In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone, played brilliantly by Al Pacino, says that killing a rival mobster and crooked police captain who conspired to kill his father is nothing personal — it’s strictly business. Something similar can be said of America’s wars and weapons trade today. As retired General Smedley Butler said in the 1930s, U.S. military actions often take the form of gangster capitalism. Want to know what’s really going on? Follow the muscle and the money!
America has “invested” itself in the Russia-Ukraine war, and I use that word deliberately. U.S. weapons makers like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are making a killing, literally and figuratively, on the ongoing war, whether by sending arms to Ukraine or in the major boost forthcoming to Pentagon spending supported by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. (Who said bipartisanship is dead?) For all the blue-and-yellow flags that America is flying in symbolic solidarity with Ukraine, the true colors of this war, as with most wars, is red for blood and green for money.
Economic sanctions against Russia, meanwhile, are meant to damage the financial wellbeing of that country, possibly leading to instability and even collapse. And who would profit from such a collapse? And who is profiting now from restricting fossil fuel exports from Russia? As war drags on in Ukraine, disaster piles on disaster, and capitalism has a way of profiting from war-driven disasters. Why do you think America’s disastrous Afghan War lasted for two decades?
Curiously, investment-speak in the U.S. military is quite common. Generals and admirals talk of “investing” in new nuclear missiles and immense ships. They further talk of “divesting” in certain weapons that have proven to be disasters in their own way, like the F-22 fighter. What’s with all this “investing” and “divesting” in the U.S. military? One thing is certain: Generals won’t have to change their language as they retire and move through the revolving door to join corporate boards at major weapons contractors.
Today’s generals and politicians never display the honesty of President Dwight Eisenhower, who explained nearly seventy years ago that weapons represent a theft from the people and their needs, not an “investment.” Those who say there’s no business like show business may be right, but Hollywood’s a piker compared to the Pentagon, where there’s truly no business like war business.
Sixty-one years ago, in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned America of the threat posed by the military-industrial complex (MIC). To that complex, Ike had rightly added Congress, whose members are generally supportive of immense military spending, especially when it occurs in their district. Americans, in the main, haven’t heeded Ike’s warning, mainly due to government/corporate propaganda, military lobbying and threat inflation, wars and rumors of war, the naked desire for global dominance in the stated cause of keeping the “homeland” safe, and, well, greed.
How does “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” tackle such a beast? I was part of a discussion this week on strategies to “dismantle” the MIC; more on that in a moment. First, a caveat. When I use the term “military-industrial complex,” I know what I’m referring to and talking about, and so too do my readers. But what about your average American, who perhaps has barely heard of President Eisenhower, let alone his farewell address in 1961? And what about those who prosper from the MIC, whether they know it or not? Why should they support calls for “dismantling” a big part of their livelihood?
Random example. I went to the doctor’s office today. The receptionist noted my military background as she told me about her son, whose work on red blood cells is funded by the Department of Defense, and her husband, whose work is connected to Raytheon, a major weapons contractor. Another example is my previous dental hygienist, whose husband proudly worked on the helmet system for the F-35 jet fighter. So many of our fellow Americans are connected to the MIC; lots of my friends are, especially if they served. As a retired military officer who writes articles that are generally critical of the MIC, I’m the exception. Many of my peers are still employed by the MIC in good-paying positions that would be difficult for them to replicate in the private, civilian sector of society.
This is not an argument for how wonderful the MIC is. But reformers need to recognize that significant cuts to MIC funding, desirable as they are, will impact ordinary people first, rather than retired generals and corporate CEOs, who will be just fine no matter what happens.
Whatever your reforming zeal, terminology is vitally important. To me, talk of “dismantling” the MIC is a non-starter. Like “defund” the police, it’s doomed to fail because its message is so easily twisted. Recall that for most Americans, the military remains a trusted institution within our society, much more trusted than Congress and the President. “Support our troops” is almost the new national motto, an adjunct to In God We Trust. Indeed, Jesus is often envisioned as a warrior-god who’s always on America’s side.
