Uncle Sam Doesn’t Want You — He Already Has You

Uncle Sam wants us.  But who, exactly, is Uncle Sam?
Uncle Sam — He Already Has Us

The Militarized Realities of Fortress America

By William J. Astore (Featured at TomDispatch.com)

I spent four college years in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and then served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.  In the military, especially in basic training, you have no privacy.  The government owns you.  You’re “government issue,” just another G.I., a number on a dogtag that has your blood type and religion in case you need a transfusion or last rites.  You get used to it.  That sacrifice of individual privacy and personal autonomy is the price you pay for joining the military.  Heck, I got a good career and a pension out of it, so don’t cry for me, America.

But this country has changed a lot since I joined ROTC in 1981, was fingerprinted, typed for blood, and otherwise poked and prodded. (I needed a medical waiver for myopia.)  Nowadays, in Fortress America, every one of us is, in some sense, government issue in a surveillance state gone mad.

Unlike the recruiting poster of old, Uncle Sam doesn’t want you anymore — he already has you.  You’ve been drafted into the American national security state.  That much is evident from Edward Snowden’s revelations. Your email?  It can be read.  Your phone calls?  Metadata about them is being gathered.  Your smartphone?  It’s a perfect tracking device if the government needs to find you.  Your computer?  Hackable and trackable.  Your server?  It’s at their service, not yours.

Many of the college students I’ve taught recently take such a loss of privacyfor granted.  They have no idea what’s gone missing from their lives and so don’t value what they’ve lost or, if they fret about it at all, console themselves with magical thinking — incantations like “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I’ve got nothing to hide.”  They have little sense of how capricious governments can be about the definition of “wrong.”

Consider us all recruits, more or less, in the new version of Fortress America, of an ever more militarized, securitized country.  Renting a movie?  Why not opt for the first Captain America and watch him vanquish the Nazis yet again, a reminder of the last war we truly won?  Did you head for a baseball park on Memorial Day?  What could be more American or more innocent?  So I hope you paid no attention to all those camouflaged caps and uniforms your favorite players were wearing in just another of an endless stream of tributes to our troops and veterans.

Let’s hear no whining about militarized uniforms on America’s playing fields.  After all, don’t you know that America’s real pastime these last years has been war and lots of it?

Be a Good Trooper

Think of the irony.  The Vietnam War generated an unruly citizen’s army that reflected an unruly and increasingly rebellious citizenry.  That proved more than the U.S. military and our ruling elites could take.  So President Nixon ended the draft in 1973 and made America’s citizen-soldier ideal, an ideal that had persisted for two centuries, a thing of the past.  The “all-volunteer military,” the professionals, were recruited or otherwise enticed to do the job for us.  No muss, no fuss, and it’s been that way ever since. Plenty of war, but no need to be a “warrior,” unless you sign on the dotted line.  It’s the new American way.

But it turned out that there was a fair amount of fine print in the agreement that freed Americans from those involuntary military obligations.  Part of the bargain was to “support the pros” (or rather “our troops”) unstintingly and the rest involved being pacified, keeping your peace, being a happy warrior in the new national security state that, particularly in the wake of 9/11, grew to enormous proportions on the taxpayer dollar.  Whether you like it or not, you’ve been drafted into that role, so join the line of recruits and take your proper place in the garrison state.

If you’re bold, gaze out across the increasingly fortified and monitoredborders we share with Canada and Mexico.  (Remember when you could cross those borders with no hassle, not even a passport or ID card?  I do.)  Watch for those drones, home from the wars and already hovering in or soon to arrive in your local skies — ostensibly to fight crime.  Pay due respect to your increasingly up-armored police forces with their automatic weapons, their special SWAT teams, and their converted MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles).  These vintage Iraqi Freedom vehicles are now military surplus given away or sold on the cheap to local police departments.  Be careful to observe their draconian orders for prison-like “lockdowns” of your neighborhood or city, essentially temporary declarations of martial law, all for your safety and security.

Be a good trooper and do what you’re told.  Stay out of public areas when you’re ordered to do so.  Learn to salute smartly.  (It’s one of the first lessons I was taught as a military recruit.)  No, not that middle-finger salute, you aging hippie.  Render a proper one to those in authority.  You had best learn how.

