How We Got Into This Mess


Bush made a sacrifice. He stopped playing golf, to symbolize his sympathy with the troops in Iraq. He did not, however, stop playing give video golf. For Bush to forgo other pleasures might require he start another war. 

How did we get into this mess, ask millions who have grown sick of un-winnable – and seemingly endless — wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a sinking economy and rising deficit and debt? The government of the richest nation in the world cannot find money in its annual budget to cover costs of public education, health and physical infrastructure. In addition, the Bush government that demands “supports our troops,” doesn’t provide adequate medical care for returning veterans with serious physical and mental disabilities — as a result of Bush’s wars.

The current war on terrorism with the ubiquitous “Homeland Security” agencies should not distract citizens from seeing common threads that have woven a military culture and economy deeply into the core of US society; a culture in which more than 50 million voted for Bush.

To grasp the country’s present “mess,” however, requires a backwards journey.  In 1944, US leaders had concluded the Allies would win World War II. The Soviets had stopped the juggernaut of Germany’s best German forces in the battle of Stalingrad in 1942.

The other war, in the Pacific, took its decisive turn at the Battle of Midway. US ships sank Japan’s mightiest war vessels. Policy elites focused on how to build a peaceful post war world, one that would never again witness the kind of carnage that began with Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland.

To prevent a repeat, US leaders ordered war crimes trials for German and Japanese officials. Those who would again launch aggressive (preemptive) war as Hitler and Tojo did would find themselves before a Tribunal facing the harshest penalties. Simultaneously, US and likeminded leaders throughout the world initiated a United Nations organization to help prevent war and encourage international harmony. The UN Charter made starting war legally very difficult (Article 51) and enshrined human rights as universal and banned torture.

Soviet leaders accepted the Nuremberg trials and the UN, but sneered at claims by US leaders that they had demobilized. Stalin understood well — as did citizens of Japan — that behind noble declarations stood a US nuclear monopoly and a will to use them.

After World War II, the foundations of The New Deal, which had helped cushion tens of millions against the devastating Great depression, eroded quickly. Social spending in the post war years evolved into military spending. 

The 1947 National Security Act created the CIA, a government apparatus encased in secrecy. In 1948, the “demobilized” US government spent almost half its budget on military and international matters. By 1952, more than 70% went to “defense” and related spending, thanks to the Korean War and the erection of military bases throughout Europe and the Pacific. Military spending grew under Kennedy and throughout the 1960s. Lyndon Johnson tried to direct a hefty percent of the budget toward his War on Poverty, but couldn’t figure leave Vietnam and thus reduce military expenditures. By the late 1960s, the venerable counselors to power accepted as a given what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex in his Farewell Address in 1961.

Forty seven years later, Eisenhower must tremble in his proverbial grave. The General – our Cassandra — warned modern Trojans about the illusion created by the great military horse. Ike feared “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, and every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

He cut a phrase from the next to last speech draft, which referred to the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” a more accurate description of the syndrome. Congress, after all, initiates the budget from which military-industrial-scientific proliferation arises. Eisenhower’s conservative speech-writers Ralph Williams and Malcolm Moos shared Ike’s concern about how military spending would corrode US values. As the General who oversaw Allied forces in Western Europe, Eisenhower observed the folly and tragedy of modern war as a means to achieve policy ends.

In 1954, he defied premature neo con Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who advocated dropping an atomic weapon on North Vietnam to free the encircled French forces at Dien Bien Pho. In Europe, Ike had had observed modern war destroying civilians.

When he learned of the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, Eisenhower commented: “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing . . . to use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians, without even attempting [negotiations], was a double crime.” (Ike on Ike, Newsweek, 11/11/63) How absurd, Ike thought, to even consider choosing to fight a land war in Asia. The public would not easily tolerate sustained losses in such murky conflicts.

The Vietnam scenario became a lesson book from which close advisers to Bush refused to learn. A lesser equipped but far superior in numbers army had fought a technologically superior US force to a stand still in Korea and Vietnam.

In the ensuing decade, a new generation of hawks entered the power stage in Washington. Johnson’s hawkish advisers kept assuring him more troops, bombs and blood would force North Vietnam to the table on US terms. Johnson discovered, like Spanish film director Luis Buñuel’s “Exterminating Angel,” in which the actors found themselves unable to leave a house where they had gathered, he could not leave Vietnam. He could not explain why.

A similar infirmity grips Bush and the aspiring presidential candidates as well. The three “possibles” have not shown the courage to speak honestly on the issue and tell the public that the huge military does not defend the country since no other nation is or will in the near future attack it. With bases, factories or other components of the military-scientific complex in almost every congressional district, it is unlikely to see a groundswell to drastically reduce the military budget. Indeed, some corporations that service the military, with weapons or science, exert serious pressure to not withdraw all US troops from Iraq and dismantle bases that have become beyond obsolete.

The “complex” Ike warned would eat away at the foundations of the republic bears heavy responsibility for the current US “mess.” Governments of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq somehow “provoked” US leaders to launch un-winnable wars and in so doing piss away future national treasure. Ike’s bête noire, the military-industrial-congressional combination, made these bellicose efforts possible and simultaneously truth in politics ever harder.

The military, one a kind of outcast sector, has become something to celebrate. Not a professional sporting event passes without gushing tributes to the military. The military floods the TV with bullshit ads “being all you can be” and joining “a few good men.” Few politicians dare to stand up and call the US armed forces the world’s biggest bunch of losers, not having won a war since 1945 while hyping themselves as invulnerable. The six figure income members of the officer corps cavort in Alpine ski lodges. Poor enlisted suckers get dead, wounded, and un-cared for on their return. The institutionalized military — with hundreds of billions of dollars paid to the industrial and science side of the complex – is the root of the mess.

SAUL LANDAU received the Bernardo O’Higgins award from Chile. He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of A Bush and Botox World (AK/CounterPunch).

November 26, 2015
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