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Archive for May, 2012

Posted by Tom Engelhardt on May 31st, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

It’s now commonly estimated that more than 50 nations have drones, are making plans to develop them, or are at least planning to buy them from those who do produce them. In other words, the future global skies are going to be a busy — and increasingly dangerous — place. They will be filled not just with robotic surveillance aircraft, but also with non-U.S. remotely piloted armed assassins which, thanks to the path Washington has blazed, need pay no attention to anyone’s national sovereignty in a search for their version of bad guys to destroy. Iranians, Israelis, Russians, Chinese, Indians, British — you name it and if they don’t already have something robotic aloft, they undoubtedly will soon enough. And those estimates don’t even include insurgent groups and terrorists, who are undoubtedly giving real thought to how to develop and use the equivalent of suicide drones.

Just keep an eye on the news, because those numbers are only going to rise. In fact, just this month they’ve gone up by at least one, thanks to the decision of the Obama administration to sell surveillance drones to the Iraqis (and it is evidently also preparing to arm Italy’s six Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles and bombs). Right now, Washington is almost alone in launching drones at will in countries ranging from Yemen to the Philippines, but that won’t last long. Already we know that these wonder weapons, hailed like so many previous wonder weapons as the ultimate answer to a military’s problems, as the only game in town, will kill many, but won’t deliver as promised.

Take Pakistan. Last week, among other attacks, a U.S. drone launched two missiles at a bakery in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing (we are assured by ever-anonymous officials) four suspected “foreign” militants “buying goods.” (No information was available on the fate of the baker, of course.) Strange to say, the Pakistani people, or at least 97% of them, haven’t taken as well as Washington might have expected to its urge to launch endless drone attacks on their territory, no matter what they or their parliament might say. Drones, which have certainly killed their share of “bad guys” (and children) in the Pakistani borderlands, have also managed to throw U.S.-Pakistan relations into chaos, caused a surge of anti-Americanism, undoubtedly created future blowback among the relatives of the dead, and have almost singlehandedly made it impossible for the Pakistani government to reopen its borders to supplies for our Afghan War. This, in turn, has helped send the already-exorbitant costs of that war skyrocketing, an immediate form of blowback for the American taxpayer.

Like most wonder weapons, drones have proven a distinctly mixed bag for Washington wherever they have been used (though you wouldn’t know it from the press they get), but like most wonder weapons, not delivering ultimate global victory or even victory on local battlefields hasn’t stopped them from proliferating. In search of the perfect solution to impossible-to-win local and global wars, Washington has ensured that drones will proliferate everywhere on what, for all of us, will turn out to be the worst possible terms. Assassination was once a complex, secret, shameful, difficult to arrange, and relatively rare act of state. Now, it’s as normal, easy, and — amazingly enough — almost as open as sending a diplomat to another country. Nick Turse, TomDispatch regular and co-author of the new book Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050, explores just why the drone has a remarkably dismal future ahead of it and why that won’t stop the dronification of our world for a second. Tom

A Drone-Eat-Drone World
With Its “Roadmap” in Tatters, The Pentagon Detours to Terminator Planet
By Nick Turse

U.S. military documents tell the story vividly. In the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa, an unmanned mini-submarine deployed from the USS Freedom detects an “anomaly”: another small remotely-operated sub with welding capabilities tampering with a major undersea oil pipeline. The American submarine’s “smart software” classifies the action as a possible threat and transmits the information to an unmanned drone flying overhead. The robot plane begins collecting intelligence data and is soon circling over a nearby vessel, a possible mother ship, suspected of being involved with the “remote welder.”

At a hush-hush “joint maritime operations center” onshore, analysts pour over digital images captured by the unmanned sub and, according to a Pentagon report, recognize the welding robot “as one recently stolen and acquired by rebel antigovernment forces.” An elite quick-reaction force is assembled at a nearby airfield and dispatched to the scene, while a second unmanned drone is deployed to provide persistent surveillance of the area of operations.

And with that, the drone war is on.

At the joint maritime operations center, signals intelligence analysts detect the mother ship launching a Russian Tipchak — a medium-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft with “U.S.-derived systems and avionics” and outfitted with air-to-air as well as air-to-surface missiles. It’s decision time for U.S. commanders. Special Operations Forces are already en route and, with an armed enemy drone in the skies ahead of them, possibly in peril.

But the Americans have an ace up their sleeve: an advanced Air Force MQ-1000. Unlike the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, the MQ-1000 is capable of completely autonomous action, right down to targeting and combat.

Pre-programmed with the requirements and constraints of the mission, the advanced drone takes off and American commanders let it do its thing. “The MQ-1000… immediately conducts an air-to-air engagement and neutralizes the Tipchak,” reads the understated official account of the action. The special ops team then raids the mothership and disrupts the oil pipeline interdiction scheme.

The entire episode involves a seamless integration of robots and troops working in tandem, of next-generation drones “wired” together and operating in teams, and of autonomous drones making their own decisions. But there’s a reason you’ve never read about this mission in the New York Times or the Washington Post. It won’t take place for 20 years.

Or will it?

The “African Maritime Coalition Vignette, 2030s” is a scenario offered up in Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, FY 2011-2036, a recently released 100-page Defense Department document outlining American robotic air, sea, and land war-fighting plans for the decades ahead. It’s the sunny side of a future once depicted in the Terminator films in which flying hunter-killer or “HK” units are sent out to exterminate the human race.

Terminators of Today?

In some ways, of course, the future is now. When the first Terminator movie was released in 1984, its HKs seemed as futuristic as its time-traveling cyborg title-character. Nearly three decades later, we’re living in an age in which armed robots do regularly surveil, track, and kill people. But instead of a self-aware computer network known as Skynet, it’s the American president or his intelligence officials and military officers who determine the human targets to be terminated by unmanned hunter-killer craft.

Washington’s post-9/11 military interventions have been a boon for drones. The numbers tell the story. At the turn of this century, the Department of Defense had 90 drones with plans to increase the inventory by 200 over the next decade, according to Dyke Weatherington, a Defense Department deputy director overseeing acquisitions of hardware for unmanned warfare. As 2012 began, there were more than 9,500 remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S. arsenal.

