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Tomgram: William Hartung, Lessons From Battling the Pentagon for Four Decades

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

The other day, after a three-year legal struggle, the Washington Post broke a story about a secret Afghan War project of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Its focus was hundreds of interviews with American figures -- from top officials and generals to lesser actors of every sort -- involved in that misbegotten conflict. The overwhelming conclusion reached in private by the very people who prosecuted that never-ending war: that the American people were eternally lied to and kept out of the loop when it came to the "progress" being made there at any moment since 2002. As the Post put it, "In news conferences and other public appearances, those in charge of the war have followed the same talking points for 18 years. No matter how the war is going -- and especially when it is going badly -- they emphasize how they are making progress."

I already hear the gasps of TomDispatch readers. Okay, I'm kidding (in a grim sort of way). While it's significant that the Post is doing a six-part series based on those previously hidden interviews, the story is being presented as a kind of Pentagon Papers of the twenty-first century. After all, it features admissions that the U.S. dumped untold amounts of money into Afghanistan over 18 years to no positive effect whatsoever, creating a staggering kleptocracy and corruption on a titanic scale, while essentially building nothing of value or ever achieving actual "progress" in the war against the Taliban. It was, in a word, all lies (sometimes backed by fake or manipulated statistics), constantly promoted by key government officials and U.S. military commanders one after another after another after another.

TomDispatch is proof, however, that this set of revelations, though interesting, adds up to anything but a Pentagon Papers. If you happened to be reading this site or others like it instead of the Washington Post in these years, just about all of this would already have been obvious to you, a set of commonplace conclusions, discussed repeatedly. Take, for instance, Ann Jones, first a humanitarian worker and then a reporter in Afghanistan, who wrote this for TomDispatch way back in 2006: "The story of success in Afghanistan was always more fairy tale than fact -- one scam used to sell another... a threefold failure: no peace, no democracy, and no reconstruction." In 2015, I typically wrote: "In 2010, Army General David Petraeus offered his unique assessment of the war. 'We're making progress, and progress is winning, if you will,' he insisted. This summer, another five years having passed, Army General John Campbell weighed in: 'We have done a great job, both from a conventional perspective and our special operating forces, and from the Afghan security forces... I see [the Afghans] continue to progress and continue to be very resilient.' There have been so many claims of 'progress' these last 14 years... and yet each announcement of further success seems to signal the very opposite." And that, of course, is just to start down a long list of such writings at TomDispatch on the war that never ends.

I mention these last 17 years covering the realities of the Afghan War while it went on and on and on amid fake announcements of "progress" out of sympathy for TomDispatch regular William Hartung. He writes today of what it's felt like to cover (and oppose) the outrageous sums of money being poured into the Pentagon, the U.S. military, and the national security state for the last 40 years, another kind of war without end. Isn't it time that the Washington Post "broke" a story on this, too? Tom

The Pentagon Budget Still Rising, 40 Years Later
The Stubborn Persistence of the Military-Industrial State
By William D. Hartung

I've been writing critiques of the Pentagon, the national security state, and America's never-ending military overreach since at least 1979 -- in other words, virtually my entire working life. In those decades, there were moments when positive changes did occur. They ranged from ending the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994 and halting U.S. military support for the murderous regimes, death squads, and outlaws who ruled Central America in the 1970s and 1980s to sharp reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals as the Cold War wound down. Each of those victories, however complex, seemed like a signal that sustained resistance and global solidarity mattered and could make a difference when it came to peace and security.

Here's a striking exception, though, one thing that decidedly hasn't changed for the better in all these years: the staggering number of tax dollars that persistently go into what passes for national security in this country. In our case, of course, the definition of "national security" is subsidizing the U.S. military-industrial complex, year in, year out, at levels that should be (but aren't) beyond belief. In 2019, Pentagon spending is actually higher than it was at the peak of either the Korean or Vietnam conflicts and may soon be -- adjusted for inflation -- twice the Cold War average.

Yes, in those four decades, there were dips at key inflection points, including the ends of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, but the underlying trend has been ever onward and upward. Just why that's been the case is a subject that almost never comes up here. So let me try to explain it in the most personal terms by tracing my own history of working on Pentagon spending and what I've learned from it.

From the Anti-Apartheid Movement to Battling the Military-Industrial Complex

I first began analyzing this country's weapons-making corporations in the mid-1970s while still a student at Columbia University and deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement of that moment. As one of my topics of research, I spent a fair amount of time tracing how some of those outfits were circumventing the then-existing arms embargo on (white) South Africa by using shadow companies, shipping weapons through third countries, and similar deceptions.

One of the outlets I wrote for then was Southern Africa magazine, a collectively produced, independent journal that supported the liberation movements in that part of the world. The anti-apartheid struggle was ultimately successful, thanks to the efforts of the global solidarity movement of which I was a small part, but primarily to the courageous acts of South African individuals and organizations like the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement.

As it happens, there has been no such luck when it comes to reining in the Pentagon.

I started working on Pentagon spending in earnest in 1979 when I landed a job at the New York-based Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), an organization founded on the notion that corporations could be shamed into being more socially responsible. Armed with a BA in Philosophy -- much to the chagrin of my father who was convinced I would be unemployable as a result -- I was lucky to get the position.

Even then I had my doubts about whether encouraging social responsibility would ever be adequate to tame profit-hungry multinational corporations, but the areas of research pursued by CEP were too important to pass up. One of their most significant studies at the time was a report identifying the manufacturers of anti-personnel weaponry used to grim effect in the war in Vietnam. And Gordon Adams, who went on to be the top defense budget official in the Clinton White House in the 1990s, wrote a seminal study, The Iron Triangle, while I was at CEP. That book laid out in a memorable fashion the symbiotic relationships among congressional representatives, the arms industry, and the Pentagon that elevated special interests above the national interest and kept weapons budgets artificially high.

My initial assignment was as a researcher for CEP's Conversion Information Center -- not religious conversion, mind you, but the conversion of the U.S. economy from its deep dependence on Pentagon spending to something better. The concept of conversion dated back at least to the Vietnam War era when it was championed by figures like Walter Reuther, the influential head of the United Auto Workers union, and Seymour Melman, an industrial engineering professor at Columbia University who wrote a classic book on the subject, The Permanent War Economy of the United States. (I took an undergraduate course with Melman which sparked what would become my own abiding interest in documenting the costs and consequences of the military-industrial complex.)

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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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