The Sacred Cow in the combat helmet

Why not cut defense?

No, seriously. That is the one thing I have not heard anyone discuss.

The GOP took the nation to shutdown last week demanding cuts in the budget, they’re doing so again with the debt ceiling. Spending, they insist, must be cut!

Rep. Paul Ryan claims to want to cut $4 trillion over 10 years ($400 billion a year) for the same reason.

But nobody talks about cutting defense spending.

More disturbingly, during this last crisis, there was even talk of passing special legislation to make sure the troops got paid even if the government shut down. More on this in a minute.

Our national defense budget is more than $700 billion a year. We have more than 700 bases and military installations overseas and hundreds more in this country, and we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined. We do all this because we are the world’s one remaining superpower, I suppose, but that is a very expensive place to be, especially when you consider that, as the GOP is fond of telling us every time they slash funding for abortions or PBS, we are broke.

Then they cut taxes, again. Mr. Ryan’s budget actually adds to the deficit because he would continue the Bush tax cuts on the rich even as he cuts Medicare because we’re broke – so much for making “tough” choices.

But nobody talks about defense.

Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, is speaking at Weber State University on Wednesday, and I’d love to ask him why the three columns he’s written on Ryan’s budget proposal have given scant attention to defense.

If he’d read his own paper, he’d discover that there are gobs of things in defense to cut. An excellent op-chart recently detailed them (click) everything from multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers of dubious utility (a former head of the navy’s submarine service kept a scrap book of pictures from war games of nuclear aircraft carriers all framed in his periscope’s targeting scope) to the F-35 (useless against guerilla terrorists) and on and on.

Why are we not talking about this?

Here’s a hint — and it’s not just because defense corporations make darn sure they put a factory of some sort in every legislative district to lock in votes.

I think Congress is afraid. I think the military in this country may be the ultimate “too big to fail” enterprise, and I don’t mean on the field of combat. I mean in the corporate boardroom.

We got a hint of this, as I said, during the shutdown scare last week. There were serveral proposals, and at least one bill approved by the House, to exempt the military from having its pay held up because of the shutdown. There’s a facebook page (click) advocating this, and even saying that it should be made permanent.

This has an appeal, on a surface level, but consider the implications: You are saying the military is so special that it will, in the future, be exempt from Congressional oversight of the soldiers. Yes, yes, our soldiers are special, but why make the jobs of those in Congress easier? Shouldn’t politicians do their jobs out of concern for the troops?

Yes they should, and the specter of not paying the troops ought to be a huge motivator. But if we we pay the troops permanently, without future votes, the fear goes away.

This would make the politicians even more dangerous than they already are. Take that motivation away to do their jobs and you have (a) unmotivated politicians who will be even worse about passing a budget and (b) military types who think they’re exempt from congressional control.

It’s only a small step from exempting soldiers’ pay to exempting the military as a whole, too — how can the soldier function without his supply system? Next thing you know, the procurement systems for the military are exempt, and suddenly corporate america’s many defense contractors have an even more solid line into your tax dollars than they already have now.

This would eventually make the military an independent arm of government, possibly even exempt from civilian control because, really, what control do you have if you don’t control the  money? Not a lot.

And it’s not a far leap from that to the military running the government. Don’t think so? Several people, on facebook, put up posts from military types showing a tank and saying “these politicians need to be reminded of what we’re trained to do.”

All this comes about because we insist on having such a huge military because we’d rather the world simply fear us than respect us and live with us as equals. Spreading fear of foreign military power — the Chinese have an aircraft carrier! — has been the chief lubricant on the spigot of funds to American defense industries for decades.

This money has built up such a huge military establishment that Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” almost sounds quaint by comparison. At least, then, there was at least talk of controlling spending on military stuff.  As I said, now there’s not even talk.

So we spend $135 billion over 50 years for an anti-missile system that still doesn’t work (and $40 billion more in the next 3 years) but cut spending on medical care for old people because, good Lord, just look at that deficit!

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13 Responses to The Sacred Cow in the combat helmet

  1. Bill says:

    Then again. that new USNavy laser gun is pretty cool.
    hmm… tough call.

  2. I used to think this country was just a big bully (and it is, mostly) and that these wars were about oil (well there’s that) … but I have a theory that we keep finding wars because the military IS the largest employer in the nation. Imagine what the unemployment rate would look like if we added hundreds of thousands of people to the pool of out of work Americans.

    Really I think if that happened, this nation would become so demoralized, hungry, homeless, and desperate, that riots and civil unrest would be a serious probability. Our real enemy is our own terrible economy, aided by those who give tax breaks to the very rich, and let corps like GE profit from sending jobs overseas and slither out of paying taxes at all.

    So politicians have to keep pretending we’re at war with Eastasia (or is it Eurasia?). Our economy would collapse without these wars. Eventually it’s all going to have to end and it’s going to be ugly when it does.

  3. ctrentelman says:

    i think it’s eastasia this month. Hard to keep them straight.

    Sadly, the military is one of the few big companies around right now that is hiring — I’ve got a couple of my kids — young people i know — who are going that way because they have to feed their families. Very sad.

    • hawg says:

      boy you know the country is going down the toilet when military service is considered “very sad”.

      • ctrentelman says:

        military service isn’t sad, hawg — the fact that the military is the ONLY alternative for so many is what’s sad.

