Tyrannosaurus Pentagonus: The Road to Extinction

Is this any way to run an empire?

by , November 27, 2013

A recent Reuters investigation into the Pentagon’s inability to conduct a simple audit of its finances highlights the principal reason why the American empire is doomed. When reconciling the Navy’s accounts with those of the US Treasury, number-crunchers over at the Pentagon’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service simply made up figures and inserted them. This is how the Pentagon’s books are "balanced."

With a budget of over $600 billion, the US military is so vast, and the systems running it are so complex, that no one knows where the money is going, much less how much is being wasted, stolen, or simply lost. The whole sorry mess makes the Augean stables look like a bit of spilt milk:

"In its investigation, Reuters has found that the Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies."

These people are so out of it they can’t even pay their own soldiers, regularly docking the pay of war-shattered vets and making it next to impossible to rectify the error even after acknowledging it.

The problem isn’t just incompetence, however: it isn’t a question of "waste" caused by inefficient methods. This is a problem that can’t be fixed because the Pentagon is simply too big.

Once the dinosaurs roamed the earth, lording it over the rest from the very top of the food chain: they were formidable, the fiercest of them, on account of their great size. Huge monsters they were, and none could stand against them. Yet they became extinct in a relatively short time, losing out to those little rodent-like mammals that eventually evolved into humankind. While we still don’t know exactly why these giants disappeared, one theory is that they got too large for their tiny brains – and a more fitting analogy to the problem with our Pentagon could hardly be imagined.

Aside from the moral dimension, the problem with militarism is the same as the problem with socialism: central planners are clueless because they are blind to price signals. Since there is only one "market" for their "product," and since they have in effect an unlimited amount of tax dollars to spend, there is no incentive for the Pentagon to put its financial affairs in order: they have a blank check that the bank (you and I) is obligated to cash. Yes, Pentagon officials who have neglected to straighten out their account ledgers are in violation of the law – but are we really going to arrest them for failing to comply?

Aside from the improbability of such an event, it wouldn’t solve the problem, which is inherent in the mission and character of today’s US military. In a normal state, one with no "exceptionalist" claims to make and no millennialist myths to rationalize, the military’s mission is simple: protecting the State’s monopoly on the use of force in a given geographical area, i.e. defense. In an empire, or a State infected with an ideological virus that compels a foreign policy of expansionism, the mission is to extend the State’s monopoly beyond a given geographical area, i.e. offense. Think of the difference in medico-pathological terms: a normal cell just sits there, for the most part, doing what a normal cell does. A sick cell, on the other hand – say, one infected with cancer – undergoes metastasis: that is, it grows beyond the body’s ability to control it, eventually killing its host.

This is precisely what is going on at the Pentagon, these days, which has grown so fast – and we’re not even counting the billions poured into "Homeland Security" – that not even the people in charge of it have any clue as to its actual size, its budget, its assets – or its weaknesses.

Whenever we in this country talk about the US military, no matter what our politics may be, the discussion is colored by our evaluation of our subject as supposedly the most powerful force on earth – and probably the mightiest military machine in history. And it isn’t just chauvinism, although that may be part of it: we’re awed by its sheer size, its global omnipresence, and the enormous bill we’re handed every year to maintain and expand it. Americans, and people in general, are over-awed by bigness – but that didn’t do the dinosaurs much good, now did it?

In a 2011 speech, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates complained that, upon taking office, "My staff and I learned that it was nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to questions such as ‘How much money did you spend’ and ‘How many people do you have?’" A corporate leadership so out of touch with what’s occurring on the ground would soon be in bankruptcy proceedings: a military leadership similarly distanced from reality is in for a rude awakening – perhaps a fatal one. And indeed we should’ve already had our long sleep interrupted by the loud sounds of military collapse in theaters from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

The US hasn’t won a military conflict since the end of World War II. Korea was a draw: Vietnam, a bitter defeat. The first Iraq war was inconclusive, with Saddam remaining in power, and the second Iraq war was an unmitigated disaster, the result of which was the empowerment of Iran and the humiliating expulsion of all US troops from that "liberated" country. Afghanistan, too, is a defeat: twelve years of warfare have failed to either beat the Taliban or establish even a half-viable government. As in Iraq, we may be kicked out before we can agree with "President" Hamid Karzai on the terms regulating a residual US force.

Like all human institutions, the US military has a problem remembering its original mission: its members and overseers tend to think of it as an end in itself – a source of pork, a source of pride, a source of huge profits and political grandstanding, anything but what it really is and ought to be – a shield, rather than a sword.

The bigger the military gets, the more expansive its mission becomes, the more unwieldy and unmanageable it is – and therein lies a great danger. Because what this means is that our military and political leaders are blind to our weakness in this regard: they really believe that money and bigness can fix any problem. What they don’t realize is that money and bigness are the problem.

The solution to the Pentagon’s accounting problems is simple: return to the original mission of the US military, which is the defense of the territory of the United States. Why, for example, does the Pentagon need a special "command" for every region on earth? Is the existence of "Africom" really essential to the defense of the United States? What we need is a return to normalcy, a return to the Founders’ vision of America as an inspiration to all and the mistress of none – a republic, not an empire.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

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