Moving quietly behind the screen of debate over the Iraq surge is the president's plan to substantially increase the size of our armed forces, and with it (again) the share of our national treasury going to the war machine.
The Pentagon is requesting an increase in Army and Marine troops from 687,000 authorized currently to at least 749,000. Equipping and training these added troops would cost at least $7.5 billion a year.
We are well below Cold War troop levels, but we now contract out numerous tasks once done by uniformed troops. There are at least 100,000 government contract workers in Iraq, many on lucrative no-bid contracts.
A case can be made for higher troop levels — clearly the Army is stretched in Iraq, even with calling up reserves — but the problem is not too few troops but too many wars of choice.
Our massive budget increases are driven by the military's insatiable demand for new and expensive weapons. American defense spending of about $300 billion in 2001 is expected to increase to $530 billion to $569 billion in 2007, primarily driven by military contracts, which are out of control.
Military researchers are developing costly new electronic uniforms, three layers of protection and electronic monitors capped by a "Star Wars" helmet. The head of the Army's Future Force Warrior program tells The Economist that the technology will transform each soldier into a part-human, part-machine cyborg, "an F-16 on legs."
One advanced weapon, SWORDS, goes further and raises the idea of robot-on-human conflict. Another robotic program, the Army's Future Combat Systems, is pegged to cost $145 billion, the costliest weapons program in history, according to Steve Featherstone in Harper's.
We are still under the delusion that American power can make everything right, and that a strong military is the best way to protect the American way of life.
The Bush administration adopted the neoconservatives' idea of an American military that is not only the world's costliest but also so far ahead of other nations that none can even compete. Our military of some 1.5 million people is second only to China's (at 2.3 million) in size, but far ahead of China and everyone else in terms of equipment and training.
Our 2005 military budget of some $472 billion was 3.8 percent of our entire gross domestic product. Compare this to our closest allies: The other NATO nations collectively had a 2005 military budget of $266 billion, 1.9 percent of GDP.
By the time we escape from Iraq, our total cost, including important costs such as veterans' hospitals and replacement of ruined equipment, could be more than $2 trillion of our tax dollars.
If it is any consolation, the war has been very, very profitable for defense contractors. These contractors and our huge professional military form a lobby for additional wars, preferably small, quick and expensive. Contractors' profits and officers' promotions are earned fastest in wartime.
Bloated budgets encourage leaders to look for new worlds to conquer — literally.
Any new idea to spend more, regardless of how outmoded or wacky the concept, brings a predictable array of military-industrial lobbyists to Congress. Democrats may exercise greater oversight and ask tougher questions — but will probably approve most requests.
If this monstrous fiscal overkill were making us safer, more respected, better off in terms of quality of life or basic standards of fairness and equality, it might be worth the candle. But every measure of quality of life, educational achievement and fairness of wages and taxes leaves the United States lagging behind many of our European counterparts and often non-European countries as well.
The future has arrived, in the form of small-scale incursions, terrorism and civil wars. We are still geared up to bomb and shell our foes into oblivion. Overwhelming force — shock and awe — lost us Vietnam and now Iraq.
Most people will choose freedom, and maybe even American capitalism, but not at the point of a gun. Robots will still look like occupiers. More guns and soldiers armored with electronic gizmos will not add to our security or state of mind.
Today's world requires us to be smart even more than to be tough. We need to rediscover our State Department and the United Nations, and prepare diplomats (and soldiers) skilled in other languages. We must use our world-class educators and scientists to attract bright young people from abroad; we need agricultural experts and health providers working with the developing world.
Let these people be our 21st-century heroes. There's enough fat in the Pentagon to pay all of them, and none requires air strikes.
Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company