In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I examine what it would take for the Pentagon budget to go down. You can read the entire article here. What follows is the concluding section.
Ever since 9/11, endless conflict has been this country’s new normal. If you’re an American 21 years of age or younger, you’ve never known a time when your country hasn’t been at war, even if, thanks to the end of the draft in the previous century, you stand no chance of being called to arms yourself. You’ve never known a time of “normal” defense budgets. You have no conception of what military demobilization, no less peacetime might actually be like. Your normal is only reflected in the Biden administration’s staggering $813 billion Pentagon budget proposal for the next fiscal year. Naturally, many congressional Republicans are already clamoring for even highermilitary spending. Remember that Mae West quip[Too much of a good thing can be wonderful]? What a “wonderful” world!
And you’re supposed to take pride in this. As President Biden recently told soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division now stationed in Poland, this country has the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Even with the mountains of cash we give to that military, the nation still “owes you big,” he assured them.
Well, I’m gobsmacked. During my 20-year career in the military, I never thought my nation owed me a thing, let alone owed me big. Now that I think of it, however, I can say that this nation owed me (and today’s troops as well) one very big thing: not to waste my life; not to send me to fight undeclared, arguably unconstitutional, wars; not to treat me like a foreign legionnaire or an imperial errand-boy. That’s what we, the people, really owe “our” troops. It should be our duty to treat their service, and potentially their deaths, with the utmost care, meaning that our leaders should wage war only as a last, not a first, resort and only in defense of our most cherished ideals.
This was anything but the case of the interminable Afghan and Iraq wars, reckless conflicts of choice that burned through trillions of dollars, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops killed and wounded, and millions of foreigners either dead or transformed into refugees, all for what turned out to be absolutely nothing. Small wonder today that a growing number of Americans want to see less military spending, not more. Citizen.org, representing 86 national and state organizations, has called on President Biden to decrease military spending. Joining that call was POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, as well as William Hartung at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. And they couldn’t be more on target, though they’re certain to be ignored in Washington.
Consider the recent disastrous end to the Afghan War. Viewing that conflict in the aggregate, what you see is widespread corruption and untold waste, all facilitated by generals who lied openly and consistently to the rest of us about “progress,” even as they spoke frankly in private about a lost war, a reality the Afghan War Papers all too tellingly revealed. That harsh story of abysmal failure, however, highlights something far worse: a devastating record of lying on a massive scale within the highest ranks of the military and government. And are those liars and deceivers being called to account? Perish the thought! Instead, they’ve generally been rewarded with yet more money, promotions, and praise.
So, what would it take for the Pentagon budget to shrink? Blowing the whistle on wasteful and underperforming weaponry hasn’t been enough. Witnessing murderous and disastrous wars hasn’t been enough. To my mind, at this point, only a full-scale collapse of the U.S. economy might truly shrink that budget and that would be a Pyrrhic victory for the American people.
In closing, let me return to President Biden’s remark that the nation owes our troops big. There’s an element of truth there, perhaps, if you’re referring to the soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen, many of whom have served selflessly within its ranks. It sure as hell isn’t true, though, of the self-serving strivers and liars at or near the top, or the weapons-making corporations who profited off it all, or the politicians in Washington who kept crying out for more. They owe the rest of us and America big.
My fellow Americans, we have now reached the point in our collective history where we face three certainties: death, taxes, and ever-soaring spending on weaponry and war. In that sense, we have become George Orwell’s Oceania, where war is peace, surveillance is privacy, and censorship is free speech.
Such is the fate of a people who make war and empire their way of life.
In my latest article for TomDispatch, I tackle the new cold war and the consensus in Washington that future Pentagon budgets must soar ever higher in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You can read the entire article here. What follows is the concluding section of the article.
Your Role as a Loyal American in the New Cold War
My fellow Americans, in this new cold war of ours, the national security state expects both all too much and all too little of you. Let’s start with the little. It doesn’t expect you to enlist in the military if you’re rich or have “other priorities” (as former Vice President Dick Cheney said about the Vietnam War). It doesn’t expect you to pay close attention to our wars, let alone foreign policy. You don’t even have to vote. It does, however, expect you to cheer at the right times, be “patriotic,” wave the flag, gush about America, and celebrate its fabulous, militarized exceptionalism.
To enlist in this country’s cheerleading squad, which is of course God’s squad, you might choose to wear a flag lapel pin and affix a “Support Our Troops” sticker to your SUV. You should remind everyone that “freedom isn’t free” and that “God, guns, and guts” made America great. If the godly empire says Ukraine is a worthy friend, you might add a blue-and-yellow “frame” to your Facebook profile photo. If that same empire tells you to ignore ongoing U.S. drone strikes in Somalia and U.S. support for an atrocious Saudi war in Yemen, you are expected to comply. Naturally, you’ll also be expected to pay your taxes without complaint, for how else are we to buy all the weapons and wage all the wars that America needs to keep the peace?
