Winners and Losers in America’s Wars

The twenty-first century hasn’t exactly been America’s greatest moment. Still, there remain winners, along with all the losers you might care to mention. If, in fact, you were to sum up the first decade-plus of the next “American Century” in manufacturing terms, you might say that — Steve Jobs aside — this country has mainly been successful at making things that go boom in the night. Start with Hollywood. Its action and superhero films — the very definition of what goes boom in the night — continue to capture eyeballs and dominate global markets in ways that should impress and that have left national movie industries elsewhere in the proverbial dust. And then, of course, there’s that other group of winners, the arms-makers of the military-industrial-homeland-security complex. They’ve had the time of their lives these last boom years (so to speak), with national security budgets soaring annually beyond all imagination.

Even now, in the toughest of tough times and despite the headlines about gigantic Defense Department spending cuts, President Obama recently reassured arms-makers (and the rest of us) that the Pentagon budget would, in his words, “still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.” In response, his Republican opponents lambasted him as weak on defense for promising so little. Which tells you just who the winners of the last decade were and who the winners of the next one are likely to be.

Of course, in any situation there are always winners and losers, but it is striking that our losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven a gold mine for a small set of crony corporations and weapon-makers, producing a group of real winners at home with names like Lockheed Martin, KBR, and General Dynamics.

In his latest post, “Weapons ‘R’ Us,” retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore points, for instance, to the end results of our debacle in Iraq: the new Iraqi government is planning to purchase $11 billion in American weapons (and training), including F-16 fighter jets. A little history of American dreams for the Iraqi Air Force might be in order. When the Bush administration launched its invasion in 2003, it imagined an American-garrisoned Iraq for decades to come and a reconstituted Iraqi military “lite,” a force of perhaps 40,000 lightly armed troops “without an air force,” who would patrol the borders of their part of an American-dominated Middle East. In those halcyon days, there were no plans to recreate an Iraqi Air Force (though Saddam Hussein’s had once been one of the biggest in the world). Or rather, U.S. planners saw no need to do so because the “Iraqi Air Force” already existed and was settling into Balad Air Base north of Baghdad. It was, of course, the U.S. Air Force.

Consider it now a sign of defeat that almost the last military link between Iraq and the U.S. military will be the delivery of those new weapons and the years of training and support that will go with them. We didn’t win in Iraq, but someone (now that we consider corporations “people”) here in the U.S. certainly did!