The expression “self-licking ice cream cone” was first used in 1992 to describe a hidebound bureaucracy at NASA. Yet, as an image, it’s even more apt for America’s military-industrial complex, an institution far vaster than NASA and thoroughly dedicated to working for its own perpetuation and little else.
Thinking about that led me to another phrase based on America’s seemingly endless string of victory-less wars: the self-defeating military. The U.S., after all, hasn’t won a major conflict since World War II, when it was aided by a grand alliance that included Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s godless communists. And yet here’s the wonder of it all: despite such a woeful 75-year military record, including both the Korean and Vietnam wars of the last century and the never-ending war on terror of this one, the Pentagon’s coffers are overflowing with taxpayer dollars. What gives?
Americans profess to love “their” troops, but what are they getting in return for all that affection (and money)? Very little, it seems. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying the slightest attention, since the present military establishment has been designed less to protect this country than to protect itself, its privileges, and its power. That rarely discussed reality has, in turn, contributed to practices and mindsets that make it a force truly effective at only one thing: defeating any conceivable enemy in Washington as it continues to win massive budgets and the cultural authority to match. That it loses most everywhere else is, it seems, just part of the bargain.
The list of recent debacles should be as obvious as it is alarming: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen (and points around and in between). And even if it’s a reality rarely focused on in the mainstream media, none of this has been a secret to the senior officers who run that military. Look at the Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam War era or the Afghanistan Papers recently revealed by the Washington Post. In both cases, prominent U.S. military leaders admitted to fundamental flaws in their war-making practices, including the lack of a coherent strategy, a thorough misunderstanding of the nature and skills of their enemies, and the total absence of any real progress in achieving victory, no matter the cost.
Of course, such honest appraisals of this country’s actual war-making prowess were made in secret, while military spokespeople and American commanders laid down a public smokescreen to hide the worst aspects of those wars from the American people. As they talked grimly (and secretly) among themselves about losing, they spoke enthusiastically (and openly) to Congress and the public about winning. In case you hadn’t noticed, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq that military was, year after endless year, making “progress” and “turning corners.” Such “happy talk” (a mixture of lies and self-deception) may have served to keep the money flowing and weapons sales booming, but it also kept the body bags coming in (and civilians dying in distant lands) — and for nothing, or at least nothing by any reasonable definition of “national security.”
Curiously, despite the obvious disparity between the military’s lies and reality, the American people, or at least their representatives in Congress, have largely bought those lies in bulk and at astronomical prices. Yet this country’s refusal to face the facts of defeat has only ensured ever more disastrous military interventions. The result: a self-defeating military, engorged with money, lurching toward yet more defeats even as it looks over its shoulder at an increasingly falsified past.
The Future Is What It Used to Be
Long ago, New York Yankee catcher and later manager Yogi Berra summed up what was to come this way: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And it wasn’t. We used to dream, for example, of flying cars, personal jetpacks, liberating robots, and oodles of leisure time. We even dreamed of mind-bending trips to Jupiter, as in Stanley Kubrick’s epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like so much else we imagined, those dreams haven’t exactly panned out.
Yet here’s an exception to Berra’s wisdom: strangely enough, for the U.S. military, the future is predictably just what it used to be. After all, the latest futuristic vision of America’s military leaders is — hold onto your Kevlar helmets — a “new” cold war with its former communist rivals Russia and China. And let’s add in one other aspect of that military’s future vision: wars, as they see it, are going to be fought and settled with modernized (and ever more expensive) versions of the same old weapons systems that carried us through much of the mid-twentieth century: ever more pricey aircraft carriers, tanks, and top of the line jet fighters and bombers with — hey! — maybe a few thoroughly destabilizing tactical nukes thrown in, along with plenty of updated missiles carried by planes of an ever more “stealthy” and far more expensive variety. Think: the F-35 fighter, the most expensive weapons system in history (so far) and the B-21 bomber.
For such a future, of course, today’s military hardly needs to change at all, or so our generals and admirals argue. For example, yet more ships will, of course, be needed. The Navy high command is already clamoring for 355 of them, while complaining that the record-setting $738 billion Pentagon budget for 2020 is too “tight” to support such a fleet.
Not to be outdone when it comes to complaints about “tight” budgets, the Air Force is arguing vociferously that it needs yet more billions to build a “fleet” of planes that can wage two major wars at once. Meanwhile, the Army is typically lobbying for a new armored personnel carrier (to replace the M2 Bradley) that’s so esoteric insiders joke it will have to be made of “unobtainium.”
In short, no matter how much money the Trump administration and Congress throw at the Pentagon, it’s a guarantee that the military high command will only complain that more is needed, including for nuclear weapons to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over 30 years. But doubling down on more of the same, after a record 75 years of non-victories (not to speak of outright losses), is more than stubbornness, more than grift. It’s obdurate stupidity.
