Our Wars Are Killing Us

Pentagon Time: Tick…Tick…Tick…

Back in 2007, when General David Petraeus was the surge commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, he had a penchant for clock imagery. In an interview in April of that year, he typically said:
"I'm conscious of a couple of things. One is that the Washington clock
is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock, so we're obviously
trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress
on the ground that can perhaps give hope to those in the coalition
countries, in Washington, and perhaps put a little more time on the
Washington clock." And he wasn't alone. Military spokespeople and
others in the Bush administration right up to the president regularly seemed to hear one, two, or sometimes as many as three clocks ticking away ominously and out of sync.

Hearing some discordant ticking myself of late, I decided to
retrieve Petraeus's image from the dustbin of history. So imagine
three ticking clocks, all right here in the U.S., one set to Washington
time, a second to American time, and the third to Pentagon time.

In Washington -- with even the New York Times now agreeing that a "majority"
of 100 is 60 (not 51) and that the Senate's 41st vote settles
everything -- the clock seems to be ticking erratically, if at all. On
the other hand, that American clock, if we're to believe the good
citizens of Massachusetts, is ticking away like a bomb. Americans are
impatient, angry, and "in revolt" against Washington time. That's what the media continue to tell us in the wake of last week's Senate upset.

Depending on which account you read, they were outraged by a nearly trillion dollar health-care reform that was also a giveaway to insurance companies, and annoyed by Democratic candidate Martha Coakley calling Curt Schilling a "Yankees fan" as well as besmirching handshaking in the cold outside Fenway Park; they were anxious about an official Massachusetts unemployment rate of 9.4%
(and a higher real one), an economy that has rebounded for bankers but
not for regular people, soaring deficits, staggering foreclosure rates,
mega-banking bonuses, the Obama administration's bailout of those same
bankers, and its coziness with Wall Street.
They were angry and impatient about a lot of things, blind angry you
might say, since they were ready to vote back into office the party not
in office, even if behind that party's "new face" were ideas that would
take us back to the origins of the present disaster.

A Blank Check for the Pentagon

It's worth noting, however, that they're not angry about everything
-- and that the Washington clock, barely moving on a wide range of
issues, is still ticking away when it comes to one institution. The
good citizens of Massachusetts may be against free rides and bailouts
for many types, but not for everybody. I'm speaking, of course, about
the Pentagon, for which Congress has just passed a record new budget of
$708 billion
(with an Afghan war-fighting supplemental request of $33 billion,
essentially a bail-out payment, still pending but sure to pass). This
happened without real debate, much public notice, or even a touch of
anger in Washington or Massachusetts. And keep in mind that the
Pentagon's real budget is undoubtedly close to a trillion dollars,
without even including the full panoply of our national security state.

The tea-party crews don't rail against Pentagon giveaways, nor do
Massachusetts voters grumble about them. Unfettered Pentagon budgets
pass in the tick-tock of a Washington clock and no one seems fazed when
the Wall Street Journalreveals
that military aides accompanying globe-hopping parties of congressional
representatives regularly spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on
snacks, drinks, and other "amenities" for them, even while, like some K
Street lobbying outfit, promoting their newest weaponry. Think of it,
in financial terms, as Pentagon peanuts shelled out for actual peanuts,
and no one gives a damn.

It's hardly considered news -- and certainly nothing to get angry
about -- when the Secretary of Defense meets privately with the
nation's top military-industrial contractors, calls for an even "closer
partnership," and pledges
to further their mutual interests by working "with the White House to
secure steady growth in the Pentagon's budgets over time." Nor does it
cause a stir among the denizens of inside-the-Beltway Washington or the
citizens of Massachusetts when the top ten defense contractors spend
more than $27 million lobbying the federal government, as in the last
quarter of 2009 (a significant increase over the previous quarter),
just as plans for the president's Afghan War surge were being prepared.

Nor is it just the angry citizens of Massachusetts, or those
tea-party organizers, or Republicans stalwarts who hear no clock
ticking when it comes to "national security" expenditures, who see no
link between our military-industrial outlays, our perpetual wars, and
our economic woes. When, for instance, was the last time you saw a bona fide
liberal economist/columnist like Paul Krugman include the Pentagon and
our wars in the litany of things potentially bringing this country

Yes, striking percentages of Americans attend the church (temple,
mosque) of their choice, but when it comes to American politics and the
economy, the U.S. military is our church, "national security" our
Bible, and nothing done in the name of either can be wrong.

Talk about a blank check. It's as if the military, already the most revered institution in the country, existed on the other side of a Star-Trekkian financial wormhole.

Pentagon Time Horizons

Which brings us to Pentagon time. Yes, that third clock is ticking,
but at a very different tempo from those in Washington or

are evidently increasingly impatient for "change" of whatever sort,
whether you can believe in it or not. The Pentagon, on the other hand,
is patient. It's opted for making counterinsurgency the central
strategy of its war in Central and South Asia, the sort of strategy
that, even if successful, experts claim could easily take a decade or
two to pull off. But no problem -- not when the Pentagon's clock is
ticking on something like eternal time.

And here's the thing: because the media are no less likely to give
the Pentagon a blank check than the citizens of Massachusetts, it's
hard indeed to grasp the extent to which that institution, and the
military services it represents, are planning and living by their own
clock. Though major papers have Pentagon "beats," they generally tell
us remarkably little, except inadvertently and in passing, about Pentagon time.

So, for the next few minutes, just keep that Pentagon clock ticking
away in your head. In the meantime, we'll go looking for some hints
about the Pentagon's war-fighting time horizons buried in news reports
on, and Pentagon contracts for, the Afghan War.

