I grew up on a steady diet of threat inflation. Before I was born, bomber and missile “gaps” had been falsely touted as showing the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in developing nuclear-capable weaponry (the reverse was true). But those lies, which vastly exaggerated Soviet capabilities, perfectly served the needs of the military-industrial complex (hereafter, the Complex) in the USA. Another example of threat inflation, common when I was a kid, was the Domino Theory, the idea that, if South Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region of Southeast Asia would fall as well, including Thailand and perhaps even countries like the Philippines. Inflating the danger of communism was always a surefire method to promote US defense spending and the interests of the Pentagon.
When I was in college, one book that opened my eyes was Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine.” James Fallows’s “National Defense” was another book I read in those days, together with Helen Caldicott’s “Missile Envy.” Early in the Reagan years, I recall those old charts that displayed Soviet ICBMs as being bigger than American ICBMs, as if missile size was everything. The message was clear: the Soviets have more missiles, and they’re bigger! Yet what really mattered was the accuracy and reliability of those missiles, areas where the US had a decisive edge. US nuclear forces were also far more survivable than their Soviet counterparts, but such details were lost on most Americans.
Throughout my life, the US“defense” establishment has consistently inflated the dangers presented by foreign powers, which brings me to the current Pentagon budget for 2020, which may reach $750 billion. How to justify such an immense sum? A large dollop of threat inflation might help…
With the Islamic State allegedly defeated in Syria and other terrorist forces more nuisances than existential threats, with the Afghan War apparently winding down (only 14,000 US troops are deployed there) and with Trump professing a “love” fest with Kim Jong-un, where are today’s (and tomorrow’s) big threats? Iran isn’t enough. The only threats that seem big enough to justify colossal military spending are Russia and China. Hence the new “cold war” we keep hearing about, which drives a “requirement” for big spending on lucrative weapons systems like new aircraft carriers, new fighters and bombers, newer and better nuclear warheads and missiles, and so forth.
Which brings me to the alleged Russian collusion story involving Trump. As we now know, the Mueller Report found no collusion, but was that really the main point of the investigation and all the media hysteria? The latter succeeded in painting Vladimir Putin and the Russians as enemies in pursuit of the death of American democracy. Meanwhile Trump, who’d campaigned with some idea of a rapprochement with Russia, was driven by the investigation to take harsher stances against Russia, if only to prove he wasn’t a “Putin puppet.” The result: most Americans today see Russia as a serious threat, even though the Russians spend far less on wars and weaponry than the US does.
Threat inflation is nothing new, of course. Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized it and did his best to control it in the 1950s, but even Ike had only limited success. Other presidents, lacking Ike’s military experience and gravitas, have most frequently surrendered to the Complex. The last president who tried with some consistency to control the Complex was Jimmy Carter, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis, and his own political fortunes drove him to launch a major military buildup, which was then accelerated by Reagan until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the early 1990s, I briefly heard about a peace dividend and America returning to being a normal country (i.e. anti-imperial) in normal times, but ambition and greed reared their ugly heads, and US leaders became enamored with military power. Rather than receding, America’s global empire grew, with no peace dividends forthcoming. The attacks on 9/11 led the Bush/Cheney administration to double down on military action in its “global war on terror,” leading to disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that further served to engorge the Complex with money and power.
Today, faced with a debilitating national debt of $22 trillion and infrastructure that’s aptly described as “crumbling,” you’d think US leaders would finally seek a peace dividend to lower our debt and rebuild our roads, bridges, dams, and related infrastructure. But the Complex (including Congress, of course) is addicted to war and weapons spending, aided as ever by threat inflation and its close cousin, fearmongering about invading aliens at the border.
And there you have it: a $750 billion military budget sucking up more than sixty percent of discretionary spending by the federal government. As Ike said, this is no way to live humanely, but it is a way for humanity to hang from a cross of iron.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.