“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”—James Madison
“When a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, social programs must inevitably suffer. We can talk about guns and butter all we want to, but when the guns are there with all of its emphasis you don’t even get good oleo. These are facts of life.”— Martin Luther King Jr.
If there is any absolute maxim by which the federal government seems to operate, it is that the American taxpayer always gets ripped off, and Americans would do well to keep that in mind as Congress and the White House debate whether or not to raise the debt ceiling from its current high of $14.3 trillion. For one thing, the grandstanding by both parties over health care costs and Social Security is nothing more than a convenient distraction from the glaring economic truth that at the end of the day, it’s not the sick, the elderly or the poor who are stealing us blind and pushing America towards bankruptcy. It’s the military industrial complex (the illicit merger of the armaments industry and the Pentagon) that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us against more than 50 years ago and which has come to represent perhaps the greatest threat to the nation’s fragile infrastructure today.
Having been co-opted by greedy defense contractors, corrupt politicians and incompetent government officials, America’s expanding military empire is bleeding the country dry at a rate of more than $15 billion a month (or $20 million an hour)—and that’s just what the government spends on foreign wars. That does not include the cost of maintaining and staffing the 1000-plus U.S. military bases spread around the globe. Incredibly, although the U.S. constitutes only 5% of the world’s population, America boasts almost 50% of the world’s total military expenditure, spending more on the military than the next 19 biggest spending nations combined. In fact, the Pentagon spends more on war than all 50 states combined spend on health, education, welfare, and safety.
War is not cheap. Although the federal government obscures so much about its defense spending that accurate figures are difficult to procure, we do know that since 2001, the U.S. government has spent more than $1.2 trillion in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq . That number, however, is probably closer to $2.7 trillion when you add in the war in Pakistan and other hidden costs, and will likely climb to $4.4 trillion before it’s all over. Additionally, the American military industrial complex is spending roughly $4 million per day on the unconstitutional war in Libya .
Yet what most Americans fail to recognize is that these ongoing wars have little to do with keeping the country safe and everything to do with enriching the military industrial complex at taxpayer expense. Just consider the fact that the annual cost to support one U.S. servicemember in Afghanistan alone is over $1 million, with fuel costs making up the bulk of the expenses. Of course, one of the reasons for the high cost of maintaining each soldier can be attributed to the lack of governmental oversight of private contractor billings, which are rampant with fraud, waste and fat.
War—or the art of killing—has unfortunately become a huge money-making venture, and America , with its vast military empire, is one of its best buyers and sellers. Not only does the U.S. have the largest defense budget, it also ranks highest as the world’s largest arms exporter. According to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks military expenditures worldwide, the arms industry is thriving despite the ongoing global economic recession. In fact, 45 of the top 100 of the world’s largest arms-producing companies are based in the U.S. These U.S. corporations generated just under $247 billion in 2009, which constituted 61% of total arms sales internationally.
The American military-industrial complex has erected an empire unsurpassed in history in its breadth and scope, one dedicated to conducting perpetual warfare throughout the earth. For example, while erecting a security surveillance state in the U.S. , the military-industrial complex has perpetuated a worldwide military empire with American troops stationed in 177 countries (over 70% of the countries worldwide).
In the process, billions have been spent erecting luxury military installations throughout the world. For example, the U.S. Embassy built in Iraq , dubbed “Fortress Baghdad,” covers 104 acres and boasts a “city within a city” that includes six apartment buildings, a Marine barracks, swimming pool, shops and 15-foot-thick walls. Camp Anaconda in Iraq , like many U.S. military bases scattered across the globe, was structured to resemble a mini-city with pools, fast food restaurants, miniature golf courses and movie theaters. In economic terms, the money invested in building these bases amounts to what American University professor Gordon Adams describes as “sunk” costs. “We’re seeing this in Iraq ,” said Adams . “We’re turning over to the Iraqis — mostly either for a small penny or for free — the infrastructure that we built in Iraq . But we won’t see back any money from that infrastructure.”
Unfortunately, Americans have been inculcated with a false, misplaced sense of patriotism about the military that equates devotion to one’s country with supporting the war machine so that any mention of cutting back on the massive defense budget is immediately met with outrage. Yet they might be surprised to learn that little of the money being spent on so-called defense is actually being used for national defense. According to the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget, the FY2012 budget approved by the House of Representatives allocates 87 percent of security money for “offense” (military forces), only 7 percent for “defense” (homeland security), and only 6 percent for “prevention” (all non-military tools, such as diplomacy, foreign aid, and non-proliferation).
Sadly, those in uniform are being used as convenient fronts for a military industrial complex that is bilking taxpayers out of billions of dollars in questionable defense spending. There’s a good reason why “bloated,” “corrupt” and “inefficient” are among the words most commonly applied to the government, especially the Department of Defense and its contractors. For instance, a study by the Government Accountability Office found that $70 billion worth of cost overruns by the Pentagon were caused by management failures. To put that in perspective, that equates to one and a half times the State Department’s entire $47 billion annual budget.