To be persuasive, we shouldn’t say “defund” the Pentagon; “dismantle” also sounds wrong in this moment. But if we talk of a leaner military, a smarter one, more agile, more cost-effective, more bang for the buck, those phrases will resonate better. Let’s talk as well of a military focused on national defense, motivated by high ideals, and aligned with liberty, freedom, and democracy.
Look: The MIC has a big advantage over would-be reformers and cost-cutters: the clarity that comes with a common goal, which for the Complex is profit/power. We live in a capitalist society that values those things. I don’t think we can compete on the money field with the MIC, but we can compete in the realm of ideas and ideals, and the military can be an ally in this, so long as its members remember the ideals of their oaths to the U.S. Constitution.
What do I mean here? We need to tell Americans their very future is being stolen from them by wanton military spending. At the same time, their past is being rewritten. We’re forgetting past American ideals like “right makes might” and the citizen-soldier as a public servant. Instead, it’s might makes right as enforced by warriors and warfighters. We are in yet another Orwellian moment where war is peace, surveillance is privacy, and censorship is free speech.
In fighting against this moment, we need to use all tools at our disposal. Somehow, we need to bring people together at a moment when our “leaders” are determined to divide us, distract us, and keep us downtrodden.
“Come home, America” is a famous speech given fifty years ago by George McGovern. He wanted to cut military/war spending and send rebate checks directly to the American people. Let’s advocate for that! Let’s put money back in the pockets of Americans as we make a leaner, smarter, cheaper U.S. military that can pass a financial audit. (I’d cut all Pentagon funding until it passed an honest and thorough audit.) Most Americans would support major reforms if they were pitched in this way.
At the same time, I’d like to see a revival of the Nye Commission from the 1930s and the “merchants of death” idea. Whatever else it is, selling weapons is not a way to peace, nor is it life-affirming. Harry Truman made his mark in Congress during World War II by attacking fraud and waste related to military spending. Again, today’s Pentagon can’t even pass an audit! We need to show the American people that the Pentagon brass is stealing from them and hiding behind a veil of secrecy that is undemocratic and probably illegal as well. Here, I would love to see Members of Congress act in the spirit of William Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” awards. The American people are being fleeced by the MIC, and we should be reminding them of this fact, every single day.
In the 1930s, General Smedley Butler, a Marine veteran who was twice awarded the Medal of Honor, saw how war was a racket, and that to end it, you had to take the profit out of it. How can America do that? Can we “nationalize” defense contractors? Can we make weapons building into a non-profit activity? Can we reverse Citizens’ United and outlaw weapons lobbying as a form of protected speech (it’s really legalized bribery)?
How about slowing the revolving door between the U.S. military and weapons contractors? Make it so that retired officers in the grade of major and above must forfeit their pensions if they join a weapons/war firm. Naturally, no one employed by, and especially on the board of, a defense contractor should ever be approved by Congress as the civilian Secretary of Defense.
Another idea: All retired military officers, CIA-types, etc., who appear on TV and media should be required to reveal their conflicts of interest (if any). For example, if retired General John Q. Public appears on TV and works for Raytheon, that should be identified in the on-screen chyron, and by the general himself if he has integrity.
It’s high time the Pentagon shares more information with the American people. Secrecy is a huge problem that the MIC hides behind and exploits. Democracy doesn’t work without transparency, which is why the MIC is at pains to hide the truth from us of malfunctioning weaponry and disastrous and murderous wars.
I would add that tackling the MIC is not a liberal issue, it’s not a progressive issue, it’s not a partisan issue: it’s an American issue. My readers, I’m guessing, are not fans of Fox News or commentators like Tucker Carlson. But if they’re against war and want to see major reforms to the MIC, recruit them! Work with them. They are not the enemy. Not even the MIC is the enemy. I was, after all, part of it for 20 years. The real enemy is war. The real enemy is spending trillions of dollars on weaponry that could, and just might, destroy us all. If we can’t set aside our differences and get together to save ourselves and our planet from war’s destructiveness, we’re pretty much doomed, don’t you think?
