Our Wars Are Killing Us

Back in 2007, when Gen. David Petraeus was the surge commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, he had a penchant for clock imagery. In an interview in April of that year, he typically said: “I’m conscious of a couple of things. One is that the Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock, so we’re obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can perhaps give hope to those in the coalition countries, in Washington, and perhaps put a little more time on the Washington clock.” And he wasn’t alone. Military spokespeople and others in the Bush administration right up to the president regularly seemed to hear one, two, or sometimes as many as three clocks ticking away ominously and out of sync.

Hearing some discordant ticking myself of late, I decided to retrieve Petraeus’ image from the dustbin of history. So imagine three ticking clocks, all right here in the U.S., one set to Washington time, a second to American time, and the third to Pentagon time.

In Washington – with even the New York Times now agreeing that a “majority” of 100 is 60 (not 51) and that the Senate’s 41st vote settles everything – the clock seems to be ticking erratically, if at all. On the other hand, that American clock, if we’re to believe the good citizens of Massachusetts, is ticking away like a bomb. Americans are impatient, angry, and “in revolt” against Washington time. That’s what the media continue to tell us in the wake of last week’s Senate upset.

Depending on which account you read, they were outraged by a nearly trillion dollar health-care reform that was also a giveaway to insurance companies, and annoyed by Democratic candidate Martha Coakley calling Curt Schilling a “Yankees fan” as well as besmirching handshaking in the cold outside Fenway Park; they were anxious about an official Massachusetts unemployment rate of 9.4 percent (and a higher real one), an economy that has rebounded for bankers but not for regular people, soaring deficits, staggering foreclosure rates, mega-banking bonuses, the Obama administration’s bailout of those same bankers, and its coziness with Wall Street. They were angry and impatient about a lot of things, blind angry you might say, since they were ready to vote back into office the party not in office, even if behind that party’s “new face” were ideas that would take us back to the origins of the present disaster.

A Blank Check for the Pentagon

It’s worth noting, however, that they’re not angry about everything – and that the Washington clock, barely moving on a wide range of issues, is still ticking away when it comes to one institution. The good citizens of Massachusetts may be against free rides and bailouts for many types, but not for everybody. I’m speaking, of course, about the Pentagon, for which Congress has just passed a record new budget of $708 billion (with an Afghan war-fighting supplemental request of $33 billion, essentially a bailout payment, still pending but sure to pass). This happened without real debate, much public notice, or even a touch of anger in Washington or Massachusetts. And keep in mind that the Pentagon’s real budget is undoubtedly close to a trillion dollars, without even including the full panoply of our national security state.

The tea-party crews don’t rail against Pentagon giveaways, nor do Massachusetts voters grumble about them. Unfettered Pentagon budgets pass in the tick-tock of a Washington clock and no one seems fazed when the Wall Street Journal reveals that military aides accompanying globe-hopping parties of congressional representatives regularly spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on snacks, drinks, and other “amenities” for them, even while, like some K Street lobbying outfit, promoting their newest weaponry. Think of it, in financial terms, as Pentagon peanuts shelled out for actual peanuts, and no one gives a damn.

It’s hardly considered news – and certainly nothing to get angry about – when the secretary of defense meets privately with the nation’s top military-industrial contractors, calls for an even “closer partnership,” and pledges to further their mutual interests by working “with the White House to secure steady growth in the Pentagon’s budgets over time.” Nor does it cause a stir among the denizens of inside-the-Beltway Washington or the citizens of Massachusetts when the top ten defense contractors spend more than $27 million lobbying the federal government, as in the last quarter of 2009 (a significant increase over the previous quarter), just as plans for the president’s Afghan War surge were being prepared.

Nor is it just the angry citizens of Massachusetts, or those tea-party organizers, or Republicans stalwarts who hear no clock ticking when it comes to “national security” expenditures, who see no link between our military-industrial outlays, our perpetual wars, and our economic woes. When, for instance, was the last time you saw a bona fide liberal economist/columnist like Paul Krugman include the Pentagon and our wars in the litany of things potentially bringing this country down?

Yes, striking percentages of Americans attend the church (temple, mosque) of their choice, but when it comes to American politics and the economy, the U.S. military is our church, “national security” our Bible, and nothing done in the name of either can be wrong.

Talk about a blank check. It’s as if the military, already the most revered institution in the country, existed on the other side of a Star-Trekkian financial wormhole.

Pentagon Time Horizons

Which brings us to Pentagon time. Yes, that third clock is ticking, but at a very different tempo from those in Washington or Massachusetts.

Americans are evidently increasingly impatient for “change” of whatever sort, whether you can believe in it or not. The Pentagon, on the other hand, is patient. It’s opted for making counterinsurgency the central strategy of its war in Central and South Asia, the sort of strategy that, even if successful, experts claim could easily take a decade or two to pull off. But no problem – not when the Pentagon’s clock is ticking on something like eternal time.

And here’s the thing: because the media are no less likely to give the Pentagon a blank check than the citizens of Massachusetts, it’s hard indeed to grasp the extent to which that institution, and the military services it represents, are planning and living by their own clock. Though major papers have Pentagon “beats,” they generally tell us remarkably little, except inadvertently and in passing, about Pentagon time.

So, for the next few minutes, just keep that Pentagon clock ticking away in your head. In the meantime, we’ll go looking for some hints about the Pentagon’s war-fighting time horizons buried in news reports on, and Pentagon contracts for, the Afghan War.

