This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Consider it a conundrum. Both parties in Congress and the president simply can't pour enough money into the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state. As a result, theirs has been a cumulative trillion-dollar budget for years and it's still on the rise. On the other hand, the domestic basics are increasingly being starved. When the president's long-delayed infrastructure plan finally made it to Congress, two years late, it disappeared without a trace. Meanwhile, the country's roads, rail networks, dams, schools, and so on are in increasingly poor shape. (In reality, the only infrastructure being built up is the Pentagon's.) Meanwhile, Medicare is now slated to become insolvent in 2026, three years earlier than previously expected. As for the Social Security system, according to the latest government report, its costs will exceed its income next year and it's expected to become insolvent in 2035. The result: retirement payments are likely to diminish and healthcare costs for aging Americans rise.
I sometimes imagine bringing back my long-dead parents and trying to explain to them what this country now does and doesn't invest in. They would, I know, be genuinely shocked and that sense of shock, so appropriate for their time and experience, should be no less appropriate now. After all -- and here's that conundrum I mentioned -- Washington is no longer eager to invest in what actually works in this country, while politicians from both parties and the president are filled with enthusiasm for a vast and growing military system that doesn't work at all. From ridiculous sums going into weaponry that's superfluous or unlikely to function as advertised to ridiculous sums going into distant wars that never end, the U.S. military has in the twenty-first century been a misfire machine of the first order. And unlike infrastructure, Medicare, or Social Security, the less it all works, the more eager Congress and the president are to dump your tax dollars into it.
Consider it a first-class puzzle, one that, in his own striking fashion, TomDispatchregular William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian, takes on today as he considers how the Pentagon has conned us all. Tom
How the Pentagon Took Ownership of Donald Trump
Six Ways to Curb America's Military Machine
By William J. Astore
Donald Trump is a con man. Think of Trump University or a juicy Trump steak or can't-lose casinos (that never won). But as president, one crew he hasn't conned is the Pentagon. Quite the opposite, they've conned him because they've been at the game a lot longer and lie (in Trump-speak) in far biglier ways.
People condemn President Trump for his incessant lying and his con games -- and rightly so. But few Americans condemn the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state, even though we've been the victims of their long con for decades now. As it happens, from the beginning of the Cold War to late last night, they've remained remarkably skilled at exaggerating the threats the U.S. faces and, believe me, that represents the longest con of all. It's kept the military-industrial complex humming along, thanks to countless trillions of taxpayer dollars, while attempts to focus a spotlight on that scam have been largely discredited or ignored.
One thing should have, but hasn't, cut through all the lies: the grimly downbeat results of America's actual wars. War by its nature tells harsh truths -- in this case, that the U.S. military is anything but "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known." Why? Because of its almost unblemished record of losing, or at least never winning, the wars it engages in. Consider the disasters that make up its record from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s to, in the twenty-first century, the Iraq War that began with the invasion of 2003 and the nearly 18-year debacle in Afghanistan -- and that's just to start down a list. You could easily add Korea (a 70-year stalemate/truce that remains troublesome to this day), a disastrous eight-year-old intervention in Libya, a quarter century in (and out and in) Somalia, and the devastating U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen, among so many other failed interventions.
In short, the U.S. spends staggering sums annually, essentially stolen from a domestic economy and infrastructure that's fraying at the seams, on what still passes for "defense." The result: botched wars in distant lands that have little, if anything, to do with true defense, but which the Pentagon uses to justify yet more funding, often in the name of "rebuilding" a "depleted" military. Instead of a three-pointed pyramid scheme, you might think of this as a five-pointed Pentagon scheme, where losing only wins you ever more, abetted by lies that just grow and grow. When it comes to raising money based on false claims, this president has nothing on the Pentagon. And worse yet, like America's wars, the Pentagon's long con shows no sign of ending. Eat your heart out, Donald Trump!
"So many lies, so little time" is a phrase that comes to mind when I think of the 40 years I've spent up close and personal with the U.S. military, half on active duty as an Air Force officer. Where to begin? How about with those bomber and missile "gaps," those alleged shortfalls vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s? They amounted to Chicken Little-style sky-is-falling hoaxes, but they brought in countless billions of dollars in military funding. In fact, the "gaps" then were all in our favor, as this country held a decisive edge in both strategic bombers and nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
Or consider the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that served to authorize horrific attacks on Vietnam in retaliation for a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. Navy destroyers that never happened. Or think about the consistent exaggeration of Soviet weapons capabilities in the 1970s (the hype surrounding its MiG-25 Foxbat fighter jet, for example) that was used to justify a new generation of ultra-expensive American weaponry. Or the justifications for the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s -- remember the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars") or the MX ICBM and Pershing II missiles, not to speak of the neutron bomb and alarming military exercises that nearly brought us to nuclear war with the "Evil Empire" in 1983. Or think of another military miracle: the "peace dividend" that never arrived after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 and the last superpower (you know which one) was left alone on a planet of minor "rogue states." And don't forget that calamitous "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the name of neutralizing weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist or the endless global war on terror that still ignores the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11th terrorist hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
And this endless long con of the Pentagon's was all the more effective because so many of its lies were sold by self-serving politicians. Exhibit one was, of course, John F. Kennedy's embrace of that false missile gap in winning the 1960 presidential election. Still, the Pentagon was never shy in its claims. Take the demand of the Air Force then for 10,000 -- yes, you read that right! -- new ICBMs to counter a Soviet threat that then numbered no more than a few dozen such missiles (as Daniel Ellsberg reminds us in his recent book, The Doomsday Machine).
To keep the Air Force happy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara settled on a mere 1,000 land-based Minuteman missiles to augment the 54 older Titan II ICBMs in that service's arsenal, a figure I committed to memory as a teenager in the 1970s. And don't forget that some of those missiles were MIRVed, meaning they had multiple nuclear warheads that could hit many targets. It all added up to the threat of what, in those years, came to be called "mutually assured destruction," better known by its all-too-apt acronym, MAD.
And the Pentagon's version of madness never ends. Think, for instance, of the planned three-decade $1.7 trillion "modernization" of the U.S. nuclear triad now underway, justified in the name of "overmatching" China and Russia, "near-peer" rivals in Pentagon-speak. No matter that America's current triad of land-based, submarine-based, and air-deployed nukes already leave the arsenals of those two countries in the shade.
Reason doesn't matter when the idea of a new cold war with those two former enemies couldn't be more useful in justifying the through-the-ceiling $750 billion defense budget requested by President Trump for 2020. The Democrats have pushed back with a still-soaring budget of $733 billion that accepts without question the "baseline" minimum demanded by Pentagon officials, a level of spending Trump once called "crazy." Talk about resistance being futile!
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