted more than two trillion dollars over the years (this figure came in 2001, when Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense under Bush/Cheney), is due to be given even more money to spend, irrespective of past performance or future need.

Naturally, each military service is already posturing and clamoring for the extra money promised by Trump.  Consider the U.S. Navy, which, according to Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Moran, will be “Just Flat Out Out Of Money” without this supplemental funding boost from Congress.

According to the Navy and Marine Corps:

Five attack submarines would see their maintenance availabilities canceled this year and be put at risk of being decertified if no supplemental were passed out of Congress, Moran added, in addition to similar cuts to surface ship maintenance availabilities.

Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said “we would stop flying in about July” without a supplemental. He clarified that forward forces would continue to operate, but for units training at home, “all training would cease without a supplemental, and that includes the parts money and the flying hour money.”

Even if the supplemental – which could total between $30 and $40 billion for all the armed services – is passed in a timely manner, the Navy and Marine Corps still face massive readiness issues that money can’t immediately address.

That last part is disturbing indeed.  Even with billions in additional funding, the Navy still faces “massive readiness issues.”

Well, here are a few radical suggestions for Trump and the Pentagon:

  1. If money is tight, why not re-prioritize?  If readiness is compromised, why not scale back the mission?
  2. Before boosting funding, why not force the Pentagon to pass a financial audit?
  3. If trillions of dollars have gone “missing” over the last decades (remember, a Republican Secretary of Defense made this claim), why not launch missions to find that money before spending billions of new money?

You don’t reform a bureaucracy that wastes money by giving them more money.  It’s like reforming an addict on drugs by giving him more money to spend on drugs. Until the Pentagon can account for its spending, its budget needs to be flatlined or cut.

The only way to force the Pentagon to think about “defense” spending is to limit its budget.  Throwing money at the Pentagon just ensures more of the same, only more: as in more weaponry, more wars, and more fraud, waste, and abuse.

Given the Pentagon’s track record over the last half-century, does anyone truly think that more money is a solution to anything?

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.

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.

What Americans Value

There's no shortage of tanks in the USA
There’s no shortage of tanks in the USA

W.J. Astore

A sentiment attributed to Vice President Joe Biden is, Show me what’s in your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.  These words resonate with me whenever I consider the yearly budget for the Department of Defense (DoD), Homeland Security, the Department of Energy (which handles nuclear weapons), and the various intelligence agencies (roughly 17; that’s why they form a community).

When you add up what we spend on defense, homeland security, “overseas contingency operations” (wars), nuclear weapons, and intelligence and surveillance operations, the sum approaches $750 billion dollars each and every year, consuming more than two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary spending.

Here are some figures for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15):

Defense: “Base” budget of $496 billion

Afghan War (not part of “defense”): $85 billion

VA: $65 billion

Homeland Security: $38 billion

Nuclear Weapons: $12 billion

FBI and Cyber Security (part of Justice Department budget): $18 billion

Total: $714 billion

Some of the budget of the State Department and for foreign aid supports weapons and training (“foreign military sales”), bringing us to roughly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, each and every year, on the military, intelligence, security, weapons, and wars.

How much do we spend at the federal level on education, interior, and transportation?  Roughly $95 billion.

When a government spends almost eight times as much on its military, security, wars, weapons, and the like as it does on educating its youth, fixing its roads and bridges and related infrastructure, and maintaining its national parks and land, is there any question what that country ultimately values?

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  Sobering words. Sobering — and scary.