Naturally, certain people need to be collectively despised in our very own version of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.” So, when Putin’s visage comes on the screen, or Xi’s, or Kim Jong-un’s, or whoever the enemy du jour is, be prepared to express your outrage. Be prepared to treat them as aliens, almost incomprehensible in their barbarity, as if, in fact, they were Klingons in the original Star Trek series. As a peaceful member of the “Federation,” dominated by the United States, you must, of course, reject those Klingon nations and their warrior vision of life, their embrace of might-makes-right, choosing instead the logic, balance, and diplomacy of America’s enlightened State Department (backed up, of course, by the world’s greatest military).
Again, little is expected of you (so far) except your obedience, which should be enthusiastic rather than reluctant. Yet whether you know it or not, much is expected of you as well. You must surrender any hopes and dreams you’ve harbored of a fairer, kinder, more equitable and just society. For example, military needs in the new cold war simply won’t allow us to “build back better.” Forget about money for childcare, a $15 federal minimum wage, affordable healthcare for all, better schools, or similar “luxuries.” Maybe in some distant future (or some parallel universe), we’ll be able to afford such things, but not when we’re faced with the equivalent of the Klingon Empire that must be stopped at any cost.
But wait! I hear some of you saying that it doesn’t have to be this way! And I agree. A better future could be imagined. A saying of John F. Kennedy’s comes to mind: “We shall be judged more by what we do at home than what we preach abroad.” What we’re currently doing at home is building more weapons, sinking more tax dollars into the Pentagon, and enriching more warrior-corporations at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Where’s the democratic future in that?
Sheer military might, our leaders seem to believe, will keep them forever riding high in the saddle. Yet you can ride too high in any saddle, making the fall that’s coming that much more precipitous and dangerous.
Americans, acting in concert, could stop that fall, but not by giving our current crop of leaders a firmer grasp of the reins. Do that and they’ll just spur this nation to greater heights of military folly. No, we must have the courage to unseat them from their saddles, strip them of their guns, and corral their war horses, before they lead us into yet another disastrously unending cold war that could threaten the very existence of humanity. We need to find another way that doesn’t prioritize weapons and war, but values compromise, compassion, and comity.
At this late date, I’m not sure we can do it. I only know that we must.
Despite the possibility that what a deranged Vladimir Putin planned as a small war against Ukraine could morph into a nuclear catastrophe capable of engulfing us all, the United States is still the most warlike nation on earth.
Wars don’t come cheap these days, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the only truly non-partisan issue in Congress is the Pentagon budget. Democrats and Republicans alike, neither of whom expect to get shot at, vie with one another to show how resolute they are in keeping America strong no matter what the cost, even in human lives, though preferably those of foreigners.
The Pentagon budget, now creeping toward $800 billion, is more than three times that of China, our closest rival, a country that had the effrontery to build an aircraft carrier of its very own to challenge our eleven. The generosity of Congress enriches people who in the 1930s were stigmatized as “merchants of death,” but the latter have since learned the value of public relations. America’s military-industrial complex, as might be expected, led the way in recruiting the very best PR talent. The war to liberate Kuwait (Desert Storm) came to us thanks in part to the creativity of Hill & Knowlton (known in the trade as the Torture Lobby). Wars have persisted even as critical domestic problems continue to go unaddressed, such as American school children suffering brain damage due to lead-contaminated drinking water.
There is something immoral about all this. To be fair, the Catholic Church in the United States, for which morality is presumed to be a major concern despite some very public failings, does take notice of war now and then. Or rather it used to. It hasn’t done so lately.
The United States Council of Catholic Bishops meets twice a year, which you’d think would give a troubled bishop the opportunity to call into question the morality of much of what our armed forces have been up to. But you’d think wrong. Successive cliques of ill-educated, narrow-focused reactionaries—Burke, Gomez, Lori, Cordileone, Kurtz, and Dolan the most prominent among the current crop—have succeeded in keeping the topic of war off the agenda for more than thirty years. Nor have they seemed to have had much trouble doing so.
Recently, however, two bishops have spoken up in their own dioceses. Bishop Stowe of Lexington and Archbishop Wester of Santa Fe have pleasantly surprised Catholics like me by issuing pastoral letters calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, my pleasure is diminished by the realization that such efforts, however welcome, will do little to stave off a nuclear Armageddon after which, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, the living will envy the dead.