Why, then, does it persist? The answer would have to be because this country doesn’t hold its failing military leaders accountable. Instead, it applauds them and promotes them, rewarding them when they retire with six-figure pensions, often augmented by cushy jobs with major defense contractors. Given such a system, why should America’s generals and admirals speak truth to power? They are power and they’ll keep harsh and unflattering truths to themselves, thank you very much, unless they’re leaked by heroes like Daniel Ellsberg during the Vietnam War and Chelsea Manning during the Iraq War, or pried from them via a lawsuit like the one by the Washington Postthat recently led to those Afghanistan Papers.
My Polish mother-in-law taught me a phrase that translates as, “Don’t say nothin’ to nobody.” When it comes to America’s wars and their true progress and prospects, consider that the official dictum of Pentagon spokespeople. Yet even as America’s wars sink into Vietnam-style quagmires, the money keeps flowing, especially to high-cost weapons programs.
Consider my old service, the Air Force. As one defense news site put it, “Congressional appropriators gave the Air Force [and Lockheed Martin] a holiday gift in the 2019 spending agreement… $1.87 billion for 20 additional F-35s and associated spare parts.” The new total just for 2020 is “98 aircraft — 62 F-35As, 16 F-35Bs, and 20 F-35Cs — at the whopping cost of $9.3 billion, crowning the F-35 as the biggest Pentagon procurement program ever.” And that’s not all. The Air Force (and Northrop Grumman) got another gift as well: $3 billion more to be put into its new, redundant, B-21 stealth bomber. Even much-beleaguered Boeing, responsible for the disastrous 737 MAX program, got a gift: nearly a billion dollars for the revamped F-15EX fighter, a much-modified version of a plane that first flew in the early 1970s. Yet, despite those gifts, Air Force officials continue to claim with straight faces that the service is getting the “short straw” in today’s budgetary battles in the Pentagon.
What does this all mean? One obvious answer would be: the only truly winning battles for the Pentagon are the ones for our taxpayer dollars.
“Dopes and Babies” Galore
I can’t claim that I ever traveled in the circles of generals and admirals, though I met a few during my military career. Still, no one can question that our commanders are dedicated. The only question is: dedication to what exactly — to the Constitution and the American people or to their own service branch, with an eye toward a comfortable and profitable retirement? Certainly, loyalty to service (and the conformity that goes with it), rather than out-of-the-box thinking in those endlessly losing wars, helped most of them win promotion to flag rank.
Perhaps this is one reason why, back in July 2017, the military’s current commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, reportedly railed at his top national security people in a windowless Pentagon room known as “the Tank.” He called them — including then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, Jr. — “a bunch of dopes and babies.” As the president put it, America’s senior military leaders don’t win anymore and, as he made clear, nothing is worse than being a loser. He added, “I want to win. We don’t win any wars anymore… We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.” (And, please note, that hasn’t changed a whit in the year and a half since that moment.)
Sure, Trump threw a typical tantrum, but his comments about losing at a strikingly high cost were (and remain) absolutely on the mark, not that he had any idea how to turn America’s losing wars and their losing commanders into winners. In many ways, his “strategy” has proven remarkably like those of the two previous presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Send more troops to the Middle East. Drone and bomb ever more, not just in Afghanistanand Iraq but even in places like Somalia and Libya. Prolong our commitment to “loser” wars like the Afghan one, even while talking ceaselessly about ending them and bringing the troops home. And continue to “rebuild” that same military, empowering those same “dopes and babies,” with yet more taxpayer dollars.
The results have been all-too predictable. America’s generals and admirals have so much money that they don’t ever have to make truly tough choices. They hardly have to think. The Air Force, for example, just keeps planning for and purchasing more ultra-expensive stealth fighters and bombers to fight a future Cold War that we allegedly won 30 years ago. Meanwhile, actual future “national security” threats like climate-related catastrophes or pandemics go largely unaddressed. Who cares about them when this country will clearly have the most stealth fighters and bombers in the world?
For the Pentagon, the future is the past and the past, the future. Why should military leaders have to think when the president and Congress keep rewarding them for lies and failures of every sort?
Trump believes America doesn’t win anymore because we’re not ruthless enough. Take the oil, dammit! The real reason: because America’s wars are unwinnable from the git-go (something the last 18 years should have proved in no uncertain way) and — irony of all ironies — completely unnecessary from the standpoint of true national defense. There is no way for the U.S. military to win “hearts and minds” across the Greater Middle East and Africa with salvos of Hellfire missiles. In fact, there’s only one way to “win” such wars: end them. And there’s only one way to keep winning: by avoiding future ones.
With a system that couldn’t work better (in Washington), America’s military refuses to admit this. Instead, our generals just keep saluting smartly while lying in public (the details of which we’ll find out about only when the next set of “papers” is released someday). In the meantime, when it comes to demanding and getting tax dollars, they couldn’t be more skilled. In that sense, and that alone, they are the ultimate winners.
“Dopes and babies,” Mister President? No, just men who are genuinely skilled in the art of the deal. Small wonder America’s leader is upset. For when it comes to the military-industrial complex and its power and prerogatives, even Trump has met his match. He’s been out-conned. And if the rest of us remain silent on the subject, then so have we.
This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.