Too cynical, too jaded a view on the Pentagon and Trump

My uncle recently sent me an article called How the Pentagon Took Ownership of Donald Trump.  In short, I find the article far too cynical.

The defense budget stems from the national security strategy which is established by the secretary of defense, a civilian political appointee by the president. These strategies define what our civilian government wants our military to be able to do, specifically the executive branch with the legislative branch controlling the purse strings.  The decisions made at these levels are certainly not without influence from military professionals and defense contractors, but that’s not to say that our elected government doesn’t make the final decisions and just whole heartedly buy off on any old sales pitch. After all, they ARE subject to the voters.
Our strategies during the Cold War moved between containment, the “domino theory”, and “mutually assured destruction”.  After the Cold War, the strategy moved to two major theater wars – that is the US military could fight and sustain two separate wars simultaneously. Then in the aftermath of 911, the strategy shifted to terrorism and “asymmetric threats” posed by terrorism. Most recently the strategy has shifted to a “near peer” focus on Russia and China and cyber warfare. All this in the course of the last 40-50 years. As you can see this is a lot of different things over a relatively short period of time. As a result of what we ask our military to do, we spend a lot of money ensuring they can do it.
I agree there’s a “military industrial complex” but I don’t think it’s entirely a modern phenomenon or necessarily a bad thing. Rather, I think it’s a feature of western militaries over history as proposed by the military historian Victor Davis Hanson. He proposes a thesis in Carnage and Culture that human innovation and ingenuity in western culture is one major component of military success on the battlefield. And the resources made available through capitalism and free enterprise gave western militaries enough material resources to remain technologically superior to most foes.  One lesson from WWII and Pearl Harbor is that we didn’t want to be caught unprepared again. We had an era of isolation in the 1930s.  Of course we did get caught off guard during 9/11.
The following are some excerpts from the article and my response:

“As it happens, from the beginning of the Cold War to late last night, they’ve remained remarkably skilled at exaggerating the threats the U.S. faces and, believe me, that represents the longest con of all. It’s kept the military-industrial complex humming along, thanks to countless trillions of taxpayer dollars, while attempts to focus a spotlight on that scam have been largely discredited or ignored.”

Exaggeration may occur but I’d submit that it doesn’t happen out of bad faith lies. The pentagon and joint chiefs truly want to prepare us as best they can for the threats we face. There’s also no counter factual….how many years of relative peace post WWII have we faced BECAUSE we’ve been strong?

“War by its nature tells harsh truths — in this case, that the U.S. military is anything but “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.” Why? Because of its almost unblemished record of losing, or at least never winning, the wars it engages in.  Consider the disasters that make up its record from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s to, in the twenty-first century, the Iraq War that began with the invasion of 2003 and the nearly 18-year debacle in Afghanistan. You could easily add Korea (a 70-year stalemate/truce that remains troublesome to this day), a disastrous eight-year-old intervention in Libya, a quarter century in (and out and in) Somalia, and the devastating U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen, among so many other failed interventions.”

I understand the perspective that many of these may be “failures” but there’s a strong case that some were also successes. South Korea would disagree the 70 year stalemate was a failure for them. Iraq and Afghanistan put us on the ground on both sides of Iran, a geopolitical threat from an Islamic regime. So, again, it’s hard to reach the conclusion he’s reaching without counterfactuals which are admittedly difficult to guess.

“In short, the U.S. spends staggering sums annually, essentially stolen from a domestic economy and infrastructure that’s fraying at the seams, on what still passes for “defense.” The result: botched wars in distant lands that have little, if anything, to do with true defense, but which the Pentagon uses to justify yet more funding, often in the name of “rebuilding” a “depleted” military. Instead of a three-pointed pyramid scheme, you might think of this as a five-pointed Pentagon scheme, where losing only wins you ever more, abetted by lies that just grow and grow.”

Public spending on defense isn’t “stolen” from GDP. Indeed, an entire liberal economic theory would contest this assertion – the Keynesian economic argument is that WWII defense spending may be the prime mover of lifting us out of the Great Depression. I would agree that the procurement and acquisition process of new equipment and gear could be reformed in light of fast changing technologies.  And I know first hand there are inefficiencies in the process of developing and fielding new equipment.