Or perhaps you don’t even have to, since so much that we now do automatically is structured to render that salute for us.  Repeated singings of “God Bless America” at sporting events.  Repeated viewings of movies that glorify the military.  (Special Operations forces are a hot topic in American multiplexes these days from Act of Valor to Lone Survivor.)  Why not answer the call of duty by playing militarized video games like Call of Duty?  Indeed, when you do think of war, be sure to treat it as a sport, a movie, a game.

Surging in America 

I’ve been out of the military for nearly a decade, and yet I feel more militarized today than when I wore a uniform.  That feeling first came over me in 2007, during what was called the “Iraqi surge” — the sending of another 30,000 U.S. troops into the quagmire that was our occupation of that country. It prompted my first article for TomDispatch.  I was appalled by the way our civilian commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, hid behind the beribboned chest of his appointed surge commander, General David Petraeus, to justify his administration’s devolving war of choice in Iraq.  It seemed like the eerie visual equivalent of turning traditional American military-civilian relationships upside down, of a president who had gone over to the military.  And it worked.  A cowed Congress meekly submitted to “King David” Petraeus and rushed to cheer his testimony in support of further American escalation in Iraq.

Since then, it’s become a sartorial necessity for our presidents to donmilitary flight jackets whenever they address our “warfighters” as a sign both of their “support” and of the militarization of the imperial presidency.  (For comparison, try to imagine Matthew Brady taking a photo of “honest Abe” in the Civil War equivalent of a flight jacket!)  It is now de rigueur for presidents to praise American troops as “the finest military in world history” or, as President Obama typically said to NBC’s Brian Williams in aninterview from Normandy last week, “the greatest military in the world.”  Even more hyperbolically, these same troops are celebrated across the country in the most vocal way possible as hardened “warriors” andbenevolent freedom-bringers, simultaneously the goodest and the baddest of anyone on the planet — and all without including any of the ugly, as in the ugliness of war and killing.  Perhaps that explains why I’ve seen military recruitment vans (sporting video game consoles) at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  Given that military service is so beneficent, why not get the country’s 12-year-old prospects hopped up on the prospect of joining the ranks?

Too few Americans see any problems in any of this, which shouldn’t surprise us.  After all, they’re already recruits themselves.  And if the prospect of all this does appall you, you can’t even burn your draft card in protest, so better to salute smartly and obey.  A good conduct medal will undoubtedly be coming your way soon.

It wasn’t always so.  I remember walking the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, in my freshly pressed ROTC uniform in 1981.  It was just six years after the Vietnam War ended in defeat and antiwar movies likeComing HomeThe Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now were still fresh in people’s minds.  (First Blood and the Rambo “stab-in-the-back” myth wouldn’t come along for another year.)  I was aware of people looking at me not with hostility, but with a certain indifference mixed occasionally with barely disguised disdain.  It bothered me slightly, but even then I knew that a healthy distrust of large standing militaries was in the American grain.

No longer.  Today, service members, when appearing in uniform, are universally applauded and repetitiously lauded as heroes.

I’m not saying we should treat our troops with disdain, but as our history has shown us, genuflecting before them is not a healthy sign of respect.  Consider it a sign as well that we really are all government issue now.

Shedding a Militarized Mindset

If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider an old military officer’s manual I still have in my possession.  It’s vintage 1950, approved by that great American, General George C. Marshall, Jr., the man most responsible for our country’s victory in World War II.  It began with this reminder to the newly commissioned officer: “[O]n becoming an officer a man does not renounce any part of his fundamental character as an American citizen.  He has simply signed on for the post-graduate course where one learns how to exercise authority in accordance with the spirit of liberty.”  That may not be an easy thing to do, but the manual’s aim was to highlight the salutary tension between military authority and personal liberty that was the essence of the old citizen’s army.

It also reminded new officers that they were trustees of America’s liberty, quoting an unnamed admiral’s words on the subject: “The American philosophy places the individual above the state.  It distrusts personal power and coercion.  It denies the existence of indispensable men.  It asserts the supremacy of principle.”

Those words were a sound antidote to government-issue authoritarianism and militarism — and they still are.  Together we all need to do our bit, not as G.I. Joes and Janes, but as Citizen Joes and Janes, to put personal liberty and constitutional principles first.  In the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who toldSoviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall,” isn’t it time to begin to tear down the walls of Fortress America and shed our militarized mindsets?  Future generations of citizens will thank us, if we have the courage to do so.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular, edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 William J. Astore

In Praise of Douglas Kinnard, A Truth-telling General of the Vietnam War

My Copy of "The War Managers"
My Copy of “The War Managers”

W.J. Astore

The death on July 29 of retired Army general and professor Douglas Kinnard at the age of 91 reminded me of the vital quality of integrity and truth-telling, especially in life-and-death military settings.  A fast-rising general who became critical of America’s path in Indochina in the late 1960s, Kinnard retired from the military and wrote The War Managers (1977), a probing and fascinating survey of what he and his fellow general officers thought about the Vietnam War and America’s efforts to win it.