The Vatican—even during the imperious reign of John Paul II, whose attention was fixed upon restoring freedom to his native land (which is now on the road to dictatorship)—has been forever calling for nuclear disarmament. But how has it called? In what tone of voice? That’s the key question.
Forty years ago, and far too long after the nuclear massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—atrocities that the Catholic Church in America, like its government, has yet to condemn—the bishops of the United States, prodded, I’m sure, by Ronald Reagan’s missile-rattling rhetoric, surprised everybody by announcing that they were going to prepare a pastoral letter on war.
The deliberations of the committee, headed by Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, got off on the wrong foot when Bernardin was forced to announce at the first meeting that they were by no means to condemn the possession of nuclear weapons, an edict from Rome that slammed the door in the face of the Holy Spirit, whose guidance they presumably would be imploring.
But the bishops labored on and brought forth “The Challenge of Peace.” It was a good but compromised document. Not compromised enough, however, for John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. After the first draft was scrutinized in Rome, Bernardin and Archbishop John Roach, chairman of the U.S. Council of Bishops, were called on the carpet in Rome to defend it to the “NATO bishops” (a Vatican dicastery previously unknown to me), who were more concerned about a Soviet armor thrust through the Fulda Gap than anything that Jesus might have said.
Bernardin and Roach duly met with their critics, and the NATO bishops came away content. The concessions were major. One, for example, was purging a declaration of “no first use” of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with conventional weapons. The first draft had not done anything quite so bold. It merely proposed that any circumstances in which a first use would be morally acceptable would be difficult to imagine. Well: Ratzinger and the NATO bishops had no problem imagining one.
When the final version of The Challenge of Peace came out in May of 1983, the Pentagon, which had been a bit worried, and hawks everywhere—especially devout Catholic hawks like William F. Buckley Jr—breathed a sigh of relief. It was obvious to all who cared to read it that the bishops had waffled. With all due modesty—well, some anyway—the title of a subsequent article of mine in Commonweal, “Sidestepping The Challenge of Peace,” summed it up. (Commonweal disagreed with me, and still does, but that’s another story.)
Whatever the case, the Peace Pastoral is gone and forgotten, a failure that casts a pall to this day over subsequent (and toothless) Vatican statements on how nice peace is and how bad war is.
What do I want the Church to do? Let me quote somebody else, somebody who answered that question far better than I ever could.
In 1948 the Dominicans of Paris invited Albert Camus to address them about what he and other non-believers wanted to hear from the Catholic Church in the wake of the horrors of World War II, their hope being that they could unite to confront the horrors that yet impended.
Camus, who described himself and others like him as “isolated individuals,” was quite willing to challenge the Church. He did not share the beliefs of the Dominicans, he said, but neither did he dismiss them. He recounted how during the war he, even as a non-believer, had looked to Rome. He wanted to hear a “great voice” raised to condemn the monstrous evil of the war, but he failed to hear it. There were those who said that they had heard it, but what little the world heard from Rome was the Church speaking in what he dismissed, not without cause, as its “encyclical voice,” a form of speech that was prolix, abstract, and devoid of inspiration for all those not attuned to it. (The word “Jew,” incidentally, did not make the cut.)
The Dominicans wanted to know what the world expects of Christians. He gave them his answer:
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out loud and clear and proclaim their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. Christians must get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face that history has taken on today.
And what happens, Camus went on to ask, if Christianity doesn’t rise to the challenge? And here Camus shows a prescience that eludes the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. For it was a question quite pertinent to our own era, marked as it is by empty churches and tepid bishops.
If Christianity does turn away from the challenge, Camus told the Dominicans,
Christianity will lose once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case self-proclaimed Christians may still be among us, but Christianity itself will die, and world will suffer greatly for its loss.
In the spirit of Camus, here’s my recommendations. However reluctant our bishops might be to confront the blood-stained face of history, they could make a start by talking to people who know more than they do and have experienced more than they have.
In his book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, working for RAND, tells how he was shocked to see an unguarded fighter plane on the tarmac armed with a nuclear bomb. (This was more than 60 years ago, but even today nuclear surety remains less than sure.). A drunken pilot could jump into the cockpit and be off to Beijing to set off World War III just like that. In any case, Ellsberg took the opportunity to place his hand on the bomb and feel the heat of radiation. I’m sure he would be happy to share his feelings at the next USCCB conference if invited.
Then there’s Bishop Botean, who leads the Romanian eastern rite Church in the United States. He’s the only Catholic bishop who issued a letter condemning the Iraq invasion, calling it an unjust war in which Catholics may in nowise participate. If the USCCB was willing to hear what he had to say, it would give some of the disgruntled brethren an opportunity to ask what prompted him to be such a spoilsport.
