Military William Astore

It’s Time to Make Deep Cuts at the Pentagon

Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and historian William Astore considers a military in which the losses are all on the battlefield and the gains in Congress as well as in the military-industrial complex.
[Thomas Hawk / CC BY-NC 2.0]

By William Astore | TomDispatch

Where are you going to get the money?  That question haunts congressional proposals to help the poor, the unhoused, and those struggling to pay the mortgage or rent or medical bills, among so many other critical domestic matters.  And yet — big surprise! — there’s always plenty of money for the Pentagon. In fiscal year 2022, in fact, Congress is being especially generous with $778 billion in funding, roughly $25 billion more than the Biden administration initially asked for.  Even that staggering sum seriously undercounts government funding for America’s vast national security state, which, since it gobbles up more than half of federal discretionary spending, is truly this country’s primary, if unofficial, fourth branch of government.

Final approval of the latest military budget, formally known as the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, may slip into January as Congress wrangles over various side issues. Unlike so much crucial funding for the direct care of Americans, however, don’t for a second imagine it won’t pass with supermajorities. (Yes, the government could indeed be shut down one of these days, but not — never! — the U.S. military.)

Some favorites of mine among “defense” budget side issues now being wrangled over include whether military members should be able to refuse Covid-19 vaccines without being punished, whether young women should be required to register for the selective service system when they turn 18 (even though this country hasn’t had a draft in almost half a century and isn’t likely to have one in the foreseeable future), or whether the Iraq War AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), passed by Congress to disastrous effect in 2002, should be repealed after nearly two decades of calamity and futility. 

As debates over these and similar issues, predictably partisan, grab headlines, the biggest issue of all eludes serious coverage: Why, despite decades of disastrous wars, do Pentagon budgets continue to grow, year after year, like ever-expanding nuclear mushroom clouds? In other words, as voices are raised and arms waved in Congress about vaccine tyranny or a hypothetical future draft of your 18-year-old daughter, truly critical issues involving your money (hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of taxpayer dollars) go largely uncovered. 

What are some of those issues that we should be, but aren’t, looking at?  I’m so glad you asked!

Seven Questions with “Throw-Weight”

Back in my Air Force days, while working in Cheyenne Mountain (the ultimate bomb shelter of the Cold War era), we talked about nuclear missiles in terms of their “throw-weight.”  The bigger their throw-weight, the bigger the warhead.  In that spirit, I’d like to lob seven throw-weighty questions — some with multiple “warheads” — in the general direction of the Pentagon budget. It’s an exercise worth doing largely because, despite its sheer size, that budget generally seems impervious to serious oversight, no less real questions of any sort.

So, here goes and hold on tight (or, in the nuclear spirit, duck and cover!):

1. Why, with the end of the Afghan War, is the Pentagon budget still mushrooming upward?  Even as the U.S. war effort there festered and then collapsed in defeat, the Pentagon, by its own calculation, was burning through almost $4 billion a month or $45 billon a year in that conflict and, according to the Costs of War Project, $2.313 trillion since it began.  Now that the madness and the lying are finally over (at least theoretically speaking), after two decades of fraud, waste, and abuses of every sort, shouldn’t the Pentagon budget for 2022 decrease by at least $45 billion?  Again, America lost, but shouldn’t we taxpayers now be saving a minimum of $4 billion a month?

2. After a disastrous war on terror costing upward of $8 trillion, isn’t it finally time to begin to downsize America’s global imperial presence?  Honestly, for its “defense,” does the U.S. military need 750 overseas bases in 80 countries on every continent but Antarctica, maintained at a cost somewhere north of $100 billion annually?  Why, for example, is that military expanding its bases on the Pacific island of Guam at the expense of the environment and despite the protests of many of the indigenous people there?  One word: China!  Isn’t it amazing how the ever-inflating threat of China empowers a Pentagon whose insatiable budgetary demands might be in some trouble without a self-defined “near-peer” adversary?  It’s almost as if, in some twisted sense, the Pentagon budget itself were now being “Made in China.”

3. Speaking of China and its alleged pursuit of more nuclear weaponry, why is the U.S. military still angling for $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years for its own set of “modernized” nuclear weapons? After all, the Navy’s current strategic force, as represented above all by Ohio-class submarines with Trident missiles, is (and will for the foreseeable future be) capable of destroying the world as we know it. A “general” nuclear exchange would end the lives of most of humanity, given the dire impact the ensuing nuclear winter would have on food production.  What’s the point of Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill, if America’s leaders are preparing to destroy it all with a new generation of holocaust-producing nuclear bombs and missiles?