The general officers who answered Kinnard’s survey in The War Managers give the lie to the so-called Rambo myth, the idea that the American military could and should have won the Vietnam War, but were prevented from doing so by meddling civilians, mendacious media, and malicious hippie war resisters.

The survey results bear this out.  For example, Kinnard notes that “almost 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.” (25)  One general wrote that “Objectives lost meaning and were modified to justify events.”  Another wrote that “The U.S. was committed to a military solution, without a firm military objective–the policy was attrition–killing VC–this offered no solution–it was senseless.”

Along with unclear or swiftly changing objectives, the Army employed large units and massive firepower that tore up the land and produced millions of casualties.  This “search and destroy” approach of General William Westmoreland was termed “not sound” by one-third of the generals surveyed, with a further quarter saying it was “sound when first implemented–not later.”

Kinnard himself had direct experience with the Army’s reliance on costly and counterproductive firepower, specifically harassment and interdiction (H and I) by artillery.  In a note on page 47, he writes:

“In May 1969 I returned to Vietnam as Commanding General of II Field Force Artillery.  On my second day in the country I asked to have the intelligence targets plotted on my map.  Afterward, I asked to see the person who selected the targets, together with the data on which he based his selections.  A 1st Lieutenant appeared with a coordinate square; inspecting a map, he selected, at random, points in the areas where nighttime firing was authorized, and then measured off the coordinates for firing.  This had been the method of choosing intelligence targets in that zone for the preceding several months.”

In other words, U.S. forces were firing blindly into the jungle.

Most seriously of all, a ticket-punching culture in which officers rotated in and out of command every six months,* together with pressure from the top to inflate “body count” of the enemy, led to severe erosion of integrity in the U.S. Army.  Nearly two-thirds of the generals admitted that enemy body count was “often inflated,” with the following comments made by individual generals:

“The immensity of the false reporting is a blot on the honor of the Army.”

“I shudder to think how many of our soldiers were killed on a body-counting mission–what a waste.”

“I had one Division Commander whose reports I never believed or trusted.”

“Many commanders resorted to false reports to prevent their own relief.” (All quotes on page 75)

Along with inflated and dishonest body counts that compromised integrity was the failure to admit that Vietnamization was fatally flawed.  As Kinnard put it, “How could an army or a government so grossly corrupt [as those of South Vietnam], even in a country where corruption is expected, summon the enthusiastic support of its soldiers or its people?  There was no way to do so, as successive American advisers [to South Vietnam] discovered.” (84)

Several generals noted that the heavy-handed, can-do-right-now, approach of the American military to Vietnamization was fundamentally at odds with Vietnamese culture.  Two quotations illustrate this point:

“We erroneously tried to impose the American system on a people who didn’t want it, couldn’t handle it and may lose because they tried it.” (Written before the fall of Saigon in April 1975.)

“In this, as in all our foreign wars, we never really established rapport [with the Vietnamese].  This was largely due to our overinflated hypnosis with the myth that the American way–in economics, politics, sociology, manners, morals, military equipment, methodology, organization, tactics, etc.–is automatically and unchallengeably the best (really the only) way to do things.  This failure may well be the area of greatest weakness for the future of American arms.” (92)

As President Obama and his advisers meet today to discuss Syria, they should keep that lesson in mind, as well as Kinnard’s reminder that clear objectives are vital to the success of any military operation.  Even better, they should all be required to read (and re-read) Kinnard’s book, and to reflect on his wisdom.

Let’s leave the last word to Kinnard.  Before committing American forces to combat in the future, Kinnard wrote that “The situation itself must be one in which American interests are clearly at stake in a way that can be made understandable to the public … An important corollary is the need for truthfulness in dealing with the public.  From the president all the way to the field units, the practice of letting the facts speak for themselves is the best hope.  In the Vietnam War there was too much tricky optimism from LBJ [President Johnson] on down.  Furthermore, there was too much concealing of the implications of half-announced decisions.” (166-67)

Unclear objectives, compromised integrity, indiscriminate firepower, cultural blindness, “tricky” optimism, concealing the realities of the war from the American people: all of these reasons, and more, contributed to the disaster of Vietnam.  The sad truth is that we still haven’t fully learned the lessons of Kinnard’s honest, no-holds-barred, after action report that is “The War Managers.”

