David Hoppe

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:: Our runaway military

Who's in charge?

By David Hoppe

Last week, President Obama was forced to fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the officer Obama himself had chosen to lead our troops in the Afghanistan war. The way things are going, we're lucky McChrystal wasn't the one firing the president.

McChrystal had been pressing the president's buttons for at least a year. Last June he leaked a policy review that called for sending another 40,000 troops to fight the Afghan insurgency. This arguably forced Obama's hand. Although he undertook a painstaking, three-month review of options, the president wound up announcing in December that 30,000 more troops were headed to Afghanistan - practically the number McChrystal demanded in the first place.

What finally cooked McChrystal, a soldier Newsweek breathlessly likened to a Jedi knight, was an article by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone . In a piece called "The Runaway General," McChrystal and his subordinates are quoted talking trash about America's NATO allies and, especially, high-ranking civilians responsible for our country's diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan.

McChrystal, by all accounts, is no dummy. When he gave Hastings almost unlimited access to hang out with he and his entourage, he had to know the resulting story was likely to be pretty raw.

Apparently he didn't care about that.

On the night before Obama fired him, McChrystal released a pro forma apology, one of those standard-issue statements that sound like they're drafted by the HAL computer: "I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome."

Uh-Huh.

With apologies to Michael Hastings, the problem is not one runaway general, it's our runaway military-industrial complex. Eisenhower put that term into common usage during his 1961 farewell speech, when he observed: "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 State house, 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."

Ike might have been describing today's Indiana, where, thanks to federal spending, the defense industry has become a bigger part of our economy than farming, delivering $960 for every man, woman and child.

People have sometimes described the uneasy relations between our military and the civilian government as a tail wagging the dog. The metaphor only holds, though, if you can imagine a dog with a tail bigger than the rest of its body. As Hastings points out, part of the problem with the way policy is understood and enacted in Afghanistan is that the Defense Department budget is $600 billion a year, while the State Department budget is $50 billion. According to a recent report by Sen. Tom Coburn, the conservative senator from Oklahoma, total Pentagon spending is higher today, in constant dollars, than at any time during the past 60 years. Coburn's report goes on to state that the DoD cannot pass an audit, cannot track its money, doesn't know who owes it money and ignores the laws that govern its spending.  At present, there is no expectation for the DoD to pass an audit before 2017.

The military-industrial complex shows all the signs of becoming a parallel state.

In light of all this, many of us who rejoiced when the draft was abolished in 1973 have come to wonder if what we wished for hasn't backfired. The draft, especially as it was practiced during the Vietnam War, was grossly unfair, particularly in how it preyed on the working class.

But, in principle, the draft is also an important way to involve each generation of citizens in the way their country thinks about how and when to use its military. The draft incited a storm of popular protest against the war in Vietnam that, while it didn't end the war, certainly heightened debate and raised political stakes.

By contrast, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now the longest wars this country has ever fought. Policy is made and continues across political administrations without major protest. It is hard to imagine that this warmaking could continue with such impunity were all fathers and mothers across the land watching their children report for duty.

It's become a kind of populist sport to rant and rave about the failings of our government. Most of the ranters, though, rarely, if ever, include the military in their gripes. The documented waste, lack of accountability, and the downright hostility to civilian oversight described in Hastings' article about McChrystal are apparently fine with many of these folks.

It makes you wonder if their problem is less with the way the government is run, than with the kind of government we have. It's said there's nothing turns some peoples' heads like a man (or woman) in uniform. Maybe they'd rather have a Commander-in-Chief than a president.