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INTERMITTENT NOTESXML

Imperial Hubris

A Review of The Pentagon Labyrinth

By Werther*

The Pentagon Labyrinth coverIn a recent radio interview, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash stated that his overall impression of the United States was one of dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit, such as in the Silicon Valley. But Washington, D.C., he said, reminded him of Moscow in the former Soviet Union.

In the context of the interview, he probably intended that as a criticism of the U.S. capital as being stagnant, status quo, and wedded to obsolete theories. But in a more pointed way he may not have consciously meant, it is equally true that Washington is remarkably like late-Brezhnev era Moscow in the sense of being very visibly the capital of a garrison state. With its billboard adverts for fighter aircraft in local Metro stations, radio spots recruiting for "the National Clandestine Service," its ubiquitous Jersey Wall checkpoints, and its electronic freeway signs admonishing motorists to report suspicious activity (whatever that may be), the District of Columbia quite accurately simulates the paranoid atmosphere of a cold war era capital of Eastern Europe, say, East Berlin or Bucharest, albeit at two orders of magnitude greater cost.

And as in the USSR, according to Washington's rules the military gets first priority on all resources. Since 1998, the "core" Department of Defense budget — i.e., excluding the costs of supplemental spending for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (1) — has doubled, even as the number of ships, aircraft, and tanks has shrunk. The military's generals enjoy private, members-only shopping subsidized by the taxpayer (commissaries and post exchanges), quite similar to the special stores that were a privilege of ranking members of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Military bases are a world unto themselves, with the aforementioned stores, subsidized housing, a comprehensive private health care system that is next to free, and so forth.

It is not surprising that such panjandrums are groveled to. Let any cabinet secretary of a domestic agency testify on Capitol Hill, and Congressmen of the opposing party are sure to assail him with persiflage about his incompetence, bad faith, and general political hackery. Yet any general who appears as a witness, even though he is theoretically of inferior rank to a cabinet secretary, is accorded elaborate deference. When the witness is David Petraeus the flattery reaches such lengths as would make the Gracchi blush. Whenever General Petraeus occupies the witness stand, the tres amigos of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Messrs. McCain, Lieberman, and Graham, launch verbal bouquets so extravagant as to make the listener seek an explanation in Freudian analysis. All this despite the fact that General Petraeus's actual martial accomplishments, when placed against those of the great captains of history, are modest.

How Washington came to be Potsdam on the Potomac, and why achieving that result is so damnably expensive, is the subject of the book, The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Essays to Help You Through It. The book is free, available for download here. The authors of these essays are experts in their field: they have decades of knowledge about the U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). What is remarkable about their expertise is that they did not sell out to a defense contractor or a think tank years ago.

The first essay is written by Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney, a 33-year veteran of the Pentagon wars. He warns us to follow the money. Behind all the arcane pronouncements of strategy that emanate from the Pentagon there lies one fundamental fact: the only way to advance in Washington is to keep the money flowing. In the former USSR, it was said that Moscow was downhill from everywhere, because all the riches of the world's largest country flowed downhill to the Soviet capital. And so it is in the United States, circa 2011: the assets of Poughkeepsie, Peoria, and Paducah all tumble towards the District of Columbia, where they disappear into the ravening maw of the MICC.

George Wilson writes about the MICC from the journalist's point of view. He began covering the Department of Defense during the Pleistocene era of airborne alerts and mutual assured destruction, and so he has a wealth of experience. He provides several examples of how journalists can effectively navigate the MICC establishment.

Bruce Gudmundsson offers a hilarious — and dead-on — anthropological dissection of Pentagon Speak: the impenetrable acronyms, nonce phrases, and circumlocutions beloved of military bureaucrats. The Pentagon Tribe, he concludes, behaves in a fashion quite similar to a tribe in New Guinea, albeit empowered to waste billions of dollars of your money.

Winslow Wheeler, a three-decade veteran of Congress and the Government Accountability Office, describes what is facetiously called Congressional oversight of the Pentagon. Oversight might better be called "overlook," so eager are members of Congress to avoid any inquiry that might resemble criticism of DOD. He also writes about the Pentagon budget, and how deceptively it is presented.

