Same Old Song II; or Some Dilemmas of Democracy

We have never established a rule for when a reply is long enough to become a post, but I suspect this one may reach that limit. It is not merely the “defense” establishment that stays while presidents come and go, but a few other eternal verities.

One is that, while the House of Representatives is constitutionally entrusted with both the power of the purse and the power to make war, it has had no serious chance to use the two in tandem as the Framers intended for well over a century. This is partly a technological problem. As every grade-schooler who paid attention in American History knows, the Battle of New Orleans was fought well after the War of 1812 had ended in a peace treaty, simply because, at the time, communications were limited by the speed of horse and sail. Now, wars can happen, and be ended, literally in a blink of an eye. The power of the purse becomes merely the power to pay the debts already incurred during that blink. That’s the theoretical limit.

In real life, wars take a bit longer to get started, but nowhere near as long as getting a declaration of war through Congress. And the power of the purse becomes a nullity if we already have “boots on the ground” and Congress could accomplish nothing by refusing to fund them except to leave the boots on the ground with no resources to maintain or defend themselves or even catch the next flight home.

The second problem became apparent in the run-up to the First Gulf War. Amazingly, both houses of Congress seriously debated our entry into that war for several days, before actually embarking on it. The ultimate result was, of course, a nearly unanimous vote in favor of the war (see the next paragraph for explanation.) But a good deal of time was consumed by war advocates proclaiming that such debate was “premature” since the war had not yet broken out. Debate over the Vietnam War, which took place almost entirely after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, involved at least the same amount of argument that it was “too late” to deliberate whether the war was a Good Thing, since we were already in it. Apparently there is a split-second in time, known only to Stephen Hawking, when it is neither too early nor too late to debate entering a war. It probably happens at 4:30 AM Eastern time, when both houses of Congress are asleep in their beds.

The third problem is that, once the executive branch has decided on a war, they become not merely the object of patriotism but its voice, and anyone who disagrees becomes, at best, the loyal opposition or the honored but ignored voice of an outworn pacifism (like Jeanette Rankin, bless her soul), and at worst a pack of traitors. Often, even those who argued against the war in the early part of the debate end up voting for it in the end, to provide a show of “unanimity” in support of national goals.

The first thing those arguing against the war have to do is disclaim pacifism. Senator Obama himself did a fine job of this in his speech opposing the Iraq War, when he stated that he wasn’t against all wars, just against dumb wars. Being against all wars renders an American politician permanently unfit for office, since a pacifist Commander in Chief is a contradiction in terms. Being against unjust wars might leave a Catholic politician among the legitimate competitors, except that it has been a long time since the US was involved in a war that plausibly met the Augustinian qualifications for justice. Or, for that matter, an intelligent war.

The next thing an opponent of the currently debated war has to do is proclaim his loyalty to and support for our brave men and women in the field, no matter how pointless and iniquitous the task they are commanded to accomplish. As pointed out earlier, this utterly precludes using the power of the purse to stop the war, and thereby turns the constitution into a nullity.

Only then can the opponent start talking about the merits. One of the few issues that is still a matter for legitimate disagreement in such debates is whether we go to war alone or with allies. Bush Senior gets a lot less praise than he deserves for his coalition-building in the First Gulf War, which enabled him to fight that war mostly on other people’s money, and with no foot-dragging by the UN or NATO. It put us in the position of being a mercenary army for the Europeans and Japanese, who needed Kuwaiti oil a lot more than we did. But it left us in a considerably better financial position than Bush Junior’s device of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq “off the books.” These days, “multilateralism” has a bad name in some quarters. Real macho nations go it on their own—and on their own money, which they then borrow from the Chinese. This issue needs revisiting, preferably before we go to war with the Chinese.

The financial issue is rarely raised until the war is actually over. By that time, it is too late to ask whether we can afford it. All we can do is try to figure out how to pay for it. The last time we looked at the money issue up front was in World War II, when Roosevelt had already decided we had bloody well better pay for it. He spent most of the war borrowing the money from American citizens. Wars are not paid for out of discretionary income, because wars, once decided on, are not discretionary. The Vietnam War was paid for by short-circuiting the War on Poverty, and by inflating the currency, rather than by raising taxes as we had done during WWII. Shortly thereafter, we decided that inflation, like raising taxes, was a bad thing. Now we pay for wars by viewing every other item in the budget (now, apparently, including even Social Security and Medicare) as discretionary, and by not noticing inflation as long as it affects only ordinary working people.

The one great force of modern economics to which even the “defense” establishment is not immune is privatization of governmental functions. So far, it extends only to what would otherwise be considered “staff” and “logistics” functions of the military, such as food, housing, transportation, and intelligence. Oddly, the private-sector jobs thereby created don’t seem to make a dent in the unemployment statistics—is this another idea worth revisiting? Could we balance the economy by putting 5 million unemployed civilians to work peeling potatoes in Kabul, suffering all the dangers and difficulties of military service at minimum wage with no benefits, no job security, and no legal rights except those provided by the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Donald Trump, call your office.

And finally, the “defense” establishment has to deal with the problem posed by a former Secretary of Defense: you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Now, that apparently means that you go to war with a bunch of overfed, overweight, undereducated, unhealthy people, many of them with minor criminal records, who can’t find jobs in the civilian sector. Watch this space for announcements that Boot Camp has now become a Fat Farm, and Advanced Individual Training now starts with basic literacy. You heard it here first, folks.

Red Emma, with assistance from her beloved brother, Ben Trovato

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