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The Military: A Political Machine

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Message Douglas C. Smyth
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Think about this: Bush's military budget is as much as one of the years when we were fighting World War II. Then we had navies in every sea, and we were fighting on land in Western Europe, North Africa, Asia and the Pacific. In 2008 we have two occupations, not wars, in two small to medium nations in the same region. That money isn't going to fighting war; it's going to maintain the most successful political machine the world has ever seen.


One of the lessons I learned in Sociology was that if you want to "reform" a society, you should first find out what sustains the institutions you want to replace. The classic example is the urban political machines of the late 19th century. Boss Tweed was overthrown in the early 20th century by reformers, but the Daley machine in Chicago was revived, after the Harold Washington interregnum, and, while modified, perhaps reformed, it continues into the 21st.  The persistence of machine politics (it continues in New York in other forms) points to a truism: institutions survive because they meet people's needs.


In the case of political machines, I discovered with my dissertation research in India, that they provide predictability, and well-defined avenues of mobility. In the
American case, political machines were instruments of integration and Americanization, and still are today. Immigrants and new arrivals are taken care of so that they can become faithful voting members of the machine, even if that has to wait until they gain citizenship. Do away with the machine and you need to find some other way to fulfill these same functions, or you'll end up with a revived political machine.


The Defense establishment has systematically established itself as something similar to the old political machine, but on a national scale. When I went to Basic Training (in 1961), my platoon sergeant was a black Jehovah's Witness, who never swore. He'd shout in his most derogatory tone, "Jesus loves you!" Even before the blooming of the 60's civil rights movement, the army was remarkably integrated; it is much more so today.


Are there other institutions in the US that provide the kind of upward mobility and open opportunities which recruits from all backgrounds face upon entry? I doubt it. Does the military have incredible staying power in a society in which military service is shunned by most people who have any other opportunities? Obviously, since it has a budget of over half a trillion dollars, it thrives.


Back in the early 90's, people spoke of a "peace dividend." What happened to it? Why is the current military budget now larger, even after inflation is accounted for, than the military budget during World War II, when the nation was arguably fighting for national and international survival?


Oh, the War on Terror (waronterra), and Iraq and Afghanistan.


But then, all that money isn't really going to our defense. It's going to maintain a huge defense establishment, which includes all the defense contractors and their political parasites as well as the increasingly technologically dependent and complex military, and lastly, "the troops," we are supposed to be supporting. They do have to be paid decently, after all. They have better health care than civilians--unless they have the misfortune to have some grave wartime injury or illness. Then they're cast out onto the street, almost literally. Notice also that all that money spent on fancy hardware didn't include money for body-armor. This defense establishment supports the troops a lot less than people who are against the war and want to get them home.


The money isn't going to the waronterra, either. The amounts the US spends on real counter-terrorism is only impressive until you compare it to the amounts the US spends on the conventional military--which is not doing much in the waronterra, except for stoking unrest in far parts like Iraq, Afghanistan, and environs. It's that unrest, destruction, abuse and chaos, made possible by our courageous troops (many are) that keeps the recruiters for extremists very happy.


Our current wars were wars of choice. That's why Bush had to lie about the reasons for them--and then keep on trying to find some other more plausible one when each reason was disproven. But actually, these wars are caused by the very existence of such a powerful military. You don't start wars unless you think you will win. If you are President and you have under your control the most powerful military in the world, more powerful than any combination of other nations, well then it's easier to start a war. What else can you do with this huge establishment; it was created to fight wars?


Yet, you can't do away with it. Think of all the people in the military, and in the defense industries. Think of all the money at stake. That's why the "peace dividend" never materialized.


What the US needs is an alternative to the military, something like the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) of the New Deal; Democrats and Republicans could divert a majority of the defense money there, and actually rebuild the country; it needs it, but it would have to offer the same kind of mobility and access for minorities that the Armed Forces do now, and enough of the business opportunities, as well, or even public-private partnerships. What about a CCC to defend the nation against global warming and to rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure? With subcontracts to Halliburton and Lockheed Martin.

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I am a writer and retired college teacher. I taught college courses in Economics and Political Science (I've a Ph.D) and I've written as a free-lancer for various publications.

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