Today, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Special Operations Command all field drones with names that sound as if they were ripped from a Hollywood script or a comic book: Sentinel, Avenger, Wasp, Raven, Puma, Shadow, Scan Eagle, Global Hawk, Hunter, Gray Eagle, Predator, and Reaper. The latter three, Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap notes, “are weaponized to conduct offensive operations, irregular warfare, and high-value target/high value individual prosecution, and this trend will likely continue.”

The Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator has been the workhorse of America’s hunter-killer drone fleet. By the end of 2001, Predators had cumulatively flown 25,000 hours. By this March, according to statistics provided by the Air Force, they had logged 1,127,400 flight hours, 1,041,740 of them in combat.

The military quit buying Predators in 2010, opting instead for the larger, more heavily armed Reaper. These have flown more than 261,000 hours, including 228,000 in combat. The Air Force has already requested the purchase of 24 new Reapers in 2013 and Air Force spokesperson Jennifer Spires tells TomDispatch it plans to buy a grand total of 401 MQ-9s in the coming years.

In other ways, however, a sci-fi-style future is far off indeed. In fact, after a decade of Defense Department cheerleading, as well as endless TV and newspaper puff pieces on the unlimited potential of drone technology, a grimmer and dimmer future for them is coming into view.

As a start, most of the drones in the Pentagon’s inventory aren’t sophisticated hunter-killer robots, but smaller, unarmed tactical models used only for battlefield surveillance. According to figures provided to TomDispatch by the Army, that service has approximately 5,000 drones, about 1,400 of them currently supporting operations in Afghanistan (where one of their key models, the Shadow, collided with a cargo plane last year). While it has plans to arm increasing numbers of its larger models with munitions, they’re hardly the stuff of Hollywood sci-fi flicks.

Even the Predator and the Reaper are little more than expensive, error-prone, overgrown model airplanes remotely “flown” by all-too-human pilots. They tend to crash at an alarming rate due to weather, mechanical failures, and computer glitches, leaving shattered silver-screen techno-dreams of cheap, error-free, futuristic warfare in the dust.

Today’s armed drones are actually the weak sisters of the weapons world. Even the Reaper is slow, clumsy, unarmored, generally unable to perceive threats around it, and — writes defense expert Winslow Wheeler — “fundamentally incapable of defending itself.” While Reapers have been outfitted with missiles for theoretical air-to-air combat capabilities, those armaments would be functionally useless in a real-world dogfight.

Similarly, in a 2011 report, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board admitted that modern air defense systems “would quickly decimate the current Predator/Reaper fleet and be a serious threat against the high-flying Global Hawk.” Unlike that MQ-1000 of 2030, today’s top drone would be a sitting duck if any reasonably armed enemy wanted to take it on. In this sense, as in many others, it compares unfavorably to current manned combat aircraft.

The Navy’s even newer MQ-8B Fire Scout, a much-hyped drone helicopter that has been tested as a weapons platform, has also gone bust. Not only was one shot down in Libya last year, but repeated crashes have caused the Navy to ground the robo-copter “for the indefinite future.”

Even the highly classified RQ-170 Sentinel couldn’t stay airborne over Iran during a secret mission that suddenly became very public last year. Whether or not an Iranian attack brought down the drone, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board report makes it clear that there are numerous methods by which remotely piloted aircraft can potentially be thwarted or downed, from the use of lasers and dazzlers to blind or damage sensors to simple jammers to disrupt global positioning systems, not to mention a wide range of cyber-attacks, the jamming of commercial satellite communications, and the spoofing or hijacking of drone data links.

Smaller tactical unmanned aircraft may be even more susceptible to low-tech attacks, not to mention constrained in their abilities and cumbersome to use. Sergeant Christopher Harris, an Army drone pilot and infantryman, described the limitations of the larger of the two hand-launched drones he’s operated in Afghanistan this way: the 13-pound Puma was best used from an observation post with some elevation; it only had a 12-mile range and, though theoretically possible to take on patrol, was “a beast to carry around” once the weight of extra batteries and equipment was factored in.

Terminators of Tomorrow?

As for the future, the Air Force’s 2011-2036 Roadmap has already hit a major detour. In 2010, Air Force magazine breathlessly announced, “Early in the next decade, the Air Force will deploy a new, stealthy RPA — currently called the MQ-X — capable of surviving in heavily defended airspace and performing a wide variety of ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] and strike missions.”

Indeed, the 2011 Roadmap lists the MQ-X as the future of Air Force drones. In February 2012 however, Lieutenant General Larry James told an Aviation Week-sponsored conference: “At this point… we don’t plan, in the near term, to invest in any sort of MQ-X like program.” Instead, James said, the Air Force will be content simply to upgrade the Reaper fleet and watch the Navy’s development of its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike or UCLASS drone to see if it soars or, like so many RPAs, crashes and burns.

The Holy Grail of drone ops is the ability of an aircraft to linger over suspected target areas for long durations. But ultra-long-term loitering operations still remain in the realm of fantasy. Admittedly, the Pentagon’s blue skies research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is pursuing an ambitious drone project to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and “communication missions over an area of interest” for five or more years at a time. The project, dubbed “Vulture,” is meant to provide satellite-like capabilities “in an aircraft package.”

Right now, it sounds downright unlikely.

While the Air Force has had a hush-hush unmanned space plane orbiting the Earth for more than a year, much like a standard satellite, the longest a U.S. military drone has reportedly stayed aloft within the planet’s atmosphere is a little more than 336 hours. Plans for ultra-long duration flights took a major hit last year, according to scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and defense giant Northrop Grumman.

In an effort to “to increase UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold,” according to a 2011 report made public by the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News, the Sandia and Northrop Grumman researchers identified a technology that “would have provided system performance unparalleled by other existing technologies.” In a year in which the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster turned a swath of Japan into an irradiated no-go zone, the use of that mystery technology, never named in the report but assumed to be nuclear power, was deemed untenable due to “current political conditions.”

With the Pentagon now lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration to open U.S. airspace to its robotic aircraft and ever more articles emerging about drone crashes, don’t bet on nuclear-powered, long-loitering drones appearing anytime soon, nor on many of the other major promised innovations in Drone World to come online in the near term either.