Fraud is rampant. A government audit, for example, found that defense contractor Boeing has been massively overcharging taxpayers for mundane parts, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in overspending. As the report noted, the American taxpayer paid:
$71 for a metal pin that should cost just 4 cents; $644.75 for a small gear smaller than a dime that sells for $12.51: more than a 5,100 percent increase in price. $1,678.61 for another tiny part, also smaller than a dime, that could have been bought within DoD for $7.71: a 21,000 percent increase. $71.01 for a straight, thin metal pin that DoD had on hand, unused by the tens of thousands, for 4 cents: an increase of over 177,000 percent.
Of course, this kind of rampant abuse is ludicrous, and never more so than at a time when unemployment is topping 9.2%. When most Americans can scarcely afford the cost of cooling their own homes, taxpayers should be up in arms over having to pay through the nose to the tune of $20 billion—more than NASA’s entire annual budget—to air condition the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan . “In essence, what we’re doing is we’re air conditioning the desert over there in Afghanistan , Iraq , and other places,” noted retired brigadier general Steven Anderson, a former chief logistician for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq . And if you think gas prices at home are high, just consider what the American taxpayer is being forced to shell out overseas: once all the expenses of delivering gas to troops in the field are factored in, we’re paying between $18-30 per gallon for gas in Iraq and Afghanistan . Incredibly, despite reports of corruption, abuse and waste, the mega-corporations behind much of this ineptitude and corruption continue to be awarded military contracts worth billions of dollars.
The rationale may keep changing for why American military forces are in Afghanistan , Iraq and Pakistan , but the one that remains constant is that those who run the government are feeding the appetite of the military industrial complex. And what began in 2001 as part of an alleged effort to root out al Qaeda has turned into a goldmine for the military industrial complex. Even the lip service that is paid to drawing down the troops doesn’t amount to much of a savings in the end when you factor in the cost of replacing those troops with civilian contractors. For example, while the Obama administration was touting the withdrawal of troops from Iraq earlier this year, plans were being made to triple the size of the private security contractors and support staff to between 7,000 and 8,000.
Just consider: the Pentagon in 2008 spent more money every five seconds in Iraq than the average American earned in a year. And yet Congress and the White House want taxpayers to accept that the only way to reduce the nation’s ballooning deficit and avoid raising the debt ceiling is by cutting “entitlement” programs such as Social Security and Medicare. As Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, under a military empire, war and its profiteering will always take precedence over the people’s basic human needs.
Incredibly, if the government would just take the amount spent on the war in Afghanistan this year alone ($122 billion in FY2011) and reallocate it where it’s needed here at home, it would entirely wipe out the projected budget shortfalls for fiscal year 2012 for 41 states and the District of Columbia , totaling $103 billion. Or to put it another way: in roughly 80% of the states projecting deficits this year, if the money spent by each state on the war were used for domestic purposes, it would wipe out that state’s shortfall.
Simply put, we cannot afford to maintain our over-extended military empire. As a senior administration official involved in Afghanistan remarked to the Washington Post: “Money is the new 800-pound gorilla. It shifts the debate from ‘Is the strategy working?’ to ‘Can we afford this?’ And when you view it that way, the scope of the mission that we have now is far, far less defensible.” Or as one commentator noted, “Foreclosing the future of our country should not be confused with defending it.”
Finally, and inevitably, military empires collapse. The war bell is tolling, and it tolls for us. As Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome ?and editor-at-large of Vanity Fair writes:
A millennium hence America will be hard to recognize. It may not exist as a nation-state in the form it does now—or even exist at all. Will the transitions ahead be gradual and peaceful or abrupt and catastrophic? Will our descendants be living productive lives in a society better than the one we inhabit now? Whatever happens, will valuable aspects of America ’s legacy weave through the fabric of civilizations to come? Will historians someday have reason to ask, Did America really fall?
The problem we wrestle with is none other than a distorted American empire, complete with mega-corporations, security-industrial complexes and a burgeoning military. And it has its sights set on absolute domination. Yet at the height of its power, even the mighty Roman Empire could not stare down a collapsing economy and a burgeoning military. Prolonged periods of war and false economic prosperity largely led to its demise, and it is feared that America , by repeating Rome ’s mistakes, is headed toward a similar collapse. As historian Chalmers Johnson predicts, “the United States will within a very short time face financial or even political collapse at home and a significantly diminished ability to project force abroad.”
Moreover, the so-called American empire faces a violent contradiction between its long republican tradition and its more recent imperial ambitions. As Chalmers Johnson writes:
The fate of previous democratic empires suggests that such a conflict is unsustainable and will be resolved in one of two ways. Rome attempted to keep its empire and lost its democracy. Britain chose to remain democratic and in the process let go its empire. Intentionally or not, the people of the United States already are well embarked upon the course of non-democratic empire.
I would suggest that what we have is a confluence of factors and influences that go beyond mere comparisons to Rome . It is a union of Orwell’s 1984 with its shadowy, totalitarian government—i.e., fascism, the union of government and corporate powers—and a total surveillance state with a military empire extended throughout the world. And as we have seen with the militarizing of the police, the growth of and reliance on militarism as the solution for our problems both domestically and abroad affects the basic principles upon which American society should operate. The military does not view the Constitution in the same way as someone engaged in ensuring that the Bill of Rights and its freedoms are kept intact. Those in the military are primarily trained to conduct warfare, not preserve the peace. We must keep in mind that a military empire will be ruled not by lofty ideals of equality and justice but by the power of the sword.
Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.
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