        A thriving economy would have other opportunities besides joining the military, not to mention that a country not fighting three wars that it is not taxing its citizens to pay for would not need to have its military hiring so many. THAT is what is sad.

        As to whether the military, in and of itself is grand and glorious, I refer you to Mark Twain’s “War Prayer.”

        • Michael Trujillo says:


          There is no higher calling than serving one’s country in the Armed Forces. It’s too bad that it takes economic hard times for many people to realize that. I would be in favor of mandatory military service for every U.S. Citizen.

          • ctrentelman says:

            there’s no higher calling than serving one’s country, but I question whether the military is the best place to do it. School teachers, for example?

            But mandatory service? Sure, as long as there’s a civilian option — having to spend a year working as a free medical tech, or building up a community, or educating children, or providing meals to the aged, would be a lot more valuable than training to use a machine gun from the door of a helicopter.

            Germany has that option in its mandatory service laws. I have a cousin who drove an ambulance in Berlin for a year.

          • Agree with CT. Mandatory national service is fine but for actual military service, there would have to be an allowance for conscientious objectors.

            I believe there already is, but I would not like to test whether ethical veganism would qualify, in today’s political climate. Plus, some vegans are far from non-violent, others of us are true pacifists.

          • Michael Trujillo says:

            Charles and CB,
            Though some alternatives to Military Service could be allowed, I would be leery of making too many options available. Two of the main points why I believe in mandatory Military service are, 1) to give everyone a stake in decisions to use our Military Forces, and 2) to ensure that the Armed Forces are not just filled with certain classes of people.

            The number of U.S. Legislators with children or family members in the Armed Forces is pathetically low. We haven’t had a President with a son or daughter in the forces since Eisenhower (who was also the son-in-law of Nixon). It’s easy to vote to send forces to intervene in another country when you have no kin affected by the decision.

            And then, too, maybe Bankers and Hedge Fund whose-its would be a little less likely to screw over the working class if they’d actually rubbed elbows with them on guard duty in Guam.

  4. Howard Ratcliffe says:

    The debt ceiling will be raised or not, by Foreign creditors not our Government. Kennedy paid the debt through the issuance of Treasury Certificates instead of Federal Reserve Notes; he was assasinated. Reagan began unrestrained borrowing raising the debt from $700B to 2.4T with presidents since then in tow. Interest on $14.3T Debt with $1.7T in deficit spending exceeds US GDP; like Dutch Boy (Dutch East India Corp are the Creditors) plugging the dike it’s only a matter of time before the world adjusts our currency to the value of Wall Paper.
    Jesus said we should store our wealth in Heaven not in Gold or Silver which is canker worn and moth eaten.
    Rothschild put his 5 sons at the treasuries of 5 European Nations after Napoleon and Wellington gave him a “Fire Sale” in 1815. He said “Permit me to issue a nation’s money and I care not who makes its laws” Rothschilds do that not our Government.

  5. Mikeasell says:

    We are no longer in in an era where we need to spend such a disproportionate amount of the budget on the military. However, there is A LOT of money to be made and this topic can always be diluted down to the bumper sticker politics of “defend the nation at any cost, freedom isn’t free, we support our troops, etc”.
    Clearly we are misusing our military resources, getting involved in mind boggling conflicts with no upside or end date for us. We need to be smart about our military and realize that we can no longer be the world’s police force.
    We have all heard of the $900 toilets…but it goes deeper than that, we cannot afford our military at this rate. Each of our soldiers costs us one million dollars a year to maintain overseas, one million. I am willing to pay that price, IF we have to. The problem is that we CHOOSE to.

  6. Bob Becker says:

    The army has been the employer of last resort throughout much of American history, which is why its ranks have often been filled disproportionately with the poor in general and the immigrant poor in particular, often those with only a few month’s grasp of English who couldn’t find other work. When there was nothing else, enlisting provided three squares, a roof over your head [most nights], and at least some pay. Many of the men who died with Custer were barely off the boat and barely spoke English at all. So that’s nothing new, however sad it is that people are finding they have no choice but to enlist, or re-up when they don’t want to, in order to support themselves or their families. I know one guy who served in Iraq, mustered out, spent eight months trying to find work, and the re-uped because he couldn’t. Lot of that going on I suspect.

    However, on paying the troops [and so their families] when the Republicans next play chicken with the economy and the working families of the US, we disagree Mr. T. If we send soldiers, sailors, airmen, overseas in our name [however unwisely], we owe it to them, and their families to keep their pay coming even if the Speaker of the House’s Tea Party extremists are threatening to hold their breath until they turn blue. Stopping payments on military development contracts, etc. OK. But troops in the field? No.

    I get your point, and it’s far from a trivial one, but I couldn’t go so far as to make troops in the field and the families that depend on them pay the price of Republican Congressional irresponsibility, even though most of the rest of us, directly or indirectly, will have to.

  7. Mark Sparkman says:

    Charlie, you’re right on with this one. Happily, I understand the President’s budget proposal includes defense cuts, as well as returning tax rates on the wealthy to pre-Bush levels. Which brings the point up again: we must be willing to raise taxes as well as make cuts. Nobody wants higher taxes, but completely gutting the many programs that extremists would place on the chopping block would be even more appalling. Certainly, with Obama in office and the Senate in Democratic hands, the politcal obstacles will not be overcome, and I doubt that even Republican control of the Senate would be filibuster-proof. The middle road, compromise, is the only viable course I can see.

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