We Are a Chickenhawk Nation, Blindly Worshiping the Military; Wasting Enormous Amounts on Useless Military Hardware

It’s common knowledge that the U.S. devotes more money to our defense budget than any other industrialized nation. But just how much we spend is remarkable. This year, we're on track to spend over $1 trillion on national security, after factoring in nuclear weapons funding, military pensions and “overseas contingency funds,” in addition to the Pentagon’s $580 billion operating budget. In total, this figure accounts for about 4 percent of the United States’ income—double what most other countries spend. Yet all of this budgetary bloat has done nothing to advance our strategic interests in countries like Syria and Iraq. In an investigative piece in the most recent Atlantic, James Fallows explains why.

“The Tragedy of the American Military” convincingly makes the case that the deepening divide between the military and the American public is the reason we spend such absurd sums on the tools and technology of war. We have, Fallows argues, become a “chickenhawk” nation: blindly supportive of our troops and perma-ready to deploy them, yet distantly removed from the consequences of these costly geopolitical games. The vast majority of Americans don’t have personal ties with any service members, and politicians are petrified of the political risks of seeming unsupportive of the military (the House Armed Services Committee passed the most recent defense budget by a vote of 61-0). According to Fallows, this potent combination of emotional distance and hero worship means we avoid “the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money.”

The problem isn’t just how much money we spend on national security, but what we spend it on. In a tightly bound circle of favors, the military asks for a tremendous amount of funding, congressional leaders eager to gain new defense contracts in their districts grant it, and the contractors whose livelihoods depend on selling massive amounts of new weaponry rake in millions. This is why so much is allocated toward developing updated models of existing technologies, despite the Pentagon's lack of adequate funding for veterans’ care, training and pensions.

One such example is the F-35 fighter jet. The F-35 is intended to replace the A-10, a durable, inexpensive plane that has been used by the American military since the Vietnam War. There’s no urgent need to phase out the A-10. These planes have proven to require minimal upkeep, and we already have thousands stockpiled. So why are we on track to spend $1.5 trillion—the same estimated cost as the entire Iraq war—to replace them with the expensive and unreliable F-35? Because top military brass insists the A-10s are outdated. Because 1,200 defense contractors received commissions to develop this new technology. And because, as Fallows points out, “the general public doesn’t care.”

But we should. These massive expenditures burn through money that could be spent on domestic policy efforts like repairing our crumbling national infrastructure of bridges and roads, or bolstering the education budgets in impoverished school districts. The same Republican congressional leaders who are so eager to throw money towards expensive new military toys balk at the idea of allocating more resources for veterans’ care. Last year, Senate Republicans blocked a major bill that would have expanded federal healthcare and education programs for veterans. And just last month, Tom Coburn, a GOP senator from Oklahoma, blocked the passage of a veterans’ suicide bill, despite the fact that 22 veterans kill themselves every day. Coburn insisted that existing programs already assist suicidal vets, and said this bill “actually throws money away."

We need to look more closely at these selective displays of concern. As Fallows reminds us, “For democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.” 

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