Lessons From Battling the Pentagon for Four DecadesRoundup
tags: foreign policy, Afghanistan, Pentagon
William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.
I’ve been writing critiques of the Pentagon, the national security state, and America’s never-ending military overreach since at least 1979 -- in other words, virtually my entire working life. In those decades, there were moments when positive changes did occur. They ranged from ending the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994 and halting U.S. military support for the murderous regimes, death squads, and outlaws who ruled Central America in the 1970s and 1980s to sharp reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals as the Cold War wound down. Each of those victories, however complex, seemed like a signal that sustained resistance and global solidarity mattered and could make a difference when it came to peace and security.
Here’s a striking exception, though, one thing that decidedly hasn’t changed for the better in all these years: the staggering number of tax dollars that persistently go into what passes for national security in this country. In our case, of course, the definition of “national security” is subsidizing the U.S. military-industrial complex, year in, year out, at levels that should be (but aren’t) beyond belief. In 2019, Pentagon spending is actually higher than it was at the peak of either the Korean or Vietnam conflicts and may soon be -- adjusted for inflation -- twice the Cold War average.
Yes, in those four decades, there were dips at key inflection points, including the ends of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, but the underlying trend has been ever onward and upward. Just why that’s been the case is a subject that almost never comes up here. So let me try to explain it in the most personal terms by tracing my own history of working on Pentagon spending and what I’ve learned from it.
From the Anti-Apartheid Movement to Battling the Military-Industrial Complex
I first began analyzing this country’s weapons-making corporations in the mid-1970s while still a student at Columbia University and deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement of that moment. As one of my topics of research, I spent a fair amount of time tracing how some of those outfits were circumventing the then-existing arms embargo on (white) South Africa by using shadow companies, shipping weapons through third countries, and similar deceptions.
One of the outlets I wrote for then was Southern Africa magazine, a collectively produced, independent journal that supported the liberation movements in that part of the world. The anti-apartheid struggle was ultimately successful, thanks to the efforts of the global solidarity movement of which I was a small part, but primarily to the courageous acts of South African individuals and organizations like the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement.
As it happens, there has been no such luck when it comes to reining in the Pentagon.
I started working on Pentagon spending in earnest in 1979 when I landed a job at the New York-based Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), an organization founded on the notion that corporations could be shamed into being more socially responsible. Armed with a BA in Philosophy -- much to the chagrin of my father who was convinced I would be unemployable as a result -- I was lucky to get the position.
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