"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen
its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."
- - General of the Army D.D. Eisenhower
Several years ago I read about a person commiserating with his friend about a serious medical diagnosis. "How bad is it?" he inquired. "Well, let's put it this way: I've stopped flossing."
That anecdote is a perfect analogy for the quagmire we find ourselves in on the recently observed third anniversary of our invasion of Iraq. That war of choice, not necessity, is a milepost in our growth as an imperial power. It is the natural outcome of a half century of increased militarization, time when we have grown to accept the idea that a substantial portion of our resources must be diverted from human needs to building a military force invincible to challenge.
As is well documented in a new film, "Why We Fight," the current militarization of America had its roots in the Second World War. The film focuses on Dwight Eisenhower's 1961 farewell speech to the nation at the end of his eight-year presidency. In a remarkably prescient warning, he told Americans that for the first time in our history we had produced a permanent arms industry and that "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."
What Eisenhower saw 45 years ago has metastasized into a gargantuan military juggernaut whose cost exceeds the arms expenditures of all other nations combined. Eisenhower would be stunned at the growth of this beast now sucking wealth, life, and democracy out of America. It has become the tail that wags the dog, a force so huge and thoroughly ingrained in our culture and political institutions that some believe its dominance has become irreversible.
Consider that there are currently over 700 U.S. military bases spread around the globe, a modern equivalent of the Roman legions once covering a huge portion of the known world. The cost of such a smothering presence is intentionally obscured to divert attention from the scope of our military program. The announced Pentagon budget of $439 billion dollars per year is pure pixie dust. Iraq and Afghanistan war costs (another $120 billion this year) are not even included in the figure but covered by supplemental requests to Congress. Absent this and other means of budgetary sleight of hand, the real cost of our military probably approaches three quarters of a trillion dollars per year. Even in America, that should be viewed as an impressive number.
How did we reach such an unsustainable and perilous point in our history?
As the memorable line goes in "All the President's Men," "Follow the money." Simply put, war is profitable. Although it is hell for people, it is good for business. Think Halliburton, Northrop, General Dynamics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon.... and the thousands of smaller companies feeding the insatiable maw of our military appetite. Ships, tanks, Hummers, planes, helicopters, drones, missiles, atomic bombs - all the high tech toys to delight the hearts of our war lords. And all produced by companies bloated with unconscionable profits derived from cost plus contracts and anemic federal oversight.
These manufacturers, representing one of the few sectors of the American economy not to be outsourced, work hand in glove with the Pentagon, always developing newer, more complicated weapons, whether appropriate or not for today's challenges.
But this alliance between the Pentagon and industry has gone beyond what Eisenhower envisioned. It now includes Congress. Again, follow the money. Politicians, always in a race to finance the next reelection campaign, have become addicted to the perks supplied by lobbyists of the defense industry. Former Congressman Duke Cunningham may be the most visible symbol of a venal politician accepting bribes of cash, oriental rugs, antique cars, and shady real estate transactions, but he was certainly not the only member in on the take.
And the Pentagon has made sure that defense contracts are spread far and wide to sweeten the deal for politicians and their constituents back home. For example, the B2 bomber has suppliers in all fifty states of America. Those defense plants create sorely needed jobs, and by cleverly scattering them throughout the country, the Military-Industrial-Congressional complex assures that all communities will jealously protect the plants against future closings. So people have work, politicians get credit for enhancing the economies of their states and districts, the manufacturers get the chance to put their hands in the honey jar, and the Pentagon brass get support for the new weapon systems they crave. It is a complex, cozy, corrupting symbiosis.
And at what price?
The most painful cost of war is the loss of our youth, either killed outright, grievously wounded, or psychologically damaged for life. Although we are always in a state of denial about enemy losses, they are usually far worse and involve not only the opposing military forces but uncounted civilian bystanders, including children, "smart" weapons notwithstanding.
Another price is the creation of fearful, docile citizens who, in effect, are saying, "Do what you have to do. Protect us from the world's threats. If it involves torture and throwing suspected terrorists in foreign prisons with no prospect of ever being released, so be it. If we have to sacrifice privacy and traditional rights granted under our form of government, we are prepared to accept that as a necessary condition."
Another is the gradual bankrupting of the country. The national debt clock in Times Square has numbers clicking upward at lightning speed and is now predicted to become obsolete within two years because it can only register amounts up to ten trillion dollars! The Bush administration is the first in our history that has lowered taxes in time of war. The effect of this profligacy is to push massive indebtedness onto future generations, a legacy our grandchildren will discover much to their dismay. Maybe the government program should be renamed Leave No Child a Dime.
A further cost is addiction to war itself, a tendency to rely more on brute force than diplomatic resolutions of international tensions. Since WWII we have seen military action in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Granada, Lebanon, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq (with the potential additions of North Korea, Iran, and Syria on the runway, preparing for takeoff). As the biblical passage goes, "Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind." Starting one war only sets conditions for the next one, and eventually the intervals between conflicts grow shorter and shorter. Are we to look forward to the day when peace is a distant memory, and war is perpetual and ever more brutal? If we accept that as our future, then I am reminded of a joke on Garrison Keillor's program: What is the difference between genius and stupidity? Answer: Genius has its limits.
Eisenhower certainly realized the dreadful cost of war making. In 1953 he addressed newspaper editors, outlining what is sacrificed on the human level when we use war as a short sighted solution to our problems:
"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
not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat
of 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 an iron cross."
The problem is that presidents since Eisenhower have either not understood the warning, understood it but ignored it, or were powerless to slow the inexorable advance of the relentless war machine. We appear to be trapped in our own version of "Ground Hog Day," endlessly reliving the mistakes of the past. It can be no surprise, then, that some people have already decided to stop flossing.
Gilbert Jordan is a retired professor of English from Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, an anti-war activist, rag time piano player, and full-time landscape artist. E-mail Gilbert at: email@example.com.