Friends of The Bridge, we are back to round out our series on American Exceptionalism and intervention with a third installment featuring the lifeblood of the American economy, the defense industry. We can find the bootprints of the U.S. Department of Defense, the largest organization in the world, in almost every sector of the economy: from local engine plants to the stock market, from the internet itself to tech research and development.
For its part, we can contribute much of our technological advances to massive research and development (R&D) programs subsidized by the pentagon's budget: radar, gps, logistic systems and mass-global communications. But what does it say about our society, that the primary justification for investing in R&D is if it will make us more effective killers or not?
Between research subsidies, massive manufacturing contracts, and private wartime contractors from soldiers to secretaries, profit incentivizes use of our military. And with a mismanagement of our dialogue, most of of the players have evaded culpability. We said last time that by almost all metrics, the War on Terror has been a colossal failure. That is, however, if the purpose of the war was to defend the nation and fight terrorism. However, if the purpose was to ensure a bloated military budget and success to the industry surrounding it, it has been a colossal success.
Framing the conversation solely in terms of defense and security limits our ability to discuss other concerns. Defense is the right of any nation, but understanding and discussing the total cost and consequences of this system is a citizenry's duty. It's a formidable task, but beginning a conversation that seeks to reverse this trend, right at a time when technology and economic doctrine ensure this industry remains alive, is the challenge our generation has inherited.
Ground Rule: if we are going to correct the mistakes made during the War On Terror, then we must discuss the role that economic incentives play in maintaining our current perpetual state of war.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
Eisenhower, Chance for Peace, 1953. Our last US president to have been a career military general.
When it comes to National Priorities, we hear lots of talk, but where are we walking? The way to judge a politician is not their speeches or their website, as Joe Biden said, “don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.”
Budgets are usually met with an understandable anxiety and boredom. Mix in congressional politics and the cocktail for an apathetic un-involved citizen is perfected. The problem is, those un-involved citizens are the ones at the bar, paying the tab.
The US budget is a bit out of control. About 7% of all US spending, both discretionary (think movable) and mandatory (think social security specific taxes), is set aside to pay interest on our debt. That’s $283 billion. Pundits come on TV every year and talk of wasteful spending, welfare abuse and where to trim the fat. But if we cut the Departments of Education, Housing, Energy, Environment, Science, and Transportation entirely, the savings is only $277 billion—less than the interest on our debt. Focusing on any of these programs to solve our debt ignores the big fat armored elephant in the room.
Military spending doubled from 1998 to 2011, as of two weeks ago, the senate approved over $700 billion for 2018. The new National Defense Authorization just passed the senate last week, 89 – 9, approving an extra $80 billion the administration didn't even ask for. Only 3 Republicans, 4 Dems and an Independent voted No. 41 blue guys, including Warren, Harris and Booker (our “progressive senators”), fell in toe. He must be doing one heck of a job to warrant such a bonus check.
Reducing the military budget is damn hard, and one reason for starters is we can’t even talk about it--not in any rational, civilized, way at least. “ISIS, Russia, Iran, N. Korea!... Support our troops!?” It’s like we have no other choice but to boost defense funding or die.
But budgets are a choice and if the progressives are going to start demanding more accountability for the American taxpayer, they need to start learning how to have the conversation. A tried and true place to start? The ever more powerful, the ever more demanding, D.C. ball ticklers, in the featureless, anemic, D.C. lobby. Lockheed Martin, though an independent corporation, is a staple of the defense industry that also has happened to donate money to 386 of 435 members of the 112th Congress. It’s almost shocking how small the largest committee on the hill is—House Armed Services Committee—with 30 Dems and 34 Republicans. Unlike some stalemates in congress, like the obviously trivial debates on education or healthcare, our country’s national security is not a partisan issue.
House Armed Services Campaign Contributions Examples:
Strangely enough, the talking heads that salivate at the thought of quoting a “founding father,” never seem to mention that in the wake of the revolution they refused to enlist a standing army because the general population viewed an army as a threat to democracy and freedom. In 1774, Josiah Quincy, Congressman (MA), called a standing army in a free nation a deformed monster. James Madison said “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.” As late as 1939, a North Dakota Republican Congressman, thought the ability to manufacture weapons should be restricted to the government, “The removal of the element of profit from war would materially remove the danger of more war.”
The argument over budget only ever gets as far as cutting waste, but our country doesn’t accumulate massive debt feeding the hungry or healing the sick, or educating their population. If done right, those actions would actually have their own returns. No, our country is bankrupting itself with war. The founders knew it in the 1700s, but pundits are still squabbling about it today. The conversation needs to change. We are having the conversation the industry would like us to have, you either “support our troops,” or you don’t. But we are ignoring, of course, the fact that nothing is that simple, and obviously not the budgetary decisions of the United States Government.
