In a must-read Atlantic cover-story, Fallows biopsies America’s public, political and economic understanding of its military:
Outsiders treat [the US military] both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.
An essential point about military spending:
America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby shortchanging many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops.
He estimates that overall national security will cost more than a trillion dollars this year, noting that “the United States will spend about 50 percent more on the military this year than its average through the Cold War and Vietnam War.” And the political will to combat such excess remains highly unlikely:
A man who worked for decades overseeing Pentagon contracts told me this past summer, “The system is based on lies and self-interest, purely toward the end of keeping money moving.” What kept the system running, he said, was that “the services get their budgets, the contractors get their deals, the congressmen get jobs in their districts, and no one who’s not part of the deal bothers to find out what is going on.”