W.J. Astore

*With respect to ticket-punching and command rotation, Kinnard recalled that “Those of us who had our own command positions in Vietnam were required to attend changes of command ceremonies for others almost weekly.  In time, this became about as interesting as attending the baptism of an infant of distant friends.” (111)

The U.S. Military’s Limited Critique of Itself Ensures Future Disasters

War is political, human, and chaotic.  Who knew?
War is political, human, and chaotic. Who knew?

W.J. Astore

In the New York Times on July 20, Major General H.R. McMaster penned a revealing essay on “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.”  McMaster made three points about America’s recent wars and military interventions:

1.  In stressing new technology as being transformative, the American military neglected the political side of war.  They forgot their Clausewitz in a celebration of their own prowess, only to be brought back to earth by messy political dynamics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

2.  Related to (1), the U.S. military neglected human/cultural aspects of war and therefore misunderstood Iraqi and Afghan culture.  Cultural misunderstandings transformed initial battlefield victories into costly political stalemates.

3.  Related to (1) and (2), war is uncertain and unpredictable.  Enemies can and will adapt.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these points, or in the general’s broad lesson that “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”

The last sentence is a dig at the Air Force and an argument for the continuing relevance of ground forces, which is unsurprising coming from an Army general who commands Fort Benning in Georgia.

But the sum total of McMaster’s argument is remarkably banal.  Yes, war is political, human, and chaotic.  Did our military professionals and civilian experts really forget this before making their flawed decisions to go to war after 9/11?

McMaster ends his critique with a few words of praise for the U.S. military’s adaptability.  The usual refrain: We messed up, but we learned from our mistakes, and are ready to take on new challenges, as long as the department of defense remains fully funded, and as long as America puts its faith in men like McMaster and not in machines/technology.

If those are the primary lessons our country should have learned since 9/11, we’re in big, big trouble.

So, here are three of my own “lessons” in response to McMaster’s.  They may not be popular, but that’s because they’re a little more critical of our military – and a lot more critical of America.

1.  Big mistakes by our military are inevitable because the American empire is simply too big, and American forces are simply too spread out globally, often in countries where the “ordinary” people don’t want us.  To decrease our mistakes, we must radically downsize our empire.

2.  The constant use of deadly force to police and control our empire is already sowing the deadly seeds of blowback.  Collateral damage and death of innocents via drones and other “kinetic” attacks is making America less safe rather than more.

Like the Romans before us, as Tacitus said, we create a desert with our firepower and call it “peace.”  But it’s not peace to those on the receiving end of American firepower.  Their vows of vengeance perpetuate the cycle of violence.  Add to this our special forces raids, our drone strikes, and other meddling and what you get is a perpetual war machine that only we can stop.  But we can’t stop it because like McMaster we keep repeating, “This next war, we’ll get it right.”

3.  We can’t defeat the enemy when it is us.  Put differently, what’s the sense in defeating the enemies of freedom overseas at the same time as our militarized government is waging a domestic crackdown on dissent (otherwise known as freedom of speech) in the “homeland”?

Articles like McMaster’s suggest that our military can always win future wars, mainly by fighting more intelligently.  These articles never question the wisdom of American militarization, nor do they draw any attention to the overweening size and ambition of the department of defense and its domination of American foreign policy.

Indeed, articles like McMaster’s, in reassuring us that the military will do better in the next round of fighting, ensure that we will fight again – probably achieving nothing better than stalemate while wasting plenty of young American (and foreign) lives.

Is it possible that the best way to win future wars is to avoid them altogether?  As simple as that question is, you will rarely hear it asked in the halls of power in Washington.

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

Game On!
Game On!

W.J. Astore

Just posted a new article to Huffington Post.  Here’s the link and the article (pasted below):

The expression “bread and circuses” captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.

There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.

In her words:

Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…

 

Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”

I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.

Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.

Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.

At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”

All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”

At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Our Disneyland Approach to Empire

Iraqi theme park?Remember in 2011 after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden and Disney wanted to trademark the unit’s name for a collection of toys and games and miscellanea?

It’s one of those blips on our collective cultural radar that seems insignificant, yet it points to our tendency to see war and empire as a game, as a form of entertainment, as a product.