From Dystopian Fiction to Dystopian Reality

Until recently, drones looked like a can’t-miss technology primed for big budget increases and revolutionary advances, but all that’s changing fast. “Realistic expectations are for zero growth in the unmanned systems funding,” Weatherington explained by email. “Most increases will be in technical innovations improving application of delivered systems on the battlefield, and driving down the cost of ownership.”

Major Jeffrey Poquette of the Army’s Small Unmanned Air Systems Product Office talked about just such an effort. By the late summer, he said, the Army planned to introduce more sophisticated sensors, including the ability to track targets more easily, in its four-pound Raven surveillance drones. Put less politely, what this means is no roll-outs of sophisticated new drone systems or revolutionary new drone technology: the Army will simply upgrade a glorified model airplane that first took flight more than a decade ago.

Sci-fi it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that nothing will change in the world of drone warfare.

The Terminator films weren’t exactly original in predicting a future of unmanned planes dominating the world’s skies. At the end of World War II, General Henry “Hap” Arnold of the U.S. Army Air Forces praised American pilots for their wartime performance, but suggested their days might be numbered. “The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all,” he explained. The future of combat aviation, he announced, would be “different from anything the world has ever seen.”

The most salient and accurate of Arnold’s predictions was not, however, his forecast about drone warfare. Pilotless planes had taken flight years before the Wright Brothers launched their manned airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, and drones would not become a signature piece of American weaponry until the 2000s. Instead, Arnold’s faith in a “next war” — a clear departure from the sentiments of so many Americans after World War I — proved accurate again and again. Over the following decades, American aircraft would strike in North Korea, South Korea, Indonesia, Guatemala, Cuba, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq (again), Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen (again), Libya (again), and the Philippines. New technologies came and went, air strikes were the constant.

In Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and the Philippines, the U.S. deployed pilotless planes as per Arnold’s other prediction. From Afghanistan onward, all of the countries that have experienced American air power have also experienced lethal drone attacks — just how many is unknown because figures on drone strikes are kept secret “for security reasons,” the Air Force’s Spires recently told TomDispatch. What we do know is that drone attacks have increased radically over the years. “More” has been the name of the game.

Still, barely a decade after our drone wars began, dreams of Terminator-esque efficiency and technological perfection are all but dead, even if the drone itself is increasingly embedded in our world. Fantasies of autonomous drones and submarines fighting robot wars off the coast of Africa are already fading for any near-term future. But drone warfare is here to stay. Count on drones to be an essential part of the American way of war for a long time to come.

Air Force contracting documents suggest that the estimated five Reaper sorties flown each day in 2012 will jump to 66 per day by 2016. What that undoubtedly means is more countries with drones flying over them, more drone bases, more crashes, more mistakes. What we’re unlikely to see is armed drones scoring decisive military victories, offering solutions to complex foreign-policy problems, or even providing an answer to the issue of terrorism, despite the hopes of policymakers and the military brass.

Keep in mind as well that those global skies are going to fill with the hunter-killer drones of other nations in what could soon enough become a drone-eat-drone world. With that still largely in the future, however, the Pentagon continues to glow with enthusiasm over the advantages drones offer the U.S.

Regarding the importance of military robots, for instance, the Pentagon’s Dyke Weatherington explained, “Combatant commanders and warfighters place value in the inherent features of unmanned systems — especially their persistence, versatility, and reduced risk to human life.”

On that last point, of course, Weatherington is only thinking about American military personnel and American lives. Tomorrow’s drone warfare will likely mean “more” in one other area: more dead civilians. We’ve left behind the fiction of Hollywood for a less high-tech but distinctly dystopian reality. It isn’t quite the movies and it isn’t what the Pentagon mapped out, but it indisputably provides a clear path to a grim and grimy Terminator Planet.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author/editor of several books, including the just published Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (with Tom Engelhardt). This piece is the latest article in his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Nick Turse

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on May 29th, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

They have a way of slipping under the radar, whether heading into Pakistan looking for Osama bin Laden, Central Africa looking for Joseph Kony, or Yemen assumedly to direct local military action against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  I’m talking, of course, about U.S. special operations forces. These days, from Somalia to the Philippines, presidential global interventions are increasingly a dime a dozen; and they are normally spearheaded by those special ops troops backed by CIA or Air Force drones. Few Americans even notice.

An ever expanding secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military, special operations types remain remarkably, determinedly anonymous.  With the exception of their commander, Admiral William McRaven, they generally won’t even reveal their last names in public, which only contributes to their growing mystique in this country.

But for a crew so dedicated to anonymity, they also turn out to be publicity hounds of the first order.  In 2011, for instance, active-duty U.S. Navy Seals (first-name only please!) became movie stars, spearheading a number one box office hit, Act of Valor. It was the film equivalent of a vanity-press production, focused as it did on their own skills in battle in… hmmm, the Philippines (to prevent a terror strike against the U.S.).  A team of SEALs even parachuted onto Sunset Boulevard for the film’s Hollywood premiere.

Then last week another special ops team, in coordination with their Norwegian and Australian counterparts, heroically rescued the mayor of Tampa Bay, held “hostage.”  They also rappelled down from helicopters and arrived in Humvees to secure the area around the Tampa Convention Center, which will service 15,000 members of the media when the Republicans hit town to nominate Mitt Romney for president. Whew! Another close publicity call!

It was a mock assault on terror watched by thousands of Tampa residents, all timed to the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, also in town and swarmed by 8,000 attendees, including McRaven.  Its goal: to bring together special operators from around the world and the industry that arms and accessorizes them.  (U.S. special ops forces have a $2 billion purchasing budget each year for all the gadgets the defense industry can produce.)

Oh, and if you want a measure of how hot the special ops guys are these days, how much everyone wants to horn in on their act, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke before the conference, offering, according to Danger Room’s David Axe, “a vision in which shadowy U.S. and allied Special Operations Forces, working hand in hand with America’s embassies and foreign governments, together play a key role preventing low-intensity conflicts.”  And if those conflicts aren’t prevented, then the Foreign Service, Clinton assured her listeners, will be happy to lend its “language and cultural skills” to the fighting prowess of the special ops troops.  Diplomacy?  It’s so old school in such a sexy, new, “covert” war-fightin’ world.

