James Fallows, whom I've been reading faithfully for nearly 40 years, has an absolutely devastating indictment of America's defense establishment in this month's Atlantic magazine. The long article begins with America's recent adulation of everyone in a U.S. military uniform or anyone who's ever served (i.e., veterans) and goes on to critique the military procurement system and a military hierarchy that takes care of its own.
More than a year ago, I complained that veterans or current military personnel were being hailed as "heroes," regardless of their type of service. I have been offered the same rewards — free meals on Veterans Day, a preferred parking space at the grocery store, and thankful compliments when asked if I was a veteran — as men who faced combat. But my military commitment was fulfilled by sitting behind a desk and answering correspondence from parents, spouses and members of Congress. At no time did I face hostile fire. My most hazardous moment was probably when I was urged by war protesters to take off my uniform and join the anti-war movement on the streets of Washington, D.C. I just walked on by.
More than 50 years ago, President Eisenhower warned America of a "military-industrial complex" that sought not the best military might for America but the best profits for themselves. Fallows documents just how much worse things have gotten since Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address. He makes the point that military weapons procurement has less to do with military weapons and more to do with spreading economic stimulus packages throughout the country. Thus, the ideal weapons system — an aircraft carrier, bomber or fighter jet — is one that has subcontractors in every congressional district in the country, thereby ensuring that Congress will approve the system, regardless of costs, cost overruns, or effectiveness of the weapon.
The F-35 fighter jet is the latest iteration of this economic-stimulus-as-defense package. It will be the most expensive airplane ever, and it can't do what it is supposed to do. An accompanying article in the Atlantic laments the inferiority of the U.S. M-16 combat rifle and its later versions, such as the M-4, compared to the AK-47, which has been used by the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and other countries for more than 50 years. The M-16 is a more complex, harder to maintain and more likely to jam weapon than the AK-47, which is simpler, easier to maintain and is less likely to jam. But America has been using the same basic, inferior rifle for more than 40 years.
Fallows points out that since World War II, American soldiers, the best supplied and most expensive (by far) army in the world, have lost again and again against less-sophisticated, poorly supplied and poorly trained enemies in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The military-industrial complex needs to be shaken up, beginning with Congress and then with the officer corps, before greater damage is done to the nation.
The military's problems need to be part of the presidential debate and congressional campaign issues, but as long as Americans believe everyone in a uniform is a hero and above criticism, that can't happen. A good starting point would be for every member of Congress and every candidate for Congress or the presidency to read Fallow's article.