As the guy whose book, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of America, was published in 1995, not long after the implosion of the Soviet Union and what looked like the greatest victory in history, let me just say that I was ahead of my time. I was then taking a look at the sense of triumphalism that had permeated the world I grew up in, which had by the end of the Vietnam War essentially collapsed. The feeling that Americans were living in a "victory culture," that when the Marines advanced the enemy would inexorably fall before them, that our wars were there only to be won -- a sensibility that lay at the heart of the war movies of my childhood -- was briefly reborn after 1991. The second time around, however, its shelf life proved remarkably short.
By the time I wrote a new preface to the book in 2007, in the wake of the disastrous invasion of Iraq ("mission accomplished"!), I could already conclude that, in the post-Cold-War world,
"victory soon turned out to be a remarkably quicksilver concept, even for the leaders of the New Rome... Perhaps when the history of this era is written, among the more striking developments will have been the inability of a mighty empire to force its will or its way on others in the normal fashion almost anywhere on the planet. Since the USSR evaporated, the fact is that most previously accepted indices of power -- military power in particular -- have been challenged and, in the process, victory has been denied."
Twelve years later, what should we call the all-American culture in which we're now immersed? Not a "defeat culture" (not yet, anyway), but perhaps a "denial culture" -- a sensibility that would extend from not absorbing the way the U.S. military can't win a genuine military victory anywhere on the planet after almost 18 years of trying to the all-too-literal climate-change denialism that's captured the Oval Office and much of the rest of the government. Or perhaps we're now in something more like a "culture of numbness" in which no one feels much of anything.
But when it comes to victory culture, let me offer one caveat in the context of today's piece by Pentagon experts and TomDispatch regulars William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger: you could indeed still use the phrase in reference to the U.S. military and the national security state in one specific way. When it comes to funding, no one could prove more triumphalist, more victorious than the Pentagon. After all, in July 2017, Hartung wrote a then-definitive piece on the size of the national security state budget, coming up with the eye-popping, distinctly triumphalist figure of $1.09 trillion. Now, he and Smithberger have counted again and, almost two years later, that figure has only soared. It's one hell of a story of how a twenty-first-century victory culture works for an institution that, curiously enough, can't actually win a war. Tom
In its latest budget request, the Trump administration is asking for a near-record $750 billion for the Pentagon and related defense activities, an astonishing figure by any measure. If passed by Congress, it will, in fact, be one of the largest military budgets in American history, topping peak levels reached during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And keep one thing in mind: that $750 billion represents only part of the actual annual cost of our national security state.
There are at least 10 separate pots of money dedicated to fighting wars, preparing for yet more wars, and dealing with the consequences of wars already fought. So the next time a president, a general, a secretary of defense, or a hawkish member of Congress insists that the U.S. military is woefully underfunded, think twice. A careful look at U.S. defense expenditures offers a healthy corrective to such wildly inaccurate claims.
Now, let's take a brief dollar-by-dollar tour of the U.S. national security state of 2019, tallying the sums up as we go, and see just where we finally land (or perhaps the word should be "soar"), financially speaking.
The Pentagon's "Base" Budget: The Pentagon's regular, or "base," budget is slated to be $544.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2020, a healthy sum but only a modest down payment on total military spending.
As you might imagine, that base budget provides basic operating funds for the Department of Defense, much of which will actually be squandered on preparations for ongoing wars never authorized by Congress, overpriced weapons systems that aren't actually needed, or outright waste, an expansive category that includes everything from cost overruns to unnecessary bureaucracy. That $544.5 billion is the amount publicly reported by the Pentagon for its essential expenses and includes as well $9.6 billion in mandatory spending that goes toward items like military retirement.
Among those basic expenses, let's start with waste, a category even the biggest boosters of Pentagon spending can't defend. The Pentagon's own Defense Business Board found that cutting unnecessary overhead, including a bloated bureaucracy and a startlingly large shadow workforce of private contractors, would save $125 billion over five years. Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that the board's proposal has done little to quiet calls for more money. Instead, from the highest reaches of the Pentagon (and the president himself) came a proposal to create a Space Force, a sixth military service that's all but guaranteed to further bloat its bureaucracy and duplicate work already being done by the other services. Even Pentagon planners estimate that the future Space Force will cost $13 billion over the next five years (and that's undoubtedly a low-ball figure).
In addition, the Defense Department employs an army of private contractors -- more than 600,000 of them -- many doing jobs that could be done far more cheaply by civilian government employees. Cutting the private contractor work force by 15% to a mere half-million people would promptly save more than $20 billion per year. And don't forget the cost overruns on major weapons programs like the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent -- the Pentagon's unwieldy name for the Air Force's new intercontinental ballistic missile -- and routine overpayments for even minor spare parts (like $8,000 for a helicopter gear worth less than $500, a markup of more than 1,500%).
Then there are the overpriced weapons systems the military can't even afford to operate like the $13-billion aircraft carrier, 200 nuclear bombers at $564 million a pop, and the F-35 combat aircraft, the most expensive weapons system in history, at a price tag of at least $1.4 trillion over the lifetime of the program. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has found -- and the Government Accountability Office recently substantiated -- that, despite years of work and staggering costs, the F-35 may never perform as advertised.
And don't forget the Pentagon's recent push for long-range strike weapons and new reconnaissance systems designed for future wars with a nuclear-armed Russia or China, the kind of conflicts that could easily escalate into World War III, where such weaponry would be beside the point. Imagine if any of that money were devoted to figuring out how to prevent such conflicts, rather than hatching yet more schemes for how to fight them.
Base Budget total: $554.1 billion
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