This attitude is not confined to corporations like Disney.  Consider this telling passage from Kim Barker’s “The Taliban Shuffle,” which discusses the potential attractions to service in places like Afghanistan:

“It was a place to escape, to run away from marriages and mistakes, a place to forget your age, your responsibilities, your past, a country in which to reinvent yourself.  Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the motives of most people were not likely to help a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the seventh century and Vegas.”

Our tendency to view foreign lands and peoples as an opportunity for adventure and escape is hardly new, of course.  But it certainly says something about our failure to understand and confront the severity of the challenges once we intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Recall President George W. Bush’s weirdly wistful comment in 2008 about Afghanistan being a sort of Wild West, a romantic adventure, a place of excitement and danger.  Bush said he envied our troops and their opportunity for Afghan romance.

I wonder why as a young buck he didn’t go to Vietnam in the 1960s for romance and danger.  And I gather he’d never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s take on the pleasures awaiting the young British soldier on the Afghan plains:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen! 

It was said about the British that they acquired an empire in a fit of absentmindedness.  Did we acquire our empire in a fit of pure escapism?

Wanton and wasteful imperial entanglements are only accelerating our national decline.  Yet we continue to treat foreign lands as a sort of Disney theme park.   Troops smile and pose under Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords (at least they used to) or in front of Predator drones and other exotic weaponry.  Everything overseas is a photo op and an opportunity to win a trophy (or a medal).

But even as we seek “romance” and “danger” in foreign lands, a place “to reinvent ourselves,” we paradoxically bring with us all the trappings of consumerist America, hence our steroidal bases with all the conveniences of home (well, in Muslim lands, maybe not liquor, at least openly).

And when we get fed up with the natives and roughing it, we know we can just leave.

But if Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that the price of admission is far too high.  We should keep our theme parks and our fantasies where they belong: right here in America.

W.J. Astore

Memorial Day Lesson: Forever War is Forever Profitable — For Some

Long May It Wave.  Photo by the author in Maine, 2006
Long May It Wave. Photo by the author in Maine, 2006

Heading north from the Beltway via Highway 1 to the centers of US power in Washington, DC you’ll pass through trendy Alexandria, Virginia, before encountering scrappier neighborhoods closer in. But don’t worry, because within just a few miles, the glint of ultra-modern office buildings appears on the horizon.  Behold America’s own Emerald City, appropriately named Crystal City, Virginia!

The nameplates on the buildings there reveal powerful governmental (the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and corporate (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other major defense contractors) entities. Walking into the lobby of any of these defense industry titans reveals a level of swankiness that would not be out of place in a five-star luxury hotel. Conference rooms outfitted with the very latest technology enfold you in plush comfortable chairs. One can’t help but to conclude that business is going very well here. It’s crystal clear that you’ve arrived among the winners of America’s imperial moment.

A quick detour to the Pentagon, just on the outskirts of Crystal City, confirms that forever war continues to be forever profitable — for some. Just look at the constellations of stars — generals’ and admirals’ stars, that is — in the Pentagon’s corridors of power.  Since September 2001, Congressional authorizations of flag-rank, three- and four-star levels “have increased twice as fast as one- and two-star generals,” notes Dina Rasor, citing Congressional testimony from Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight.

Small wonder that governmental and corporate facilities in military-budget-fueled Crystal City shine so brightly.  The US military budget was $861 billion in fiscal year 2011, representing 58 percent of the federal discretionary budget.  By comparison, federal spending on education usually consumes a paltry four percent of that same budget.  And despite the so-called sequester “cuts” to the defense budget, America’s projected yearly defense budgets under President Obama continue to be larger than the projected military spending of the next ten highest-spending nations… combined.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower had it right when he said to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953 that:

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 in 1959
Ike in 1959

Ike, a retired five-star general, was right. We must reverse an ethos in this country that sees cuts in war spending as emasculating. We must embrace the idea of a “peace dividend” that facilitates investment in our citizens and our communities. It sure beats payola to major corporations for their inflated weaponry.

For a nation hooked on warriors and warfighters and weapons, such a change in ethos won’t be easy.  But we need to make it. Because if we continue on our present path of blockbuster defense budgets and unending global military commitments, we know who loses – and it’s not the major defense contractors or the Pentagon brass.

Memorial Day reminds us who loses; we visit their graves, mourn their deaths, and vow to end the madness of war.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com, Huffington Post, History News Network, and Truthout, among other sites.