President Trump’s display of military weapons in Washington D.C. on the 4th of July this year was for him and his supporters a demonstration of our country’s military might, and thus the means by which the US can get its way in the world under his America First foreign policy.
But for someone who was involved for seven years in the Iraq and Afghan wars as a field-level civilian advisor, I found this display troublesome. To me, it reflected the prevailing war culture in America in which resolving international problems by edicts, unilateralism, and warfare is glorified as patriotism and American Exceptionalism.
Moreover, the military vehicles and aircraft involved in this jingoistic show were more symbolic of Congress’ overfunding of our military-industrial complex than military assets that our brave soldiers and airmen need for keeping our country safe, to wit:
Abram tanks were used by the 3Rd Infantry Division in its invasion of Iraq in 2003, and 100 or so were still parked at Camp Ramadi when I lived there in 2008. But Unless our country plans more "stupid wars" in which our soldiers invade and occupy other countries for years as misguided attempts to change societies and advance US geopolitical interests, these 60-ton monsters are only useful as scrap metal. Abram tanks certainly aren’t needed for our country’s national defense, i.e., fighting a land war in America.
Rather than military might, the Bradley Fighting Vehicles displayed on the mall were representative of the Army’s proclivity to spend billions of dollars on useless combat vehicle. The thin-skinned Bradleys were pulled out of Iraq in 2007 after over 800 had been damaged or destroyed by IEDs and rocket attacks in which thousands of US soldiers were killed or wounded. Bradleys were never sent to Afghanistan. But the Army repeated its mistake – and further endangered soldiers – by sending its similarly flawed successor –the Stryker Combat Vehicle – to Afghanistan. The eight-wheeled Strykers were cool looking and had all sorts of techie stuff. I rode in one many times when I worked in Kandahar. But they lacked the IED protection and manned gun turret that our usual rides had – the uncool but much safer Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected MRAPs. After casualties mounted, the Army stopped sending Strykers to Afghanistan. Given the inglorious history and waste of taxpayers’ money of these flawed Army combat vehicles, their exhibition on the mall was a backhanded salute to Pentagon procurement blunders.
I flew in the Marine’s similarly troubled tilt-rotor Osprey troop-transport aircraft in both wars. When the Ospreys broke down (as they frequently did) or got scrubbed for weather on calm sunny days (excuse used to avoid reporting low in-service rates), Vietnam War vintage C-46 helicopters – decades older than the pilots flying them! – would arrive and get us where we needed to go. With the Osprey’s inherent problems (it can’t land if the rotors don’t retract!), every flight was mass casualty crash waiting to happen.
I know from my Air Force service in the 1970s that the venerable B-52 bombers at my base in South Dakota – which were used in Vietnam and virtually every US air campaign thereafter – are capable of performing every mission ever flown by the newer but more costly and problematic B-1 and B-2 bombers. The bat-wing B-2 that flew over the Capitol Mall on the 4th cost $2 billion – that’s a major transit system improvement project for an American city that did not get federal funding. The same is true for the Air Force’s durable F-15 and F-16 fighters from the 1970s compared to F-35’s in the flyover. With its eight million lines of computer codes, the F-35 is another too-complex-to-keep-in-service military aircraft plagued by a host of problems. The late Senator John McCain – a fighter pilot himself – called the troubled $1.5-trillion F-35 program "a scandal and a tragedy" at a Senate hearing in 2016.
In both cases, trillions of taxpayers’ dollars were spent to develop and procure new generation military aircraft that were not needed because our existing warplanes were perfectly capable of performing the required missions well into the future. In fact, the Russian Su-57 fighter – the hostile fighter the Air Force said it needed the F-35 to shoot down in dogfight in a national television broadcast in 2014 – is not even in service.
So what exactly was President Trump celebrating on the 4th of July with his ostentatious exhibition of this frightfully expensive, functionally problematic, and unneeded military hardware?
Was it a message to other countries, "Do what I demand, or I will obliterate your nation with America’s awesome military firepower!" The president has made this threat twice as the operative doctrine of his America First foreign policy. Was he congratulating Congress for spending more on the US military than the next 10 nations in the world combined – even though Congress is racking up $1-trillion/year budget deficits? No problem here – our children will be left to deal with the national debt. Or was it a message to lobbyists for the military-industrial complex, "Keep the campaign donations coming and I’ll be sure defense contractors get new contracts for more unneeded cool military things like the stuff I displayed this year." Lobbyists have even lined up funding for a projected $1.7 trillion program for producing a generation of new nuclear weapons – even as the president is telling countries they will be obliterated for possessing or developing nuclear weapons. This contradiction shows in a nutshell the idiocracy of current US foreign and military policy.
No doubt, this president’s jingoistic 4th of July show – despite its deceitful portrayals – succeeded in firing up the Trump base. Let’s hope the rest of the electorate sees this show for what is was intended to be: an implicit appeal for a more authoritarian and militaristic foreign policy at the voting booth next year. Voters can choose to go in opposite direction by electing a president and members of Congress who pledge to spend less on the military-industrial-complex and to adopt a foreign policy that gets America out of being the World’s Policeman. And also returning the 4th of July to a celebration of America’s democratic values and denouncement of tyranny – instead of a glorification of militarism.
Ronald Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who has served in the Air force and worked for USAID in Iraq and Afghanistan for seven years. He has written a book, When Will We Ever Learn? (Amazon Kindle), critiquing US foreign and military policy from his involvement in the War on Terror and his experiences living and working in Europe and the Middle East for over 20 years. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico.