Accountability and obeisance
by Tom Sullivan
While munching on vegetarian everything at a Harmonic Convergence potluck in 1987, people quietly fled the kitchen when a friend and I (two engineers) began discussing the military's propensity for buying guns that can't shoot straight and amphibious vehicles that sink. It was one thing for lefties to oppose Pentagon spending, and quite another to besmirch your white-vinyl soul by knowing anything about it. The Atlantic has in its current issue an article about a rifle the Pentagon is still buying, one designed over a half century ago.
For James Fallows, lack of accountability for the military in both performance and procurement stems from the Washington-like bubble we insist the military inhabit. As Fallows begins in his latest for the Atlantic, "[W]e love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them." With less than one percent of Americans at risk under fire, "Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.” On the history of that disconnectedness, Fallows writes:
If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.
Much as we discussed in that kitchen conversation 30 years ago, military procurement is still a problem fraught with political machinations. There is a lot of money at stake in maintaining a global empire, and it persists unchecked even as we cut spending at home, you know, for food (SNAP). As I wrote in 2012:
Just for comparison, the Pentagon had a “base” budget of $515 billion in 2009 to staff and maintain 545,000 facilities at 5,300 sites both in the United States and around the globe (not including tens of billions in GWOT supplementals and other off-budget and “black” budget costs). Thus, it is not easy to determine how much all U.S. security agencies spend on defense annually, nor to separate out how much the Pentagon alone spends just to maintain the offshore portion of our global empire. But drawing on various sources, assumptions, and the fact that one-quarter of U.S. troops are stationed abroad, the Institute for Policy Studies estimated the 2009 costs of our overseas operations (wars included) at $250 billion annually “to maintain troops, equipment, fleets, and bases overseas.”
Fallows continues on that process:
... such is the dysfunction and corruption of the budgeting process that even as spending levels rise, the Pentagon faces simultaneous crises in funding for maintenance, training, pensions, and veterans’ care. “We’re buying the wrong things, and paying too much for them,” Charles A. Stevenson, a onetime staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former professor at the National War College, told me. “We’re spending so much on people that we don’t have the hardware, which is becoming more expensive anyway. We are flatlining R&D.”
The latter half of Fallows' piece examines the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. That it is insanely over budget and wracked with technical issues should come as no surprise. One wonders how many joints were involved in its conception.
Fallows also looks at how our relationship to the military has changed since WWII when 10 percent of Americans were serving in it. As we have become more disconnected from the military, we have fallen into rote “'salute to the heroes' gestures that do more for the civilian public’s self-esteem than for the troops’." That disconnectedness leads to a lack of accountability. Lincoln removed generals for military failings. We remove them for personal foibles.
But what Fallows does not address is whether the disconnectedness and lack of accountability he describes — combined with our nagging economic uncertainty and fear-flogging by the press — fosters tolerance for growing authoritarianism. Or at least a deference to it. The same unquestioning, knee-jerk obeisance we're supposed to give "our troops" seems now to extend to the police as well. In light of the recent police shooting incidents and the reaction of the NYPD, it seems police now
expect demand obeisance and immunity from accountability.