If there’s one area of bipartisan agreement today, it’s politicians’ professed love of the U.S. military. Consider George W. Bush. He said the U.S. military is the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known. Consider Barack Obama. He said that same military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Strong praise, indeed.
Today’s politicians are not to be outdone. This past weekend at Camp David, Paul Ryan praised the military for keeping America safe. Mike Pence noted the military remains “the strongest in the world,” yet paradoxically he said it needs rebuilding. He promised even more “investment” in the military so that it would become “even stronger still.”
Apparently, no matter how strong and superior the U.S. military is, it must be made yet stronger and yet more superior. All in an effort to “keep us safe,” to cite Paul Ryan’s words. Small wonder that the Pentagon’s budget is soaring above $700 billion.
It didn’t use to be this way. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, formerly a five-star general and a man who knew the military intimately, warned us in 1961 of the anti-democratic nature of the military-industrial complex. James Madison, one of America’s founders, warned us in the 18th century of the perils of endless war and how armies drive authoritarian tendencies and contribute to financial debt and national ruin.
Ike knew that national safety shouldn’t be equated with military prowess; quite the reverse, as he warned us against the unchecked power of a burgeoning military-industrial-Congressional complex. Madison knew that armies weren’t “investments”; rather, they were, in historical terms, positive dangers to liberty.
But for America’s politicians today, the idea of national safety has become weaponized as well as militarized. In their minds personal liberty and national democracy, paradoxically, are best represented by an authoritarian and hierarchical military, one possessing vast power, whether measured by its resources across the globe or its reach within American society.
Our politicians find it easy to be uncritical cheerleaders of the U.S. military. They may even think they’re doing a service by issuing blank checks of support. But Ike and Madison would disagree, and so too would anyone with knowledge of the perils of military adulation.
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.
I’ve written several articles about the United States and creeping militarism (see here and here, for example). This should be obvious, but I’ll say it again: Calling attention to the militarization of American society is pro-democracy, not anti-military. Indeed, back in the citizen-soldier era of my father, being “gung ho” for the military wasn’t even applauded within the military!
As one veteran wrote to me:
When I was in the military, being “gung ho” was not considered a compliment by most of my friends… Of course we were not professional military types, just taking our turns to do our duty. We remembered the American soldier epitomized by Bill Mauldin as “Willie” and “Joe” who fought successfully against the German Army and the Japanese fanatics…The popular war movies of WWII after the war usually pitted the austere, indoctrinated Nazis fighting to demonstrate the Nazi superiority against the average American citizen soldier. Remember the movie “Battleground”? Today the images of our Army uncomfortably remind me of the way the German superman was portrayed that we overcame.
[There is a] disjunction between the cult of military hero-worship in American society and American ignorance of veterans’ problems. I am continually disgusted with those who are pimping off the mystique [surrounding our troops] who don’t deserve any special regard for their military service. And a final but important point: many combat vets, knowing full well the realities of combat and its effects on combatants, do not want to be thanked at all [by the public].
America’s militarism both feeds and draws support from our endless wars. The war on terror has been ongoing since 2001. So too the war in Afghanistan. Iraq keeps getting more chaotic. Miscalculation in Syria could lead to World War III.
Speaking of future wars, just look at the rhetoric of our more popular political candidates for president, to include Donald “bomb those suckers” Trump and Ted “carpet bomb” Cruz. Chickenhawk politicians are nothing but opportunists. They may be leading the war charge, but they know they’re backed by a society in thrall to military spectacle (as represented, for example, by pom-pom shaking cheerleaders in skimpy camouflage outfits).
Unstinting praise of America’s “warriors” and “heroes” is reinforced by feel-good corporate/military advertising. Recall Budweiser’s “welcome home” party for an Army lieutenant that aired during the Super Bowl a couple of years back. Or red-white-and-blue Budweiser cans to “honor” the troops on July 4th. “Saluting” the troops with colorful beer cans – really?
Signs of militarism USA are everywhere. Police forces with MRAPs and similar tank-like vehicles. Colleges and universities jostling for “defense” funding (even bucolic campuses want those war bucks). Popular games that glorify military mayhem, such as the “Call of Duty” video games. Even mundane items like camouflage headsets for NFL coaches.
