War is lovely,
Let’s attack;
Only costs
Could hold us back.

It used to be that war was a really big deal. Conflicts such as Vietnam could tear the country apart. Times have changed, with decisions on war quickly becoming back-page stuff. Our wars were scarcely discussed during the last congressional election campaign. How come?

A top reason for that inattention is our reliance on mercenaries. We don’t use many actual troops anymore, thus precluding the need for a hated military draft. Private companies do much of the messy work, to the point where there is roughly one mercenary contractor in the war zone for every soldier. Afghans drive the trucks, Bangladeshis clean the latrines, Indians do the cooking, and former GIs do the security. No one knows just how many there are or how many get killed. They stay out of the limelight.

drone graffiti
Creative Commons photograph by byronpeebles

Robots also simplify war. Drones have no loved ones back home to raise a ruckus when they crash, and insurgents can no longer parade captured pilots through their dusty streets. This really tamps down the consciousness of the war in the press, making it all the easier to sell to the public.

Further tamping is carried out by the press itself. Newshounds aren’t even allowed into Iraq or Afghanistan unless attached to a military unit. To say the least, this creates a chilling effect on reporting. The suffering of local citizens and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers are played down, while heroism and camaraderie among the troops are played up. Duty and honor lead the story, while official callousness and bungling usually fail to make it into print without help from WikiLeaks.

The cost is what eventually makes it into print. There’s no good way to hide the phenomenal drain that war places on our treasury. So far the trick has been to keep the wars out of the regular defense budget to avoid scrutiny. Our so-called “overseas contingency operations” are funded by special appropriations with no recorded impact on the deficit. But with more lawmakers becoming increasingly restive about these continual special spending bills, there’s a movement to reinsert war back into the regular budget to avert a threatened congressional protest vote when the appropriations come up for periodic refunding.

Meanwhile, peace activists have again offered up their arresting cost comparisons. Notably, they point out that it takes about $1 million to support one GI in Afghanistan for a year — that’s 17 teachers back home. And the American Friends Service Committee, run by Quakers, is trying to raise its own $2 million annual budget by pointing out to donors that that’s how much the Pentagon spends every minute. It further irreverently explains that all 15.3 million unemployed Americans could be paid $50,000 for only three-quarters the cost of the two wars so far.

Meanwhile the Pentagon sports a huge propaganda office designed to make us fearful of China, North Korea, Iran, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba, and any other supposedly left-leaning nation. This softens us up to accept steadily larger military budgets, more bases on foreign soil, and the periodic need to assault places like Libya.

One such intervention calls for us to protect a gas pipeline across Afghanistan from Turkmenistan to India. Others seek greater control of Iraq’s and Libya’s oil. Do these reasons make war work for you?

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. https://otherwords.org

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