Book review: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks is a wonderfully-written, informative book about the bloated military, its mission creep, and the under-funding of other parts of the government such as the State Department.

The book comes with hearty recommendations from General James Mattis, General Stanley McChrystal, and Gen. David Patreus. This is despite the fact that the book  — at least until the last chapter –is  anti-war and is critical of military waste and secrecy.

She quotes polls that suggest that Americans have high regard for the military but low regard for other branches of government, and especially for Congress. Likewise, the Pentagon is lavishly funded, but other branches of government — including the State Department and the Internal Revenue Service — are starved for funds.

Our cynical political culture devalues social welfare programs and snickers at communitarian impluses, and most of us trust neither our neighbors nor the public institutions that are meant to serve us. The distrust is not unmerited; the more we the more we devalue public programs, the less we fund them — and and the less they can offer us, the less we trust them, and so on. The military is all that’s left: the last institution standing.

And so, too much is asked of the military.  Aside from being asked to fight unwinnable wars, it’s also asked to handle more and more tasks worldwide that used to be handled by civilian agencies: agricultural, medical, educational, elections, and, in general, nation building.  The book describes some of the turf wars between the State Department and the military — conflicts over who show do what.

In a way, this is great progress, because the military realizes that to avoid war and to maintain peace, it’s important to have stable nations overseas with working justice systems and economies.  Just bombing and destroying enemies doesn’t win many friends.

Of course, nation building  mostly fails.

Alas, while our own infrastructure and government agencies fall to pieces, we spend trillions of dollars trying to build nations overseas.

In many ways, America is a failing state, with massive tax evasion and fraud. But this is by choice, more than by incompetence: the GOP hates taxes and government, except for the military.

The book was published in 2016 — she doesn’t mention Trump at all.  Imagine how much worse things are now, since Trump and the Republicans have gutted federal agencies and even failed to appoint key staff. And today I saw headlines saying that Trump has issued an executive order to freeze federal pay in 2019.

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, by Rosa Brooks

Brooks gave a talk to a group of majors and lieutenant colonels at an Army school. She asked them what was the greatest security threat facing America in the next decade or two. Few of the soldiers thought that Islamic terrorism, North Korea or Iran posed the biggest threat. The biggest threats, they thought, would come from conflicts involving resource scarcity resulting from climate change, and from global economic collapse.

She tells the story of the murder of Chilean leftist Letelier in Washington D.C. by agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and of the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, apparently by Russian agents. But, in a similar way, the United States has been killing its enemies overseas with Predator and Reaper drones, or with special operation raids. Brooks says about 4000 such killings have occurred. She says she trusts her former colleagues in the military to do the right thing, but what about people in other countries who feel they have the right to launch targeted killings of their enemies all over the world? After pointing out the secrecy in which the targeted killings have been shrouded, she writes, “The legal precedents we are setting risk undermining the fragile norms of sovereignty and human rights that help keep our world stable. We should ask ourselves this: Do we want to live in a world in which every state considers itself to have a legal right to kill people in other states, secretly and with no public disclosure or due process, base on its own unilateral assertions of national security prerogatives?”

“If ‘imminent threat’ can mean ‘lack of evidence of the absence of imminent threat,’ it is impossible to know, with any clarity, the circumstances in which the United States will in fact decide that the use of military force is lawful.”

She tells horrifying and moving stories about cruelty and violence overseas — e.g., a story of school girls kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda and about suffering in Bosnia.  There are, rarely, just interventions.  Stopping the genocide in Rwanda, by sending in peace keepers, could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Her mind is so clear and analytical. She’s a law professor at Georgetown University. But she also manages to find humor or irony in various challenges.

For example, after telling about the gargantuan size of the military budget — more then the next fifteen biggest spenders combined — she goes onto talk about the fuzzy accounting at the Pentagon. “DoD’s a big place, and stuff gets lost: money, programs, people, organizations, weapon systems, the occasional small war.”

Indeed, the recent audit of the Pentagon failed. They were unable to account for a mind-boggling $21 trillion in spending (not all real money: accounting tricks). See Exclusive: The Pentagon’s Massive Accounting Fraud Exposed: How US military spending keeps rising even as the Pentagon flunks its audit.