The MIC is united by profit and power. Maybe we can find unity in the preservation of our planet and love for the wonderful blessings it has bestowed on us.
Come on people now, smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now. Right now. Right now.
The American people have failed Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex. He told us it was sapping our resources and livelihood. He said its total influence — economic, political, and spiritual — was warping the very structure of our society. Its growing power, Ike warned, posed a grave danger to our liberties and our democratic processes. We heard his words, but we failed to act on them.
Ike didn’t just issue a warning in his farewell address in 1961. He gave us a mission. He literally put us on guard duty, as he said we must guard against the growing power of the Complex. He challenged us to be an alert and knowledgeable citizenry. Notice those three words: alert, knowledgeable, citizenry. Ike told us to get smart, to be vigilant, to be fully informed and involved citizens. Not citizen-soldiers for war, but citizen-guards against the growing power of the U.S. military and its weapons makers within a democracy that was increasingly compromised by militarism and imperialism.
Collectively, we have failed to heed Ike’s warning. We have failed to curb the military-industrial complex. And thus it has become a leviathan within our society and our culture. It has, as Ike warned, come to dominate our economics, our politics, even our spiritual lives.
Ike had a different vision. He knew war and hated it. So he asked Americans to work for world peace and for human betterment. Yes, of course he was worried about communism in the climate of the Cold War. Of course he was in favor of negotiating from a position of strength. But Ike was in favor of the kind of strength that feels free and confident to extend the open hand of friendship rather than the mailed fist of war.
The latest Pentagon budget is all about the mailed fist of war. It undermines world peace and human betterment. It is a betrayal of Ike’s vision and a failure of democracy.
The American Republic is dead. The American Empire, consumed by militarism and powered by threat inflation and greed, is visibly in decline even as it consumes the lion’s share of federal discretionary spending. What is needed is a spiritual rebirth of America, a turning away from greed-war, a collective reawakening to the idea that strength is not measured by nuclear missiles or tanks or fighter jets, but by the health of our society, especially our commitment to human rights, to maximizing our human potential while protecting our environment and our planet.
America desperately needs a new vision of the good life, one that abjures war and rejects weaponry. War and weaponry are not the health of society; quite the opposite. Ike saw this; he challenged us to see it as well, and to act to ensure our democracy wouldn’t be destroyed by a permanent military establishment of vast proportions.
And we the people have failed him — and ourselves.
What is to be done? We need to reject fear. We need to cut military spending. We need to dismantle the empire. And we need to see these acts for what they are: the acts of a strong people, confident that right makes might, committed to avoiding the utter waste of war and the depravity of building an economy based on weapons production and arms exports.
Nobody said it would be easy. Ike knew it wouldn’t be. It’s why he put us on guard duty. He told us to be alert, to get smart, and to act.
Ike gave us a mission, not just a warning. Are you ready to enlist and fight against weapons and war?
Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House when Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, liked the saying, “All politics is local.”
Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian theorist of war in the time of Napoleon, taught that war is the continuation of politics by other (violent) means.
Does it follow from this that all wars are, in a sense, local?
It doesn’t seem so at first glance. Americans tend to see wars like Iraq and Afghanistan as distant events that are disconnected from our daily lives. (Obviously, if a loved one is in the military and deployed overseas, concern and connection are greatly heightened.)
But when we begin to see the local costs of war, fully to see them, the way they poison lives, infect and erode democracy, and compromise the very climate we live in, we may finally act to put a stop to war.
No matter how distant and obscure America’s wars may be (and who among us really knows what’s happening this minute in Somalia, to cite one example), there are effects that are local. And until we calculate those costs, and confront the waste and inhumanity of them, we simply won’t work synergistically to end them.