Take, as a start, a Jan. 6 story from the inside pages of my hometown paper. New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt began it this way: “The military’s effort to build a seasoned corps of expert officers for the Afghan war, one of the highest priorities of top commanders, is off to a slow start, with too few volunteers and a high-level warning to the armed services to steer better candidates into the program, according to some senior officers and participants.” At stake was an initiative “championed” by Afghan War commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal to create a “912-member corps of mostly officers and enlisted service members who will work on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues for up to five years.”

The news was that the program, in its infancy, was already faltering because it didn’t conform to one of the normal career paths followed in the U.S. military. But what caught my eye was that phrase “up to five years.” Imagine what it means for the war commander, backed by key figures in the Pentagon, to plan to put more than 900 soldiers, including top officers, on a career path that would leave them totally wedded, for five years, to war in the Af-Pak theater of operations. (After all, if that war were to end, the State Department might well take charge.) In other words, McChrystal was creating a potentially powerful interest group within the military whose careers would be wedded to an ongoing war with a timeline that extended into 2015 – and who would have something to lose if it ended too quickly. What does it matter then that President Obama was proclaiming his desire to begin drawing down the war in July 2011?

Or consider the plan being proposed, according to Ann Scott Tyson, in a Jan. 17 Washington Post piece, by Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant, and now getting a most respectful hearing inside the military. Gant wants to establish small Special Forces teams that would “go native,” move into Afghan villages and partner up with local tribal leaders – “one tribe at a time,” as an influential paper he wrote on the subject was entitled. “The U.S. military,” reported Tyson, “would have to grant the teams the leeway to grow beards and wear local garb, and enough autonomy in the chain of command to make rapid decisions. Most important, to build relationships, the military would have to commit one or two teams to working with the same tribe for three to five years, Gant said.” She added that Gant has “won praise at the highest levels [of the U.S. military] for his effort to radically deepen the U.S. military’s involvement with Afghan tribes – and is being sent back to Afghanistan to do just that.” Again, another “up to five year” commitment in Afghanistan and a career path to go with it on a clock that, in Gant’s case, has yet to start ticking.

Or just to run through a few more examples:

  • In August 2009, the superb Walter Pincus of the Washington Post quoted Air Force Brig. Gen. Walter Givhan, in charge of training the Afghan National Army Air Corps, this way: “Our goal is by 2016 to have an [Afghan] air corps that will be capable of doing those operations and the things that it needs to do to meet the security requirements of this country.” Of course, that six-year timeline includes the American advisors training that air force. (And note that Givhan’s 2016 date may actually represent slippage. In January 2008, when Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay H. Lindell, who was then commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force, discussed the subject, he spoke of an “eight-year campaign plan” through 2015 to build up the Afghan Air Corps.)
  • In a Jan. 13 piece on Pentagon budgeting plans, Anne Gearan and Anne Flaherty of the Associated Press reported: “The Pentagon projects that war funding would drop sharply in 2012, to $50 billion” from the present at least $159 billion (mainly thanks to a projected massive draw-down of forces in Iraq), “and remain there through 2015.” Whether the financial numbers are accurate or not, the date is striking: again a five-year window.
  • Or take the “train and equip” program aimed at bulking up the Afghan military and police, which will be massively staffed with U.S. military advisers (and private security contractors) and is expected to cost at least $65 billion. It’s officially slated to run from 2010-2014, by which time the combined Afghan security forces are projected to reach 400,000.
  • Or consider a couple of the long-term contracts already being handed out for Afghan war work like the $158 million the Air Force has awarded to Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., for “indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract for rotary wing aircraft, personnel, equipment, tools, material, maintenance, and supervision necessary to perform passenger and cargo air transportation services. Work will be performed in Afghanistan and is expected to start April 3, 2009, to be completed by Nov. 30, 2013.” Or the Pentagon contract awarded to the private contractor SOS International primarily for translators, which has an estimated completion date of September 2014.

Ending the Pentagon’s Free Ride

Of course, this just scratches the surface of long-term Afghan War planning in the Pentagon and the military, which rolls right along, seemingly barely related to whatever war debates may be taking place in Washington. Few in or out of that city find these timelines strange, and indeed they are just symptomatic of an organization already planning for “the next war” and the ones after that, not to speak of the next generation bomber of 2018, the integrated U.S. Army battlefield surveillance system of 2025, and the drones of 2047.

This, in short, is Pentagon time, and it’s we who fund that clock which ticks toward eternity. If the Pentagon gets in trouble, war-fighting or otherwise, we bail it out without serious debate or any of the anger we saw in the Massachusetts election. No one marches in the streets, or demands that Pentagon bailouts end, or votes ’em (or at least their supporters) out of office.

In this way, no institution is more deeply embedded in American life or less accountable for its acts; Pentagon time exists enswathed in an almost religious glow of praise and veneration – what might once have been known as “idolatry.” Until the Pentagon is forced into our financial universe, the angry, impatient one where most Americans now live, we’re in trouble. Until candidates begin losing because angry Americans reject our perpetual wars, and the perpetual war-planning that goes with them, this sort of thinking will simply continue, no matter who the “commander in chief” is or what he thinks he’s commanding.

It’s time for Americans to stop saluting and end the Pentagon’s free ride before America’s wars kill us.

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.