Jake Tonkel & Kabir Moss
“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition”
The United States spends more money on defense than any country in the world. Not only that, the United States spends more money on defense than the next eight countries combined (and six of those countries are close allies). More than a third of total global defense spending is U.S. defense spending. How necessary is this? Could we realistically cut back? What would we do with the savings?
First off, we do have to acknowledge the fact that, for most countries, lower defense spending relative to that of the United States is simply a function of U.S. defense spending. Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, India, France, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Italy, Australia, Brazil, the UAE, Israel, Canada, Spain, and Turkey all combine to have a population many times larger than the United States, but their combined defense spending is still roughly $100 billion lower than the United States. Being an ally of the United States provides enough security that insane defense budgets simply aren’t necessary.
Additionally, we must understand that research and development conducted by the military-industrial complex has not only created tools and technologies that make the U.S. military the greatest the world has ever seen, but also technology that we as citizens use every day. Nylon, the microwave oven, GPS, and the internet would not exist if it weren’t for military spending. Still, there are questions to be raised. The defense budget in 2007 was $430 billion ($520 billion in 2017 dollars). 2017 defense expenditures will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $611 billion. Is our security situation that much different today than it was in 2007? Is that much of an increase in spending justified? I don’t think so, and I think there is room for cuts to be made.
A good jumping off point for cutting military spending is deceptively simple: listen to the Pentagon. Despite continued legislative opposition, the military has made it clear that they would benefit greatly from a new round of base closures. Estimates put base capacity at 20% above what is necessary by 2019, and closing unnecessary bases would save billions of dollars. Another common request by the military brass is that Congress stop forcing them to spend money on weapons they neither want nor need. Congressional representatives in districts with defense contractors have a vested interest in making sure that those contractors stay in business. While this may be good for them in the short term, it appears bad for nearly everybody in the long term, as it threatens the military’s ability to allocate resources to where they are actually needed.
While listening to the Pentagon and making those cuts is a good start, the best cost-cutting measure that could be adopted is a slightly harder sell: don’t get involved in costly conflicts in the first place. The war in Iraq has cost well over $2 trillion, and that is only one of the many areas in which we are currently involved. One of the best ways to avoid war is to invest in diplomacy—a belief shared by the current Secretary of Defense.
A fully funded, fully staffed State Department could more effectively work within the diplomatic realm to stop wars before they start. No costs for putting boots on the ground, no lives lost, no veterans with both physical disabilities and severe mental conditions requiring years of care and expense that the system currently seems to be failing to handle (22 veterans commit suicide every day, a number unacceptable by any standard).
Trump’s budget proposal calls for a 33% reduction in State Department spending (in addition to massive cuts across the board) in order to offset a $54 billion increase in defense spending. Why would anybody seek more money for defense at the cost of actually preventing war? The programs and departments that Trump wants to cut are those which we need the most, and would benefit the most from increased funding offset by cutting defense spending. There are clear opportunities to cut back spending in order to move forward as a country.
I am first curious about your own service, why did you decide to serve, and what did military service mean for you, as you were on the front lines of the War on Terror?
Well, I don't know really why I chose to serve. I was always reading or watching some sort of military show or book. My parents were children of the 60's and living in Portland Oregon. We weren't a military family per se, yet I was drawn to service. I wanted to jump out of airplanes and be a strong heroic person like General Gavin of the WWII fame or Green Beret lurking the jungles of Vietnam.
I was artistic as a kid so I would spend hours drawing weapons, unit patches, and airborne wings. I was 10 or 11 years old when my parents took me to the Rose City parade and I was allowed to climb on a real tank and touch a real soldiers gear. I ran away that day and tried to join the Army. They said no, and I hid in a tank. My parents knew right then that I was going to be in the service.
I could tell you I joined the Army because I was patriotic and believed in serving my country. Which is true, but I joined for the adventure and the Hemingway-esque like sense of romance and sacrifice the service instilled in me.
I took the tests and I scored too high for anything other than intelligence or medical. I wanted to do grunt stuff and they wouldn't give me Infantry because my scores were too high. So, I asked which of these jobs will "get me in the shit," "Medic!" they said, "You're basically a grunt until someone gets hurt." So I took that and a paratrooper contract. That was 1995.
I had been to Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Tunisia, Congo, all before 9/11. I loved being in the Army. I loved being a medic, and I took my job seriously as a medic. I wanted to be the best in the Army at my job. So, I did the ultimate gut-check, I volunteered for Special Forces, and I made it through that experience and was selected to become a Green Beret, and my outlook and pride in service changed forever. I was on the business end of U.S. foreign policy I was considered one of the elite the U.S. Army could provide. And moreover I was apart of a Brotherhood that still to this day amazes me. I served with absolute heroes in the purest sense of the word, and they sit humbly knowing that you will never know the harrowing feats of utter courage many of my teammates have displayed. I started my service thinking about pride in America and the duty to serve this Nation, it ended with me understanding that it really is about your Brothers in Arms.
