Our nation has the best trained, best equipped, most educated armed force in the world. Then why is it that we seem to be on the ropes?
There is plenty of blame to go around, but one of the agents is the U.S. Congress.
Most observers would agree that a major component of our current unreadiness is the war in Iraq. The Army alone needs billions of dollars to replace and refurbish equipment that has been lost, broken and destroyed in Southwest Asia. After repetitive combat tours, valiant troops and units are tired, and we have asked far more from our dedicated reserve components than we should. Even without a war in Iraq, our Armed Forces would be much too small to defend the interests of the United States, and the increases proposed for the Army and the Marines are far too modest.
But perhaps the biggest impediment to defending ourselves is money. It’s not that the government doesn’t have enough money. The problem is that the government wastes lots of it.
And because they’ve had a great deal of practice, both the executive branch and the Congress are very skilled at waste.
Most citizens understand that the Law of Large Numbers dictates that at least some of the taxes raised and money borrowed will be squandered, but few people are prepared for the ways in which the money disappears — or the size of the waste.
It should be intuitively obvious to even the casual observer that the kind of conflicts we are fighting in Southwest Asia, and the war on terror generally, are most successfully prosecuted with special operations forces, intelligence assets, infantry troops, civic action specialists and the like. Unconventional opponents do not yield to big-ticket weapons systems, and the notion that you can defeat insurgents with precision-guided weapons has been conclusively demonstrated to be delusional. And yet, the Department of Defense will field a new generation of fighter aircrafts that is likely to cost as much as $38 million each.
Of course, the worst of all possible worlds is one for which we are not prepared, and so the motivation is to buy lots of sophisticated planes and ships to fight a conventional war against China or Russia. But a conflict with a large power is only theoretical, while we are now in the midst of several real wars with real bullets, real shortfalls and real casualties. One may properly argue that the Defense Department has it all backwards.
But the undisputed, all-time champion of disgraceful activity that militates against our security is the Congress.
While our elected representatives argue strenuously against spending money on our defense, it is throwing money at people who don’t need it. The new facility in San Antonio that cares for our wounded troops was erected not with tax dollars but with private funds. Tax dollars are spent on other things, things that the Congress feels is more important than the care of those brave citizens who fight for us.
With a brazenness that is truly startling, senators and members of the House routinely earmark money in budgets to fund each others’ favorite projects, causes and industries.
For example, in 2004 alone, the producers of crops grown in the United States received government subsidies totaling about $8 billion. That’s almost enough to fund the entire United States Marine Corps for half a year. Despite no demonstrable reason for it, other than to benefit a small number of businessmen and elected officials, the producers of rice in this country receive an average of $1 billion annually in government subsidies, more than the cost of an aircraft carrier. And a couple of years ago, the Congress allocated several hundred million dollars to the construction of a bridge from Ketchican, Alaska (population 9,000), to its airport on Gravina Island (population 50).
The Congress even uses the Defense Department as a mule to carry pork: it wants to add five more ships that the Navy doesn’t want and says it doesn’t need. There is a great irony in using the term “pork” to refer to legislative skimming. A pork barrel was used to store foul cuts of meat, unwanted by white people, for slaves to consume.
Modern pork, however, is the cream, and senators and members of the House spend quite a bit of their time, for which we are all paying, arranging to get some.
Col. Jack Jacobs (U.S. Army, retired) is a military analyst for MSNBC.