Left Side-Dollars for Defense
Why The Government Will Never Make Significant Cuts In Military Spending
Whenever the subject of military-spending comes up, I’m reminded of President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation. To my mind, it was as prophetic as George Washington’s, if not more so.
Eisenhower could have focused on America’s triumph in World War II and the nation’s growing economic prosperity. Instead, he delivered a warning about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” he said. “The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”[Emphasis added.]
It’s hard to escape the irony that this speech was delivered by a conservative republican war hero. It’s unlikely that any republican would give such a speech today. Nor any democrat for that matter. The propagandists of the military-industrial complex have triumphed to the point where anyone in Congress who calls for truly serious cuts in military spending is likely to be branded as unpatriotic. Even the proposal of minimal cuts is hotly debated.
This is in part because people with a vested interest in the military-industrial complex have the fundamental advantage of controlling the language of the debate. Military spending over the last few years has hovered around $700 billion—a lot of money, to say the least; but it is in the interest of “national defense,” we are told.
The trouble is, this term is largely a misnomer. In spite of the fact that we spend more on weapons and military operations than the next 13 other leading countries combined, our “national defense” proved useless in preventing the 9/11 attacks. And yet, military spending has doubled since then.
So what is really driving this spending?
Again, let’s look at our use of language.
Ironically, up through the 1940s, when the term “national defense” was more accurate, what we now call the Department of Defense was called the Department of War. The name change—a classic Orwellian manipulation of language—was only embraced after World War II ended, as the U.S. began to fight “the Cold War.”
The name change told the American people loud and clear, we are not the aggressors; we are only interested in domestic security.
Admittedly, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that argument still seemed plausible. But since the 1980s—when we used our military might to conquer the likes of Grenada—the threat of invasion by any country has been minimal to non-existent. Our military escapades since then have served different purposes entirely.
One is profiteering. Consider, for example, an article published last year in USA Today, which noted that in 2011, the 100 largest contractors sold $410 billion in arms and military services, and the top 10 companies alone sold more than $208 billion.
Waging war and/or orchestrating military coups for business interests is nothing new, of course. It is the reason the Nixon Administration toppled Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973—to create a more friendly environment for American corporations. (Since it happened on Sept. 11, it’s worth remembering that 9/11 shouldn’t be associated exclusively with the idea of America as innocent victim.)
More recently, it was the primary consideration for going into Iraq. The notion that we did so in the interest of national defense, in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was ludicrous even then—but in a heightened state of patriotic fervor few people were willing to stand up and say the emperor had no clothes. It is certainly ludicrous now, in hindsight. It is more clear than ever that it was about control of oil and the opportunity for Dick Cheney to line the pockets of his friends at Halliburton. Indeed, a scene in the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 shows military-industrial executives virtually salivating over potential profits to be made from the invasion. (For the record, I have some issues with Michael Moore’s approach to documentary-making, but this particular scene speaks for itself.)
Perhaps the greatest crime in all of this was that when it came to essential protections for American troops—adequate body armor, for example—Donald Rumsfeld cried poverty. “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want,” he told a concerned soldier.
In spite of our eventual withdrawal from Iraq, the Rumsfeld comment still gets to the heart of the matter. Today, we face two issues when it comes to the subject of military spending: how large the budget should be and how the money should be allocated. In spite of enormous expenditures, our country has an abysmal record of caring for its veterans and active, war-zone service members alike. In short, we don’t just over-spend; we misspend.
Alas, little is likely to change, current discussions about budget reductions notwithstanding; the size of reductions under discussion are relatively small. It is unlikely to change for the very reason that Eisenhower feared: The military-industrial complex has gained far too much power—and people with power don’t like to give it up.
George Orwell, who understood the nature of tyranny better than most people, saw the future that is now perhaps even more clearly than Eisenhower: a time of perpetual war. Do not be fooled by our withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. In light of those recent wars and the real motives behind them, it is unlikely that we will ever again enjoy an extended period of peacetime. The beast needs to be fed. Moreover, a fundamental truth is that war is not only profitable to the “moneyed classes,” as Orwell called them, but is useful because it secures their power.
Keep that in mind the next time you hear politicians saying that drastic cuts in the military budget would be “disastrous”—and the next time you hear a president, republican or democrat, explaining on television why he or she has decided to invade country X. Unless it’s because Russia has launched a pre-dawn raid on the Norfolk Naval Base, it won’t be for “national defense.”
Tom Robotham is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor of American studies at Old Dominion University. He was born and raised in New York City but has lived in Norfolk for the past 22 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the Taphouse Grill in Ghent.