Endless military spending drags down the United States—and California

Photo Illustration by Serene Lusano/Maria Ratinova

Raheem F. Hosseini and Eric Johnson contributed to this report.

Last month, Donald Trump said, in signing the annual military expenditures bill, “In recent years, our military has undergone a series of deep budget cuts that have severely impacted our readiness, shrunk our capabilities and placed substantial burdens on our warfighters. … Today, with the signing of this defense bill, we accelerate the process of fully restoring America’s military might.”

The military might of the United States had shrunk so much that it was only about three times that of China, only about six times that of Russia. In fact, it took the total combined spending of the next six largest national military budgets (France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Russia) to even equal the profligacy of the poor United States.

In any other nation, comments by a national executive like that of Trump on such a budget would be considered delusional. In the United States, spendthrift extravagance on the military is so engrained in the culture that few give it any thought. And Trump thinks of the military budget as the plight of the Pentagon.

Why are we there?

On October 4, 25-year-old Sgt. La David Johnson was on patrol in Niger when his patrol was attacked. He was killed, along with Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright. The attack made front page news across the United States, where most citizens likely could not find Niger on a map and did not know America had men in harm’s way there.

For those who tried to make sense of the incident, the facts are startling. Though there are competing figures, and the Pentagon tries to obscure the truth, there are more than a thousand U.S. military installations encircling a planet that has only 200 countries. In Africa alone, besides Niger, there’s a U.S. military presence in places like Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia. By most counts, though the U.S. government is cagey about its doings, there are U.S. troops in most African nations, and there are 47 of them.

More than once in our history, U.S. officials have put U.S. servicepeople in harm’s way and then seized on the killing of a U.S. serviceperson to launch a major war.

In his book, Base Nation, David Vine wrote, “While there are no freestanding foreign bases on U.S. soil, today there are around 800 U.S. bases in foreign countries, occupied by hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. … Although few U.S. citizens realize it, we probably have more bases in other people’s lands than any other people, nation, or empire in world history. And yet the subject is barely discussed in the media.”

As best I can tell after weeks of searching, there is not one reporter in journalism, anywhere among publications covering international affairs in any nation, assigned to cover solely this empire of U.S. military installations. That heralds a mighty lack of curiosity in an industry supposedly built on curiosity.

“Temporary” bases are not counted by the Pentagon, but once in, rarely out. It has been a quarter-century since the Kuwait war, but there are still six U.S. bases there.

This reporter was stationed in the 1970s at Panzer Kaserne, a U.S. base in Germany outside Stuttgart. Any reason for the base had long since disappeared—Germany was a powerful country with an industrial economy that could take care of itself. But today, Panzer is one of several bases around Stuttgart serving the Army, Navy and Marines—in their Africa needs.


It would be nice if all this money was being used wisely and prudently.

“I know there are always some people who feel that Americans are always young and inexperienced, and foreigners are always able and tough, and great negotiators,” President Kennedy once said. “But I don’t think that the United States acquired its present position of leadership in the free world if that view were correct.”

Infographic by Serene Lusano

One can only wonder what Kennedy would think today. In the last half century, the United States has had a history of blundering into regions, walking into walls and setting off unintended consequences in every corner of the globe, always while missing more serious threats. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told West Point cadets in 2011, “And I must tell you, when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq and more. We had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.”

When the United States invented the “nation” of South Vietnam during the Eisenhower administration, it cut the north off from its food supply in the Mekong Delta. No nation could tolerate such a thing. Yet there is little evidence in the Pentagon Papers or other early records that U.S. policymakers understood what they were doing to Vietnam’s food system.

Since the United States helped invent the nation of South Sudan in 2011, that unfortunate “nation” has had two civil wars. Private armies roam the land.

There is not a lot of progress indicated by those two inventions separated by 57 years.