What are some of these local costs? As President Eisenhower said in his famous “cross of iron” speech, every warship we build, every rocket we fire, every warplane we launch, represents a theft from those who hunger, a theft from projects such as building schools or repairing roads and bridges. Every dollar we spend on war is a dollar we don’t spend here in America on our own sustenance, our own health as a civil society. Meanwhile, the dreadful costs incurred by wasteful wars, which will eventually exceed $8 trillion for the Iraq and Afghan wars, drives up our national debt, which is then cited, rightly or wrongly, as a reason to curb domestic spending. Profligacy for war, austerity for ordinary Americans, seems to be the new American way. And it’s impoverishing our democracy and our civic culture.
Other effects of war would include the costs of aiding veterans who are wounded, whether in body or mind or both, in our local communities. It would include the militarization of local police forces with surplus military weaponry that is then used to suppress legitimate dissent. And, if you’ve lived on or near a military base, you’ve likely experienced noise pollution to go with environmental pollution and degradation, much of it kept classified or otherwise hidden from view.
America’s wars, in short, are never truly distant and disconnected from our lives. They are instead connected to us, shaping our vision of what’s possible and impossible, what’s inevitable and what’s preventable, what’s normal and what’s abnormal.
A state of permanent war is not normal, America. Its effects are all around us and they are not good. But the good news is that, just as the effects of war are local, so too can the fight against war be local. Raise your voice and take a stand against war. If all politics is local, the political fight against war can and should be local too.
It’s worth pausing this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, marked by Adolf Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s unconditional surrender. The Allied victory was a triumph of coalition warfare, the “Big Three” represented by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, joined by so many other countries and peoples.
The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent a disarmingly simple message to mark Germany’s total defeat and surrender:
“The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.”
It was a true “mission accomplished” moment — perhaps the last clear one America has had in any major war or conflict since then.
Eisenhower was a complex man who presented himself as a simple one. One thing he knew was how to lead, to bring people together, to keep hotheads like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and General George Patton under control while maximizing their gifts. It’s difficult to imagine a better coalition commander than Ike.
I love this image of Ike from May 7, 1945 (Ike is seen here with his deputy commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder of the Royal Air Force):
Note the simplicity of Ike’s uniform (just three rows of ribbons, and no badges, devices, or other military gewgaws). The same can be said of Tedder’s uniform (a few ribbons, his wings, and that’s about it). Compare their uniforms to America’s current Chairman of the JCS, Mark Milley:
With all this self-congratulation and self-glorification, is it any wonder America’s generals found stalemate in Korea and defeat in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan?
VE Day represented enormous sacrifices by peoples around the world to defeat a murderous fascistic regime in Germany. Well should we remember it and learn from it.
I grew up on a steady diet of threat inflation. Before I was born, bomber and missile “gaps” had been falsely touted as showing the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in developing nuclear-capable weaponry (the reverse was true). But those lies, which vastly exaggerated Soviet capabilities, perfectly served the needs of the military-industrial complex (hereafter, the Complex) in the USA. Another example of threat inflation, common when I was a kid, was the Domino Theory, the idea that, if South Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region of Southeast Asia would fall as well, including Thailand and perhaps even countries like the Philippines. Inflating the danger of communism was always a surefire method to promote U.S. defense spending and the interests of the Pentagon.
When I was in college, one book that opened my eyes was Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine.” James Fallows’s “National Defense” was another book I read in those days, together with Helen Caldicott’s “Missile Envy.” Early in the Reagan years, I recall those old charts that displayed Soviet ICBMs as being bigger than American ICBMs, as if missile size was everything. The message was clear: the Soviets have more missiles, and they’re bigger! Yet what really mattered was the accuracy and reliability of those missiles, areas where the U.S. had a decisive edge. U.S. nuclear forces were also far more survivable than their Soviet counterparts, but such details were lost on most Americans.
Throughout my life, the U.S. “defense” establishment has consistently inflated the dangers presented by foreign powers, which brings me to the current Pentagon budget for 2020, which may reach $750 billion. How to justify such an immense sum? A large dollop of threat inflation might help…
With the Islamic State allegedly defeated in Syria and other terrorist forces more nuisances than existential threats, with the Afghan War apparently winding down (only 14,000 U.S. troops are deployed there) and with Trump professing a “love” fest with Kim Jong-un, where are today’s (and tomorrow’s) big threats? Iran isn’t enough. The only threats that seem big enough to justify colossal military spending are Russia and China. Hence the new “cold war” we keep hearing about, which drives a “requirement” for big spending on lucrative weapons systems like new aircraft carriers, new fighters and bombers, newer and better nuclear warheads and missiles, and so forth.
Which brings me to the alleged Russian collusion story involving Trump. As we now know, the Mueller Report found no collusion, but was that really the main point of the investigation and all the media hysteria? The latter succeeded in painting Vladimir Putin and the Russians as enemies in pursuit of the death of American democracy. Meanwhile Trump, who’d campaigned with some idea of a rapprochement with Russia, was driven by the investigation to take harsher stances against Russia, if only to prove he wasn’t a “Putin puppet.” The result: most Americans today see Russia as a serious threat, even though the Russians spend far less on wars and weaponry than the U.S. does.
Threat inflation is nothing new, of course. Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized it and did his best to control it in the 1950s, but even Ike had only limited success. Other presidents, lacking Ike’s military experience and gravitas, have most frequently surrendered to the Complex. The last president who tried with some consistency to control the Complex was Jimmy Carter, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis, and his own political fortunes drove him to launch a major military buildup, which was then accelerated by Reagan until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the early 1990s, I briefly heard about a peace dividend and America returning to being a normal country (i.e. anti-imperial) in normal times, but ambition and greed reared their ugly heads, and U.S. leaders became enamored with military power. Rather than receding, America’s global empire grew, with no peace dividends forthcoming. The attacks on 9/11 led the Bush/Cheney administration to double down on military action in its “global war on terror,” leading to disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that further served to engorge the Complex with money and power.
Today, faced with a debilitating national debt of $22 trillion and infrastructure that’s aptly described as “crumbling,” you’d think U.S. leaders would finally seek a peace dividend to lower our debt and rebuild our roads, bridges, dams, and related infrastructure. But the Complex (including Congress, of course) is addicted to war and weapons spending, aided as ever by threat inflation and its close cousin, fearmongering about invading aliens at the border.
And there you have it: a $750 billion military budget sucking up more than sixty percent of discretionary spending by the federal government. As Ike said, this is no way to live humanely, but it is a way for humanity to hang from a cross of iron.
[Note: I originally wrote this article for Truthout, where it appeared in August 2011. Little has changed since then; indeed, the current president has surrounded himself with advisers who are both screaming hawks and true believers in U.S. military strength. It’s a curious feature of American exceptionalism that our leaders parrot the notion that the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force” in history — and this boast comes despite disastrous results in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As my dad used to say, the best don’t have to boast.]
A line at the tail end of Nicholas Schmidle’s article in The New Yorker (August 8, 2011) on SEAL Team Six’s takedown of Osama bin Laden captured the military zeitgeist of the moment. Upon meeting the SEAL team, President Obama gushed that the team was, “literally, the finest small-fighting force that has ever existed in the world.”
As a military historian, I was struck by the sweeping nature of that boast.
The “finest small-fighting force” ever in the history of the world? What about the Spartan 300 who gave their all at Thermopylae against the Persians, thereby saving Greek civilization for posterity? What about those Royal Air Force pilots in the Battle of Britain, about whom Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”? Turning to an American example, what about the Rangers lionized by President Ronald Reagan for their sacrificial service at Pointe du Hoc to mark the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II?
Such caveats are not meant to diminish the bravery and toughness of the SEALs and other US Special Forces teams; the deadly risks they take are only too evident, as the helicopter crash in Afghanistan on August 6  reminds us. But immoderate boasts of how the US military is the “best ever” contributes to a myth of American omnipotence that has disturbing implications for the conduct of our wars and even for the future of our country.
