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Best of TomDispatch: Andrew Bacevich, Pentagon, Inc.

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: Today, TD pays a visit to a classic piece published at this site on January 27, 2011. In a way, it couldn't be a sadder story, since so little has changed in the five-and-a-half years since Andrew Bacevich wrote it and so it remains, as he suggests in his new introduction, painfully relevant. Tom]

A writer who dares to revisit a snarky article dashed off five-plus years earlier will necessarily approach the task with some trepidation. Pieces such as the one republished below are not drafted with the expectation that they will enjoy a protracted shelf life. Yet in this instance, I'm with Edith Piaf: Non, je ne regrette rien. The original text stands without revision or amendment. Why bother to update, when the core argument remains true (at least in my estimation).

This past weekend, I attended the annual meeting of Veterans for Peace (VFP), held on this occasion in funky, funky Berkeley, California. The experience was both enlightening and humbling. VFP members are exemplars of democratic citizenship: informed, engaged, simultaneously realistic -- not expecting peace to bust out anytime soon -- and yet utterly determined to carry on with their cause. To revive a phrase from another day, they insist that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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What particularly impressed me was the ability of rank-and-file VFP members to articulate the structural roots of American militarism and imperialism. They understand that the problem isn't George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and therefore won't be solved by Hillary or The Donald). It's not that we have a war party that keeps a peace party under its boot. No, the problem is bigger and deeper: a fraudulent idea of freedom defined in quantitative material terms; a neoliberal political economy that privileges growth over all other values; a political system in which Big Money's corruption has become pervasive; and, of course, the behemoth of the national security apparatus, its tentacles reaching into the far quarters of American society -- even into the funky precincts of the San Francisco Bay Area. There is no peace party in this country, even if a remnant of Americans is still committed to the possibility of peace.

If any of my weekend confreres have occasion to read this piece on the second go-round, I hope that it will pass muster with them. If not, I know they will let me know in no uncertain terms. Andrew Bacevich

Cow Most Sacred
Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable
By Andrew J. Bacevich

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In defense circles, "cutting" the Pentagon budget has once again become a topic of conversation. Americans should not confuse that talk with reality. Any cuts exacted will at most reduce the rate of growth. The essential facts remain: U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined, a situation without precedent in modern history.

The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War -- this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a "peer competitor." Evil Empire? It exists only in the fevered imaginations of those who quiver at the prospect of China adding a rust-bucket Russian aircraft carrier to its fleet or who take seriously the ravings of radical Islamists promising from deep inside their caves to unite the Umma in a new caliphate.

What are Americans getting for their money? Sadly, not much. Despite extraordinary expenditures (not to mention exertions and sacrifices by U.S. forces), the return on investment is, to be generous, unimpressive. The chief lesson to emerge from the battlefields of the post-9/11 era is this: the Pentagon possesses next to no ability to translate "military supremacy" into meaningful victory.

Washington knows how to start wars and how to prolong them, but is clueless when it comes to ending them. Iraq, the latest addition to the roster of America's forgotten wars, stands as exhibit A. Each bomb that blows up in Baghdad or some other Iraqi city, splattering blood all over the streets, testifies to the manifest absurdity of judging "the surge" as the epic feat of arms celebrated by the Petraeus lobby.

The problems are strategic as well as operational. Old Cold War-era expectations that projecting U.S. power will enhance American clout and standing no longer apply, especially in the Islamic world. There, American military activities are instead fostering instability and inciting anti-Americanism. For Exhibit B, see the deepening morass that Washington refers to as AfPak or the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations.

Add to that the mountain of evidence showing that Pentagon, Inc. is a miserably managed enterprise: hide-bound, bloated, slow-moving, and prone to wasting resources on a prodigious scale -- nowhere more so than in weapons procurement and the outsourcing of previously military functions to "contractors." When it comes to national security, effectiveness (what works) should rightly take precedence over efficiency (at what cost?) as the overriding measure of merit. Yet beyond a certain level, inefficiency undermines effectiveness, with the Pentagon stubbornly and habitually exceeding that level. By comparison, Detroit's much-maligned Big Three offer models of well-run enterprises.

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Impregnable Defenses

All of this takes place against the backdrop of mounting problems at home: stubbornly high unemployment, trillion-dollar federal deficits, massive and mounting debt, and domestic needs like education, infrastructure, and employment crying out for attention.

Yet the defense budget -- a misnomer since for Pentagon, Inc. defense per se figures as an afterthought -- remains a sacred cow. Why is that?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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