The basic principle is simple enough: if you see a juggernaut heading your way, duck.  As TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, editor most recently of The Short American Century, makes clear, war American-style is heading back “into the shadows” and it’s going to be one roller-coaster of a scary ride.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses what we don’t know about special operations forces, click here or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom

Unleashed
Globalizing the Global War on Terror
By Andrew J. Bacevich

As he campaigns for reelection, President Obama periodically reminds audiences of his success in terminating the deeply unpopular Iraq War.  With fingers crossed for luck, he vows to do the same with the equally unpopular war in Afghanistan.  If not exactly a peacemaker, our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president can (with some justification) at least claim credit for being a war-ender.

Yet when it comes to military policy, the Obama administration’s success in shutting down wars conducted in plain sight tells only half the story, and the lesser half at that.  More significant has been this president’s enthusiasm for instigating or expanding secret wars, those conducted out of sight and by commandos.

President Franklin Roosevelt may not have invented the airplane, but during World War II he transformed strategic bombing into one of the principal emblems of the reigning American way of war.  General Dwight D. Eisenhower had nothing to do with the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.  Yet, as president, Ike’s strategy of Massive Retaliation made nukes the centerpiece of U.S. national security policy.

So, too, with Barack Obama and special operations forces.  The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) with its constituent operating forces — Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and the like — predated his presidency by decades.  Yet it is only on Obama’s watch that these secret warriors have reached the pinnacle of the U.S. military’s prestige hierarchy.

John F. Kennedy famously gave the Green Berets their distinctive headgear.  Obama has endowed the whole special operations “community” with something less decorative but far more important: privileged status that provides special operators with maximum autonomy while insulating them from the vagaries of politics, budgetary or otherwise.  Congress may yet require the Pentagon to undertake some (very modest) belt-tightening, but one thing’s for sure: no one is going to tell USSOCOM to go on a diet.  What the special ops types want, they will get, with few questions asked — and virtually none of those few posed in public.

Since 9/11, USSOCOM’s budget has quadrupled. The special operations order of battle has expanded accordingly.  At present, there are an estimated 66,000 uniformed and civilian personnel on the rolls, a doubling in size since 2001 with further growth projected. Yet this expansion had already begun under Obama’s predecessor.  His essential contribution has been to broaden the special ops mandate.  As one observer put it, the Obama White House let Special Operations Command “off the leash.”

As a consequence, USSOCOM assets today go more places and undertake more missions while enjoying greater freedom of action than ever before.  After a decade in which Iraq and Afghanistan absorbed the lion’s share of the attention, hitherto neglected swaths of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are receiving greater scrutiny. Already operating in dozens of countries around the world — as many as 120 by the end of this year — special operators engage in activities that range from reconnaissance and counterterrorism to humanitarian assistance and “direct action.” The traditional motto of the Army special forces is “De Oppresso Liber” (“To Free the Oppressed”).  A more apt slogan for special operations forces as a whole might be “Coming soon to a Third World country near you!”

The displacement of conventional forces by special operations forces as the preferred U.S. military instrument — the “force of choice” according to the head of USSOCOM, Admiral William McRaven — marks the completion of a decades-long cultural repositioning of the American soldier.  The G.I., once represented by the likes of cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s iconic Willie and Joe, is no more, his place taken by today’s elite warrior professional.  Mauldin’s creations were heroes, but not superheroes.  The nameless, lionized SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden are flesh-and blood Avengers.  Willie and Joe were “us.”  SEALs are anything but “us.”  They occupy a pedestal well above mere mortals.  Couch potato America stands in awe of their skill and bravery.

This cultural transformation has important political implications.  It represents the ultimate manifestation of the abyss now separating the military and society. Nominally bemoaned by some, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, this civilian-military gap has only grown over the course of decades and is now widely accepted as the norm.  As one consequence, the American people have forfeited owner’s rights over their army, having less control over the employment of U.S. forces than New Yorkers have over the management of the Knicks or Yankees.

As admiring spectators, we may take at face value the testimony of experts (even if such testimony is seldom disinterested) who assure us that the SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. are the best of the best, and that they stand ready to deploy at a moment’s notice so that Americans can sleep soundly in their beds.  If the United States is indeed engaged, as Admiral McRaven has said, in “a generational struggle,” we will surely want these guys in our corner.

Even so, allowing war in the shadows to become the new American way of war is not without a downside.  Here are three reasons why we should think twice before turning global security over to Admiral McRaven and his associates.

Goodbye accountability. Autonomy and accountability exist in inverse proportion to one another.  Indulge the former and kiss the latter goodbye.  In practice, the only thing the public knows about special ops activities is what the national security apparatus chooses to reveal.  Can you rely on those who speak for that apparatus in Washington to tell the truth?  No more than you can rely on JPMorgan Chase to manage your money prudently.  Granted, out there in the field, most troops will do the right thing most of the time.  On occasion, however, even members of an elite force will stray off the straight-and-narrow.  (Until just a few weeks ago, most Americans considered White House Secret Service agents part of an elite force.)  Americans have a strong inclination to trust the military.  Yet as a famous Republican once said: trust but verify.  There’s no verifying things that remain secret.  Unleashing USSOCOM is a recipe for mischief.

Hello imperial presidency. From a president’s point of view, one of the appealing things about special forces is that he can send them wherever he wants to do whatever he directs.  There’s no need to ask permission or to explain.  Employing USSOCOM as your own private military means never having to say you’re sorry.  When President Clinton intervened in Bosnia or Kosovo, when President Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, they at least went on television to clue the rest of us in.  However perfunctory the consultations may have been, the White House at least talked things over with the leaders on Capitol Hill.  Once in a while, members of Congress even cast votes to indicate approval or disapproval of some military action.  With special ops, no such notification or consultation is necessary.  The president and his minions have a free hand.  Building on the precedents set by Obama, stupid and reckless presidents will enjoy this prerogative no less than shrewd and well-intentioned ones.

And then what…? As U.S. special ops forces roam the world slaying evildoers, the famous question posed by David Petraeus as the invasion of Iraq began — “Tell me how this ends” — rises to the level of Talmudic conundrum.  There are certainly plenty of evildoers who wish us ill (primarily but not necessarily in the Greater Middle East).  How many will USSOCOM have to liquidate before the job is done?  Answering that question becomes all the more difficult given that some of the killing has the effect of adding new recruits to the ranks of the non-well-wishers.