Soldiers, even the generals, know that war is hell. It’s the darn hawkish politicians who are most responsible for pushing the nation into disastrous wars and for asking the military to engage in nation building.

She mentions that, contrary to what the public believes, military personnel are paid higher than non-military government workers, and have better benefits.  Health care is free. Groceries are discounted 30%. Higher education is largely free. Housing is free or subsidized.  Veterans can retire at age 40 with large pensions.  Health care spending for the military has grown at twice the rate as it has grown for civilian health care. “Anyone who thinks there’s no such thing as socialism has never spent time on a military base.”

Congress insists on giving the Pentagon money even for programs it doesn’t want. “[O]ne of the things that astounded me was hard it was to get Congress to stop funding stupid stuff.”

She writes, “[T]he whole idea of a secret war is deeply offensive to core principles of American democracy — in particular, to any notion of constitutional checks and balances.” But secret wars exist: drone wars and actions by U.S. special forces.”   “…. But it would be just as much a mistake to dismiss U.S. counterterrorism policy as the selfish, destructive flailing of an arrogant, damaged superpower. It is that, but not only that. Hegel famously defined tragedy as the conflict between two goods, each overly rigid in its claims.”

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) granted the Bush administration Congressional approval for fighting Al Qaeda and related forces that were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. But since then, there’s been mission creep, and the AUMF has been applied to groups less and less related to Al Qaeda., such as the Al Shabaab militants in Somalia. Another example is the Islamic State, which is actually in conflict with the remnants of Al Qaeda.

She points out that the American Civil War killed 600,000 people, and World War Two killed 400,000 Americans. The 9/11 terrorists attacks killed a few thousand. Were they really justification, she asks, for throwing two centuries of American values out the window?

In particular, allowing the President to unilaterally and secretly kill Americans overseas, without judicial overview, violates fundamental doctrines of American separation of powers and concentration of power.

But drones aren’t all bad, she points out: isn’t it better to target a few dangerous individuals than to fight wars the old way with thousands of troops, heavy armor and bombing runs by the air force? Surely, there will be less collateral damage with high tech targeted strikes.

War has become more like policing, and policing has become more like war. Soldiers overseas often engage in police-like raids — rather than massive assaults like in the two world wars — as well as in counter-insurgency and nation building. And many police departments have adopted military equipment, tactics, and dress.

Progress towards a more peaceful world isn’t inevitable, she insists. And if we don’t make the effort to craft an international order that maintains peace and cooperation, “we could find ourselves, all too quickly, back in the era of domestic repression and bloody global conflict.”

One problematic part of her book is the last chapter, “Managing War’s Paradoxes,” where she considers but rejects pacifist arguments about the war on terror. Since 9/11, America has been in a constant state of war, and war has expanded to include multiple countries and multiple, non-traditional formats (cyber-terrorism, economic terrorism, fake news, bioterrorism, drone attacks, etc). Post 9/11 our privacy rights and civil rights have been degraded: extra-judicial killings of Americans by drones are the norm, as is indefinite detention. Some pacifists suggest that the problem is that we shouldn’t regard terrorist attacks as a war at all. Rather, we should view such attacks as criminal acts, or as social problems. We can, say the pacifists, put the genie back in the bottle.

To be specific, the genie is the blurring of lines between war and peace, and the militarization of all aspects of life.

In the last chapter Brooks rejects the pacifist view and says that expanded war is here to stay. In fact, she says, war has been the norm rather than the exception throughout human history.  She points to President Obama’s conflicting statements about war. While he acknowledged that perpetual war mustn’t become the norm, he repeatedly agreed to more war: escalating troops in Afghanistan, sending troops to Syria, and authorizing drone attacks. Even in his Nobel address, for the Peace Prize he didn’t deserve, he spoke of the necessity of war.

She writes, “The changes that have blurred the lines between war and peace are real, not just figments of militaristic American imaginations.” War is no longer a matter of massed troops between nation states. Now it’s dispersed and disorganized. She acknowledges that the changes in the nature of war create fundamental challenges to international law and human rights. War and peace aren’t binary opposites but exist on a continuum, she says.

“It’s time to stop relying on lines drawn in the sand: the wind and waves are washing them away.” Instead, she says, we should realize that war is a constant companion and that we need to develop frameworks for managing it in a way that protects human rights and human dignity. In particular, we need international rules that make room for targeted killings, via, say, the Security Council of the United Nations. Brooks says the U.S. must be willing to give up some sovereignty, lest our actions come back to haunt us when other nations perform targeted killings of Americans.

In the past, she says, the Declaration of Independence, the Geneva Conventions, and the United Nations Charter brought progress towards peace and human rights. “Today, as the boundaries around war grow indistinct and war’s toxins begin to bleed into daily life, it’s time to try again.” That is, try to build laws to constrain the new kinds of war that we now face.

Likewise, she acknowledges that in an ideal world civilian agencies would be given the resources to do the many activities of nation building and development that currently fall to the military (and that the military often lacks the skills to perform). But, she asks, “is it remotely realistic to imagine that this will happen any time in the next few decades, given current political realities?” Her answer is, no.

She doesn’t mention the GOP by name, but that’s her implication: Republicans do not want government to work, except for the military.

Since, she says, we are stuck with just the military, let’s admit that the military’s role is wider than just killing. Hiring rules should be changed to downplay physical strength and youth and to emphasize more intellectual skills, such as linguistic ability and coding skills. Moreover, “we’ll need to knock down the walls we’ve created between our civilian agencies and the military.” After all, national security depends on more than just violence: education, transportation, health care, and environmental stewardship, for example.

Heck, she sounds like a progressive!

What she fails to adequately address is the extent to which U.S. foreign policy created terrorism, by our meddling in and invasions of other countries. It is largely the USA that let the genie out of the bottle! Al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq in 2001, but they sure are there now. Similar stories can be told about Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, Indonesia, and South America. And now American forces are in many countries in Africa.

Moreover, the inability of Congress to adequately fund civilian agencies could change substantially in two years, if the Democrats win back control of the U.S. Senate and the White House, and if progressives in the Democratic Party are able to beat hawkish, neoliberal Democrats. And if the public can, somehow, be educated about how they’re being cheated by neoliberal ideology.

The biggest danger to our well-being is the Republican Party and its obsession with lowering taxes and de-funding government agencies, while building up the military.

Finally, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a just way would have gone a long way towards lessening Islamic terrorism. Why didn’t Brooks mention that?

Deceptive anti-government article in the Seattle P-I

The Seattle P-I often publishes click-bait photo essays, which ask the user to click through a series of Getty images to read short summaries.  The photo essays hardly count as “articles”. The first page is a rewording of some source article. The reader spends most of her time clicking through the pretty photos. I suppose the Seattle P-I likes the cheap (free?) content and needs the ad revenue.

A recent photo essay is particularly low quality.

Called “The worst-ever wastes of US public money”, the photo essay is deceptive for several reasons.

First, the article omits some boondoggles that are far more costly than the ones it included.

The disastrous, ill-conceived war in Iraq has already cost $2 trillion; estimated eventual cost is as high as $6 trillion (source).

And what about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program? Each plane costs $400 million, twice the original estimate. The entire program’s estimated cost? $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion.  The program has been plagued with technical difficulties, and numerous critics claim the plane’s design is inferior.  For example, Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run’;   F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a Lemon (“Military expert Pierre Sprey, the founder and designer of the F-16 & A-10 Warthog airplanes, explains why the F-35 will not cut it on the modern battlefield”).

The list of boondoggles they do include — copied from GoBankingRate.com’s 20 Biggest Boondoggles in the U.S. — ranges from #20 “Missouri’s Pruitt-Igoe Housing Projects: $36 Million” to #1 “California’s High-Speed Rail: $68 Billion”.

Not all of the projects are primarily wastes of government. #12 is “New Jersey’s Revel Casino: $2.4 Billion”. That failure was mostly a failure of corporations, not government.  Morgan Stanley took a $900 million loss on the casino.   Republican Governor Chris Christie signed onto the project, guaranteeing $216 million in tax incentives.

In fact, progressives aren’t in favor of all government programs.

Ten of the projects (#19, #18, #16, #15, #14, #10, #9, #7, #6, and #4) involve road and bridge construction. I can agree that the projects are largely wasteful. But progressives, such as me, generally oppose government spending on roads, which has the effect of subsidizing auto use and sprawl.