Take, as a start, a January 6th story from the inside pages of my hometown paper. New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt began it
this way: "The military's effort to build a seasoned corps of expert
officers for the Afghan war, one of the highest priorities of top
commanders, is off to a slow start, with too few volunteers and a
high-level warning to the armed services to steer better candidates
into the program, according to some senior officers and participants."
At stake was an initiative "championed" by Afghan War commander General
Stanley McChrystal to create a "912-member corps of mostly officers and
enlisted service members who will work on Afghanistan and Pakistan
issues for up to five years."

The news was that the program, in its infancy, was already faltering
because it didn't conform to one of the normal career paths followed in
the U.S. military. But what caught my eye was that phrase "up to five
years." Imagine what it means for the war commander, backed by key
figures in the Pentagon, to plan to put more than 900 soldiers,
including top officers, on a career path that would leave them totally
wedded, for five years, to war in the Af-Pak theater of operations.
(After all, if that war were to end, the State Department might well
take charge.) In other words, McChrystal was creating a potentially
powerful interest group within the military whose careers would be
wedded to an ongoing war with a time-line that extended into 2015 --
and who would have something to lose if it ended too quickly. What
does it matter then that President Obama was proclaiming his desire to
begin drawing down the war in July 2011?

Or consider the plan being proposed, according to Ann Scott Tyson, in a January 17th Washington Post
piece, by Special Forces Major Jim Gant, and now getting a most
respectful hearing inside the military. Gant wants to establish small
Special Forces teams that would "go native," move into Afghan villages
and partner up with local tribal leaders -- "one tribe at a time," as
an influential paper he wrote on the subject was entitled. "The U.S.
military," reported Tyson, "would have to grant the teams the leeway to
grow beards and wear local garb, and enough autonomy in the chain of
command to make rapid decisions. Most important, to build
relationships, the military would have to commit one or two teams to
working with the same tribe for three to five years, Gant
said." She added that Gant has "won praise at the highest levels [of
the U.S. military] for his effort to radically deepen the U.S.
military's involvement with Afghan tribes --- and is being sent back to
Afghanistan to do just that." Again, another "up to five year"
commitment in Afghanistan and a career path to go with it on a clock
that, in Gant's case, has yet to start ticking.

Or just to run through a few more examples:

* In August 2009, the superb Walter Pincus of the Washington Postquoted Air Force Brigadier General Walter Givhan, in charge of training the Afghan National Army Air Corps, this way: "Our goal is by 2016
to have an [Afghan] air corps that will be capable of doing those
operations and the things that it needs to do to meet the security
requirements of this country." Of course, that six-year timeline
includes the American advisors training that air force. (And note that
Givhan's 2016 date may actually represent slippage. In January 2008,
when Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay H. Lindell, who was then commander of the
Combined Air Power Transition Force, discussed the subject, he spoke of an "eight-year campaign plan" through 2015 to build up the Afghan Air Corps.)

* In a January 13th piece on Pentagon budgeting plans, Anne Gearan and Anne Flaherty of the Associated Press reported:
"The Pentagon projects that war funding would drop sharply in 2012, to
$50 billion" from the present at least $159 billion (mainly thanks to a
projected massive draw-down of forces in Iraq), "and remain there through 2015." Whether the financial numbers are accurate or not, the date is striking: again a five-year window.

* Or take the "train and equip" program aimed at bulking up the Afghan military and police, which will be massively staffed with U.S. military advisors (and private security contractors)
and is expected to cost at least $65 billion. It's officially slated
to run from 2010-2014 by which time the combined Afghan security forces
are projected to reach 400,000.

* Or consider a couple of the long-term contracts
already being handed out for Afghan war work like the $158 million the
Air Force has awarded to
Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., for "indefinite delivery/indefinite
quantity (IDIQ) contract for rotary wing aircraft, personnel,
equipment, tools, material, maintenance and supervision necessary to
perform passenger and cargo air transportation services. Work will be
performed in Afghanistan and is expected to start Apr. 3, 2009, to be
completed by Nov. 30, 2013." Or the Pentagon contract awarded
to the private contractor SOS International primarily for translators,
which has an estimated completion date of September 2014.

Ending the Pentagon's Free Ride

Of course, this just scratches the surface of long-term Afghan War
planning in the Pentagon and the military, which rolls right along,
seemingly barely related to whatever war debates may be taking place in
Washington. Few in or out of that city find these timelines strange,
and indeed they are just symptomatic of an organization already
planning for "the next war" and the ones after that, not to speak of
the next generation bomber of 2018, the integrated U.S. Army battlefield surveillance system of 2025, and the drones of 2047.

This, in short, is Pentagon time and it's we who fund that clock
which ticks toward eternity. If the Pentagon gets in trouble,
war-fighting or otherwise, we bail it out without serious debate or any
of the anger we saw in the Massachusetts election. No one marches in
the streets, or demands that Pentagon bailouts end, or votes 'em (or at
least their supporters) out of office.

In this way, no institution is more deeply embedded
in American life or less accountable for its acts; Pentagon time exists
enswathed in an almost religious glow of praise and veneration -- what
might once have been known as "idolatry." Until the Pentagon is forced
into our financial universe, the angry, impatient one where most
Americans now live, we're in trouble. Until candidates begin losing
because angry Americans reject our perpetual wars, and the perpetual
war-planning that goes with them, this sort of thinking will simply
continue, no matter who the "commander-in-chief" is or what he thinks
he's commanding.

It's time for Americans to stop saluting and end the Pentagon's free ride before America's wars kill us.

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