In short, handing war to the special operators severs an already too tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes war for its own sake.  Remember George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror”?  Actually, his war was never truly global.  War waged in a special-operations-first world just might become truly global — and never-ending.  In that case, Admiral McRaven’s “generational struggle” is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a TomDispatch regular.  He is editor of the new book The Short American Century, just published by Harvard University Press. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses what we don’t know about special operations forces, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Andrew J. Bacevich

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Posted by The Agonist on May 28th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Yesterday, AP’s Marilynn Marchionne reported on the massive number of new disabled veterans claiming benefits – enough to break the VA’s system and run up an additional war bill of up to $900 billion.

A staggering 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. That is more than double the estimate of 21 percent who filed such claims after the Gulf War in the early 1990s, top government officials told The Associated Press.

What’s more, these new veterans are claiming eight to nine ailments on average, and the most recent ones over the last year are claiming 11 to 14. By comparison, Vietnam veterans are currently receiving compensation for fewer than four, on average, and those from World War II and Korea, just two.

The average wait to get a new one processed grows longer each month and is now about eight months — time that a frustrated, injured veteran might spend with no income.

More than 560,000 veterans from all wars currently have claims that are backlogged — older than 125 days.

This Memorial Weekend, it’d be nice if we as a nation could support these veterans of wars of adventure with more than just glib words. And by “we” I mean our elected representatives in Congress and the White House on our behalf.

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Posted by The Agonist on May 28th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

May 27

BBC – A Nato air strike has killed eight members of a family in the eastern Afghan province of Paktia, local officials say.

A provincial spokesman said a couple and their six children died in an air strike on Saturday in the village of Suri Khail, Gurda Saria district.

Nato says it is investigating the reports.

Earlier, the alliance said four of its soldiers had died in separate bomb attacks in Afghanistan on Saturday.

Paktia provincial spokesman Rohullah Samoon told AFP news agency: “It was an air strike conducted by Nato.

“This man [the father] had no connection to the Taliban or any other terrorist group.”

Nato spokesman Lt Col Jimmie Cummings acknowledged that coalition forces had been conducting an operation in Paktia province “against a large number of insurgents” on Saturday night.

He said the alliance was aware of the reports of civilian deaths and was investigating them.

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Posted by The Agonist on May 27th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

News of the massacre of civilians at Houla in Syria on Friday has outraged all right-thinking people. Despite Syrian official denials of responsibility and news that civilian pro-Assad militias were responsible for what has been called an “appalling and brutal crime”, the Assad government is being held directly accountable.

Rightly so. The Syrian government is the body responsible in international law for ensuring the safety and security of its citizens and all the buck eventually stops there, no matter who actually carried out this atrocity. Either every attempt must be made to ensure “Those responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account,” as the UN statement put it, or Assad and his officials must be.

But the many calls for regime change fuelled by the news of this massacre are a step too far, and when coming from the West hypocritical to boot.

ISAF, led by NATO which is in turn led by the US, is the security mandate holder for Afghanistan. Just like the Assad government’s final responsibility for the safety of its civilians, the final buck for the safety of Afghan civilians stops at the White House – technically, no matter who does the killing, but especially when US forces themselves are responsible for outrageous crimes.

Just today, six children and two women were killed by an ISAF airstrike. As usual, NATO denied the killings – and just as usual, NATO will subsequently admit them and pay a modicum of compensation. It’s hardly the first such massacre or even the most outrageous. In 2009 a US night raid killed eight children in cold blood. In 2010, US forces in another night raid shot three pregnant women, dug the bullets from their bodies with knives and tried to blame insurgents. No one was ever prosecuted for either of these war crimes. U.S. Special Operations Forces killed well over 1,500 civilians in night raids in less than 10 months in 2010 and early 2011 and of the 739 children killed in Afghanistan in 2010 over 120 were directly attributable to NATO action. Atrocities committed by the US-led coalition in Afghanistan are at least on a par with those committed by the Assad regime. Yet the number of people charged with crimes, let alone given any kind of meaningful sentence once convicted, is miniscule in relation to the number and size of “appalling and brutal” crimes. The citizens cannot even hold the criminals accountable through their own legal system, since the US and its allies insist on immunity from local prosecution.

Them’s just the facts.

The number of governments calling for UN sanctions, weapons-running to opposition groups and regime change in the US or UK? None.

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on May 24th, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

How to Forget on Memorial Day
Whistling Past the Graveyard of Empires

By Tom Engelhardt

It’s the saddest reading around: the little announcements that dribble out of the Pentagon every day or two — those terse, relatively uninformative death notices: rank; name; age; small town, suburb, or second-level city of origin; means of death (“small arms fire,” “improvised explosive device,” “the result of gunshot wounds inflicted by an individual wearing an Afghan National Army uniform,” or sometimes something vaguer like “while conducting combat operations,” “supporting Operation Enduring Freedom,” or simply no explanation at all); and the unit the dead soldier belonged to. They are seldom 100 words, even with the usual opening line: “The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.” Sometimes they include more than one death.

They are essentially bureaucratic notices designed to draw little attention to themselves. Yet cumulatively, in their hundreds over the last decade, they represent a grim archive of America’s still ongoing, already largely forgotten second Afghan War, and I’ve read them obsessively for years.

Into the Memory Hole

May is the official month of remembrance when it comes to our war dead, ending as it does on the long Memorial Day weekend when Americans typically take to the road and kill themselves and each other in far greater numbers than will die in Afghanistan. It’s a weekend for which the police tend to predict rising fatalities and news reports tend to celebrate any declines in deaths on our roads and highways.

Quiz Americans and a surprising number undoubtedly won’t have thought about the “memorial” in Memorial Day at all — especially now that it’s largely a marker of the start of summer and an excuse for cookouts.

How many today are aware that, as Decoration Day, it began in 1865 in a nation still torn by grief over the loss of — we now know — up to 750,000 dead in the first modern war, a wrenching civil catastrophe in a then-smaller and still under-populated country? How many know that the first Decoration Day was held in 1865 with 10,000 freed slaves and some Union soldiers parading on a Charleston, South Carolina, race track previously frequented by planters and transformed in wartime into a grim outdoor prison? The former slaves were honoring Union prisoners who had died there and been hastily buried in unmarked graves, but as historian Kenneth Jackson has written, they were also offering “a declaration of the meaning of the war and of their own freedom.”

Those ceremonies migrated north in 1866, became official at national cemeteries in 1868, and grew into ever more elaborate civic remembrances over the years. Even the South, which had previously marked its grief separately, began to take part after World War I as the ceremonies were extended to the remembrance of all American war dead. Only in 1968, in the midst of another deeply unpopular war, did Congress make it official as Memorial Day, creating the now traditional long holiday weekend.

And yet, when it comes to the major war the United States is still fighting, now in its 11th year, the word remembrance is surely inappropriate, as is the “Memorial” in Memorial Day. It’s not just that the dead of the Afghan War have largely been tossed down the memory hole of history (even if they do get official attention on Memorial Day itself). Even the fact that Americans are still dying in Afghanistan seems largely to have been forgotten, along with the war itself.

As the endlessly plummeting opinion polls indicate, the Afghan War is one Americans would clearly prefer to forget — yesterday, not tomorrow. It was, in fact, regularly classified as “the forgotten war” almost from the moment that the Bush administration turned its attention to the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and so declared its urge to create a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East. Despite the massive “surge” of troops, special operations forces, CIA agents, and civilian personnel sent to Afghanistan by President Obama in 2009-2010, and the ending of the military part of the Iraq debacle in 2011, the Afghan War has never made it out of the grave of forgetfulness to which it was so early consigned.

Count on one thing: there will be no Afghan version of Maya Lin, no Afghan Wall on the National Mall. Unlike the Vietnam conflict, tens of thousands of books won’t be pouring out for decades to come arguing passionately about the conflict. There may not even be a “who lost Afghanistan” debate in its aftermath.

Few Afghan veterans are likely to return from the war to infuse with new energy an antiwar movement that remains small indeed, nor will they worry about being “spit upon.” There will be little controversy. They — their traumas and their wounds — will, like so many bureaucratic notices, disappear into the American ether, leaving behind only an emptiness and misery, here and in Afghanistan, as perhaps befits a bankrupting, never-ending imperial war on the global frontiers.

Whistling Past the Graveyard of Empires

If nothing else, the path to American amnesia is worth recalling on this Memorial Day.

Though few here remember it that way, the invasion of Afghanistan was launched on a cult of the dead. These were the dead civilians from the Twin Towers in New York City. It was to their memory that the only “Wall” of this era — the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan — has been built. Theirs are the biographies that are still remembered in annual rites nationwide. They are, and remain, the dead of the Afghan War, even though they died before it began.

On the other hand, from the moment the invasion of Afghanistan was launched, how to deal with the actual American war dead was always considered a problematic matter. The Bush administration and the military high command, with the Vietnam War still etched in their collective memories, feared those uniformed bodies coming home (as they feared and banished the “body count” of enemy dead in the field). They remembered the return of the “body bags” of the Vietnam era as a kind of nightmare, stoking a fierce antiwar movement, which they were determined not to see repeated.

As a result, in the early years of the Afghan and then Iraq wars, the Bush administration took relatively draconian steps to cut the media off from any images of the returning war dead. They strictly enforced a Pentagon ban, in existence since the first Gulf War, on media coverage and images of the coffins arriving from the war fronts at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. At the same time, much publicity was given to the way President Bush met privately and emotionally — theoretically beyond the view of the media — with the families of the dead.

And yet, banned or not, for a period the war dead proliferated. In those early years of Washington’s two increasingly catastrophic wars on the Eurasian mainland, newspapers regularly produced full-page or double-page “walls of heroes” with tiny images of the faces of the American dead, while their names were repeatedly read in somber tones on television. In a similar fashion, the antiwar movement toured the country with little “cemeteries” or displays of combat boots representing the war dead.

The Pentagon ban ended with the arrival of the Obama administration. In October 2009, six months after the Pentagon rescinded it, in an obvious rebuke to his predecessor, President Obama traveled to Dover Air Base. There, inside a plane bringing the bodies of the dead home, he reportedly prayed over the coffins and was later photographed offering a salute as one of them was carried off the plane. But by the time the arrival of the dead could be covered, few seemed to care.

The Bush administration, it turns out, needn’t have worried. In an America largely detached from war, the Iraq War would end without fanfare or anyone here visibly giving much of a damn. Similarly, the Afghan War would continue to limp from one disaster to the next, from an American “kill team” murdering Afghan civilians “for sport” to troops urinating on Afghan corpses (and videotaping the event), or mugging for the camera with enemy body parts, or an American sergeant running amok, or the burning of Korans, or the raising of an SS banner. And, of course, ever more regularly, ever more unnervingly, Afghan “allies” would turn their guns on American and NATO troops and blow them away. It’s a phenomenon almost unheard of in such wars, but so common in Afghanistan these days that it’s gotten its own label: “green-on-blue violence.”

This has been the road to oblivion and it’s paved with forgotten bodies. Forgetfulness, of course, comes at a price, which includes the escalating long-term costs of paying for the American war-wounded and war-traumatized. On this Memorial Day, there will undoubtedly be much cant in the form of tributes to “our heroes” and then, Tuesday morning, when the mangled cars have been towed away, the barbeque grills cleaned, and the “heroes” set aside, the forgetting will continue. If the Obama administration has its way and American special operations forces, trainers, and advisors in reduced but still significant numbers remain in Afghanistan until perhaps 2024, we have more than another decade of forgetting ahead of us in a tragedy that will, by then, be beyond all comprehension.

Afghanistan has often enough been called “the graveyard of empires.” Americans have made it a habit to whistle past that graveyard, looking the other way — a form of obliviousness much aided by the fact that the American war dead conveniently come from the less well known or forgotten places in our country. They are so much easier to ignore thanks to that.

Except in their hometowns, how easy the war dead are to forget in an era when corporations go to war but Americans largely don’t. So far, 1,980 American military personnel (and significant but largely unacknowledged numbers of private contractors) have died in Afghanistan, as have 1,028 NATO and allied troops, and (despite U.N. efforts to count them) unknown but staggering numbers of Afghans.

So far in the month of May, 22 American dead have been listed in those Pentagon announcements. If you want a little memorial to a war that shouldn’t be, check out their hometowns and you’ll experience a kind of modern graveyard poetry. Consider it an elegy to the dead of second- or third-tier cities, suburbs, and small towns whose names are resonant exactly because they are part of your country, but seldom or never heard by you.