I have conservative friends (Yes, I do!) who express disfavor with higher education. They see higher ed as being in lockstep with liberal/leftist agendas. Things like gay marriage, aggressive feminism, multiculturalism, and diversity that focuses not on wide-ranging political views but on the politics of gender and race. They further see higher ed as being unfriendly to conservatives, hostile to organized religion (especially Christianity), and intolerant of alternative views that challenge leftist shibboleths.
There’s truth to this critique. I’ve been around enough liberal faculty members to recognize a certain collectivism, often manifested by smug superiority, in their treatment of anyone who challenges their views. So-called Birkenstock Bolsheviks are hardly immune to prejudice, including the refusal of job interviews or the denial of tenure to conservatives. Such prejudice is especially galling among faculties that pride themselves on tolerance.
But while conservatives fight loud skirmishes against conformist liberals in higher ed, they ignore real battles of enormous significance. The middle class in America continues to wither, even as the cost of higher ed spirals ever upwards (Americans now carry more student loan debt than credit card debt); financial and corporate elites continue to gain more power at the expense of the little guy, even in higher ed, which is increasingly obedient to business imperatives; the American empire continues to grow, and the individual rights of Americans continue to atrophy, even as higher ed willingly genuflects before the military-industrial-homeland security complex.
Everywhere in American society, including in higher ed, we see the exercise of power without regard to communal functions. And most liberals (and conservatives) in higher ed either kowtow to power or hunker down in their own little academic fiefs.
To liberals in higher ed, the power elites basically say: We’ll give you gay marriage, we’ll give you your left-leaning courses on feminist basket making in the Punjab. But we reserve real power, the power that translates into money and influence, for ourselves. Even liberal icons like President Obama are just the multicultural happy face on a power structure that continues to screw the little guy and gal.
Think about it. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, do you believe you have any real say in America? Any real power? Any real speech? Compared to financial and corporate elites, who are now citizens and who can outshout you with billions of dollars in political campaign “donations”?
Again, those wine-drinking and cheese-eating liberals in academe, with their smug, Prius- and Volvo-driven politics, may be annoying, but they have no real power except to annoy.
Of course, in some ways this is nothing new. President Dwight Eisenhower identified part of the problem: the growing domination of militarized corporate agendas in the name of “security.” What has made it worse is our permanent war footing, which both drives and justifies fascism-lite, and which works to break down the social contract. Even Ike couldn’t foresee the extent to which Washington and the Congress have become beholden to, and virtually owned by, major corporate and financial interests.
The character Gordon Gekko’s quote of “greed is good” from the movie Wall Street caught the Zeitgeist of the 1980s. Then in the recent sequel Gekko adds: “Now it seems it’s legal,” a statement as sardonically funny as it is indicative of America’s new 21st century Zeitgeist.
To preserve their power and perks, the rich and powerful use their usual divide and conquer strategy, in which they sic the middling orders on the welfare class. Look over there! A lazy welfare mom buying king crab legs using food stamps! Even as another CEO cashes in his golden parachute for $10 million and another luxury yacht.
The media serve power, the politicians serve money/power, and when politicians leave office, they cash in as well. It’s all a circle jerk in which the little guy gets hosed.
Colleges and universities, in the meantime, are divided or distracted by identity politics and the usual grievances and petty animosities, even as administrators increasingly align themselves with corporate types, who promise to run a tighter ship while cutting benefits (including health care) to temporary/contingent faculty.
So, my message to my conservative friends is this: Don’t worry about the leftist types in higher ed who get under your skin: they’re just parlor pinks. They have the power to annoy, and within academe they have a smidgen of authority. But they have no real power, especially when compared to our corporatist state, to multinationals, to the big banks, Wall Street, and the K Street lobbyists.
If you don’t believe me, if you continue to chew the carpet at midnight, pause for a moment and ask yourself this question: When was the last time Prius-driving liberals with their “Coexist” bumper stickers got $700 billion from American taxpayers in the TARP to bail them out?