Today we are talking about the private economic incentives and profits motives that are fixed into our system of defense. It can be a polarizing topic, but what, in your opinion, is missing in the current conversation? Is there anything you wish would change in the general debate or the way the topic of defense/defense budget/defense contracting is discussed by the media?
Well this isn't my wheelhouse but lemme take a stab at this. As a Green Beret, you are taught to think asymmetrically. So you have a total defense spending budget of $610 billion dollars. We are in a constant state of war. Be it Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, East Africa. Missions need to be paid for, new equipment needs to replace old. But, are we winning, will spending more money on that problem fix that? Because it isn't a tactics issue, which leads me to believe large military contractors are demanding we stay for their bottom dollar. Okay so what about advanced equipment for our warfighters or replacement equipment? Okay, are we losing more than we have in the budget (I will tell you no, Period). Yet we continue to throw more money at that problem set. So much so, that it’s once again looking to be a profitable enterprise.
However, why can't we trim the budget off the top by $100 billion or so, and redistribute that into the U.S. education system, invest more into our future and its citizens than into a failing F-22 program? Or give it to the Special Forces and not only purchase weapons and equipment for lets say rebels, but build out villages and towns. Install updated infrastructure, schools, roads, commerce. They taught us to win the hearts and minds, and many of the teams did.
I mean 6 Green Beret teams working with the Northern Alliance and the Hamid Karzai rebellion took over Afghanistan in 8 weeks on horseback. Yet, somehow we are still there...?
The defense budget is full of greedy cost-plus war-profiteers of the military industrial complex that have been making copious amounts of money off government defense contracts and exclusive government subsidies. To them war is good, war is profitable. And every time a soldier dies they market that as well to the patriotic folks of the USA. Meanwhile the greedy lil war-profiteers smile and silently clap for another $16 thousand in their pockets to outfit another soldier. So, every time you see Budweiser commercials thanking service members, they are marketing for war profiteers. None of these large corporations truly care about the soldier, they care about profits. Same thing with the NFL.
Do you see useful applications for private security contractors or private industry driven by defense budgets, whether that’s technological research and development or manufacturing contracts? If so, in what capacity?
Defense contracting; Well since I myself and many of my friends 'contract' it’s hard to take too much of the negative out.
PMC's have been around for decades, but the early years of the Iraq war, Dick Cheney and his Halliburton made it mainstream. By his tutelage, the military began out-sourcing everything. And those contractors would be working right next to their military counter-part making double if not triple what a servicemember was. And he or she didn't have to be good at their jobs or be held accountable! Why be an Army cook for .25 cents an hour when you can be making almost $100 bucks an hour?
Now let's look at armed PMC's. So back in the early 2000's contracting was kind of a small time thing. But when the wars kicked off and the government began out-sourcing everything. Some guys found that they could sign on to a year contract, 90 days deployed 30 days paid vacation and make triple what they were making as a soldier in the U.S. military.
As Special Forces/Operations we had a unique skillset and honestly that attracted the contract companies. And attracted the operators as well. You mean I can make nearly $120k on one trip, tax free!? Sign me up! And the force began losing a lot of guys to PMC's. It was so bad that they changed our pay in the Green Berets and gave us a sprinkle of cash and called it "proficiency pay" which to me was designed to keep many of us in the Unit and not runnin' and gunnin' for $100k with PMC's. These guys are considered Professional Soldiers and all are loyal to the United States. But when someone tells you that your skill set can make you a lot of money. Some guys went over, and realized that all of these PMC's were still contracted by the US Government (USG).
PMC also = war profiteers, however, you are paying your guys well. So I guess that evens out. A lot of contractors have died servicing a contract purchased by the USG. But, you don't see them getting a beer commercial because they are now considered employees of a company the USG hired to do work somewhere that they didn't want or need to put US boots on the ground.
Back in the 40's, 50's, hell even into the 80's, the USG would go to universities and tech companies with defense budget money and say, "here's a grant, can you develop or improve X, Y, Z." And these institutions would take that money, fall under the top-secret protection of the USG and develop new technology or something. Well, I see that flipped now. I see the USG going to tech companies and asking if they will invest into the USG. SpaceX is a prime example. I think the USG has gotten into investing into tech companies and contracting out specific technological problem sets that they then can purchase that solution.
I am seeing a lot of USG investment into the tech side of the house. We are very much behind in defensive and offensive cyber operations and robotics. This goes back to investing in the US education system to create another generation of warfighters that cannot only fire a weapon but can also run code on a terminal.
With the general unpredictability of the Trump administration and its focus on military upgrades, is there anything you are especially focused on? Is there something that stands out to you that the general public might have a harder time following?
Donald Trump has convinced himself that we as a nation are weak, our military desperately weak and with out-dated equipment and no idea how to fight any war. He is playing pretend with his false narrative that we are still in the Cold War and the Soviets and/or VietCong are right at the doorstep. He has a staff surrounding him that continue to pour honey into his ears. He says what many in his base are thinking due to lack of education or just refusal of facts given due to personal bias.
He talks tough and thinks he's tougher. My biggest fear is that he will order military action and not feel one bit remorseful in the death he causes. I am afraid he will enjoy it. And his base will praise him for it. War and killing isn't glorious, especially if it's for nothing but to back up a tough guy.
We have one of the most powerful military the globe has ever seen. These upgrades are nothing but war-profiteering. Some may be useful and even groundbreaking . But his line of vitriol is wrong. We are not a Nation on the precipice of foreign invasion or losing a war due to out-dated equipment.
Legal Oversight Under Privatized Warfare
“Market forces are simply ineffective to provide a regulatory function and are completely incapable of providing accountability” Huma T. Yasin
Some of the most powerful images to come out of the War on Terror have been those from Abu Ghraib. Photographs showing torture against Iraqi prisoners featured dog leashes, sensory deprivation, electrical wires, human pyramids, naked and crawling detainees, and Americans smiling for selfies. Abu Ghraib shocked us to the core with the clear and visual violations of both how POWs should be treated from an ethical and moral standpoint, and also must be treated under the Universal Declarations of Human Rights.
That’s not who we are, that’s not American.
Perhaps the most important question to ask, and one that has not been properly addressed, is how this was allowed to happen under the constitutional framework of our democracy. Of course there are domestic and international rules that govern the way we are allowed to conduct war. We helped write them, after all, in the aftermath of WWII and at the beginning of our true hegemony. We institutionalized the way we treat our prisoners of war, and a strict checks and balance system to make sure this is applied. However, we have a problem with private (i.e. non state) military and security companies which have almost certainly defined the way the War on Terror (in all of its fronts) has been fought.
Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) and the for-profit military industrial complex does not just place incredible monetary incentives to perpetuate war (which in-of-itself is reason enough to want to rethink this practice), but it also weakens judicial and legal oversight over military conduct. Contracted military organizations have a different relationship with our American democracy, fogging domestic and international legal jurisdiction, and often undermining the social accountability of U.S. military action.
Privatizing security and military has been a tool widely used under the War on Terror which has led to extrajudicial killings, torture, detention, rendition, interrogation, sexual assault, and many more well-documented practices.
“The gap in liability for the post-9/11 counter-terrorism abuses is actually pretty alarming and pretty broad," Stephen I. Vladeck
At the Abu Ghraib prison, two contracted military companies were hired by the US military: Engility Corporation (formerly L-3 Services and Titan Corporation) and CACI International, Inc. CACI was hired specifically for the task of interrogation services. Publicly available information reveals that employees from both corporations were part of the conspiracy to torture Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib and other prisons yet no employee of either company has been convicted of any offense. US judges across the board have been reluctant to pursue cases against military contractors. In the case of Abu Ghraib torture (which reflects just a tip of the iceberg), only eleven low-level US military personnel (i.e. not the contacting companies) were found guilty of any crime. The only legal consequence given to a contractor was a monetary settlement in which L-3 Services Inc. had to pay a penalty of $5.3 million. No criminal charges were ever made and all parties involved continued to receive government contracts. This is not the exception, this is the rule. The only exception we have, is for all it’s troublesome shortcomings when it comes to holding itself and its personnel accountable, the only soldiers brought to trial were U.S. soldiers, not private contracted soldiers. Accountability matters.
There is bipartisan support for eliminating defense and security contracts. The Right argues that PMSCs make fighting riskier for US soldiers and the Left is not in favor of a system which creates monetary incentives for warfare. In 2010, Rep Schakowsky introduced the Stop Outsourcing Security Act to congress, which later died in committees, but was meant to phase out the over 1,000 contacted companies used by the government (Sanders introduced a companion measure in the Senate).
The War on Terror has been the war of privatization. Contracts are continually renewed and we find ourselves today in a 16 year war with no end it sight. We all want to see an end to the fighting, an end of lives being risked and lost. If we stop renewing the contracts, create some new laws, hold some of these firms to the same standards we hold our service men and women, then maybe we might find an end to the war in sight.