Here, then, on this Memorial Day, are not the names of the May dead, but of their hometowns, announcement by announcement, placed at the graveside of a war that we can’t bear to remember and that simply won’t go away. If it’s the undead of wars, the deaths from it remain a quiet crime against American humanity:

Spencerport, New York

Wichita, Kansas

Warren, Arkansas

West Chester, Ohio

Alameda, California

Charlotte, North Carolina

Stow, Ohio

Clarksville, Tennessee

Chico, California

Jeffersonville, Kentucky

Yuma, Arizona

Normangee, Texas

Round Rock, Texas

Rolla, Missouri

Lucerne Valley, California

Las Cruses, New Mexico

Fort Wayne, Indiana

Overland Park, Kansas

Wheaton, Illinois

Lawton, Oklahoma

Prince George, Virginia

Terre Haute/a>, Indiana.

As long as the hometowns pile up, no one should rest in peace.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books). To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which he discusses what Americans should consider remembering on Memorial Day, click here or download it to your iPod here.

[Note on Further Reading: For those interested in exploring the history of Memorial Day, there’s no better place to visit than the always fascinating website History News Network. For carefully put together records on American and NATO deaths in Afghanistan, visit icasualties.org. Simply to keep up on American war news, not always the easiest thing in the mainstream media these days, make sure to visit Antiwar.com (as I do daily).]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by The Agonist on May 24th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Lianne Gutcher | Kabul | May 24

The Independent – Two foreign medical workers and their three Afghan translators have been abducted in a remote part of north-east Afghanistan.

The women and their interpreters were travelling on horseback between the districts of Yaftal and Ragh in Badakhshan province when they were snatched by gunmen on Tuesday evening. The nationalities of the women were not disclosed.

The team, thought to have been with the Swiss aid organisation Medair, were on a trip to help women and children in rural areas. Abdul Maroof Rasek, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said the group was taken to a town in Ragh, adding: “So far, the kidnappers have not been in touch with officials or police, and there has been no ransom demand.”

He said district elders had been asked to ask for help find the kidnap victims and negotiate their release.

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Posted by The Agonist on May 22nd, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Alissa J. Rubin | Kabul | May 22

NYT – The leading American diplomat in Afghanistan, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, will leave his post this summer after less than a year, an American Embassy spokesman said Tuesday.

“The ambassador has with regret confirmed that he is going to be stepping down,” said the spokesman, John Rhatigan, who is based in Kabul.

Mr. Crocker, who had originally said he expected to serve for two years, played a central role in negotiating a difficult strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan despite months of crisis and deep tension over night raids and the American detention of Afghan detainees. Both of those issues had to be worked through, in the form of side deals, before the partnership agreement could be signed on May 1. That broader deal charted a continuing relationship between the two countries for the next decade.

The pending departure of Mr. Crocker is likely to influence the timetable for appointing a new commander for the Afghanistan mission, as well, Pentagon and military officials say.

The current senior officer in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen of the Marine Corps, is expected to be named commander of NATO forces, which includes leading the American military’s European Command.

Jeez, I hope this doesn’t inflame Afghanistan’s fear of abandonment…

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on May 22nd, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three days a week, click here .

As the country’s big wars on the Eurasian continent wind down, American war-making and war preparations fly ever more regularly under the radar.  There has, for instance, been much discussion about the Obama administration’s policy “pivot” to Asia — the only warlike act in the region so far has, however, been a little noted drone strike in the Philippines.  At the same time, remarkably little attention has been paid to a massive build-up of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, and — though both seem to be underway (and connected) — who talks about the “pivot” to the Western Indian Ocean or the “pivot” to Africa?

For those keeping a careful eye out, U.S. drone (and air) bases in the region have been proliferating — in the Seychelles Islands, in Ethiopia, and at an unidentified site on the Arabian peninsula, among other places.  Recently, however, Wired’s Danger Room website reported that an Italian blogger had put the pieces together and offered impressive evidence of a larger war-making effort in the region, involving not only drones but F-15E fighter jets, possibly being used to bomb Yemen. Meanwhile, there are U.S. drone strikes in Yemen almost daily and at least 20 special forces operatives are reportedly now on the ground there, helping direct some of the fighting and even taking casualties.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), set up in 2007, has been gaining clout.  In 2011, 100 special operations troops, mainly Green Berets, were moved into Central Africa, officially to aid in the hunting down of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Recently, it was reported that a brigade of regular U.S. combat troops will soon be assigned to the command and given training duties throughout the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been organizing a proxy war, supported by drone attacks, against al-Shabab rebels in Somalia, using Ugandan, Kenyan, and other African troops as those proxies.  And more’s afoot.  It’s just that, if you weren’t an obsessive news watcher, you would have next to no way of knowing that any of this was taking place.

War American-style, already long detached from the lives of most Americans, is growing more so: ever more secret, presidential, and beyond the control of, or accountability to, citizens or Congress.  In only one way is this not true: we taxpayers still fork over the massive sums that make our perpetual state of war and war state possible.  As Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer of the invaluable National Priorities Project report, the expense of all this is blowing a hole in your wallet and our treasury.  To offer but one small example, if someday soon the Pakistani/Afghan border is reopened to U.S. war supplies, you will be paying the Pakistanis $1,500-$1,800 for every truck that crosses it, at an estimated cost of at least $1 million a day (with other “fees” likely).  And yet, it’s remarkable how little Americans know about what’s coming out of their pockets when the subject is “national security,” or where exactly it’s all going. Which is why we need Hellman and Kramer (and their new book, A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget) to keep us in the loop.  Tom

War Pay
The Nearly $1 Trillion National Security Budget

By Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer

Recent months have seen a flurry of headlines about cuts (often called “threats”) to the U.S. defense budget. Last week, lawmakers in the House of Representatives even passed a bill that was meant to spare national security spending from future cuts by reducing school-lunch funding and other social programs.

Here, then, is a simple question that, for some curious reason, no one bothers to ask, no less answer: How much are we spending on national security these days? With major wars winding down, has Washington already cut such spending so close to the bone that further reductions would be perilous to our safety?

In fact, with projected cuts added in, the national security budget in fiscal 2013 will be nearly $1 trillion — a staggering enough sum that it’s worth taking a walk through the maze of the national security budget to see just where that money’s lodged.