Nick Turse of TomDispatch, a website that has carefully tracked the growing U.S. military empire, reported in 2014 on the bungling by U.S. policymakers in various nations: “A U.S.-backed uprising in Libya, for instance, helped spawn hundreds of militias that have increasingly caused chaos in that country, leading to repeated attacks on Western interests and the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Tunisia has become ever more destabilized, according to a top U.S. commander in the region. Kenya and Algeria were hit by spectacular, large-scale terrorist attacks that left Americans dead or wounded. South Sudan, a fledgling nation Washington recently midwifed into being that has been slipping into civil war, now has more than 870,000 displaced persons, is facing an imminent hunger crisis, and has recently been the site of mass atrocities, including rapes and killings. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed military of Mali was repeatedly defeated by insurgent forces after managing to overthrow the elected government, and the U.S.-supported forces of the Central African Republic (CAR) failed to stop a ragtag rebel group from ousting the president.”

How we got the system

After the Great War, as World War I was originally called, the United States disassembled its military back to a 100,000-person force, and the nation enjoyed a peace dividend.

“We were proud of our small standing army,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote.

But after World War II, there was no such stand-down.

In 1951, President Truman signed a secret U.S. policy paper, NSC 68, that planned a cold war, militarized its goals, and created a global-involvement rationale allowing U.S. intervention around the world. A peacetime draft was imposed in 1948, freeing presidents from needing congressional action. Congress approved the “Truman Doctrine” allowing the president to aid “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” And GOP congressional leaders overrode the Republicans who objected when Truman took the nation to war in Korea without permission from Congress.

With Democrats in thrall to a strong presidency and Republicans too cowardly to buck the patriotism police, three elements—a draft, a “doctrine” and unaccountable authority—had been assembled, the elements needed for decades of tragedy and endless war.

It also signified that the war profits that accompanied World War II would continue. That bothered few, but in 1953, a military man became president.

Dwight Eisenhower had no need to prove his “defense” credentials to anyone. (Preparing for years in which America would intrude in every corner of the world without being threatened, Congress had changed the name of the War Department to the Defense Department.) He had commanded Allied forces in the largest land theater of war in history. He had watched the consequences of NSC 68 and the Truman Doctrine. In his first state of the union, he cautioned, “To amass military power without regard to economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another.”

Three months after he became president, he gave a broader and more detailed warning about the evolving war economy in remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors that were carried live to the nation on television and radio.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this—a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. … Is there no other way the world may live?”

What Eisenhower famously dubbed “the military industrial complex” has since taken up bigger and bigger chunks of the federal budget. Housing and transportation rate only 4 percent of the budget, which has prompted state and local officials to scramble around the U.S. government’s imperialistic priorities. Workarounds to pay for what the White House won’t cover are causing headaches all around the Golden State.

California Democrats are bracing for a midterm backlash thanks to their support for Gov. Jerry Brown’s legislation raising the gas tax. The first such boost in more than two decades will collect an additional $5.2 billion annually starting next year for the state’s weathered roads and bridges, and neglected transit networks.

It comes less than two years after Sacramento County voters narrowly tipped against a half-cent sales tax that would have generated $3.6 billion for a slew of local transportation and infrastructure projects. In 2012, voters in the city of Sacramento imposed a half-cent sales tax on themselves to restore vital public services gutted by the recession.

The tax—which took effect April 2013 and collects about $30 million annually for police, fire and parks—was supposed to be temporary. But ballooning pension costs are coming due and city officials want voters to extend the tax beyond its 2019 sunset to help pay for them.

A Sacramento State and Valley Vision survey last year found that area residents favor financial investments in parks and trails way more than they want to see money go to sports venues. Just imagine what they would have said if they were asked about wars.

The system reaches a peak

Saving this kind of money from foreign ratholes like Iraq would seem to be a popular notion.

But Eisenhower reckoned without the Democrats. He had taken office during McCarthyism and as his term of office passed, Democrats realized that one of the ways they could protect themselves from red-baiting was by taking aggressively belligerent positions on the military. Figures in the Senate like Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and Henry Jackson began complaining loud and long about the restraint Eisenhower imposed on acquisition of hardware and buildup of the military. The tension between Democrats and the president at times became very angry, with Eisenhower on one occasion calling the criticism despicable.