“So many lies, so little time” is a phrase that comes to mind when I think of the 40 years I’ve spent up close and personal with the U.S. military, half on active duty as an Air Force officer. Where to begin? How about with those bomber and missile “gaps,” those alleged shortfalls vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s? They amounted to Chicken Little-style sky-is-falling hoaxes, but they brought in countless billions of dollars in military funding. In fact, the “gaps” then were all in our favor, as this country held a decisive edge in both strategic bombers and nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.”
“– remember the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) or the MX ICBM and Pershing II missiles, not to speak of the neutron bomb and alarming military exercises that nearly brought us to nuclear war with the “Evil Empire” in 1983. Or think of another military miracle: the “peace dividend” that never arrived after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 and the last superpower (you know which one) was left alone on a planet of minor “rogue states.” And don’t forget that calamitous “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the name of neutralizing weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist or the endless global war on terror that still ignores the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11th terrorist hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.”

I’m now starting to wonder what he actually did in the Air Force because these views indicate a lack of awareness about alternative hypothesis for these strategic decisions. SDI for example helped to drive the USSR into bankruptcy. Every western intelligence agency thought the Iraqis had WMDs. Even the Iraqi military thought that. Again, attributing bad motives to people isn’t really helpful.

“During the 2016 presidential campaign, he did, at least, rail against the folly and cost of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. He said he wanted better relations with Russia. He talked about reinvesting in the United States rather than engaging in new wars. He even attacked costly weapons systems like the sky’s-the-limit $1.4 trillion Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter.
Suffice it to say that, after two-plus years of posing as commander-in-chief, strong man Trump is now essentially owned by the Pentagon.”

An alternative explanation is that POTUS learned about the intelligence assessments of our geopolitical rivals and made decisions based on that information. Again, this author is far too cynical in his assertions.

“America’s shock-and-awe conflicts have indeed come home, big time — with shocking and awful results. On some level, many Americans recognize this. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is now a well-known acronym. A smaller percentage of Americans know something about TBI, the traumatic brain injuries that already afflict an estimated 314,000 troops, often caused by IEDs (improvised explosive devices), another acronym it would have been better never to have to learn. Wounded Warrior projects remind us that veterans continue to suffer long after they’ve come home, with roughly 20 of them a day taking their own lives in a tragic epidemic of suicides.”

War is hard yes. But freedom is not free. It has to be defended with a sword.  Of course, we should take care of those who fought for our freedom.

“the U.S. should end every conflict it’s currently engaged in, while bringing most of its troops home and downsizing its imperial deployments globally.”

This is a valid perspective and option, but I think for different reasons than the author submits.

The author finishes the piece with a 6 step process for moving forward:

“1. Our nuclear forces remain the best in the world, which is hardly something to brag about. They need to be downsized, not modernized, with the goal of eliminating them — before they eliminate us.”

The deterrence of nuclear weapons remains a real strategy and many of our nukes are in 1960-1980s era technology launchers.

“2. The notion that this country is suddenly engaged in a new cold war with China and Russia needs to be tossed in the trash can of history — and fast.”

Not so fast. This seems an uninformed view about China and Russia.

“3. From its first days, the war on terror has been the definition of a forever war. Isn’t it finally time to end that series of conflicts? International terrorism is a threat best met by the determined efforts of international police and intelligence agencies.”

This was the approach of the Clinton administration in the 1990s and its failure then combined with 911 led to a decade long debate on which strategy is best.

“4. It’s finally time to stop believing that the U.S. military is all about deterrence and democracy, when all too often it’s all about exploitation and dominance.”

Exploitation to what end?  Dominance of what?  I don’t see the nefarious motive he asserts and he certainly doesn’t provide evidence of this exploitation.

“5. It’s finally time to stop funding the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state at levels that outpace most of the seven major military powers on this planet put together, and instead invest such funds where they might actually count for Americans. With an appropriate change in strategy, notes defense analyst Nicolas Davies, the U.S. could reduce its annual Pentagon budget by 50%.”

Nothing is free. A critique of post WWI military strategy is that we let ourselves go TOO much which made us vulnerable to WWII. Who knows, maybe if we increased our spending a decade earlier, say 1931, German and Japan would have had a different a calculus in their plans for aggression.
“6. Finally, it’s time to stop boasting endlessly of our military strength as the measure of our national strength. What are we, Sparta?”
No we are not Sparta. We are better then them.
“The Pentagon will never be forced to make significant reforms until Americans stop believing in (and consenting to) its comforting lies.”
I think most Americans disagree with this author and he represents a minority view.

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