Pick Wayne's Brain

April 27, 2008

Eisenhower Was Right But For The Wrong Reasons

In his farewell address of 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned of a build-up of the “military-industrial comlpex.” He was right in that we be concerned about it, but the reasons we should have heeded his warning were not the ones he stated in his address. Eisenhower was concerned that so much of our annual budget would be devoted to the military-industrial complex, it might gain so much power that it could threaten the peace around the world. He also warned that it might one day dominate the scientific and academic world, to the point where government contracts replaced intellectual curiosity. Stranger still, he also feared that scientists might try to take over the world.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

You have to remember, it was the Fifties. Once the mysterious world of Radiation became common knowledge, the public tended to mistrust scientists. But after Kennedy pointed them toward the moon and said, “Look, something shiny,” they became heroes to the public. Even the ones that used to work for the Nazis. It turns out that the evils the military-industrial complex produced were unforeseen by Ike. “The United States finds itself in the anomalous position of being unable to pay for its own elevated living standards or its wasteful, overly large military establishment.”

In a great column on AlterNet, author Chalmers Johnson warns that, among other things, we have placed our economic trust in “Military Keynesianism”, described as “the mistaken belief that public policies focused on frequent wars, huge expenditures on weapons and munitions, and large standing armies can indefinitely sustain a wealthy capitalist economy. The opposite is actually true.” Also, we are spending “insane amounts of money” on defense projects that have no relation to national defense. But at the same time, we are keeping the tax burden on the richest among us at “strikingly low levels.” (Remember, before Bush, no civilization in the history of mankind lowered taxes during a time of war.) And finally, with our “devotion to militarism”, we are neglecting the other things that the money could have been spent on. Our infrastructure is crumbling; our education system is producing “graduates” that don’t know the first thing about the rest of the world; we fail to provide health care to our citizens while remaining one of the biggest polluters in the world (not the biggest, but more than our “fair share”) and “[m]ost important, we have lost our competitiveness as a manufacturer for civilian needs, an infinitely more efficient use of scarce resources than arms manufacturing.”

All of this points toward an economic disaster unlike any other we have faced in our history. The constant borrowing to supoprt the military-industrial complex cannot be sustained. The customer base will eventually dry up, as everyone is either killed or too weary to fight. Eventually, they will need to be turned toward something else, something that produces something useful. At one point, we had more than 30,000 nuclear warheads in our stockpile (none of which were actually used in combat). They were not only a deterrent to our political enemies, they were also a jobs program for the federal government, designed to keep the economy moving. Between 1946 and 1969, our nation spent one trillion dollars on our defense budgets. In 2008 alone, we will spend more than one trillion dollars. And what will be left of that money when the year is over, besides broken minds, bodies, and lives?

But one phrase in Mr. Johnson’s great article caught my eye, and it makes me wonder.

Its government no longer even attempts to reduce the ruinous expenses of maintaining huge standing armies, replacing the equipment that seven years of wars have destroyed or worn out, or preparing for a war in outer space against unknown adversaries. Instead, the Bush administration puts off these costs for future generations to pay or repudiate.

Wait a minute. Did I read that right? What was that about outer space?

Its government no longer even attempts to reduce the ruinous expenses of…preparing for a war in outer space against unknown adversaries.

Is he saying that we have, for some time now, been “preparing for a war in outer space against unknown adversaries”? Can I ask why? I mean, what has given them the idea that there are “unknown adversaries” that we may have to fight in “outer space”? And if they have solid reason to believe that such an “unknown adversary” really does exist out there, and that it may have intentions to attack us, then why have they stopped spending money to prepare for “a war in outer space”?

What’s going on here? There is a popular TV show about aliens who have attacked our planet and continue to do so (called Stargate SG-1), and they have built up an entire, virtually believable storyline and history abut how we got to this place (provided you are ready to accept the idea that we are not alone in the universe, and that humanoid creatures from other planets may possibly have visited us long ago.) Forget about the other details for now (other than that it is a great show, and I want to thank an old friend from my college days, Leo Henny, for turning me on to it. Thanks, Leo.) What I have noticed about the show (and its excellent sequel, Stargate Atlantis) is the level of cooperation between the producers of the show and the United States Air Force (my personal favorite branch, thank you.) You see, if the DoD does not like the way they or its members are portrayed, they will not allow the producers of the movie (or show) to use military uniforms that would pass for authentic, nor the use of its actual flag, emblem, rank insignia, military decorations, and other designs in the actors’ costumes and the set designs unless they really, really, really liked the show. That level of cooperation could not be done on a casual basis, and would require at least one officer assigned to it full time. (They might decide to improvise and change the script, and the Air Force wouldn’t want them to imply that they would act in an improper way to a “situation”, so a liason would have to be available at a moment’s notice.)

This show is so well done and the stories so good, that you might swear you were following an actual Air Force team of off-world explorers. They even had the real Chief of Staff of the US Air Force appear in an episode as himself. As much as I love the idea that they were able to go to such lengths to make it look authentic, I have to wonder why? (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a really bad movie involving military personnel that had such inauthentic “uniforms” that I had to assume it was a tongue-in-cheek movie. This show looks like the real thing.) They even had a show (and a follow-up) about a Hollywood show based on their actual exploits which the Air Force allowed to go forward as a source of plausible deniablility should word of the Stargate program leak out. They could just say, “That was just a television show.” (Even though it was very close to factually correct.) But it is just a TV show, isn’t it? I mean , why go to all this trouble just to make a TV show about a fictional team of off-world explorers who have saved the Earth from several alien attacks (without our knowledge) look authentic? Why let the highest ranking officer within the Air Force appear on the show as himself? Is there a reason that authenticity was that important? And might it have something to do with “preparing for a war in outer space against unknown adversaries”?

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