Are We Going Down Like the Soviets?
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Depending on just what you counted, there were anywhere from 700 to perhaps 1,200 or more U.S. bases, micro to macro, acknowledged and unacknowledged, around the globe. Meanwhile, the Pentagon was pouring money into the wildest blue-skies thinking at its advanced research arm, DARPA, whose budget grew by 50%. Through DARPA, well-funded scientists experimented with various ways to fight sci-fi-style wars in the near and distant future (at a moment when no one was ready to put significant government money into blue-skies thinking about, for instance, how to improve the education of young Americans). The Pentagon was also pioneering a new form of air power, drone warfare, in which “we” wouldn’t be within thousands of miles of the battlefield, and the battlefield would no longer necessarily be in a country with which we were at war.
It was also embroiled in two disastrous, potentially trillion-dollar wars (and various global skirmishes) -- and all this at top dollar at a time when next to no money was being invested in, among other things, the bridges, tunnels, waterworks, and the like that made up an aging American infrastructure. Except when it came to victory, the military stood ever taller, while its many missions expanded exponentially, even as the domestic economy was spinning out of control, budget deficits were increasing rapidly, the governmental bureaucracy was growing ever more sclerotic, and indebtedness to other nations was rising by leaps and bounds.
In other words, in a far wealthier country, another set of leaders, having watched the Soviet Union implode, decisively embarked on the Soviet path to disaster.
In the fall of 2008, the abyss opened under the U.S. economy, which the Bush administration had been blissfully ignoring, and millions of people fell into it. Giant institutions wobbled or crashed; extended unemployment wouldn’t go away; foreclosures happened on a mind-boggling scale; infrastructure began to buckle; state budgets were caught in a death grip; teachers’ jobs, another kind of infrastructure, went down the tubes in startling numbers; and the federal deficit soared.
Of course, a new president also entered the Oval Office, someone (many voters believed) intent on winding up (or at least down) Bush’s wars and the delusions of military omnipotence and technological omniscience that went with them. If George W. Bush had pushed this country to the edge of disaster, at least his military policies, as many of his critics saw it, were as extreme and anomalous as the cult of executive power his top officials fostered.
But here was the strange thing. In the midst of the Great Recession, under a new president with assumedly far fewer illusions about American omnipotence and power, war policy continued to expand in just about every way. The Pentagon budget rose by Bushian increments in fiscal year 2010; and while the Iraq War reached a kind of dismal stasis, the new president doubled down in Afghanistan on entering office -- and then doubled down again before the end of 2009. There, he “ surged” in multiple ways. At best, the U.S. was only drawing down one war, in Iraq, to feed the flames of another.
As in the Soviet Union before its collapse, the exaltation and feeding of the military at the expense of the rest of society and the economy had by now become the new normal; so much so that hardly a serious word could be said -- lest you not “support our troops” -- when it came to ending the American way of war or downsizing the global mission or ponying up the funds demanded of Congress to pursue war preparations and war-making.