Democratic Sen. Mike Monroney of Oklahoma: “The administration put a balanced budget ahead of a balanced national defense.”

All this was a prelude to Kennedy’s claim in the 1960 presidential campaign of a missile gap between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R—at a time when British and U.S. overflights of the Soviet Union showed not a single ICBM, IRBM or MRBM site. After the election, JFK’s administration admitted there was no gap, but that did not stop it from recommending to Congress that the military spending faucet be turned on. Eisenhower did not like criticizing his successor, but in June 1962, he took on both JFK and Congress: “I personally believe—with, I am sure, very little company in either party—that the defense budget should be substantially reduced.”

If Eisenhower felt isolated in his own Republican Party, his views had the support of a similarly solitary Democrat. U.S. Food for Peace director George McGovern, a war hero from South Dakota, went to the Senate in 1963 and quickly took up the cause of weaning the country off military spending. He believed it could not be done abruptly, for fear of throwing the economy into a downturn, so dependent had the nation become on military spending. But he said then was the time to begin planning for the inevitable end of the Cold War and introduced an Economic Conversion Act requiring military industries to prepare plans for converting military economic activities to civilian works. It died repeatedly.

According to McGovern’s biographer, after President Kennedy’s murder, McGovern asked JFK aide Ted Sorensen what Kennedy had thought of the measure. “He thought it was naïve,” Sorensen said. “He didn’t think you realized the tremendous pressures there are in this country to keep defense spending high—the industries, the unions, the Pentagon and all the other special interests.” Of course, Kennedy had helped create that pressure. McGovern was not dissuaded and plugged away. When he took the issue into his 1972 presidential campaign, Republicans sneered at the notion of McGovern being an ally of the sainted Eisenhower.

When the end of the Cold War came, the government was not ready and instead cast about for new enemies to keep military spending high—the drug war after the fall of the Berlin wall, then terrorism after September 11. A few figures floated other ideas. Bill Clinton proposed cutting operations at the Nevada nuclear test site and converting it and its workforce to high speed train technology. Little was heard of the idea after Clinton became president.

Today, figures like Eisenhower and McGovern who speak up against the bloat are just as rare. U.S. Sen. John McCain:

“In fact, the military-industrial complex has become much worse than President Eisenhower originally envisioned: It’s evolved to capture Congress. So, the phenomenon should now rightly be called, the ’military-industrial-congressional’ complex. … Those words describe root causes of why big programs fail—aggressive promises for ’revolutionary’ capablity; poorly understood or fluid requirements; unrealistic initial cost estimates; overly optimistic schedules and assumptions; unreliable manufacturing and integration risk assessments; starting major production with an immature design or unproven critical technologies; and poorly performing government and industry teams.”

Finding ways to cut is not difficult. The Atlantic Monthly on why the U.S. Fifth Fleet should be disbanded: “There is no shortage of American military and even naval facilities outside the Gulf that are capable of providing a quick military response if necessary. After all, we survived just fine before the Fifth Fleet was recreated in 1995. With the Iraq war winding down, it is time to draw down the overall U.S. presence.”

It’s difficult to know how many installations the U.S. military has around the world because it plays games with terms like bases, facilities, outposts, installations and so on. If it chose to be clear and definitive, it would find the correct words. Few entities are more skilled than the Pentagon at using language to conceal instead of disclose.

Does it matter?

All of this is dangerous enough. There is also this: For the first time since the American Revolution, the United States of America is not paying for its wars. They are being fought on debt. With Republicans in thrall to no-new-taxes and Democrats too cowardly to buck the patriotism police after September 11, the Congress launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on credit. Debt from the Bush bailouts and the Bush wars have been piling up ever since. There are some who predict that the time is nearing when war debt will equal the cost of the wars themselves. Who knows what that will mean for the U.S. economy?

Hedrick Smith wrote a book titled Who Stole the American Dream? Toward the end of it, he identified three obstacles to the U.S. regaining its economic strength. One was endless, unaccountable military spending.

And, finally, there is this: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.