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Why We Must Restore the Title, “War Department”

Just like the change in nomenclature from "War Department" to "Defense Department", the use of the phrase, "war on terror", has been nothing short of Orwellian.

top 15 countries for military expenditure

The top 15 countries for military expenditure in 2016. Source: SIPRI

Every gun that was ever 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 - President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953.

The Pentagon is like a black hole; what goes in is forever lost to us, and no new wealth is created - Gore Vidal, 1988.

As a nation, we have failed to heed President Eisenhower's prescient 1961 warning to "guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Our failure to heed that warning—conversely the immense growth of the military-industrial complex—can, to a significant degree, be attributed to a simple change in nomenclature that was nothing short of Orwellian.

In 1949, the U.S. "War Department," which had been established in 1789 and operated as such until 1947, was renamed the "Department of Defense". The Secretary of War became the Secretary of Defense. As a result, no matter how offensive the nature our policies, objectives, military presence or weaponry, every dollar spent and every life lost in combat have been classified as necessary to the "defense" of this nation.

In reality, the United States operates the world's only global war machine.  It is the global nature of our military operations that helps to explain why, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) index, the U.S. baseline* military budget for FY2018 ($649 billion) was greater than the total FY2018 military expenditures of the next seven nations, combined.

*As revealed by Mandy Smithberger and William Hartung, the SIPRI index understates the gap between the military expenditures of other nations and our own. The pair identified "at least 10 pots of money dedicated to fighting wars, preparing for yet more wars, and dealing with the consequences of wars already fought." Although the Trump administration seeks a record $750 billion Pentagon budget for FY2020, they contend the total proposed national security budget was $1.25 trillion.

Those additional pots of money include instances in which U.S. taxpayers subsidized sales of U.S. manufactured military products to foreign nations.

The SIPRI expenditure by country index, for example, noted that, in 2015, Israel's military expenditures were slightly in excess of $16.7 billion. But the index failed to note that U.S. taxpayers picked up more than 18.5% of the tab for Israel’s 2015 expenditures in the form of “military aid”.

As a result of its global reach, by 2018, the Pentagon had acquired $2.8 trillion in total assets, which is 70% of all assets currently held by the federal government.


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In addition to operating out of approximately 800 bases in more than 70 countries, by 2015, according to Prof. Alfred McCoy, the U.S. had “deployed” its Special Operations Forces (SOF) “in 147 countries, or 75% of the world, meaning that on any given day they were operating in 70 to 90 countries."

Over the past 18 years, SOF have carried out a perpetual "war on terror"—-a "shadow war" that largely goes unnoticed, except when something goes terribly wrong, like the Niger ambush that took the lives of four U.S. sergeants.

Just like the change in nomenclature from "War Department" to "Defense Department", the use of the phrase, "war on terror", has been nothing short of Orwellian.

From a purely military perspective, waging a "war on terror" makes no sense whatsoever. As explained by the late General William Odom, "Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated. It’s a tactic. It's about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we're going to win that war. We're not going to win the war on terrorism."

But from the perspective of the military-industrial complex, the utility of a "war on terror" can be found in the reality that it is a war that can never be won. Perpetual war = never-ending profits. And those profits are maximized by waging that “forever war” on a global scale.

While other nations have aspired to acquire global capabilities within the relatively inexpensive domain of cyberspace, U.S. military doctrine contemplates the global projection of its military power in all five domains (land, air, sea, space and cyberspace). This directly impacts the size of our bloated military budget, which, in the case of the Navy, is not tied to a single National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but, instead, includes plans stretching 30 years into the future.

In a recent Report to Congress, Ronald O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service cited the global reach of our military doctrine in order to explain why, where other nations have, at most, one or two aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy is required to operate a minimum of eleven (11) carriers and has plans to operate twelve (12). "Unlike the United States," O'Rourke noted, other countries "are not designing their forces to cross broad expanses of ocean and air space and then conduct sustained, large-scale military operations."

The extent to which the words "defense spending" have facilitated the undue influence of the military-industrial complex was captured by Jim Hightower in Thieves in High Places. "The military budget," Hightower wrote, "is a massive wealth transfer program from ordinary taxpayers to major corporations, and," he added, "it has proven easy over the years to wrap this transfer in the red, white and blue and have a portion of the American people burst out in a rousing chorus of the national anthem and applaud their own mugging."

On the plus side, a growing number of elected leaders, including Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), have signified a readiness to challenge the irrational "war on terror" by signing a pledge to end "forever wars." Sanders has also recognized a need for deep cuts to our military budget. If elected, the very first move a President Bernie Sanders should make to accomplish both goals would be to restore the title, "War Department".

Ernest A. Canning

Ernest A. Canning

Ernest A. Canning is a retired attorney, author, Vietnam Veteran (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968) and a Senior Advisor to Veterans For Bernie. He has been a member of the California state bar since 1977. In addition to a juris doctor, he has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science. Follow him on Twitter: @cann4ing

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