The True Cost of War

This Memorial Day I feel it is fitting for the country to not only remember the sacrifice of the brave men and women who serve and have served in our military, but to also remember the cost of their sacrifice as well. Since 9/11 more combat soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq than the total number who perished in that horrific attack that September morning. Further, the funding for both these wars has now exceeded the trillion-dollar mark as of December 2009, and even with the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq scheduled for this year, it will continue to be a major drain on budget expenditures for some time to come.

To be sure there have always been wars of necessity. It was appropriate for the U.S. to go after those who were responsible for murdering our citizens and attacking our sovereignty. And perhaps the most just military engagement our country has been involved in was World War II. As Barack Obama saliently remarked in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech appeasement would not have stopped Hitler. Pacifism clearly is no substitute for unbridled militarism. One hundred eighty degrees from wrong is still wrong.

The problem however is that the United States has long since past the point where its wars are fought simply on the merits of whether they are just or not. Chasing down Osama bin Laden was one thing; occupying two Middle-eastern countries and toppling one of their governments is going over the top to say the least. President Eisenhower, in his farewell speech to the nation, spoke of the growing influence of what he referred to as the Military-Industrial Complex. Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of Allied forces during World War II and knew a thing or two about war and its infrastructure so he was certainly no left-wing ideologue who believed in pacifism. But he also could clearly see what was going on around him and he felt a need to warn the nation of its potential consequences.

“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Today the Military Industrial Complex of the U.S. spends more than most European and Asian countries do on their entire budgets. But more to the point, it now dominates virtually every aspect of American society. So intertwined is it within the economy that even if we were able to shut it down completely the devastation that would ensue not only to the U.S. but to the world would be beyond description. The United States still has a sizable number of troops in Japan and Germany, as well as other locations that have not seen combat in more than three generations. There has not been one plausible explanation that has been able to defend this waste of spending.

Whenever legitimate attempts have been made to “trim” the Pentagon’s budget, they have been met with the usual cries from the neo-cons that such cuts would compromise America’s security and vital interests. The F-22 Raptor is a case in point. Designed primarily as a Cold-war era stealth bomber, it is an overpriced, outdated luxury that, at $350 million per jet, the U.S. simply can no longer afford. And yet resistance to cutting the program was fierce. Even some of President Obama’s closest allies turned against him when his administration tried to end the program last year.

Clearly Eisenhower’s warning fell on deaf ears. It is unlikely that we will ever witness in our lifetime or in our children’s lifetime a serious curtailing of the military industrial complex. And so long as that is the case, the U.S. will forever be locked in an endless array of global conflicts – some of them just, but many unnecessary – all in the name of preserving not our freedom, but our hegemony.

Many soldiers have given their lives in defense of this country throughout its long and bloodied history. We can honor them best, not by idly standing by and nodding tacitly with the very agency that sent them to their premature deaths, but by standing up to that very same agency and seeking a different path. We do not mock our nation or disgrace the service of our enlisted men and women by demanding of our government an accounting for such dubious and self-defeating policies; in deed if we can keep just one soldier from returning home in a body bag from the next senseless war, we have done our true patriotic duty as American citizens.

We owe the next soldier’s family that much at least.


Anonymous said…
Bravo, Pete. If we can disenthrall ourselves from the prevailing spin (the so called war on terror is really about pipelines and oil rights; and "America's role in the world" is really about keeping the military-industrial-complex fed, etc.), then perhaps these brave young men and women will not have died in vain.
Peter Fegan said…
Thanks Steve, I completely left out the oil connection. As always, it about the money.