Donald Trump is a con man. Think of Trump University or a juicy Trump steak or can’t-lose casinos (that never won). But as president, one crew he hasn’t conned is the Pentagon. Quite the opposite, they’ve conned him because they’ve been at the game a lot longer and lie (in Trump-speak) in far biglier ways.
People condemn President Trump for his incessant lying and his con games — and rightly so. But few Americans condemn the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state, even though we’ve been the victims of their long con for decades now. 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.
One thing should have, but hasn’t, cut through all the lies: the grimly downbeat results of America’s actual wars. 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 — and that’s just to start down a list. 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.
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. When it comes to raising money based on false claims, this president has nothing on the Pentagon. And worse yet, like America’s wars, the Pentagon’s long con shows no sign of ending. Eat your heart out, Donald Trump!
“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.
Or consider the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that served to authorize horrific attacks on Vietnam in retaliation for a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. Navy destroyers that never happened. Or think about the consistent exaggeration of Soviet weapons capabilities in the 1970s (the hype surrounding its MiG-25 Foxbat fighter jet, for example) that was used to justify a new generation of ultra-expensive American weaponry. Or the justifications for the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s — 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.
And this endless long con of the Pentagon’s was all the more effective because so many of its lies were sold by self-serving politicians. Exhibit one was, of course, John F. Kennedy’s embrace of that false missile gap in winning the 1960 presidential election. Still, the Pentagon was never shy in its claims. Take the demand of the Air Force then for 10,000 — yes, you read that right! — new ICBMs to counter a Soviet threat that then numbered no more than a few dozen such missiles (as Daniel Ellsberg reminds us in his recent book, The Doomsday Machine).
To keep the Air Force happy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara settled on a mere 1,000 land-based Minuteman missiles to augment the 54 older Titan II ICBMs in that service’s arsenal, a figure I committed to memory as a teenager in the 1970s. And don’t forget that some of those missiles were MIRVed, meaning they had multiple nuclear warheads that could hit many targets. It all added up to the threat of what, in those years, came to be called “mutually assured destruction,” better known by its all-too-apt acronym, MAD.
And the Pentagon’s version of madness never ends. Think, for instance, of the planned three-decade $1.7 trillion “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear triad now underway, justified in the name of “overmatching” China and Russia, “near-peer” rivals in Pentagon-speak. No matter that America’s current triad of land-based, submarine-based, and air-deployed nukes already leave the arsenals of those two countries in the shade.
Reason doesn’t matter when the idea of a new cold war with those two former enemies couldn’t be more useful in justifying the through-the-ceiling $750 billion defense budget requested by President Trump for 2020. The Democrats have pushed back with a still-soaring budget of $733 billion that accepts without question the “baseline” minimum demanded by Pentagon officials, a level of spending Trump once called “crazy.” Talk about resistance being futile!
In other words, when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars, the Washington establishment of both parties has essentially been assimilated into the Pentagon collective. The national security state, that (unacknowledged) fourth branch of government, has in many ways become the most powerful of all, siphoning off more than 60% of federal discretionary spending, while failing to pass a single audit of how it uses such colossal sums.
All of this is in service to what’s known as a National Defense Strategy (NDS) whose main purpose is to justify yet more prodigious Pentagon spending. As Vietnam War veteran and professor at National Defense University Gregory Foster wrote of the latest version of that document:
“In the final analysis, the NDS is an unadulterated call for a new Cold War, with all its attendant appurtenances: more gluttonous defense spending to support escalatory arms races in all those ‘contested domains’ of warfare; reliance on bean-counting input measures (weapons, forces, spending) for determining comparative ‘competitiveness’; reinforcement and reaffirmation of the sacrosanct American way of war; and the reassuring comfort of superimposing an artificially simplistic Manichean worldview on the world’s inherent complexity and thereby continuing to ignore and marginalize actors, places, and circumstances that don’t coincide with our established preconceptions.”
Such a critique is largely lost on Donald Trump, a man who models himself on perceived tough guys like Andrew Jackson and Winston Churchill. 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. America’s wars continue unabated. U.S. troops remain in Syria and Afghanistan (despite the president’s stated desire to remove them). Relations with Russia are tense as his administration tears up the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiated by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
What to make of the president’s visible capitulation to the Pentagon? Sure, he’s playing to his conservative base, which is generally up for more spending on weaponry and war, but like so many presidents before him, he’s been conned as well. The con-man-in-chief has finally met his match: a national security state that, when you consider its record, has had far greater success at lying its way to power than Donald J. Trump.
The Biggest Lie of All
Now, let’s take a hard look at ourselves when it comes to weaponry and those wars of “ours.” Because the most significant lies aren’t the ones the president tells us, but those we tell ourselves. The biggest of all: that we can continue to send young men and women off to war without those wars ever coming home.
Think again. 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. Meanwhile, surplus military equipment — from automatic weapons to tank-like MRAPs — made for the mean streets of Iraq are now deployed on Main Street, USA, by increasingly militarized police forces. Even the campus cops at Ohio State University have an MRAP!
Here, Americans would do well to ponder the words of Megan Stack, a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who drew on her own “education in war” when she wrote: “You can overcome the things that are done to you, but you cannot escape the things that you have done.” She was undoubtedly thinking about subjects like the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, torture at the CIA’s “black sites,” cities rubblized in the Greater Middle East, and refugees produced by the tens of millions. Somehow, sooner or later, it all comes home, whether we as Americans admit it, or even realize it, or not.
“Here is the truth,” Stack notes:
“It matters, what you do at war. It matters more than you ever want to know. Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are. The soldiers who don’t die for us come home again. They bring with them the killers they became on our national behalf, and sit with their polluted memories and broken emotions in our homes and schools and temples. We may wish it were not so, but action amounts to identity. We become what we do… All of that poison seeps back into our soil.”
And so indeed it has. How else to explain the way Americans have come to tolerate, even celebrate, convenient lies: that, for instance, Tomahawk missile strikes in Syria could make a feckless figure like Donald Trump presidential or even that such missiles are beautiful, as former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams once claimed. Imagine if leading media and political figures boasted instead of taking on the Pentagon, reining in its ambitions, and saving taxpayers trillions of dollars, as well as countless lives here and overseas.
Ending the Pentagon’s Long Con
War is the ultimate audit and, as any American should know, the Pentagon is incapable of passing an audit. Sadly, even when Congress acts to end U.S. support for a near-genocidal war that has nothing to do with any imaginable definition of national defense, in this case in Yemen, President Trump vetoes it. Remember when Candidate Trump was against dumb and wasteful wars? Not anymore. Not, at least, if it involves the Saudis.
The best course for this country, unimaginable as it might seem today, is to fight wars only as a last resort and when genuinely threatened (a sentiment that 86% of Americans agree with). In other words, 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.
What’s stopping us? Mainly our own fears, our own pride, our own readiness to believe lies. So let me list six things Americans could do that would curb our military mania:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 other 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%.
6. Finally, it’s time to stop boasting endlessly of our military strength as the measure of our national strength. What are we, Sparta?
The Pentagon will never be forced to make significant reforms until Americans stop believing in (and consenting to) its comforting lies.
This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book is A Nation Unmade By War (Haymarket Books).
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