#10 is “Washington’s Big Bertha $3.1 Billion.”  Most Seattle progressives (environmentalists in particular) opposed spending on the tunnel and wanted public transportation instead.

Often government programs are corrupt or benefit the wrong people. But the solution isn’t to get rid of government. The solution is to fix the corruption and mismanagement.  But a tried and true GOP strategy is to make sure government works only for the 1%. Under-fund and corrupt the programs that do help the middle class.   Oppose regulations that might prevent abuses. Then blame government for the failures.

#1 in the list of boondoggles is California’s high speed rail. But construction began in January, 2015.  It’s too early to call the project a boondoggle. It’s a worthy goal: build high-speed rail from LA to San Francisco.

#17 is about Maryland’s sewer system. $1.1 billion is the estimated total cost.  The original projected cost was $700 million.  The scheduled completion date is in 2018. That doesn’t strike me as a terrible cost-overrun.

#5 on the the list is “Texas’ Superconducting Super Collider: $11 Billion”. But, in fact, $11 billion was the revised estimated cost; “only” about $2.4 billion of that projected cost was actually spent (according to this article and this article).

Let’s not forget, too, the billions of dollars wasted by corporations. Most businesses fail. Microsoft recently wasted $7.6 billion on its acquisition of Nokia and another $6.2 billion on aQuantive.

For the record, here are images of the headlines, followed by the text of the original article appearing in Seattle P-I.

Seattle P-I headline 1

Seattle P-I headline 1

Seattle P-I headline 1

Sometimes, the government uses the money its taxpayers send each April 15 wisely, like building schools or paying benefits to veterans.

Other times, the government could save itself and taxpayers a lot of hassle just by throwing our money in a big trash can and setting it on fire.

Recently, the consumer finance site GoBankingRates collected the 20 biggest boondoggles in America, and perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of them can be put on the tab of either a state government of the feds.

 If you thought the $435 hammer at the Pentagon or the Navy’s $640 toilet seat sounded like ridiculous wastes of money (they’re actually more like “creative accounting”), you’re not going to be happy with the $1.3 billion the government spent on an interstate that doesn’t actually connect any states.

Or the $2 billion on a dam that failed the first time they tried to fill it (killing several people in the process).

Check out the photos above to see the 20 biggest wastes of money in America, according to GoBankingRates, along with why they are and will continue to be such gigantic money pits.

As I mentioned above, the P-I got the content from GoBankingRates.com. In the original article, there’s a link “View All.”  If you click on it, you get to see the list of projects, and their corresponding images, on a single page.  The Seattle P-I makes readers click through the images to see the list. Annoying!

All our reps but McDermott voted to fund the Syrian rebels

Reps DelBene, Kilmer, Larsen, Heck and Smith voted Yea on the McKeon Amendment that funds the arming of Syrian rebels. “The amendment would authorize the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups or individuals.” (source). Only Rep. McDermott voted Nay.    All Washington State’s Republican reps voted Yea as well.

Sounds like another dangerous waste of money.

Progressives are generally opposing the war-mongering. Dennis Kucinich gives 8 Reasons Why Congress Should Vote No on Training and Funding Syrian Rebels.  Also: PDA’s statement against the war.

Please phone our Senators and ask them to reject funding for the Syrian rebels: Murray [ 202-224-2621, (206) 553-5545] and Cantwell [ 202-224-3441 (206) 220-6400]

Rep. Jim McDermott on Pres. Obama’s strategy.

Plutocracy is comin, to the USA

New, alternative lyrics for Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy is coming, to the USA” (see videos below)


Lyrics © Donald A. Smith
       D               G           D
It's coming from corruption that's profane
             D          A                 D
From Grover Norquist's government-hating brain
       G
It's coming from the spiel 
       G_sus          G
That makes your head reel
    D           G                 D
when you listen to the right wing refrain.

          F#
From the Tea Party crazies
          Bm
From the Chamber of Commerce hacks
          F#
From neocon imperialists
          Bm
From Karl Rove's Super-PAC
 A                    G       D
Plutocracy is comin, to the USA.

---------------------------------
       D               G           D
It's coming from tax cuts for the rich,
       D          A                 D
From the Supreme Court, the 1%'s bitch.
       G
It's coming from evil folk 
       G_sus           G
like David and Charles Koch 
    D                          G                D
and from Bill and Barry's traitorous rightward switch.

          F#
From Citizen United
          Bm
From Clarence Thomas's smut
          F#
From John Robert's smirk 
          Bm
From Anton Scalia's butt
 A                   G        D
Plutocracy is comin, to the USA.

---------------------------------
      D               G           D
It's coming from the wars. Open your eyes.
            D            A                  D
Killed millions. Wasted trillions. Hear the cries.
       G
From the disaster in Vietnam
       G_sus           G
to the debacle of Afghanistan
    D               G         D
to the war in Iraq based on lies.

          F#
From the CIA's dirty deeds
          Bm
From collateral clone attacks
          F#
From targeted assassinations
          Bm
From illegal wire taps
 A                   G        D
Plutocracy is comin, to the USA.

---------------------------------
          A         G
    Bail out, bail out,
         D         G    D
    O sinking Ship of State!
             A
    To the Shores of Greed
             G
    Past the Reefs of Need
             D
    To the Squalls of Hate.
          A      G     D
    Bail out, bail out, bail out.

---------------------------------
      D               G           D
It's coming from your neighbor's SUV
      D               A           D
From the toxins that are killing off the bees.

       G
It's coming from Big Oil,   
       G_sus           G
and the fracking and the spoil
    D                   G        D
and climate change denial fantasies. 

          F#
From ugly suburban sprawl
         Bm
From filthy factory smoke,   
          F#
From the local big box mall
         Bm
From David and Charles Koch
 A                   G        D
Plutocracy is comin, to the USA.

-------------------
      D               G           D
It's coming from right-wing media hosts
            D            A                  D
From the wingnuts with their hate-filled posts.

       G
It's coming from Fox News
       G_sus           G
and its pro-corporate views
    D                    G          D
that are unfair and unbalanced at most.

          F#
From Limbaugh and Glenn Beck
         Bm
From Bill O'Reilly's rants
          F#
From Hannity and Savage's drek
          Bm
From Dennis Miller's cant

 A                   G        D
Plutocracy is comin, to the USA.

---------------------------------

       D            G           D
It's coming from income inequality,
      D                 A         D
From tax loopholes  for Apple and GE.

       G
It's coming from tax havens   
       G_sus           G
and accounting tricks so brazen
    D             G           D
it's a wonder they're not on TV.

          F#
From low capital gain tax rates 
          Bm
From Walmart and Goldman Sachs
          F#
From Boeing and Microsoft
          Bm
From tax enforcement cutbacks.

 A                   G        D
Plutocracy is comin, to the USA.

Here are two versions of Leonard Cohen’s original song.

Mother Jones article calls Patty Murray a hawk

The January/February issue of Mother Jones has an article “Can’t Touch This:  The wars are winding down. It’s the age of sequester. So why won’t the Pentagon live within its means?”.   The article lists examples of the tremendous waste in the Pentagon budget and identifies Senator Patty Murray as one of the key liberal hawks (“Democrats who want more money for the military but aren’t keen on domestic cuts”).

Adam Smith on the defense cuts

Ranking House Armed Services Democrat Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington State, says of the defense cuts: “The single biggest take away from Strategic Choices Management Review is that Congress, by allowing sequestration to exist, is abdicating its constitutional responsibility to responsibly fund the military and to provide for the common defense. Through sequestration, Congress is forcing the Department of Defense to make some extremely difficult decisions that will undermine military readiness and put more unneeded stress on our troops, civilian employees, and military retirees.”

Hagel Outlines Bold, Painful Cuts to Army, Carriers, Pay, Benefits To Cope With Sequester

But William Hartung, head of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, didn’t buy that, saying Hagel’s actions “are too little, too late. Key questions like changes in military compensation — and even how to cut the $52 billion in FY 2014 — have yet again been kicked down the road.” Hartung accused Hagel of of understating DoD’s “ability to make sensible procurement cuts by protecting systems like the overpriced, under-performing F-35 combat aircraft.”