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July 26, 2012

Book Notes: New best-seller: all about accountability

— When Dwight Eisenhower gave his farewell address upon leaving the presidency in 1961 he warned the country of a developing “military-industrial complex.” It was a profound commentary from a lifelong military man and World War II hero. It was also a visionary statement since defense spending has exploded in this country to a point where we spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined.

When we are in a situation where our deficit reaches into the trillions each year it is proper to ask is it all worth it? Is it necessary to spend so much on defense? Has defense spending gotten the scrutiny that other parts of our budget have? Does it get a free pass because it involves the nation’s security and no one wants to question it?

These are appropriate questions and they have yet to be fully explored.

Let’s face it. The two seminal events of the 20th century as far as the military is concerned were World War II and the Vietnam War. World War II wasn’t only a triumph over evil but it ended the depression and established us as a world military and economic power. The Vietnam War was a divisive experience that literally tore this country apart.

The military and veterans of the Vietnam War were held in low esteem following that conflict. It eventually set up a situation where the military was ripe for a comeback to make up for the shame of “losing” the war, and the collective guilt the nation felt over how miserably it treated the returning veterans.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 he was obsessed with national security. He wanted to cut the budget everywhere except national defense. The Pentagon was basically given a blank check to increase its budget beyond even “dream” status.

Since then the defense budget has not stopped growing. Republicans always want toput a stamp on their mantra of the party of “national security” while the Democrats don’t want to look like wimps. Accountability has taken a backseat to the image of military strength.

Even the end of the Cold War did nothing to slow down defense spending. There was talk of a “peace dividend” (where else but in Washington can you logically spend money that you don’t have on either war or peace?), but that argument went nowhere. The debate was rendered moot once terrorism became the new enemy to replace the Soviet Union.

Added to the defense buildup was the “support the troops” factor. With hindsight it was embarrassing how poorly the returning Vietnam War veterans were treated. After witnessing the horrors of war the soldiers came home to be ridiculed as outcasts.

Today the public psyche has rightfully become one where we appreciate every sacrifice they make. But the downside is that now when the government sends our GIs into a war zone the hawks use the “support the troops” banner to negate any argument against military involvement.

After 9/11 we ended up in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military has been stretched so thin that many GIs have had four or five tours of duty in the war zones.

Many former army functions have been contracted out to private firms who have no accountability to the American people. The conflict in Afghanistan is costing us $2 billion a week and after 10 years it seems like perpetual war. For a country that is already running massive deficits each year, how can we continue to fund something we’re not paying for?

How we got from a country that at least tried to pay for its defense budget to one today where the “military- industrial complex” has carte blanche is intimately detailed in Rachel Maddow’s new best-seller, “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.” It covers the era from World War II to Afghanistan and details how Eisenhower’s fateful warning came to fruition.

It is startling to discover how much the military has changed over the years. Maddow has managed to concisely present the historic shift in our military spending from one of accountability to one where basically anything goes. And pulling back the reins seems to have become an impossible task.

The book isn’t without flaws. The writing sometimes gets a little too convoluted causing the reader to get lost in the detail. The author also has an irritating tendency to get too “cutesy” in her writing style.

There is also the issue of the author herself who is an unabashed liberal. That bias will immediately turn off half the potential audience. Political pundits on the left and right have a bad habit of writing books to make money off their true believers.

Maddow would have been better served to have been an academic or policy wonk who no one has ever heard of.

But readers with an open mind will appreciate what Maddow has to say. She is basically giving a history lesson rather than trying to make a political statement. When our country is drowning in debt it’s important to question any spending by our government.

The questions raised by the book aren’t as much about whether we should be involved in so many foreign entanglements, but rather the process of how we got there and manage to not pay for them. It’s all about accountability and it’s something that should concern us all.