Budgeting the Good War, for 75 Years
World War II never quite ended — it morphed.
Today we call it the status quo, or endless war, or we just don’t bother to notice it. Indeed, now more than ever we don’t notice it. It’s barely part of the 2016 election, even though we’re engaged in active conflict in half a dozen countries, toying with a relaunch of the Cold War with Russia and, of course, hemorrhaging, as always, more than half our annual discretionary budget on “defense.”
World War II has been going on for seven decades now and has no intention of ever stopping . . . of its own volition. But this year’s rocking electoral craziness — not just Hurricane Donald, but the unexpected staying power of the Bernie Sanders campaign — may well be the harbinger of transcendence. Apparently there’s another force in the universe capable of standing up to the American, indeed, the global, military-industrial status quo.
Slowly, slowly this force is organizing itself and taking human shape. This isn’t a simple process. After all, the game of empire — the game called war, the game of domination — has been coalescing political power for several thousand years now.
But our current military budget was birthed by the wars of the 20th century. William Hartung, writing recently at TomDispatch, shows the fascinating connectedness of the wars that followed VE and VJ Days, as the corporate beneficiaries of the Big War aligned with mainstream politicians of both major parties and coalesced into the Washington consensus. Over the decades they have engaged in an ongoing struggle to maintain military spending at breathtakingly high levels and avoid any sort of transition to something called peace.
The two pillars of this consensus, as Hartung points out, are the ideology of “armed exceptionalism,” that a shifting array of enemies are out there itching to destroy us, but we will persist in our mission to maintain order in every corner of the planet; and the “strategic placement of arms production facilities and military bases in key states and Congressional districts,” ensuring entrenched political power for the arms lobby.
So World War II initially, as we know, morphed into the Cold War, America’s crusade against communism, which was set into motion in 1950 by a long-classified report (NSC-68) prepared by the State and Defense departments and the CIA, urging the vigorous containment of Soviet expansion and the development of the hydrogen bomb.
President Truman “was somewhat taken aback at the costs associated with the report’s recommendations,” according to history.com, and “he hesitated to publicly support a program that would result in heavy tax increases for the American public, particularly since the increase would be spent on defending the United States during a time of peace.”
Peace! What a nuisance! But: “Thank God Korea came along,” as an aide to Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it at the time. The Korean War gave the militarists the enemy they needed and the nuclear arms race, and so much else, was born. The military budget was set for decades.
As Hartung points out, the next terrible hurdle the budget boys faced was in the wake of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. That war, and the universal draft that essentially pulled the whole country into a front-row seat for it, spawned a passionate antiwar movement and, ultimately, a moldering national disgust for war, known as Vietnam Syndrome. The Cold War continued, but the U.S. military was confined to proxy wars for a while and had to rethink its strategy.
Two things happened. The universal draft was ended, removing most of the American middle class from a life-and-death stake in our military operations; and Saddam Hussein, our ally, was recast as Adolf Hitler. And in 1991, President George H.W. Bush embarked on a month of war with Iraq known as Operation Desert Storm. Not only did the U.S. “win” this war and kill over 100,000 Iraqis (and ultimately cause hideous health problems for American soldiers), but, perhaps most importantly: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” So the president proclaimed.
Unfortunately for the war consensus, the Soviet Union dissolved a short time later and the Cold War ended . . . and a “peace dividend” loomed. Hartung notes that Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed the situation thus: “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il-sung.”
Would military spending be diverted to infrastructure repair, free education, universal health care?
Well, no. The Bill Clinton presidency found a few new demons. It fought a war in Kosovo and, on the domestic front, vastly expanded the prison-industrial complex. Meanwhile, the neocon think tanks cogitated and one of them, the Project for a New American Century, reflecting the fact that geopolitical thinking had stopped with World War II, decided that what America needed was a new Pearl Harbor. And then came the presidency of George W. Bush, 9/11, and the Global War on Terror. And the U.S. military budget was carved, seemingly, in stone.
Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 on the promise of serious change, but any hope that he intended to upend W’s wars was soon dispelled. He dumped the name but kept the wars, essentially settling “for a no-name global war,” Hartung writes. “He would shift gears from a strategy focused on large numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ to an emphasis on drone strikes, the use of Special Operations forces, and massive transfers of arms to U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. . . . (O)ne might call Obama’s approach ‘politically sustainable warfare.’”
And here we are, immersed in a no-name global war that has no logical end and few serious critics in the world of mainstream media and politics. But maybe the American democracy is not the closed system it’s supposed to be.
For instance, John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, points out that Donald Trump, in all his fun-house recklessness, is shaking up the consensus: “Democrats and Republicans disagree about many things. But with a few exceptions they all support an enormous military budget, an expensive overseas expeditionary force, and unilateral acts of force when necessary to protect U.S. national interests (understood broadly).
“It’s an odd paradox that Trump, who blathers on about making America great again, departs from this consensus.”
He won’t win, and he shouldn’t win for a million reasons, but in his recklessness he has touched the raw anger of a sizable chunk of the American electorate. Sanders, speaking with compassion and integrity and delivering a far different message, managed to tap the same well of public outrage. And, as Feffer noted, “the mainstream is worried that the political parties will realize that the ‘bring the war dollars home’ message can win a national election and disrupt the comfortable revolving-door consensus.”
And World War II will finally end? Not this year, but maybe four years from now, if we refuse to let the war consensus have any peace in the interim.