• Marc Johnson

A Cross of Iron


President Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office this week about the end of combat operations in Iraq. His advisers said to everyone who would listen that it was time to “turn the page” in the eighth year of the war – a longer period than U.S. involvement in World War I and II combined – and focus on the real threats to U.S. security in Afghanistan and to the need to rebuild the economy at home.

It was only the second time during his increasingly troubled presidency that Obama has used the Oval Office stage to talk directly to the nation and the world. We’ll see soon enough if the message got through. One certainty that is obvious, even given the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq, is that our military men and women are going to be deployed in the region for most of the rest of our lifetimes.

The consequences – budgetary and otherwise – of these open-ended deployments are hardly debated in the broad sweep of American politics, but make no mistake they are intimately connected to the roaring and constant debate in Washington, D.C. over budgets, deficits and tax cuts.

I’ve only been in the Oval Office once. Bill Clinton was president, but the real presence in that relatively small room was the ghost of everyone who has ever had the awesome and lonely responsibility that goes with sitting at that big desk in that historic house. During Obama’s speech this week my thoughts turned to the last general to sit there – Ike.

Dwight David Eisenhower had the good timing – or luck or whatever – to occupy “the Oval” during the 1950’s. The 1950’s, as David Halberstam wrote in his masterful study of the decade, was a time “captured in black and white, most often by still photographers…not surprisingly, in retrospect the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid.”

Eisenhower, a great general who mastered the logistics and planning of modern warfare, is often remembered for a laissez faire approach to the presidency. True enough in some respects. Eisenhower was slow off the mark on civil rights and his silence for too long on the excesses of Joe McCarthy have appropriately earned him low makes from historians. However, with respect to foreign affairs and the projection of American military power, Eisenhower was anything but slow off the mark or disengaged. The common sense the general/president applied to what he famously called “the military-industrial complex” is sorely missing today.

As Obama attempts to shift American attention and resources from what some have called the three trillion dollar war in Iraq to the challenge of mounting an effective counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the nation’s attention is fixed firmly on other concerns. Most Americans are much more concerned about the still stumbling economy and the rising deficit than the cost and consequences of never ending war. Yet those two issues – a hugely costly war and palpable worry about the economy and debt – can’t help but be related.

Perhaps because we don’t like to confront the cause and effect of ultra-expensive wars and the mountain of debt we face, we struggle with the cognitive dissonance of holding two conflicting thoughts in our political minds at the same time. We seem to think, and few in Congress seem willing to debate the truth of the thought, that we can pursue trillion dollar wars and contain the budget and growing debt at the same time.

The details of the federal budget – so often commented upon, but so seldom understood – can bring on the MEGO effect – My Eyes Glaze Over, but the numbers do matter. An excellent recent piece in Commonweal magazine lays it out in grim detail.

Ronald Osborn, a Bannerman Fellow with the Program in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California, wrote the Commonweal piece. Here is part of the context Osborn provides on how military spending and the cost of ours wars is helping drive us into fiscal quick sand.

“The federal budget for 2010 is about $3.5 trillion,” Osborn writes. “Of this amount, $2.2 trillion consists of ‘nondiscretionary’ spending, or items that must be paid for by prior law, including Social Security ($695 billion), Medicare and Medicaid ($743 billion), and interest on the national debt ($164 billion). These costs are all expected to rise exponentially in the coming years as the baby-boom generation enters retirement. The remaining $1.3 trillion of the federal budget is not mandated by prior law but disbursed according to our elected officials’ priorities. This is the government’s ‘discretionary spending.’ Of this amount, about $534 billion will be given in 2010 to the Department of Defense and another $55 billion to Veterans Affairs. Defense spending does not include, however, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counted as separate items in the budget under the category of ‘contingency operations.’ In 2010 alone, the wars are slated to cost taxpayers an additional $205 billion, including $76 billion in supplemental spending for 2009 expenses. And the 2011 budget, which increases the DOD’s base budget by $20 billion and the budget for the wars by another $30 billion, already includes a $33 billion supplemental request to cover 2010 war costs.”

Eyes glazed over yet? There is more.

“Even excluding ‘black operations,’ whose budgets are kept secret from the public but nearly doubled in the Bush years to an estimated $32 billion, as well as other programs with strong military overlays (such as NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, whose annual budget has grown to $43 billion), and leaving out the supplemental war spending this year that will appear only on next year’s books, military related spending in 2010 will total well over $700 billion – approximately 55 percent of all discretionary spending. The United States will spend nearly as much this year on its military as the rest of the world combined; and America together with its NATO allies will account for about 70 percent of global military spending.”

Osborn next points out the obvious, but regularly neglected fact that most of that spending is financed by debt. And it is not the debt of my parent’s generation. Mom and Dad bought war bonds. We borrow from China and Japan.

If you believe, as most rational folks do, including the co-chairs of the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, that spending must be cut and revenues (make that taxes) increased if we are to begin to bring the deficit under control, then it just doesn’t compute to leave the costs of the endless wars floating out in budget never-never land, untouched and essentially ignored.

Ike, the old general, knew something about military spending. After all, he planned and executed the two most impressive – and costly – Allied initiatives of World War II – the North Africa invasion in 1942 and the Normandy landings in 1944. Yet Eisenhower would argue in the first year of his presidency, 1953, that a permanent war economy “is not a way of life at all, in any true sense,” but, “humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

One of Eisenhower’s better biographers, Michael Korda, has noted the irony of Ike’s famous farewell warning about America becoming a “garrison state” as a result of what he saw, even in 1960, as the growing influence of “the military-industrial complex.” After all, Eisenhower had spent the vast majority of his adult life as part of the vast complex that he had played such a pivotal role in mobilizing to win a war.

“Yet as early as 1945,” Korda writes, “when he had argued against using the atomic bomb on the Japanese, (Eisenhower) was beginning to have doubts about the immense influence of defense contracting and new weapons systems over American politics and policies…the day after his (farewell) speech he complained about the proliferation of advertisements in the pages of American magazines showing Atlas and Titan rockets, as if they were the only things Americans knew how to make.”

The next time you hear a political leader – Republican or Democrat – lament the cost of “entitlements” like Social Security or Medicare, while arguing for further or continuing tax cuts, ask yourself whether we can ever get the nation’s fiscal house in order without addressing the real elephant in the budget room, what the last general to sit in the Oval Office called America’s permanent war economy.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson