Of Moose and Pit Bulls

Understanding America's Military

August 24, 2008

I wonder whether the United States hadn’t ought to re-ponder the place of the military in society and in the world. There is not the slightest chance that this will happen, but wondering has not yet been forbidden. It appears to me that bureaucratic clotting set in years back, and is now having its effect in spheres martial. A robust economy can afford frivolities that one in derobustion cannot. And that is where America is.

The US military is the military of World War II, but with better technology. The Navy still consists of carriers surrounded by ships intended to protect the carriers. The heart of the army is still armored and infantry divisions with artillery and close-air support. The Air Force too. All are designed to fight enemies like themselves. However, there are no enemies like themselves, and WWII forces do not well fight the enemies they do have, such as ragtag dispersed guerrillas, because they are not intended to fight them.

Why a World War II military? Because of institutional inertia, because men delight in fast, powerful things that make loud and stirring noises, because the ships and tanks and submarines are magnificent. Relinquishing them is too painful to contemplate. Instead of changing its forces to suit present needs, the Pentagon keeps them as they are and tries to use them where they do not work well.

WWII militaries are intended to destroy expensive point targets and to conquer crucial territory. For example, they try to destroy the enemy’s aircraft and conquer his cities. This America does very well indeed. The difficulty is that dispersed guerrillas do not have any expensive point targets, crucial territory, or cities. The Pentagon is using baseball bats to fight mosquitoes. The absurdity of using a B1 intercontinental bomber for close air support is manifest. But you’ve got the plane, the pilots don’t want to miss the war, and so you find something for them to bomb.

A current American weakness is that it has a small army. Controlling large countries full of dispersed enemies requires large armies. America’s is a small army because it is an All Volunteer army. Not many young men want to be soldiers. The Pentagon likes the All-Vol for two reasons. First, volunteer soldiers are much better than unwilling short-term conscriptees. Second, the public doesn’t care if volunteers get killed. After all, they volunteered. They come from blue-collar families. These regard the death of a son as a noble sacrifice rather than a human sacrifice for large commercial firms. And they have little political influence anyway.

This matters. The Pentagon has learned that it cannot sustain a war in the face of united public opposition. If students in college were drafted, hell would follow. The key is not to disturb the public, which the military recognizes as more of a danger than the enemy actually being fought.

The true enemy, always, is the press. Should reporters turn against a war, they would rouse that great sleeping Public Monster, and then the military would face a war on two fronts. Fortunately the press consists of a few large corporations and holding companies owned by people of the same social class, who are not opposed to the current wars.

Since World War II, political power has become increasingly concentrated in the presidency, the concentration having become very rapid in recent years. Most crucially, the Congress has relinquished its power to decide whether the country goes to war. Thus wars are no longer determined by the national interest but by presidential whim. These whims can be directed by the desires of the president’s friends, by powerful groups with agendas, by writers at intellectual magazines. Quite often these know nothing of war. And the military by enshrining obedience avoids responsibility.

The US is phenomenally if discreetly militarized. The country is neither a democracy, nor a government of laws, nor of men, but an oligarchy of lobbies that press for whatever is of benefit to themselves, though not necessarily to the country. The underlying principle is that honey attracts flies. The federal government collects vast sums in taxes and the lobbies come to get it.

In the military racket, the money is in big-ticket weaponry. The carriers, Aegis boats, subs, fighters, tanks, B1s, B2s, and satellites sell for billions. These sums attract a vast aerospace industry that would collapse without sales to the military. The Pentagon is a captive market, and often a haven for firms that couldn’t compete in the commercial marketplace.

Much of this money goes for pricey gear that is both unknown to the public and of little use for the wars the country fights (but probably shouldn’t). To hide a program from the public, you don’t have to make it secret, which would only draw attention. Just don’t talk about it. The press, which is owned by big business and manned by reporters of preternatural technical puzzlement, will say little. For examples, search on JSF, F22, V22, ABL, and ABM.

As always, the key is to avoid waking the public. Thus the military avoids attention. But add up overt and hidden military expenditure: the “defense” budget, appropriations for the wars, the black programs, the Veterans Administration, the national laboratories, TSA, and so on. The sum is backbreaking for a nation in decline, but the public knows neither that it is backbreaking nor that the country is in decline.

To countries competing with the US, as for example Japan, the American military budget is a godsend, the equivalent of a golf handicap on a rival, because it represents money the US cannot spend to become more competitive. Fortunately for Asia, American military expenditure cannot readily be cut back. Too many jobs, military towns, and corporate profits depend on it. Consequently China builds infrastructure while the US builds fighter planes. The only plausible brake will be conflict with Social Security and Medicare, cuts in which will wake the Public Monster.

The illusion of omnipotence dies hard. The American military has been dominant for so long that neither it nor Americans can grasp that there are limits to its power. America now tries militarily to encircle Russia, Iran, and China, which increasingly looks like an aging pit bull trying to encircle a herd of moose. The Pentagon is planning for a war with China and talks of “Full Spectrum Dominance.” The current government in Washington wants to attack Iran and Pakistan, threatens Syria and Venezuela, and seems bent on igniting another Cold War with Russia (if one ignites cold wars). The Army is to be expanded.

Meanwhile China builds infrastructure.