4. Why is America’s military, allegedly funded for “defense,” configured instead for force projection and global strikes of every sort?  Think of the Navy, built around aircraft carrier strike groups, now taking the fight to the “enemy” in the South China Sea.  Think of Air Force B-52 strategic bombers, still flying provocatively near the borders of Russia, as if the movie Dr. Strangelove had been released not in 1964 but yesterday.  Why, in sum, does the U.S. military refuse to stay home and protect Fortress America?  An old sports cliché, “the best defense is a good offense,” seems to capture the bankruptcy of what passes, even after decades of lost wars in distant lands, for American strategic thinking.  It may make sense on a football field, but, judging by those wars, it’s been a staggering loss leader for our military, not to mention the foreign peoples on the receiving end of lethal weapons very much “Made in the USA.”

Instead of reveling in shock and awe, this country should find the wars of choice it’s fought since 1945 genuinely shocking and awful — and act to end them for good and defund any future versions of them.

5. Speaking of global strikes with awful repercussions, why is the Pentagon working so hard to encircle China, while ratcheting up tensions that can only contribute to nuclear brinksmanship and even possibly a new world war as early as 2027?  Related question: Why does the Pentagon continue to claim that, in its “wargames” with China over a prospective future battle for the island of Taiwan, it always loses?  Is it because “losing” is really winning, since that very possibility can then be cited to justify yet more requests for funds from Congress so that this country can “catch up” to the latest Red Menace? 

(Bonus question: As America’s generals keep losing real wars as well as imaginary ones, why aren’t any of them ever fired?)

6. Speaking of global aggression, why does this country maintain a vast, costly military within the military that’s run by Special Operations Command and operationally geared to facilitating interventions anywhere and everywhere?  (Note that this country’s special ops forces are bigger than the full-scale militaries of many countries on this planet!)  When you look back over the last several decades, Special Operations forces haven’t proven to be all that special, have they? And it doesn’t matter whether you’re citing the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.  Put differently, for every SEAL Team 6 mission that kills a big bad guy, there are a surprising number of small-scale catastrophes that only alienate other peoples, thereby generating blowback (and so, of course, further funding of the military).

7. Finally, why, oh why, after decades of military losses, does Congress still defer so spinelessly to the “experience” of our generals and admirals?  Why issue so many essentially blank checks to the gang that simply can’t shoot straight, whether in battle or when they testify before Congressional committees, as well as to the giant companies (and congressional lobbying monsters) that make the very weaponry that can’t shoot straight?

It’s a compliment in the military to be called a straight shooter. I suggest President Biden start firing a host of generals until he finds a few who are willing to do exactly that and tell him and the rest of us some hard truths, especially about malfunctioning weapons and lost wars.

Forty years ago, after Ronald Reagan became president, I started writing in earnest against the bloating of the Pentagon budget.  At that time, though, I never would have imagined that the budgets of those years would look modest today, especially after the big enemy of that era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991. 

Why, then, does each year’s NDAA rise ever higher into the troposphere, drifting on the wind and poisoning our culture with militarism?  Because, to state the obvious, Congress would rather engage in pork-barrel spending than exercise the slightest real oversight when it comes to the national security state.  It has, of course, been essentially captured by the military-industrial complex, a dire fate President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about 60 years ago in his farewell address.  Instead of being a guard dog for America’s money (not to mention for our rapidly disappearing democracy), Congress has become a genuine lapdog of the military brass and their well-heeled weapons makers.

So, even as Congress puts on a show of debating the NDAA, it’s really nothing but, at best, a political Kabuki dance (a metaphor, by the way, that’s quite common in the military, which tells you something about the well-traveled sense of humor of its members).  Sure, our congressional representatives act as if they’re exercising oversight, even as they do as they’re told, while the deep-pocketed contractors make major contributions to the campaign “war chests” of the very same politicians.  It’s a win for them, of course, but a major loss for this country — and indeed for the world.

Doing More With Less

What would real oversight look like when it comes to the defense budget?  Again, glad you asked!

It would focus on actual defense, on preventing wars, and above all, on scaling down our gigantic military.  It would involve cutting that budget roughly in half over the next few years and so forcing our generals and admirals to engage in that rarest of acts for them: making some tough choices.  Maybe then they’d see the folly of spending $1.7 trillion on the next generation of world-ending weaponry, or maintaining all those military bases globally, or maybe even the blazing stupidity of backing China into a corner in the name of “deterrence.”