There’s also Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and veteran of the Vietnam war, who is the head of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s a conservative Catholic who is a severe critic of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.
Finally, Archbishop Wester had the grace to praise the late Sr. Megan Rice who appeared on the front page of the New York Times after, at age 82, invading the Holy of Holies of nuclear weaponry in Oakridge, Tennessee. The USCCB could follow up on the incredible feat that she and her two companions carried off by recognizing and commending the Plowshares Movement, founded by the Berrigans, a group of heroic men and women who have borne witness against nuclear weapons and suffered greatly for it. They have heeded Jesus’ command to shout what he taught them from the rooftops, instead of keeping their mouths shut about anything that might disturb major donors. (Those big churches and episcopal palaces aren’t going to maintain themselves!)
The bishops have much to learn from talking to people like the ones I’ve listed here. They might even learn to denounce the abomination of genocidal nuclear weapons—and especially any idea that a “first use” policy of the same is in any way morally defensible.
Michael Gallagher served as a paratrooper during the Korean War. His book on Catholic activists, Laws of Heaven, won the National Jesuit Book Award in theology, and his translation of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow was a finalist for a National Book Award.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I argue for major cuts in military spending.
This year’s Pentagon budget is a staggering $778 billion, a sum that’s virtually unimaginable. That said, the real budget for “defense,” or, as we should say, the budget for wars and weapons, is well over a trillion dollars. This is madness. No self-avowed democracy can survive such a misappropriation of resources for domination and destruction. But of course America is not a democracy, it’s an empire, with a figurehead for a president and a Congress that acts as a rubber stamp for the generals and their weapons makers.
The military-industrial complex has become America’s fourth branch of government, eclipsing the roles and powers of the other three branches (executive, legislative, judicial). The only way to rein it in, I believe, is to cut its budget. In my article, I propose cutting that budget by $50 billion a year for the next seven years. Thus by Fiscal Year 2029, the Pentagon budget should be no more than $400 billion, still a vast sum, but roughly half of what we’re paying for war and weaponry today. Such cuts can be made sensibly and without harming America’s true defense needs. Indeed, a smaller U.S. military establishment will reduce adventurism and increase our security and safety.
Here’s the conclusion to my piece at TomDispatch.com. Please read the rest of it at the site. And I urge you as well to read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which provides stunning details about how America’s generals profit from endless wars and weapons production, so much so that “In wars and weapons we trust” could very well serve as America’s truest national motto.
Of Smoking Guns and Mushroom Clouds
What would real oversight look like when it comes to the defense budget? Again, glad you asked!
It would focus on actual defense, on preventing wars, and above all, on scaling down our gigantic military. It would involve cutting that budget roughly in half over the next few years and so forcing our generals and admirals to engage in that rarest of acts for them: making some tough choices. Maybe then they’d see the folly of spending $1.7 trillion on the next generation of world-ending weaponry, or maintaining all those military bases globally, or maybe even the blazing stupidity of backing China into a corner in the name of “deterrence.”
Here’s a radical thought for Congress: Americans, especially the working class, are constantly being advised to do more with less. Come on, you workers out there, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and put your noses to those grindstones!
To so many of our elected representatives (often sheltered in grotesquely gerrymandered districts), less money and fewer benefits for workers are seldom seen as problems, just challenges. Quit your whining, apply some elbow grease, and “git-r-done!”
The U.S. military, still proud of its “can-do” spirit in a warfighting age of can’t-do-ism, should have plenty of smarts to draw on. Just consider all those Washington “think tanks” it can call on! Isn’t it high time, then, for Congress to challenge the military-industrial complex to focus on how to do so much less (as in less warfighting) with so much less (as in lower budgets for prodigal weaponry and calamitous wars)?
For this and future Pentagon budgets, Congress should send the strongest of messages by cutting at least $50 billion a year for the next seven years. Force the guys (and few gals) wearing the stars to set priorities and emphasize the actual defense of this country and its Constitution, which, believe me, would be a unique experience for us all.
Every year or so, I listen again to Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech. In those final moments of his presidency, Ike warned Americans of the “grave implications” of the rise of an “immense military establishment” and “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” the combination of which would constitute a “disastrous rise of misplaced power.” This country is today suffering from just such a rise to levels that have warped the very structure of our society. Ike also spoke then of pursuing disarmament as a continuous imperative and of the vital importance of seeking peace through diplomacy.
In his spirit, we should all call on Congress to stop the madness of ever-mushrooming war budgets and substitute for them the pursuit of peace through wisdom and restraint. This time, we truly can’t allow America’s numerous smoking guns to turn into so many mushroom clouds above our beleaguered planet.