If you’ve heard a number for how much the U.S. spends on the military, it’s probably in the neighborhood of $530 billion. That’s the Pentagon’s base budget for fiscal 2013, and represents a 2.5% cut from 2012. But that $530 billion is merely the beginning of what the U.S. spends on national security. Let’s dig a little deeper.

The Pentagon’s base budget doesn’t include war funding, which in recent years has been well over $100 billion. With U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq and troop levels falling in Afghanistan, you might think that war funding would be plummeting as well.  In fact, it will drop to a mere $88 billion in fiscal 2013. By way of comparison, the federal government will spend around $64 billion on education that same year.

Add in war funding, and our national security total jumps to $618 billion. And we’re still just getting started.

The U.S. military maintains an arsenal of nuclear weapons. You might assume that we’ve already accounted for nukes in the Pentagon’s $530 billion base budget.  But you’d be wrong. Funding for nuclear weapons falls under the Department of Energy (DOE), so it’s a number you rarely hear. In fiscal 2013, we’ll be spending $11.5 billion on weapons and related programs at the DOE. And disposal of nuclear waste is expensive, so add another $6.4 billion for weapons cleanup.

Now, we’re at $636 billion and counting.

How about homeland security? We’ve got to figure that in, too. There’s the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which will run taxpayers $35.5 billion for its national security activities in fiscal 2013. But there’s funding for homeland security squirreled away in just about every other federal agency as well.  Think, for example, about programs to secure the food supply, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So add another $13.5 billion for homeland security at federal agencies other than DHS.

That brings our total to $685 billion.

Then there’s the international affairs budget, another obscure corner of the federal budget that just happens to be jammed with national security funds. For fiscal 2013, $8 billion in additional war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan is hidden away there. There’s also $14 billion for what’s called “international security assistance” — that’s part of the weapons and training Washington offers foreign militaries around the world. Plus there’s $2 billion for “peacekeeping operations,” money U.S. taxpayers send overseas to help fund military operations handled by international organizations and our allies.

That brings our national security total up to $709 billion.

We can’t forget the cost of caring for our nation’s veterans, including those wounded in our recent wars. That’s an important as well as hefty share of national security funding. In 2013, veterans programs will cost the federal government $138 billion.

That brings us to $847 billion — and we’re not done yet.

Taxpayers also fund pensions and other retirement benefits for non-veteran military retirees, which will cost $55 billion next year. And then there are the retirement costs for civilians who worked at the Department of Defense and now draw pensions and benefits. The federal government doesn’t publish a number on this, but based on the share of the federal workforce employed at the Pentagon, we can estimate that its civilian retirees will cost taxpayers around $21 billion in 2013.

By now, we’ve made it to $923 billion — and we’re finally almost done.

Just one more thing to add in, a miscellaneous defense account that’s separate from the defense base budget. It’s called “defense-related activities,” and it’s got $8 billion in it for 2013.

That brings our grand total to an astonishing $931 billion.

And this will turn out to be a conservative figure. We won’t spend less than that, but among other things, it doesn’t include the interest we’re paying on money we borrowed to fund past military operations; nor does it include portions of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that are dedicated to national security. And we don’t know if this number captures the entire intelligence budget or not, because parts of intelligence funding are classified.

For now, however, that whopping $931 billion for fiscal year 2013 will have to do. If our national security budget were its own economy, it would be the 19th largest in the world, roughly the size of Australia’s. Meanwhile, the country with the next largest military budget, China, spends a mere pittance by comparison. The most recent estimate puts China’s military funding at around $136 billion.

Or think of it this way: National security accounts for one quarter of every dollar the federal government is projected to spend in 2013. And if you pull trust funds for programs like Social Security out of the equation, that figure rises to more than one third of every dollar in the projected 2013 federal budget.

Yet the House recently passed legislation to spare the defense budget from cuts, arguing that the automatic spending reductions scheduled for January 2013 would compromise national security. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said such automatic cuts, which would total around $55 billion in 2013, would be “disastrous” for the defense budget. To avoid them, the House would instead pull money from the National School Lunch Program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, food stamps, and programs like the Social Services Block Grant, which funds Meals on Wheels, among other initiatives.

Yet it wouldn’t be difficult to find savings in that $931 billion.  There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit, starting with various costly weapons systems left over from the Cold War, like the Virginia class submarine, the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, the missile defense program, and the most expensive weapons system on the planet, the F-35 jet fighter. Cutting back or cancelling some of these programs would save billions of dollars annually.

In fact, Congress could find much deeper savings, but it would require fundamentally redefining national security in this country. On this issue, the American public is already several steps ahead of Washington. Americans overwhelmingly think that national security funding should be cut — deeply.

If lawmakers don’t pay closer attention to their constituents, we already know the alternative: pulling school-lunch funding.

Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer are research analysts at the National Priorities Project. They wrote the soon-to-be-published book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget, and host weekly two-minute Budget Brief videos on YouTube.

[Note: This is the latest National Priorities Project piece on TomDispatch about the true cost of national security. In a piece last year by Chris Hellman, the total cost of national security was calculated in a slightly different manner; it included interest payments on the borrowing that funded past military operations. In the national security numbers described above, such interest payments have been omitted.

For further reading on national security spending see “U.S. Security Spending Since 9/11,” an examination of the nearly $8 trillion the United States has spent on defense since the September 11th attacks. Also see “Debt, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward” by the Sustainable Defense Task Force.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer

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Posted by The Agonist on May 21st, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Robert Naiman:

At the intersection of Cermak and Michigan streets in Chicago yesterday, veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq told their stories when they threw back their service medals in protest at NATO leaders, echoing a famous protest against the Vietnam War.

A lot of media coming out of Chicago last night focused on street skirmishes between a handful of apolitical adventurists and the Chicago police. But some media got the real story.

Zach LaPorte, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer from Milwaukee who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, said, “I witnessed civilian casualties and civilians being arrested in what I consider an illegal occupation of a sovereign nation,” Reuters reported. Former U.S. Army Sergeant Alejandro Villatoro of Chicago, who served during the Iraq 2003 invasion and in Afghanistan in 2011, said: “There’s no honor in these wars… There’s just shame.”

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