Here’s a radical thought for Congress: Americans, especially the working class, are constantly being advised to do more with less.  Come on, you workers out there, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and put your noses to those grindstones! 

To so many of our elected representatives (often sheltered in grotesquely gerrymandered districts), less money and fewer benefits for workers are seldom seen as problems, just challenges. Quit your whining, apply some elbow grease, and “git-r-done!

The U.S. military, still proud of its “can-do” spirit in a warfighting age of can’t-do-ism, should have plenty of smarts to draw on.  Just consider all those Washington “think tanks” it can call on!  Isn’t it high time, then, for Congress to challenge the military-industrial complex to focus on how to do so much less (as in less warfighting) with so much less (as in lower budgets for prodigal weaponry and calamitous wars)?

For this and future Pentagon budgets, Congress should send the strongest of messages by cutting at least $50 billion a year for the next seven years.  Force the guys (and few gals) wearing the stars to set priorities and emphasize the actual defense of this country and its Constitution, which, believe me, would be a unique experience for us all. 

Every year or so, I listen again to Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech.  In those final moments of his presidency, Ike warned Americans of the “grave implications” of the rise of an “immense military establishment” and “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” the combination of which would constitute a “disastrous rise of misplaced power.”  This country is today suffering from just such a rise to levels that have warped the very structure of our society. Ike also spoke then of pursuing disarmament as a continuous imperative and of the vital importance of seeking peace through diplomacy.

In his spirit, we should all call on Congress to stop the madness of ever-mushrooming war budgets and substitute for them the pursuit of peace through wisdom and restraint. This time, we truly can’t allow America’s numerous smoking guns to turn into so many mushroom clouds above our beleaguered planet.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

11 comments

  1. “Seeking peace through diplomacy” is my devout hope for this nation. I hope and hope and hope we can amplify your voice! THANK YOU.

  2. It is time we closed the Pentagon, and opened a new Agency dedicated to the peaceful existence of all beings on this planet.

    1. Only once the mission of USD hegemony has run its course, John. There’s an order of events here. This objective goes to the very stage that peace and prosperity are built on and that stage includes and embraces a widespread adoption for market driven debt-free trades/transactions. There is still yet a large vacuum for awareness on how the USD has evolved and is now supporting debt-free transactions that are taking place. This is likely a topic that should be opened up for greater discovery and understanding.

      The clarity of such a discussion will bring a rationale to some major events in 20th century history, which include the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944, the severing of the fixed price peg that used to be on gold and the rise of the petrodollar, all of which have brought us to this day where debt-free transaction are now within the consumer’s easy reach.

  3. Circulate market gold based medium with real-time USD pricing as permitted and your wish will come true as global peace and prosperity organically seep into reality by way of global real economic growth supported by debt-free , market driven debt-free transactions.

    The law of weights and measures could only come to fruition with real-time market pricing. Did anyone really think we could pour new wine into an old wineskin ??? We now know it was not possible. Everything has its time on God’s timetable. God may be slow but He’s never late !

    https://members.lode.one/register/joinwith/1130057960/link

  4. Haha. Deep cuts, uh? And during his time in US Air Bombing and Napalming and Whiskey Pete Force, did he want base closures, Commissary closures, barracks-turned-to-sustainable-housing models, end of all air killer products, and, well, the entitlements, man — retirement, medical, and the phoney “thanks a murdering vet” day?

    Look, when your job and your retirement and your myth making depend on who pays you, and how you live, many just will not come out of the weeds to protest then, ACTIVE mis-DUTY.

    The complext, again, is not just military, and women running the offence-defence companies. It’s the Banking-Real Estate-Medical-Mining-Chemical-Ag-Education-Media-AI-Prison-Policing-Retail-Aerospace-Space-Pharma-Resource Thieft-Food-Entertainment-Press-5g COMPLEX that relies on DARPA, NSA, DoD, all of them, to keep this dirty empire of the idiots going. Again, take away every cent, dollar, million, billion from the Military Industrial Complex’s deep and far-reaching tentecles, and you have a completely dead USA.

    So, are we cutting the MIC 10 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent? Shoot, just giving MIC a 10 percent raise is fighting words to the Complex’s lords, overlords and millions of Eichmann in America-EU-Israel underlings.