I came across a remarkable stat while reading William Hartung’s latest article, “The Profits of War,” at TomDispatch.com. The giant military contractor, Lockheed Martin, received $77 billion in federal funds in FY2020 (Lockheed Martin builds the F-35 fighter jet), almost double the entire budget for the U.S. State Department (roughly $44 billion). So as President Biden gives speeches about favoring diplomacy over military action, he might want to consider how the Pentagon’s budget (and related spending on weaponry, including new nuclear weapons) is roughly 20 times that of the State Department. Biden once said, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value. Looks like weaponry and war remains number one and job one. USA! USA!
I had to laugh when I saw this headline from the New York Times in my email this morning: “At U.N., Biden calls for diplomacy, not conflict, but some are skeptical.” Readers, I can’t fathom any skepticism about U.S. intentions, can you? We are a peace-loving nation. We just choose to show it by constantly building new weapons in a febrile quest for “full-spectrum dominance” as we showcase our global reach and global power with assassin drones and endless wars. Does any other country in the world have 750 overseas military bases in 80 countries? Does any other country in the world slice and dice the map into regional commands (Africa Command, Central Command, and so on) led by four-star generals and admirals? Proving the world is not enough, America now seeks to dominate space with our “Space Force” and virtual worlds like cyberspace.
Remember how Teddy Roosevelt said to speak softly but also to carry a big stick? That needs to be amended. The U.S. policy for decades has been: Shout loudly and swing a big stick. And that “big stick” is the U.S. military, which routinely gobbles up more than half of the federal discretionary budget.
Let me know when the State Department’s budget soars to $750 billion and the Pentagon’s budget plunges to $44 billion and maybe I’ll believe Joe Biden’s words about the new importance of diplomacy in America.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Can it also be said that the unexamined military is not worth having?
What amazes me about the U.S. military is how little it is scrutinized. Sure, there’s armed services committees in the House and Senate, but they seem most concerned about shoveling more money toward the Pentagon. Either that or the dire perils of “critical race theory,” which is surely threatening the Republic more than runaway militarism, endless wars, and unneeded nuclear weapons.
What is to be done? I see only one solution: major cuts to the “defense” budget. And that budget is even higher than the stated figure of $705 billion or thereabouts. Nuclear weapons come under the Department of Energy, for example. Homeland Security has its separate budget (isn’t defense of the homeland what the Pentagon is all about?). The various intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA and so forth churn through scores of billions yet couldn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 9/11 attacks. Interestingly, after 9/11 these agencies saw vast increases in funding. Who knew incompetence could be so rewarding?
If you add up all the billions tied to weapons and wars and “defense” in America, you routinely exceed a trillion dollars a year. It’s almost an unfathomable sum. Perhaps it is to the U.S. military as well, since they can’t pass an audit. No one really knows where all the money is going.
Ike knew the score. Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower warned us all about the military-industrial-Congressional complex. A few people listened, but nobody in power did anything about it. Since then the Complex has only grown stronger and more pervasive (and invasive) in America. And now that same Complex owns the mainstream media. Remarkably, the “journalists” telling us all about the Complex on MSNBC and CNN and Fox are often retired CIA and military officials; they don’t even bother disclosing their obvious conflict of interest here.
Strangely, it’s become patriotic to salute our military rather than to examine it and challenge it. Americans, generally a boisterous and busy bunch, are remarkably quiet and passive except for all the saluting and praising. Until this mindset, and this behavior, changes radically, America will continue on a wasteful and wanton path forged by weapons and war.
And that really is something we need to examine in the collective life of our country.
Imagine you’re President Joe Biden. You’re looking for nearly $2 trillion to fund vital repairs and improvements to America’s infrastructure. You learn of a warplane, the F-35 Lightning II, that may cost as much as $1.7 trillion to buy, field and maintain through the next half century. Also, you learn it’s roughly $200 billion over budget and more than a decade behind schedule. You learn it was supposed to be a low-cost, high-availability jet but that through time, it’s become a high-cost, low-availability one. Your senior Air Force general compares it to a Ferrari sports car and says we’ll “drive” it only on Sundays. What do you do?
Your first thought would probably be to cancel it, save more than a trillion dollars, and fund America’s infrastructure needs. Yet instead, the U.S. military is turning on the afterburners and going into full production. What gives?
When 60 Minutes reported on the F-35 in 2014, the plane was already seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Since then, it has weathered a series of setbacks and complications: Engines that are unreliable and in short supply. An ultra-expensive software system to maintain and repair the plane that doesn’t work. Higher operating costs — as much as 300% higher — compared to previous planes like the F-16 or the A-10. An overly loud engine that creates a noise nuisance to nearby population centers. The list goes on, yet so, too, does the F-35 program.
