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Tomgram: William Hartung, What a Waste, the U.S. Military

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

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: My thanks for your generosity in sending in contributions for Adam Hochschild's superb new book on Americans in the Spanish Civil War and Andrew Bacevich's groundbreaking look at this country's most recent set of unending conflicts, America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. You really do help keep this website rolling along! Please note that the Hochschild book, no longer on offer, will be in the mail to all those who contributed in the next few days. For a donation of $100 or more ($125 for anyone living outside the U.S.), you can, however, still get a signed, personalized copy of the Bacevich, which (because of his book tour) will not be in the mail to donors until next weekend. Check our donation page for the details. Tom]

Late last year, I spent some time digging into the Pentagon's "reconstruction" efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries it invaded in 2001 and 2003 in tandem with a chosen crew of warrior corporations. As a story of fabled American can-do in distant lands, both proved genuinely dismal no-can-do tales, from roads built (that instantly started crumbling) to police academies constructed (that proved to be health hazards) to prisons begun (that were never finished) to schools constructed (that remained uncompleted) to small arms transfers (that were "lost" in transit) to armies built, trained, and equipped for stunning sums (that collapsed). It was as if nothing the Pentagon touched turned to anything but dross (including the never-ending wars it fought). All of it added up to what I then labeled a massive "$cam" with American taxpayer money lost in amounts that staggered the imagination.

All of that came rushing back as I read TomDispatch regular William Hartung's latest post on "waste" at the Pentagon. It didn't just happen in Kabul and Baghdad; it's been going on right here in the good old USA for, as Hartung recounts, the last five decades. There's only one difference I can see: in Kabul, Baghdad, or any other capital in the Greater Middle East and Africa, if we saw far smaller versions of such "waste" indulged in by the elites of those countries, we would call it "corruption" without blinking. So here's my little suggestion, as you read Hartung: think about just how deeply what once would have been considered a Third World-style of corruption is buried in the very heart of our system and in the way of life of the military-industrial complex. By now, President Dwight Eisenhower must be tossing and turning in his grave. Tom

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How Not to Audit the Pentagon
Five Decades Later, the Military Waste Machine Is Running Full Speed Ahead
By William D. Hartung

From spending $150 million on private villas for a handful of personnel in Afghanistan to blowing $2.7 billion on an air surveillance balloon that doesn't work, the latest revelations of waste at the Pentagon are just the most recent howlers in a long line of similar stories stretching back at least five decades. Other hot-off-the-presses examples would include the Army's purchase of helicopter gears worth $500 each for $8,000 each and the accumulation of billions of dollars' worth of weapons components that will never be used. And then there's the one that would have to be everyone's favorite Pentagon waste story: the spending of $50,000 to investigate the bomb-detecting capabilities of African elephants. (And here's a shock: they didn't turn out to be that great!) The elephant research, of course, represents chump change in the Pentagon's wastage sweepstakes and in the context of its $600-billion-plus budget, but think of it as indicative of the absurd lengths the Department of Defense will go to when what's at stake is throwing away taxpayer dollars.

Keep in mind that the above examples are just the tip of the tip of a titanic iceberg of military waste. In a recent report I did for the Center for International Policy, I identified 27 recent examples of such wasteful spending totaling over $33 billion. And that was no more than a sampling of everyday life in the twenty-first-century world of the Pentagon.

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The staggering persistence and profusion of such cases suggests that it's time to rethink what exactly they represent. Far from being aberrations in need of correction to make the Pentagon run more efficiently, wasting vast sums of taxpayer dollars should be seen as a way of life for the Department of Defense. And with that in mind, let's take a little tour through the highlights of Pentagon waste from the 1960s to the present.

How Many States Can You Lose Jobs In?

The first person to bring widespread public attention to the size and scope of the problem of Pentagon waste was Ernest Fitzgerald, an Air Force deputy for management systems. In the late 1960s, he battled that service to bring to light massive cost overruns on Lockheed's C-5A transport plane. He risked his job, and was ultimately fired, for uncovering $2 billion in excess expenditures on a plane that was supposed to make the rapid deployment of large quantities of military equipment to Vietnam and other distant conflicts a reality.

The cost increase on the C-5A was twice the price Lockheed had initially promised, and at the time one of the largest cost overruns ever exposed. It was also an episode of special interest then, because Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had been pledging to bring the efficient business methods he had learned as Ford Motors' president to bear on the Pentagon's budgeting process.

No such luck, as it turned out, but Fitzgerald's revelations did, at least, spark a decade of media and congressional scrutiny of the business practices of the weapons industry. The C-5A fiasco, combined with Lockheed's financial troubles with its L-1011 airliner project, led the company to approach Congress, hat in hand, for a $250 million government bailout. Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, who had helped bring attention to the C-5A overruns, vigorously opposed the measure, and came within one vote of defeating it in the Senate.

In a time-tested lobbying technique that has been used by weapons makers ever since, Lockheed claimed that denying it loan guarantees would cost 34,000 jobs in 35 states, while undermining the Pentagon's ability to prepare for the next war, whatever it might be. The tactic worked like a charm. Montana Senator Lee Metcalf, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the bailout, said, "I'm not going to be the one to put those thousands of people out of work." An analysis by the New York Times found that every senator with a Lockheed-related plant in his or her state voted for the deal.

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By rewarding Lockheed Martin for its wasteful practices, Congress set a precedent that has never been superseded. A present-day case in point is -- speak of the devil -- Lockheed Martin's F-35 combat aircraft. At $1.4 trillion in procurement and operating costs over its lifetime, it will be the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon (or anyone else on Planet Earth), and the warning signs are already in: tens of billions of dollars in projected cost overruns and myriad performance problems before the F-35 is even out of its testing phase. Now the Pentagon wants to rush the plane into production by making a "block buy" of more than 400 planes that will involve little or no accountability regarding the quality and cost of the final product.

Predictably, almost five decades after the C-5A contretemps, Lockheed Martin has deployed an inflationary version of the jobs argument in defense of the F-35, making the wildly exaggerated claim that the plane will produce 125,000 jobs in 46 states. The company has even created a handy interactive map to show how many jobs the program will allegedly create state by state. Never mind the fact that weapons spending is the least efficient way to create jobs, lagging far behind investment in housing, education, or infrastructure.

The Classic $640 Toilet Seat

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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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