  5. Mr. Astore, thank you for the article. You are right on every point you made. However, our voracious rulers, whom we now call the 1%, have, with the assistance of their servants in both political parties, the Congress and the Supreme Court have murdered our democracy. Without democracy there is no possibility of accountability. Those who still bother to vote are given the choice of voting for Corporate Candidate #1 or Corporate Candidate #2. Sure, one may be even more awful than the other, but both of them have been fully vetted by the elites and certified as reliable servants of the 1%. The two political parties, acting out their respective roles in the charade called democracy, herd the people into two warring tribes via false messaging called culture wars, thereby assuring that the real issues such as the theft of our money via the military budget are not addressed in any meaningful way. Ditto for climate change, the existential threat of nuclear holocaust, the obscene inequality engineered through forty years of neoliberalism, etc. All the while most people remain ignorant of what their government is actually doing in the world and how it is causing their quality of life to decline, as it has for working people for the last forty years. The thieves are running the show. They own the servants in Congress who masquerade as “our representatives”. They own and operate both political parties. They now control the Supreme Court. The party which claims to be the “liberal” party is now engaged in the process of murdering Julian Assange and, with him, our first amendement right to freedom of the press and speech. Fire the generals? Not a chance. They “retire” with a fat paycheck drawn on our account, then hire out to make millions more as board members or officers of the merchants of death, consultants to the media which repeats the war propaganda which they spew in order to keep the gravy trains moving, and endless process of corruption, betrayal of the people and outright theft. You know all this. I would like to see your views adopted in Washington, but I am not going to bet on it.

  6. All in this DARPA Pharma Guns Bombs Drones Pathogens Poisons Game are criminal. Military Academies? Murder and Mayhem and Rape Centers.

    Image, Bloody Bumbling General Austin calls Russians Soviets.

    Sick country.

    Women running the bomb and missile profiteers.

    Sick. Now Coronavirus Disaster Capitalism?

    Sick.

    https://paulhaeder.com/2021/12/12/even-a-child-asks-in-gibberish-why-why-why/

    What happened

    Shares of several leading COVID-19 vaccine makers were jumping as of 10:44 a.m. ET on Monday. BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX) stock was up 6.2%. Shares of Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) were rising 5.7% higher. Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX) stock was trailing not too far behind, with a 3.8% gain.

    There was one common denominator behind the rise of these vaccine stocks. On Sunday, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that a “tidal wave” of COVID-19 cases in the country stemming from the omicron variant could be on the way. The U.K. is accelerating its booster program. Investors could be anticipating that other countries could be on a similar path

  7. And 70 years of this perversion, inverted totalitarian mindset, we cant even feed the poor or treat the sick.

    Putting the system’s parts together means an Astore can go off into the sunset. His miltary mindset is worthy of the dustbin.

    Get a load of this one of a million examples of USA, the under developing nation as Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef called it.

    USA… land of shortages: intelligence, compassion and a million things, including nurses. MIC chickens coming back to roost.

    Quoting:

    Despite a national nursing shortage in the United States, over 80,000 qualified applications were not accepted at U.S. nursing schools in 2020, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

    This was due primarily to a shortage of nursing professors and a limited number of clinical placements where nursing students get practical job training. Additional constraints include a shortage of experienced practitioners to provide supervision during clinical training, insufficient classroom space and inadequate financial resources.

  8. “In his (Eisenhower’s) spirit, we should all call on Congress to stop the madness of ever-mushrooming war budgets and substitute for them the pursuit of peace through wisdom and restraint. This time we truly can’t allow…”zzzzzz.

    Yes, step right this way, folks! This time, things are going to be different. Let’s all hop aboard the train to Washington and appeal to ‘our representatives’ again, following in the footsteps of Gen. Stewart, I mean Mr. Smith, and make our impassioned pleas before these tools of the MIC. Oh, they’re bound to listen to us – this time.

    What’s it called, repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Oh yeah, dedicated gatekeeping. Since Reagan even!

    Old soldiers never retire, they just fade into think tanks, universities, media consultancies, and if they’re really radical, you’ll hear them on NPR. “Back in my Air Force days…” when I was being properly trained for this gig by my handlers.

    I really appreciate Eisenhower’s words, though. Here’s a general who ‘retired’ to the White House to oversee the Cold War, nuclear arms race, and usual coups around the world, and he’s remembered by peace-loving Americans and other suckers of political circus for his farewell address from management of the war state and creeping fascism. Now that’s what you call impressive psychological warfare!

    What’s hardly if at all remembered are Ike’s words about a “scientific-technological elite.” Here’s a ‘warning’ from a ‘statesman’ – ‘balancing’ and ‘integrating’ these forces – worth recalling at length, given the present war on/of bioterror they’ve long been cooking up in the deep state:

    Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

    It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system-ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

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