Why? Because of the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. The F-35’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, used a tried-and-true formula to insulate the plane from political pressure, spreading jobs across 45 states and 307 congressional districts. In essence, the F-35 program has become “too big to fail.” At the Pentagon level, the plane is supposed to fulfill the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps for a “fifth generation” stealthy fighter. There is no alternative, or so you’re told.
Yet, as America’s commander-in-chief, you must always remember there are alternatives. Think about it. Why buy a deeply troubled weapon system at inflated prices? Why reward a military contractor for woeful failures to deliver on time and within budget?
Congress rarely asks such questions because of the corrosive power of corporate lobbyists, the military’s insatiable demands for tech-heavy wonder weapons, and thinly-veiled threats that program cuts will cost jobs — meaning members of Congress might face electoral defeat if they fail to safeguard the F-35 pork apportioned to their districts.
But you’re the president — you should be above all that. You take a wider view like the one President Dwight D. Eisenhower took in 1953 in his “cross of iron” speech. Here Ike, a former five-star Army general, challenged Americans to prioritize instruments of peace over tools of war. Schools and hospitals, Ike wrote, were more vital to a democracy than destroyers and fighter jets. Ike was right then — and even more right today. He famously invested in an interstate highway system that served as an accelerant to the U.S. economy. He knew that warplanes, especially overly pricey and operationally dicey ones, were much less vital to the common good.
The Pentagon tells you it’s the F-35 or bust. But for you as president, it’s the F-35 and bust. You begin to realize that so many of the experts advising you to stay the course on the F-35 stand to profit if you do so.
And then you realize as America’s commander-in-chief that no weapon system should be too big to fail. You take heart from Sen. John McCain. In 2016, that ex-naval aviator declared the F-35 program was “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.”
Why continue that scandal? Why not end that tragedy? You can decide to send the strongest and clearest message to the military-industrial-congressional complex by cancelling the F-35. You can vow to reform the flawed system that produced it. And you can fund your vital infrastructure programs with the savings.
William J. Astore is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor. He is currently a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.
1. Recently I came across a reference to the U.S. military complaining that it never fights with a “home field” advantage. That the fight is always “away,” in sports speak, on the other guy’s field. And the gist of the comment was that the U.S. military must always be prepared to fight at a disadvantage. It seemingly never occurs to the decisionmakers that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. doesn’t have to fight on the other guy’s field. Maybe, just maybe, Vietnam was a bad idea. Iraq was a bad idea. Afghanistan was and remains a bad idea. China in the future would be a very, very, bad idea. And so on.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Pentagon and America’s generals are just too vainglorious in identifying the entire world as their home court?
2. Surprise! Joe Biden’s Pentagon budget is basically the same as Trump’s with a few extra billion thrown in for good measure. So much for reforming “defense” spending in any meaningful way.
3. The U.S.. military continues to define exertion (and merit) mainly in physical terms. Consider this chart sent along by a friend:
As my friend amusingly put it, “If I read this chart correctly, humans reach their full potential only at the moment of death.”
I wrote back to him: Why is exertion in the military always physical? Maybe we should be thinking harder too? It’s fascinating this devotion to physical strength and fitness when modern weaponry is truly the great equalizer. If I can sit in an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada and smite evil-doers in Afghanistan via a drone strike, should I be kicked out if I fail to do 50 pushups or run the obstacle course?
Mental fitness is rarely considered in the U.S. military except in the sense of weeding out the mentally ill or those who can’t conform to military discipline.
Even military promotion seems driven more by brawn than brains. If I run a sub-3 hour marathon, I bet the OPR (officer proficiency report) bullet would be far more favorable than if I wrote an article for Armed Forces Journal.
As another friend of mine, the distinguished military historian Dennis Showalter, said to me: Some flab around the waistline is preferable to flabby thought processes. Just think here of David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, both celebrated in the U.S. media as running and exercise enthusiasts.
5. To come back to the subject of “home field” advantage, it’s precisely because we never have that that U.S. troops have to wear heavy body armor and carry all kinds of gear with them. Whereas the “enemy,” whether in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, is at “home” and can wear street/farm clothes and carry a much lighter load, e.g. a rifle, some ammo, some rations.
The result is that U.S. troops often look like the imperial stormtroopers of “Star Wars” who are always bungling and losing to the lighter-armed rebel alliance.
You do need to be in decent physical shape to carry so much armor and so much weaponry and gear into hostile and foreign lands. But, maybe instead of turning every soldier into Rambo, we should find smart ways to advance our policies without having to fight at all?
