Weather Forecast


Let's put military spending in perspective

War's expensive,

That's just fine;

Taking care,

That I get mine.

It may be that by now, Americans have a good handle on just how much money the Pentagon actually spends. Or not. In broad terms, U.S. military expenditures are just about equal to those of all other nations combined. Or, looked at another way, Pentagon expenditures are just about equal to those of all other federal agencies combined.

In any case, it's a lot, maybe double what we really need. There are a number of unsettling explanations for this waste, so let's glance at a few:

1. Congress: Most states produce something that the military used to think it needed -- fighter planes, submarines, landmines, nukes, etc. Though needs change, the old jobs must somehow be retained, by way of countless budget items to keep them going.

2. Wars: This isn't 1945. Wars used to end when they were completed. No more. Today they go on for political reasons, even though our country is no longer in danger. Sometimes it's about oil, sometimes empire, sometimes arrogance, sometimes ingrained irrational fear of a supposed enemy.

3. Bases: We have about 900 of them in other lands. These are costly, but if you're going to dominate the world you've got to pay. Presumably the giant ones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will one day be turned over to those nations, but don't count on it. It didn't work out that way in Germany, Japan, Korea, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Cuba, etc. Many are still going strong.

4. Contractors: Military personnel used to do the cooking, cleaning, building, guarding, maintaining, translating, transporting, procuring, and all the other attendant work that goes with running a war or occupying a country. Today? Forget about that. We now have roughly a 1:1 ratio between troops and contractors. And most of them are expensive.

At the same time, still further giant expenses darken America's military horizon. Interest on our debt is a biggie. We don't pay for war and waste out of pocket, you know. We borrow it. From China, mostly. With luck we'll be able to pay them back cheaply when the dollar isn't worth much anymore. Maybe soon.

Then there are all those veterans. Step by grudging step, we are now paying them more for being poisoned by Agent Orange in Vietnam, 30 years late. Luckily, many have already died, and that holds down the cost. This script is currently being reprised with depleted uranium from Iraq. Happily, the longer we resist vets' claims, the more of them pass on and the lower our liability. We may not get away so cheaply with PTSD. Thank heaven we don't have to pay the Vietnamese, Iraqis or Afghans.

Historically, it's not uncommon for empires to get this overextended. They become intoxicated with power and domination and lose track of the price. At least if they are dictatorships there is someone in charge who can haul in on the reins when costs get out of hand.

Democracies have a harder time. Everyone has a spoon in the pot. Retrenchment must overcome greed, power, fear and tradition, a perhaps hopeless task for even the most motivated president. Britain needed a world war to pull it off.

So at the moment, President Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" still rules the roost, though it now has to share the spoils with Wall Street. Corruption on this scale makes the Afghans and Iraqis look like pikers.--

Minuteman Media columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.