America’s longest war may have been another defeat for the US military, which hasn’t won a real war since 1945, but not for everyone. It was a victory, of course, for the Taliban, but if any good came of that, it was to challenge the will to engage in extended conflicts where the American public sees no vital national interest at stake.
The big winners were the military contractors, who supplied everything from aircraft to trucks, guns and ammo, boots and food and everything in between. Accountants are still trying to tally the price tag, but it could exceed $2.5 trillion. All told, a Brown University study estimates American taxpayers spent $8t. on post 9/11 wars.
The short lesson is this: war is good for business and there are many powerful forces right here at home – financial, industrial, political and criminal – that get rich from these endless wars.
In his 1961 farewell address president Dwight Eisenhower warned that the failure to adequately regulate the defense industry could lead to its “grave” expansion and perpetual war. As the World War II commanding general, he knew America emerged as the greatest military power in history and the giant industrial war machine that won the war was not about to go back to making refrigerators and cars.
He feared “the huge industrial and military machinery of defense,” with its “insatiable appetite for profit,” could lead to perpetual war, and “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
After Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans most willing to go back into another war in the region will be the defense contractors who supply the high-ticket consumables, and their shareholders, executives, consultants and politicians on their payrolls. To say nothing of the foreign warlords, tribal chiefs, government officials and other unsavory and unreliable allies who got their millions under the tables and in suitcases.
The Pentagon says it left aircraft, helicopters, tanks and other big-ticket items “inoperable,” but the Taliban’s taxpayer-funded booty includes Humvees, pick-up trucks, guns, ammunition and massive stocks of everything else.
But don’t worry, the Pentagon will soon be asking Congress for money to replace all that and more.
War isn’t cheap. On two days in 2017, the Pentagon signed contracts for $50.45 million just for combat boots and another for $20.49m. for ponchos, Salon.com reported. Then there was $1.7 billion for radios and spare parts. And that’s the little stuff. A single Apache helicopter costs $31m. plus weapons, according to militarymachine.com.
Congress has been derelict in its two critical roles: authorization and oversight. It surrendered its authority to declare war by approving the Tonkin Gulf Resolution for Vietnam in 1964 and in Iraq and Afghanistan in a 2001 Use of Force resolution still in effect. Oversight means scrutinizing policy and spending, and it has largely failed there as well. That could be because so much war spending went into lawmakers’ states and districts, benefiting their constituents and – more importantly – their campaign contributors.
That, of course, is by design. Pentagon lobbyists are adept at spreading around defense contracts so that almost every lawmaker has a political stake in the business of war.
Conflict of interest seems to be the norm. There’s a revolving door at the Pentagon, starting at the top.
All three of president Donald Trump’s defense secretaries made millions in the industry before going to the Pentagon: Jim Mattis was a director of General Dynamics; Patrick Shanahan was a 30-year-Boeing veteran and Mark Esper came from Raytheon. (Trump may have had the most corporate-exec cabinet ever.) Joe Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, is a retired four-star Army general who made millions serving on corporate boards following his retirement in 2016, according to Forbes.
What about the rest? The grunts and low ranks will go on to new assignments, though they might lose some of their combat pay perks. The top brass will either get promoted or hired as consultants and board members by corporations that will deploy them to the front lines in Washington to fight for more contracts while they wait for jobs in the next administration. Some will also land lucrative contracts to be “analysts” on cable news networks or even run for Congress where they can pontificate on how they’d have won the war.
For contractors, who provide everything from drivers to cooks to spies to security guards to mercenaries who put their hired boots on the ground, there’s always another war. Govexec.com estimates the Pentagon spent $107.9m. on “contracted services” in Afghanistan since 2002.
Tens of thousands of young Americans – and many more of other nations – have been killed or left permanently damaged in our most recent wars, and taxpayers have poured trillions into those blood-soaked sink holes with little or nothing to show for it.
That wasn’t all that was lost. America’s international stature, particularly in the eyes of nations like Israel that look to Washington for protection and leadership, was seriously damaged.
When what is touted as the strongest, most sophisticated, best equipped military force in history is forced to flee by an army on pick-up trucks, armed with old grenade launchers and AK-47s, there’s something deeply wrong. When the generals argue for a little more time to get the Afghan army trained after 20 years of failure, they should’ve all been fired at once for blind incompetence.
Did anyone seriously expect the corrupt leaders in those countries (who we did so much to corrupt) would suddenly – or ever – build a democratic oasis?
It took four successive American presidents and two endless wars to once again validate Sun Tzu’s 6th century BCE warning in The Art of War, “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” As Ike reminded us: war may be good for business but not for democracy.