Militarism and Perpetual War as a Way of Life – posted 4/5/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/9/2015
New Hampshire is now beginning to experience that riveting and recurring ritual: the migration and influx of presidential candidates. All of us in the Granite State get the opportunity to see and question all those who are trying out for that most megalomaniacal of roles. Whether at house parties or at large events, we can usually get up close and personal with the candidates. This is so New Hampshire.
In assessing the potential 2016 field on both the Democratic and Republican side, I remain concerned about the narrowness of the policy options presented by both major parties. While we often focus on the difference between Democrats and Republicans, I submit the parties have too much in common. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy and the view of America’s role in the world.
Both parties support an utterly bloated military budget. They agree the Pentagon needs much more money. President Obama thinks the Pentagon should get $534 billion in 2016. He asked for an additional $51 billion to pay for operations in the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. This represents a roughly $38 billion increase from the 2015 base budget. It does not include separate additional programs through the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons.
The Republicans support spending even more money on the military. Senator McCain was quoted favoring $17 billion beyond what President Obama requested. The Republicans have been arguing that America under Obama is “in retreat”. They suggest ramping up the war against ISIS with possible boots on the ground. They also contemplate attacking Iran. Not surprisingly, they also oppose the recent successful negotiations limiting the Iranian nuclear program.
Sums of money like $534 billion are almost incomprehensible to grasp but I think we need to look hard at what that money would be used for. Clearly on the menu is money for a permanent troop presence in Afghanistan, money for the war against ISIS, money for a possible ground war in Iraq, money for new F-35 combat aircraft and also new ballistic missile submarines.
As one military observer, William Hartung, has pointed out, all this money amounts to a huge Pentagon slush fund. We have no idea where much of it goes. How much goes for black ops and how much goes for total electronic surveillance of god knows who? How can that be compatible with democracy? Shouldn’t we know where all that money is going?
I think it is astonishing how all the hypervigilant, tightfisted House legislators on the Republican side can want to replace Medicare with a voucher-like private insurance option while being so cavalier about profligate military spending. Need a new weapon system? No problem.
The assumptions that underlie such out-of-control military spending deserve attention. America now appears to be accepting war all the time. Wars, for the most part, used to be time-limited. The War on Terror is not like that. It is forever and always. To quote New York Times reporter, James Risen:
“America has become accustomed to a permanent state of war. Only a small slice of society – including many poor and rural teenagers – fight and die, while a permanent national security elite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace. To most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable and so there is no longer any great incentives to end it.”
In his book, Pay Any Price, Risen exposes how the old military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about has evolved into what he calls the homeland security-industrial complex. This national security state, with an expansive view of the role of the military, has embraced the role of world policeman.
The quest is for total global military dominance. Whether via drones, Special Forces, manufactured proxy armies or the use of American troops, we apparently need to be ready to intervene in any hot spot in the world on a moment’s notice. No place is off limits. The web of over 700 military installations and bases we maintain around the globe allows for the possibility of force projection almost anywhere.
I am reminded of an old essay written almost 100 years ago by the writer Randolph Bourne. He wrote a piece entitled War is the Health of the State. To a disturbing degree our economy now depends on war. The livelihood of so many depends on producing and exporting arms and munitions. There are a massive constellation of roles related to our various military endeavors. As Risen points out, management consultants and academics make no money if they determine alleged threats are overblown.
We need to be asking how much is the desire for personal profit, status, and power driving our policy?
Risen argues, and I would agree, our homeland security-industrial complex needs scary enemies to justify the expenditure of ridiculous sums of money. If Americans can be scared out of their wits, mountains of money can be thrown at contractors who fight, to use the words of George W. Bush, “the evildoers”. That is essentially what we have done. We are a nation in search of an enemy.
This is an age-old story of greed and abuse of power. Those who stand to profit from endless war have a vested interest in the promotion and constant reinforcement of fear-mongering. The fact that there is some reality to the threat (ISIS) makes it harder to see our manipulation. No doubt ISIS is horrible but it is the responsibility of Arab nations in the region to fight that battle.
By essentially deregulating national security, we opened the door to privatization and outsourcing. Risen’s book is eye-opening about the outright theft of billions of dollars that the Bush Administration lavished on Iraq. It is a story that has not been told enough. We really do not know where a ton of money transported to Iraq by the Bush Administration disappeared to. Numerous contractors stuffed money away. Risen says that billions are still squirreled away in a bunker in Lebanon. If we still had enough investigative journalists, I would think they would be looking hard at that money trail.
Post 9/11 opportunists saw a chance to make a bundle as did all the policy intellectuals who supported the second Iraq War. Many of these same folks now support a ground war against ISIS. Considering their shameless track record, it is unbelievable that anyone would buy what they are selling as if the Iraq War was not enough. These policy intellectuals, our latest incarnation of the best and the brightest, will not be doing the dying if we are foolish enough to go along with their future war plans.
I hope New Hampshire citizens ask the presidential candidates hard questions about the growth of the homeland security-industrial complex. Questions like: what is an appropriate national security strategy? What are the genuine threats to us in the United States and what are not? When is diplomacy more appropriate than military intervention? What is the strategic role for addressing poverty and climate change? Are there other ways to oppose ISIS than the use of American troops? As I mentioned, how about the role and responsibility of other Arab countries to challenge ISIS?
A powerful argument can be made for a more modest, less expensive foreign policy based on an awareness of the limits of our power. I admit to a very dark view of the results of our frequently interventionist foreign policy over the last 50 years. Both parties seem oblivious to these awful results and blindly blunder forward.
Maybe the most positive thing that could be said is that we avoided a nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That could easily have happened with outcomes too catastrophic to contemplate.
We did not reap any peace dividend after the Soviet Union collapsed. The demise of the Russian threat almost seamlessly led to the War on Terror with new justifications for military spending.
In a short article, I cannot hope to catalogue all the bad things that came out of our interventions in Vietnam and the more recent Iraq War. If we were going to make a list, I would include: so many needless deaths, devastating injuries including blown off body parts, traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, Agent Orange, napalm, tiger cages, return of torture, warrantless wiretaps, rendition, and domestic surveillance of everyone. And that is right off the top.
Generally speaking, we have lowered the bar on good reasons to go to war.
Among the candidates, with the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders (not yet a candidate), no one is even talking about our excessive militarism. No one is asking if the growth of the homeland security-industrial complex poses any dangers for democracy. I do not see candidates saying caution is better than military adventurism.
Since my argument could be misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued, I did want to say that in no way am I criticizing our soldiers who have served honorably and bravely in Vietnam, Iraq, and other war zones. Their sacrifices have been noble. My argument is directed at the architects of policies and the opportunists who try and profit from war. Too often they have sent soldiers to die for no good reason.
As the custodians of the still important, first in the nation primary, let’s make our questions count. Maybe our questions and the candidates’ answers can make some news.