BY KIRKPATRICK SALE
A few days ago, my partner, turning from something about Afghanistan on the television news, said to me, "It seems there's been a war going on as long as we've been alive."
And we're well into our 70s.
But think about it: she's almost right. This country has been at war, or at least has deployed troops, every year since 1940, when we were tots, except for occasional sporadic periods of quasi-peace amounting in all to about 18 years. Not our whole lives, but three-quarters of it.
Let's do a little of the history. In 1940 we deployed troops throughout the West Indies, to protect those countries and free British troops, and the next year we took over Greenland and Iceland militarily. The next five years saw world war, and after the war we had troops in Germany, Austria, Japan and South Korea, sent troops into Greece in 1947, and used the Air Force for the Berlin airlift in 1948-49. Then came the Korean War, Indochina and Vietnam until 1975. From 1960 on we sent troops to the Congo, Colombia (where they're still at war), the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, and we invaded Grenada in 1983.
After a lull of three years we bombed Libya in 1986, then launched a full-scale invasion of Panama in 1989. (I say "lull," but each year we still sent troops to military bases throughout the world, numbering about 750 posts by 2000, established six military commands on every continent but Antarctica, and continually built and deployed new armaments and munitions.) The Gulf War came the following year, then Somalia in 1992-94, Bosnia and Kosovo from 1992 to the end of the century. A short respite of two years and we invaded Afghanistan, where we've been fighting ever since, and then deployments to the Philippines and Somalia from 2002 on, capped by the Iraq War from 2003-2011.
Certainly feels like "every year." And what could be the point of all this warification? Certainly not defense, for we were attacked but once. All the rest of the time we either initiated action or fabricated an excuse for doing so. No, this all was in aid of what has been called "military Keynesianism," the idea that if you kept huge standing armies and had frequent wars the military-industrial complex would get constantly bigger and richer and there would be scant unemployment. (And states like South Carolina would grow and grow.)
Now, this has proven to be patently untrue, as our current immense military budget and immense national debt and unending high unemployment make abundantly clear. We spend now some $612 billion on "defense," more than all the rest of the nations combined (though this month Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he wants "only" $497 billion), and maintain a military of 2.2 million active troops that is continually being supplied with new weapons, many of which are not necessary and not even asked for.
A study by the Washington think-tank Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2007 found that our assumptions about defense spending are fundamentally wrong: "It is often believed that wars and military spending increases are good for the economy. In fact, most economic models show that military spending diverts resources from productive uses, such as consumption and investment, and ultimately slows economic growth and reduces employment."
I'm not sure that I would call consumption "productive," but in an economy traditionally dependent on consumption it has succeeded at least in putting money into circulation for the general benefit. And all the rest of the think-tank's analysis simply makes good common sense.
Not that such an argument will win over the political establishment. And don't think it has anything to do with the we-need-a-strong-defense and protect-American-lives blather the politicians give you. It has to do with the genius spending system Congress established during and after World War II, whereby military contractors establish factories in a wide variety of congressional districts, especially those of politicians on the armed-service and appropriations committees, get funds from the pork barrels these politicians maintain and in return become generous with campaign funds to them.
One example out of many. Northrup Grumman manufactures the Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned drone at $223 million apiece. The Pentagon has said for years that it doesn't want the plane. It's too expensive and accident prone. Dropping it would save $2.5 billion over five years. Northrup is based in Falls Church, Va., represented by Democrat Jim Moran, senior member of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, and the drone is built principally in Palmdale, Calif., represented by Republican Howard McKeon, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. But there's more: the plane has 3,480 employees in 22 states - and contracts with 303 suppliers in 36 states.
It will not surprise you that the Global Hawk continues to be made, funded generously by Congress every year, and there is no sign that it will cease production at least for a decade.
And so the economy grinds on, the military-industrial complex at the controls, and so we will continue to fight wars - Syria, Ukraine, Iran are all candidates - and maintain bases around the world. "War," as Randolph Bourne once put it, "is the health of the state."
Kirkpatrick Sale, who lives in Mount Pleasant, is the author of 12 books on history and politics and is director of the Middlebury Institute.