The historian George Herring made an important point when he noted that a key reason the US lost in Vietnam was “the illusion of American omnipotence, the traditional American belief that the difficult we do tomorrow, the impossible may take a while.” Because of this illusion, we’re psychologically unprepared when events go south, therefore, we tend, as Herring notes, to “find scapegoats in our own midst: the poor judgment of our leaders, the media, or the anti-war movement.”
We’re so wrapped up in our own ethnocentric drama, Herring suggests, that we deny any agency or initiative to the enemy, as well as the vital importance of “the nature of the conflict itself, the weakness of our ally, the relative strength of our adversary.” We have no context, in other words, in which to process setbacks, to reconsider our commitment of troops overseas, to know when it’s both prudent and wise to walk away. How can we, when we’re always at pains to celebrate our troops as the finest warriors ever on planet Earth?
Our military is full of highly motivated professionals, but no matter how tempting it may be, we should take great care in elevating them to the pantheon of the warrior heroes of Valhalla. For only the dead gain access to its hall.
Nor should we mistake warrior prowess for true national security. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his State of the Union address in 1957, “National security requires far more than military power. Economic and moral factors play indispensable roles.” Eschewing Ike’s wisdom, our government today equates national security with astronomical defense budgets and global military intervention, never mind the damage done to our economy or to our moral standing.
Better than anyone, perhaps, Ike came to recognize the perils of misplaced power and the folly of placing too much faith in military action. Afforded the luxury of space provided by two oceans, rich natural resources and the wisdom of the founders who forged a representative democracy (however imperfect) based on personal liberty, the United States had the option of preferring peace and prosperity to war and destitution.
Yet, partly because we’ve come to believe in our own military omnipotence, we seem today to be determined to choose the latter option of war and destitution. We persist in dissipating our economy and our energy in endless military action, a fate Ike perhaps had in mind when he said, “Only Americans can hurt America.”
We can do better. And one small step we can take is to stop boasting of how great we supposedly are at fielding the “finest” fighting forces ever.
Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy. It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat. Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).
I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy. These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related. The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.
Threat inflation is a huge problem in America. The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea. If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents. Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings. How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?
North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power. Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country. He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally. Does he need to be deterred? Yes. Should Americans cower in fear? Of course not.
Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election. China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies. We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years. Why haven’t we?
Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex. Ike warned us about it in 1961. He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature. Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke. He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more. He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.
Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today. Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget). Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?
Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
What Ike said. The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.
And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war. Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.
So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:
Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
And add back one more: climate change/global warming. Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century. Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I detail how the U.S. military is out everywhere but winning nowhere. What I mean by not winning is the military’s failure to end wars on terms remotely favorable to national security and the interests of democracy. I hesitate to be a cynic, but perpetual war does mean perpetual high “defense” budgets and prolonged and prodigious power for generals (and retired generals). Peace would mean smaller defense budgets and far less influence for these men.
What chance of peace with President Trump in charge surrounded by the generals of all these losing wars? Indeed, generals continue to speak of generational wars, so much so that I’m tempted to make a play on words: generational wars generated by generals. It’s not entirely fair, nor is it entirely unfair.
Anyway, here’s an excerpt from my article. You can read it in its entirety at TomDispatch.com.
What gives? Why are highly maneuverable and sophisticated naval ships colliding with lumbering cargo vessels? Why is an Air Force that exists to fly and fight short 1,200 pilots? Why are US Special Operations forces deployed everywhere and winning nowhere? Why, in short, is the US military fighting itself — and losing?
It’s the Ops Tempo, Stupid
After 16 years of a never-ending, ever-spreading global war on terror, alarms are going off in Asia from the Koreas and Afghanistan to the Philippines, while across the Greater Middle East and Africa the globe’s “last superpower” is in a never-ending set of conflicts with a range of minor enemies few can even keep straight. As a result, America’s can-do military, committed piecemeal to a bewildering array of missions, has increasingly become a can’t-do one.