It certainly is smarter than a bunch of Army Rangers driving themselves to the brink of death in the cause of maximizing their “human potential.”
Who says Americans can’t plan ahead? According to the Pentagon, China may exceed the U.S. military in reach and power in the year 2049. As debatable as that prediction is, you can be sure it’s fodder for officials to clamor for high “defense” budgets, if only to stay ahead of the allegedly surging Chinese.
Speaking of the defense budget, it would be an amazing thing if that budget was truly based on the defensive needs of the USA. But we Americans love NFL football and that sport teaches us “the best defense is a good offense,” which makes some sense in the NFL but not so much in war.
Defense, to my mind, is best provided by citizen-soldiers. But that old concept has been replaced by the warrior ideal in the USA. Today’s military is increasingly detached from the people even as it’s celebrated as a band of noble heroes. “Support our troops!” read the bumper stickers. But are they really “ours” if they self-identify as warriors who see themselves as something better and apart from the rest of us?
Even as Americans tend to glorify the military (as in sports, movies, and TV, among other venues), we speak with our tax dollars, giving the Pentagon vast sums of money in the name of “defense.” It’s really militarism in disguise. “Our” military is not defensive — it’s offensive and configured that way. Indeed, it’s potentially world-destroying even as its vision is world-dominating.
If that isn’t militarism I don’t know what is. It’s also the honest definition of American exceptionalism. Consider again the Pentagon’s worry that in 2049, China might — just might — have a military that’s roughly equal to the U.S. military. Parity cannot be tolerated! The U.S. military must be the world’s strongest, the most dominant, the one best able to project massive power. Why? Because we’re exceptional. And we’re exceptional because of that same military.
Something tells me that in the year 2049, China’s military will be the least of America’s problems.
Who’s going to win the 2020 election? I can already tell you who’s won: the military-industrial-congressional complex. With broad bipartisan support, the next Pentagon budget will be $740.5 billion, and that’s just for starters. Congress has also acted to thwart troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, because fighting a devastating war for 19 years and counting isn’t enough. (See this excellent article and video by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept.) We must keep fighting that war because — well, reasons. You can insert various phony reasons here: we must support our Afghan allies; we must combat terrorism; we must stay loyal to the Nato allies we dragooned into the war; we must continue fighting or else Russia wins because … bounties? Putin?
The real reasons: profit. Bases. Resources. And a total lack of sense and fortitude within the Washington Beltway.
It’s deja vu all over again, because in 2012 I wrote the following article on how the Pentagon had already won the election irrespective of which candidate — Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — prevailed. And so it proved.
Even during a pandemic, even during a recession, even when American workers and our armies of the unemployed need all the help they can get, the Pentagon budget reigns supreme. War and weapons are truly the health of the state here in America, uniting Democrats and Republicans in a form of militaristic bliss. But fighting and containing Covid-19? Helping the needy? Not so much.
The National Security State Wins (Again) Why the Real Victor in Campaign 2012 Won’t Be Obama or Romney
By William J. Astore
Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, the media is already handicapping the presidential election big time, and the neck-and-neck opinion polls are pouring in. But whether President Obama gets his second term or Romney enters the Oval Office, there’s a third candidate no one’s paying much attention to, and that candidate is guaranteed to be the one clear winner of election 2012: the U.S. military and our ever-surging national security state.
The reasons are easy enough to explain. Despite his record as a “warrior-president,” despite the breathless “Obama got Osama” campaign boosterism, common inside-the-Beltway wisdom has it that the president has backed himself into a national security corner. He must continue to appear strong and uncompromising on defense or else he’ll get the usual Democrat-as-war-wimp label tattooed on his arm by the Republicans.
Similarly, to have a realistic chance of defeating him — so goes American political thinking — candidate Romney must be seen as even stronger and more uncompromising, a hawk among hawks. Whatever military spending Obama calls for, however much he caters to neo-conservative agendas, however often he confesses his undying love for and extols the virtues of our troops, Romney will surpass him with promises of even more military spending, an even more muscular and interventionist foreign policy, and an even deeper love of our troops.
Indeed, with respect to the national security complex, candidate Romney already comes across like Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco in the classic film Key Largo: he knows he wants one thing, and that thing is more. More ships for the Navy. More planes for the Air Force. More troops in general — perhaps 100,000 more. And much more spending on national defense.
Clearly, come November, whoever wins or loses, the national security state will be the true victor in the presidential sweepstakes.