G.I. Wilson contributes an essay on careerism. The bane of careerism is particularly virulent in the contemporary Pentagon, where the great majority of generals and admirals cap their careers in lucrative fashion on the boards of defense contractors, but his piece bears close reading because it applies to all forms of professional endeavor.

Chet Richards performs a laparoscopy on the so-called U.S. national military strategy. He walks the reader through a decision matrix for determining military threats, and concludes that the current U.S. strategy is based on three parts threat inflation and two parts balderdash.

Andrew Cockburn takes up where Spinney left off and follows the money with the zeal of Inspector Javert. It is now unquestionably true that the real metric of the defense budget is not how much evanescent "security" it provides, but rather how many S-class Mercedes automobiles, how many mansions on Foxhall Road, and how many corporate board memberships it supplies to those favored with the right credentials — so like the Nomenklatura of the former USSR.

Pierre Sprey dissects DOD's weapons purchases of the last 40 years and finds them gravely wanting. He demonstrates there is no correlation between the price and alleged technological sophistication of a system, and its real-world performance.

Thomas Christie comments on the lamentable state of operational testing of DOD's weapons, and why aircraft like the V-22 are such death traps.

These essays are a commendable description of the Pentagon as it really is, shorn of contractor hype and guilt-laden Congressional paeans to "our warfighters." (2) The only weakness of the book lies, perhaps ironically, in the authors' desire to be constructive. If we just cleaned up operational testing and evaluation; if military officers were not so careerist; if we somehow got our national strategy right. But these things are not likely to happen this side of eternity.

Why?

At some point in the 1980s, when the cold war turned a generation old, the MICC became so institutionalized and embedded that there was no throwing it off. Even the collapse of the Warsaw Pact did not change anything of significance: military budgets declined, slightly, but the cold war paradigm remained intact. All it took was 9/11 for the American psyche to suffer a kind of mental breakdown, and then the MICC could move into imperial overdrive.

The Pentagon is now so enmeshed in the political economy of the ruling elite and their coat holders in the media, foundations, and other institutions that "reform" — other than wholly symbolic actions intended to create an illusion of change — are out of the question in practical terms. The MICC will stagger on, as a monstrous parasite on the state, fending off efforts at real change. Reformers will come and go, incredulous that the truth of their corrective suggestions are not appreciated.

Thus was it ever. When imperial Spain blundered its way through the Thirty Years' War, the Count-Duke of Olivares had comprehensive plans for reform and retrenchment; but history took its course, impelled by hubris and disregard. When the Dutch Republic reeled from setbacks in the Anglo-Dutch War and the War of Spanish Succession, we may be sure that a Stadhouder believed he could halt and reverse the rot, but in vain. Winston Churchill firmly held that he did not become prime minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire, but dissolve on his watch it did.

The Pentagon is strong enough, and has a tight enough web of power relations with the rest of the American power structure, to resist domestic efforts at reform; but its very triumph in so doing will hasten the day that the United States becomes a very different country than it is now. In all probability, the parasite will only release its grip on the host when that host has slid into financial, political, and moral bankruptcy.


* Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.


(1) Apparently we have a parade-ground military: $550 billion, give or take, is what is required simply to sustain it in garrison and have the Blue Angels perform the requisite number of air shows during a year. Should we ask it to do anything, even merely adjust its normal deployment schedules to sail down to Haiti and deliver supplies, that costs a billion or two extra. Actual wars, needless to say, cost hundreds of billions extra. Imagine a fire department that charges residents a premium every time its fire engines leave the station house, and you have understood the U.S. military.

(2) It would be a fascinating exercise to trace the decline of the United States from a constitutional republic into a ramshackle plutocratic empire by linguistic means. In retrospect, it was obvious that when people stopped referring to military personnel as soldiers, GIs, dogfaces, or grunts, and started parroting the DOD-approved term "warfighter" or "warrior," something bad was happening.

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