Too few ships are being deployed for too long. Too few pilots are being worn out by incessant patrols and mushrooming drone and bombing missions. Special Operations forces (the “commandos of everywhere,” as Nick Turse calls them) are being deployed to far too many countries — more than two-thirds of the nations on the planet already this year — and are involved in conflicts that hold little promise of ending on terms favorable to Washington. Meanwhile, insiders like retired Gen. David Petraeus speak calmly about “generational struggles” that will essentially never end. To paraphrase an old slogan from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, as the US military spans the globe, it’s regularly experiencing the agony of defeat rather than the thrill of victory.
To President Donald Trump (and so many other politicians in Washington), this unsavory reality suggests an obvious solution: boost military funding; build more navy ships; train more pilots and give them more incentive pay to stay in the military; rely more on drones and other technological “force multipliers” to compensate for tired troops; cajole allies like the Germans and Japanese to spend more on their militaries; and pressure proxy armies like the Iraqi and Afghan security forces to cut corruption and improve combat performance.
One option — the most logical — is never seriously considered in Washington: to make deep cuts in the military’s operational tempo by decreasing defense spending and downsizing the global mission, by bringing troops home and keeping them there. This is not an isolationist plea. The United States certainly faces challenges, notably from Russia (still a major nuclear power) and China (a global economic power bolstering its regional militarily strength). North Korea is, as ever, posturing with missile and nuclear tests in provocative ways. Terrorist organizations strive to destabilize American allies and cause trouble even in “the homeland.”
Such challenges require vigilance. What they don’t require is more ships in the sea lanes, pilots in the air and boots on the ground. Indeed, 16 years after the 9/11 attacks it should be obvious that more of the same is likely to produce yet more of what we’ve grown all too accustomed to: increasing instability across significant swaths of the planet, as well as the rise of new terror groups or new iterations of older ones, which means yet more opportunities for failed US military interventions …
The Greatest Self-Defeating Force in History?
Incessant warfare represents the end of democracy. I didn’t say that, James Madison did.
I firmly believe, though, in words borrowed from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that “only Americans can hurt America.” So how can we lessen the hurt? By beginning to rein in the military. A standing military exists — or rather should exist — to support and defend the Constitution and our country against immediate threats to our survival. Endless attacks against inchoate foes in the backlands of the planet hardly promote that mission. Indeed, the more such attacks wear on the military, the more they imperil national security.
A friend of mine, a captain in the Air Force, once quipped to me: you study long, you study wrong. It’s a sentiment that’s especially cutting when applied to war: you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Yet as debilitating as they may be to militaries, long wars are even more devastating to democracies. The longer our military wages war, the more our country is militarized, shedding its democratic values and ideals.
Back in the Cold War era, the regions in which the US military is now slogging it out were once largely considered “the shadows” where John le Carré-style secret agents from the two superpowers matched wits in a set of shadowy conflicts. Post-9/11, “taking the gloves off” and seeking knockout blows, the US military entered those same shadows in a big way and there, not surprisingly, it often couldn’t sort friend from foe.
A new strategy for America should involve getting out of those shadowy regions of no-win war. Instead, an expanding US military establishment continues to compound the strategic mistakes of the last 16 years. Seeking to dominate everywhere but winning decisively nowhere, it may yet go down as the greatest self-defeating force in history.
Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas? Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in? Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?
At Trump’s first news conference today as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program. The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare. These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.
Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he cancelled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.
Excepting Carter, U.S. presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors. Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.
Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war. Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these words?
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… 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.
Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the U.S. military. Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion. More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the U.S. military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.
Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings. Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism. But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief. It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.
Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign. But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual. Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.
Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the U.S. military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies. He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state. Ike, however, could and did say “no.” He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms. Will Trump?
Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights. Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president. Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other U.S. allies pay their fair share of defense costs.
If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state. But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well. Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.
If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.