John Tulloh. The Cost of the star-spangled arms banner.

Repost from 05/10/2015

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, we’re so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? 

The words of the first verse of the U.S. national anthem are now more than 200 years old. While they explode with patriotic pride of the new nation, they also celebrate war – in this case the repulsing of the British navy when it tried to invade Baltimore harbour in 1812. Since its founding in 1776, America has had a penchant for charging off to war.

An organisation called WashingtonsBlog has come out with an extraordinary statistic: since 1776, the U.S. has been at war in one form or another for 91% of those years. Many of the early conflicts were local ones, such as the revolutionary and civil wars, fighting the Mexicans and elsewhere in Central America, the Caribbean and, of course, against its own Indian tribes. In the past 100 years, only 11 passed without Washington turning loose its military somewhere in the world.

President Calvin Coolidge once observed that the business of America was business. It is more like military business. The U.S. Defence Department is synonymous with staggering statistics: 1.3 million personnel on active duty, another 742,000 civilian employees, a budget of 1.4 trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of different buildings over 5000 sites covering 30 million acres (or 10 times the size of sprawling Sydney). It is possibly the biggest enterprise in the world, especially for the juggernaut of business it generates.

USA Today, quoting 24/7 Wall Street, a newsletter for investors, reported that in 2011 the top 10 U.S. arms manufacturers employed a total of nearly 1,100,000 people and in the previous two years made a combined profit of $26.35 billion. There were scores of other companies also feeding on the military largesse. Their total turnover represents 2.3% of the U.S. GDP.

A study last year by Morgan Stanley, the financial services company, revealed that shares in major American arms companies have risen by four times as much in the past 50 years compared with the broader market. The Fiscal Times says the Dow Jones index of defence and aerospace companies has grown by 60% in the past two years, double the rate of the S&P. The so-called angels of death are thriving like never before.

Presidents at their peril try to reform or tame what President Eisenhower called the industrial-military complex. For members of congress, a vital electoral asset in any state is a military base or a war materiel plant. Washington is pervaded by lobbyists representing every aspect of the military economy. A naval installation in Virginia alone has more than 78,000 employees.

Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, says: ‘While few politicians are willing to admit it, we don’t just endure wars – we need war’.

President Obama has done his best to reduce the U.S. military presence in the world. By 2018, the army will shrink to its smallest size since before WW2. It will then number 450,000 compared with 570,000 in 2011. But now additional money is being spent on developing drones to replace boots on the ground.

Investors in the military-industry complex can take heart from another outlet ripe for exploitation: Homeland security. ‘Hundreds of billions of dollars flow each year from the public coffers to agencies and contractors who have an incentive to keep the country on a war footing’, says Prof. Turley. ‘The core of this expanding complex is an axis of influence of corporations, lobbyists and agencies that have created a massive, self-sustaining terror-based industry’.

The incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General ‘Fightin’ Joe’ Dunford, sees the danger elsewhere. He said in July that ‘Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security. If you look at their behaviour, it is nothing short of alarming’. It was bigger than Islamic State (I.S.), he added.

The titans of the military-industrial complex are more likely to welcome a Republican presidential victory as being even better for business. Donald Trump, the front runner, calls himself a ‘very militaristic person’. His slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’ can only mean louder bugles. Carly Fiorina, a former CEO who has impressed in debates, wants more ships, a bigger army and the restoration of missile defences to Poland. Senator Lindsey Graham proposes to send in troops to deal with I.S. and to stay there as long as it takes.

Given that trouble in the Middle East is here to stay and with Russia upping the ante, China flexing its military muscle and booming export orders, no amount of upheaval in the international economy is likely to deter the military business bonanza.

Americans can be rightly proud of what their armed forces have done in areas of the world where their allies often fear to tread. But they might also ponder another statistic: the rising cost of caring for the 33,000 of their military personnel, mainly troops, who were severely disabled in the line of recent duty. The Centre for Research on Globalisation estimates the overall long-term cost will be $900 billion.

President Eisenhower ended his eight years in office in 1961 by warning Americans ‘to guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence….by the military-industrial complex’. He might as well have talked to a coyote out on the prairies for what has happened since. One of his successors concluded that it would take the occupant of the Oval Office every single day of the presidential term to have any chance of taming the Pentagon.

The Pentagon’s own website virtually confirms that it will always be business as usual. ‘The mission of the Department of Defense’, it states, ‘is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country’.

FOOTNOTE. According to British columnist Alexander Chancellor, since 1968 more Americans have died from gunfire in their home country than have died in all wars in their history. That is, from the War of Independence right through to both world wars and Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The total war deaths, he wrote last month, were 1,171,177 over 239 years versus 1,384,171 in murders, suicides and other gun-related incidents in just the past 47 years. 

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

 

 

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