Of course, the election cycle alone is hardly responsible for our national love of weaponry and war. Even in today’s straitened fiscal climate, with all the talk of government austerity, Congress feels obliged to trump an already generous president by adding yet more money for military appropriations. Ever since the attacks of 9/11, surging defense budgets, forever war, and fear-mongering have become omnipresent features of our national landscape, together with pro-military celebrations that elevate our warriors and warfighters to hero status. In fact, the uneasier Americans grow when it comes to the economy and signs of national decline, the more breathlessly we praise our military and its image of overwhelming power. Neither Obama nor Romney show any sign of challenging this celebratory global “lock and load” mentality.
To explain why, one must consider not only the pro-military positions of each candidate, but their vulnerabilities — real or perceived — on military issues. Mitt Romney is the easier to handicap. As a Mormon missionary in France and later as the beneficiary of a high draft lottery number, Romney avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Perhaps because he lacks military experience, he has already gone on record (during the Republican presidential debates) as deferring to military commanders on decisions such as whether we should bomb Iran. A President Romney, it seems, would be more implementer-in-chief than civilian commander-in-chief.
Romney’s métier at Bain Capital was competence in the limited sense of buying low and selling high, along with a certain calculated ruthlessness in dividing companies and discarding people to manufacture profit. These skills, such as they are, earn him little respect in military circles. Compare him to Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt, both take-charge leaders with solid military credentials. Rather than a Trumanesque “the buck stops here,” Romney is more about “make a buck here.” Rather than Teddy Roosevelt’s bloodied but unbowed “man in the arena,” Romney is more bloodless equity capitalist circling high above the fray in a fancy suit.
Consider as well Romney’s five telegenic sons. It’s hard to square Mitt’s professions of love for our military with his sons’ lack of interest in military service. Indeed, when asked about their lack of enthusiasm for joining the armed forces during the surge in Iraq in 2007, Mitt off-handedly replied that his sons were already performing an invaluable national service by helping him get elected.
An old American upper class sense of noblesse oblige, of sons of privilege like George H.W. Bush or John F. Kennedy volunteering for national service in wartime, has been dead for decades in our otherwise military-happy country. When it comes to sending American sons (and increasingly daughters) into harm’s way, for President Romney it’ll be another case of chickenhawk guts and working-class blood.
For election 2012, however, the main point is that the Romney family’s collective lack of service makes him vulnerable on national defense, a weakness that has already led Mitt and his campaign to overcompensate with ever more pro-military policy pronouncements supplemented with the usual bellicose rhetoric of all Republicans (Ron Paul excepted). As a result, President-elect Romney will ultimately find himself confined, cowed, and controlled by the national security complex — and he’ll have only himself (and Barack Obama) to blame.
Obama, by way of contrast, has already shown a passion for military force that in saner times would make him invulnerable to charges of being “weak” on defense. Fond of dressing up in military flight jackets and praising the troops to the rafters, Obama has substance to go with his style. He’s made some tough calls like sending SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden; using NATO airpower to take down Qaddafi in Libya; expanding special ops and drone warfare in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, including the assassination of U.S. citizens without judicial process. America’s Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2009 has become a devotee of special forces, kill teams, and high-tech drones that challenge the very reality of national sovereignty. Surely such a man can’t be accused of being weak on defense.
The political reality, of course, is different. Despite his record, the Republican Party is forever at pains to portray Obama as suspect (that middle name Hussein!), divided in his loyalties (that Kenyan connection!), and not slavish enough in his devotion to “underdog” Israel. (Could he be a crypto-Muslim?)
The president and his campaign staff are no fools. Since any sign of “weakness” vis-à-vis Iran and similar enemies du jour or any expression of less than boundless admiration for our military will be exploited ruthlessly by Romney et al., Obama will continue to tack rightwards on military issues and national defense. As a result, once elected he, too, will be a prisoner of the Complex. In this process, the only surefire winner and all-time champ: once again, the national security state.
So what can we expect on the campaign trail this summer and fall? Certainly not prospective civilian commanders-in-chief confident in the vitally important role of restraining or even reversing the worst excesses of an imperial state. Rather, we’ll witness two men vying to be cheerleader-in-chief for continued U.S. imperial dominance achieved at nearly any price.
Election 2012 will be all about preserving the imperial status quo, only more so. Come January 2013, regardless of which man takes the oath of office, we’ll remain a country with a manic enthusiasm for the military. Rather than a president who urges us to abhor endless war, we’ll be led by a man intent on keeping us oblivious to the way we’re squandering our nation’s future in fruitless conflicts that ultimately compromise our core constitutional principles.
For all the suspense the media will gin up in the coming months, the ballots are already in and the real winner of election 2012 will be the national security state. Unless you’re a denizen of that special interest state, we know the loser, too. It’s you.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. He welcomes reader comments at email@example.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Astore discusses how the two presidential candidates are sure to out-militarize each other in the coming election campaign, click here or download it to your iPod here.
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