(Revised from version published January 2015 at foreignpolicy.com)
The United States of America is in a state of perpetual war, which requires perpetual war spending. The reason for this is simple: money and power. To be more specific, tax-payer money allocated by politicians to defense contractors who produce wildly expensive and unnecessary equipment, and power of controlling certain resources and markets for profit-driven corporations and industries. This is allowed to happen because the citizens, the tax-payers, do not know and do not care about money spent on “defense”. The American military is the sole remaining institution of public funding and common interest that has a near unanimous bipartisan approval rating and simultaneous near lack of oversight, and lack of interest by voters. One relevant example is the disturbing case of the F-35 “Lightning” stealth fighter jet. It is being produced by a team of industrial arms producers including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and active cooperation between the USA and at least ten other allied nations. The total estimated long-term cost of the project has been estimated to reach as high as $1.5 Trillion. That’s Trillion with a “T”, or as much as the entire Iraq War combined, or more than the annual GNP of all but the 12 biggest economies in the world. Many times public projects of dubious merit and gross mismanagement will be deemed “boondoggles” by the press. In this case, there is little press coverage at all of a military project so enormously wasteful as to defy imagination. The word boondoggle is too benign for the cancer of corrupt and bungled arms contracts that is the F-35. Here is a recent article in The Daily Beast describing, for example, how faulty software will prevent the jet from firing its own gun and will delay the project for at least another five years.
James Fallows has written a long and in-depth analysis in The Atlantic magazine about many aspects of America’s military problems as they currently stand. He uses the word “chickenhawk” to describe the type of person who wants to start wars but not participate in them. He gives solid reasons why America has a “chickenhawk economy” (the F-35 being a key example), “chickenhawk politics” (lack of oversight, accountability, or criticism of the military by its elected civilian overseers in Congress and the White House), and a “chickenhawk society.” Regarding this last point, Fallows says: “The vast majority of Americans outside the military can be triply cynical in their attitude toward it. Triply? One: “honoring” the troops but not thinking about them. Two: “caring” about defense spending but really viewing it as a bipartisan stimulus program. Three: supporting a “strong” defense but assuming that the United States is so much stronger than any rival that it’s pointless to worry whether strategy, weaponry, and leadership are right.” The article is worth reading and pondering for anyone in America who worries about the issue of military power and spending (which ought to be everyone with a pulse).
The issues we are dealing with, however, are by no means new and did not start with the F-35 or even during the Reagan administration. War profiteering, monopolistic corporate practices, excessive lobbying of government by vested interests, manipulation of opinion with propaganda, and public ignorance (or indifference) have existed since the beginning of the republic, and are shared in common with all democracies. What is new is the colossal scale of military and “defense” spending, which is in reality a perpetual war footing that is starting to resemble Orwell’s Ministry of Peace in some ways.
Many people are familiar with President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address in which he warns against the so-called “military-industrial complex.” The fundamental problem he was talking about is the corruptive influence on government by private enterprise, especially powerful industries like arms manufacturers and oil. One common misconception may be that this collusion between government and industry was a relatively new thing that grew after World War Two, when in fact it has been a serious problem at least since America got involved in the imperialism game in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Somewhat less well-known than Eisenhower’s is a 1935 speech by General Smedley Butler entitled “War is a Racket.” Butler joined the Marines in 1898 at the age of 17 in order to fight in the Spanish-American War, and he rose through the ranks while participating in virtually every American military intervention between 1898 until his retirement in 1931 as the senior ranking officer of the Marine Corps. He was also the most decorated Marine ever at the time of his death, including two Medals of Honor (I am reminded of a book called Once an Eagle, required reading for all military officers, in which the protagonist, named Sam Damon, follows an incredibly long and successful army career, including two Medals of Honor; I had thought this an exaggeration at the time but I now see that Butler could have been one of the character’s inspirations). After his retirement, Butler became a political activist touring the country giving speeches against the growing threat of fascism (not just abroad but in America) and what Eisenhower later called the “military-industrial complex.”
Here is a powerful summary of his opinions that comes from a 1935 article in the socialist magazine Common Sense:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
In “War is a Racket” (full text here) he opens like this:
War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
He gives the reason for his conviction and correctly predicts a coming war in Europe and Asia, specifically mentioning how the US Navy was provoking Japan with war games in the Pacific.
He goes on to list exactly which “patriotic” companies profited enormously from war, how ordinary soldiers and citizens paid the enormous bill, and how 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made during World War One. His solution for breaking, or at least limiting the war racket, is threefold:
- Make war unprofitable: “Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our steel companies and our munitions makers and our ship-builders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted — to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.”
- Hold a limited plebiscite before declaring war, with eligible voters being those who would be called upon to do the fighting and the dying.
- Limit the military to actual defense: “The ships of our navy, it can be seen, should be specifically limited, by law, to within 200 miles of our coastline. Had that been the law in 1898 the Maine would never have gone to Havana Harbor. She never would have been blown up. There would have been no war with Spain with its attendant loss of life. Two hundred miles is ample, in the opinion of experts, for defense purposes. Our nation cannot start an offensive war if its ships can’t go further than 200 miles from the coastline. Planes might be permitted to go as far as 500 miles from the coast for purposes of reconnaissance. And the army should never leave the territorial limits of our nation.”
I fully endorse the second proposal, and the other two should be realized in some form or another. I think it’s safe to say that there would be no current fuss about the national deficit if these rules had been in place at any time after World War Two. That the army should never leave the territory, or “homeland” to use the current nomenclature, of our nation would have surely saved thousands of American lives, ten times that many foreign lives, and untold billions and trillions of dollars. Smedley Butler was a man not just uncommonly brave on the battlefield, but even braver to speak out against the masters of war who would rule the country, and the world.
There is something still very relevant about “War is a Racket” long after it was written. Reading Butler’s description of interventions he was involved in, I am reminded of that part at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude in which the United Fruit Company massacres banana workers on strike, or of any number of real interventions that have happened since 1935 (either by military force or C.I.A.). We can see that, contrary to popular imagination, America and its military have been strong-arming foreign countries since long before Eisenhower’s speech, and is still doing it today.
Back to the original point, America is in a continual state of war not because its citizens like it that way but because it is highly, hugely profitable to the powerful interests that hold more influence with politicians than millions of individual citizens combined. I can think of very few people who would have voted to spend over a Trillion dollars fighting a war in Iraq, and even fewer who would vote to allocate over a Trillion dollars of their tax revenue to an unnecessary jet that may not ever work properly. So why does it continue like this? It comes down to the fact that not enough Americans know or care about what happens in other countries or what their government and military is doing in their name. Do many Americans know that there are probably at least 1000 American military bases around the world, or that there is a fast-growing Africom branch of the U.S. Army that is involved in almost every country in Africa? Certain politicians would like to cut “discretionary” spending for such unnecessary things as education, health care, infrastructure, and protecting the environment, but over $1 Trillion a year in allotted to the military, secret intelligence, and “homeland security” in order to continue such unholy activities we have seen for over 100 years. It is telling that a high profile person like General Butler could give such influential speeches in the 1930s, and that even a president (who was also a general, perhaps not coincidentally) could warn against the military-industrial complex in 1961. Such a thing has been unimaginable since the Carter presidency. With the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, there are no politicians today brave enough to take on this problem, and certainly none with as high a profile as president. Maybe it’s time for less money in the hands of arms producers and war profiteers. It’s time for less war and weapons in general. Sadly, this means that it must be time for new politicians. Only a citizenry which not only votes, but is also informed and involved, can do this.