Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the importance of "non-traditional" American propaganda in the Middle East to counter that of insurgents and terrorists. That means buying, planting or inventing news to suit American strategic goals. Rumsfeld was dismayed that "this has been portrayed as inappropriate," and spoke of how the backlash has led "to a 'chilling effect' for those who are asked to serve in the military public affairs field" -- the first time in recorded memory that censors and fabricators have been described as victims of a "chilling effect." Pressing the catatonic homage to George Orwell, Rumsfeld said "we will need to do all we can to attract supporters to our efforts, to correct the lies being told which so damage our country, and shatter the appeal of the enemy." We will indeed.
In this ongoing "global war on terror," Rumsfeld and his Pentagon top the list of lies that so damage our country in one continuing regard: the cost of war. It wasn't so long ago that Larry Lindsey, the White House's top economic adviser, was fired for suggesting publicly that a war in Iraq could cost up to $200 billion. Jan. 19, 2003, two months before launching the invasion, Rumsfeld was asked about potential costs in an ABC News interview: "The Office of Management and Budget estimated it would be something under $50 billion," Rumsfeld said. His interviewer interjected: "Outside estimates say up to $300 billion." Rumsfeld's immediate answer: "Baloney."
Hold the rye. In October the Congressional Research Service calculated that war costs in Iraq alone have exceeded $250 billion, and will be in excess of $300 billion by the time spring training rolls around. Total terror war costs add up to $357 billion. That includes Afghanistan, military aid packages and "enhanced" security at foreign American bases. It does not include domestic security and added costs to the Veterans Administration. It does not include the $70 billion "supplemental" war appropriation the White House is seeking for the remainder of this year. Those costs would push the total terror war bill closer to the $600 billion dollar mark.
Baloney? The Pentagon's fattest recurring lie, enabled by a complicit White House, is its annual budget: It hasn't included any of those "supplemental" costs since the perpetual wars for perpetual peace began in 2001. The Pentagon submitted a $439 billion budget earlier this month. Unless those soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and bivouacking in a dozen countries around the region are drawing checks from the Salvation Army rather than from American taxpayers, the more accurate budget figure is somewhere around $560 billion, because annual war costs are now $120 billion, or more than twice the monthly costs of war in Vietnam. Lying about war costs suits taxpayers, whose contribution to the war effort (other than taxes) hasn't gone beyond those $2 magnets of craven patriotism adorning gas-guzzlers' bumpers. And it makes cashing in on tax cuts -- while more soldiers get maimed and killed for lack of proper armor -- a happier, guilt-free experience.
Many taxpayers don't give a hoot about the wars because they affect them neither in the wallet nor in the heart. Most of the soldiers losing life and limbs are recruited from the working-class stiffs. They're glorified in the abstract but scorned in everyday realities of a society that could care less about its working poor's families: Harvest our crops, serve our meals, baby-sit our children, clean our schools and shut up already about being uninsured, on subsistence wages and no hope of upward mobility. Compared to that, of course the army is an adventure.
There's no need for a draft to make the rest of us have "a stake" in the nation's military burden. That would still exempt most people while encouraging a cannon-fodder mentality. A stiff, precise, necessary tax wouldn't be so forgiving. It's time for a war tax. As long as these vague wars on terror last, let us pay for those not-so-vague costs now, in a pay-as-you-go system, rather than shift the debt to the next generation. Apply it with just two exceptions: Families with servicemen and families or individual taxpayers below middle class earnings. Per-capita costs of just those "supplemental" war bills are running at $400 per American per year, which would translate to well over $1,000 per actual taxpayer. It's one flat, painful tax I'd embrace in a second. Make it a line-item on payroll stubs, like Social Security and income taxes. Make the jingoes happy and call it the national security tax. And adjust with every additional appropriation. Then watch how Americans, pinched where it counts, will react to waging mad, pointless wars on their immediate dime year after year. When the wallet is at stake but the nation isn't, patriotism is like so much baloney: It's pork for propagandists, and no match for truth.