The word “affluenza” is much in vogue. Lately, it’s been linked to a Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, who in 2013 killed four people in a car accident while driving drunk. During the trial, a defense witness argued that Couch should not be held responsible for his destructive acts. His parents had showered him with so much money and praise that he was completely self-centered; he was, in other words, a victim of affluenza, overwhelmed by a sense of entitlement that rendered him incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. Indeed, the judge at his trial sentenced him only to probation, not jail, despite the deaths of those four innocents.
Experts quickly dismissed “affluenza” as a false diagnosis, a form of quackery, and indeed the condition is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Yet the word caught on big time, perhaps because it speaks to something in the human condition, and it got me to thinking. During Ethan Couch’s destructive lifetime, has there been an American institution similarly showered with money and praise that has been responsible for the deaths of innocents and inadequately called to account? Is there one that suffers from the institutional version of affluenza (however fuzzy or imprecise that word may be) so much that it has had immense difficulty shouldering the blame for its failures and wrongdoing?
The answer is hidden in plain sight: the US military. Unlike Couch, however, that military has never faced trial or probation; it hasn’t felt the need to abscond to Mexico or been forcibly returned to the homeland to face the music.
Spoiling the Pentagon
First, a caveat. When I talk about spoiling the Pentagon, I’m not talking about your brother or daughter or best friend who serves honorably. Anyone who’s braving enemy fire while humping mountains in Afghanistan or choking on sand in Iraq is not spoiled.
I’m talking about the US military as an institution. Think of the Pentagon and the top brass; think of Dwight Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex; think of the national-security state with all its tentacles of power. Focus on those and maybe you’ll come to agree with my affluenza diagnosis.
Let’s begin with one aspect of that affliction: unbridled praise. In last month’s State of the Union address, President Obama repeated a phrase that’s become standard in American political discourse, as common as asking God to bless America. The US military, he said, is the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Such hyperbole is nothing new. Five years ago, in response to similar presidential statements, I argued that many war-like peoples, including the imperial Roman legions and Genghis Khan’s Mongol horsemen, held far better claims to the “best ever” Warrior Bowl trophy. Nonetheless, the over-the-top claims never cease. Upon being introduced by President Obama as his next nominee for secretary of defense in December 2014, for instance, Ash Carter promptly praised the military he was going to oversee as “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known.” His words echoed those of the president, who had claimed the previous August that it was “the best-led, best-trained, best-equipped military in human history.” Similar hosannas (“the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known”) had once been sprinkled liberally through George W. Bush’s speeches and comments, as well as those of other politicians since 9/11.
In fact, from the president to all those citizens who feel obliged in a way Americans never have before to “thank” the troops endlessly for their efforts, no other institution has been so universally applauded since 9/11. No one should be shocked then that, in polls, Americans regularly claim to trust the military leadership above any other crew around, including scientists, doctors, ministers, priests, and—no surprise—Congress.
Imagine parents endlessly praising their son as “the smartest, handsomest, most athletically gifted boy since God created Adam.” We’d conclude that they were thoroughly obnoxious, if not a bit unhinged. Yet the military remains just this sort of favored son, the country’s golden child. And to the golden child go the spoils.
Along with unbridled praise, consider the “allowance” the American people regularly offer the Pentagon. If this were an “affluenza” family unit, while mom and dad might be happily driving late-model his and her Audis, the favored son would be driving a spanking new Ferrari. Add up what the federal government spends on “defense,” “homeland security,” “overseas contingency operations” (wars), nuclear weapons, and intelligence and surveillance operations, and the Ferraris that belong to the Pentagon and its national security state pals are vrooming along at more than $750 billion dollars annually, or two-thirds of the government’s discretionary spending. That’s quite an allowance for “our boy”!
To cite a point of comparison, in 2015, federal funding for the departments of education, interior, and transportation maxed out at $95 billion—combined! Not only is the military our favored son by a country mile: It’s our Prodigal Son, and nothing satisfies “him.” He’s still asking for more (and his Republican uncles are clearly ready to turn over to him whatever’s left of the family savings, lock, stock, and barrel).
On the other hand, like any spoiled kid, the Defense Department sees even the most modest suggested cuts in its allowance as a form of betrayal. Witness the whining of both those Pentagon officials and military officers testifying before congressional committees and of empathetic committee members themselves. Minimalist cuts to the soaring Pentagon budget are, it seems, defanging the military and recklessly endangering American security vis-a-vis the exaggerated threats of the day: ISIS, China, and Russia. In fact, the real “threat” is clearly that the Pentagon’s congressional “parents” might someday cut down on its privileges and toys, as well as its free rein to do more or less as it pleases.
With respect to those privileges, enormous budgets drive an unimaginably top-heavy bureaucracy at the Pentagon. Since 9/11, congressional authorizations of three- and four-star generals and admirals have multiplied twice as fast as their one- and two-star colleagues. Too many generals are chasing too few combat billets, contributing to backstabbing and butt-kissing. Indeed, despite indifferent records in combat, generals wear uniforms bursting with badges and ribbons, resembling the ostentatious displays of formerSoviet premiers—or field marshals in the fictional Ruritarian guards.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of brass in turn drives budgets higher. Even with recent modest declines (due to the official end of major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan), the US defense budget exceeds the combined military budgets of at least the next seven highest spenders. (President Obama proudly claims that it’s the next eight.) Four of those countries—France, Germany, Great Britain, and Saudi Arabia—are US allies; China and Russia, the only rivals on the list, spend far less than the United States.
With respect to its toys, the military and its enablers in Congress can never get enough or at a high enough price. The most popular of these, at present, is the under-performing new F-35 jet fighter, projected to cost $1.5 trillion (yes, you read that right) over its lifetime, making it the most expensive weapons system in history. Another trillion dollars is projected over the next 30 years for “modernizing” the US nuclear arsenal (this from a president who, as a candidate, spoke of eliminating nuclear weapons). The projected acquisition cost for a new advanced Air Force bomber is already $100 billion (before the cost overruns even begin). The list goes on, but you catch the drift.
A Spoiled Pentagon Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
To complete our affluenza diagnosis, let’s add one more factor to boundless praise and a bountiful allowance: a total inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. This is, of course, the most repellent part of the Ethan Couch affluenza defense: the idea that he shouldn’t be held responsible precisely because he was so favored.
Think, then, of the Pentagon and the military as Couch writ large. No matter their mistakes, profligate expenditures, even crimes, neither institution is held accountable for anything.
Consider these facts: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are quagmires. The Islamic State is spreading. Foreign armies, trained and equipped at enormous expense by the US military, continue to evaporate. A hospital, clearly identifiable as such, is destroyed “by accident.” Wedding parties are wiped out “by mistake.” Torture (a war crime) is committed in the field. Detainees are abused. And which senior leaders have been held accountable for any of this in any way? With the notable exception of Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinskiof Abu Ghraib infamy, not a one.
After lengthy investigations, the Pentagon will occasionally hold accountable a few individuals who pulled the triggers or dropped the bombs or abused the prisoners. Meanwhile, the generals and the top civilians in the Pentagon who made it all possible are immunized from either responsibility or penalty of any sort. This is precisely why Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling memorably wrote in 2007 that, in the US military, “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” In fact, no matter what that military doesn’t accomplish, no matter how lacking its ultimate performance in the field, it keeps getting more money, resources, praise.
When it comes to such subjects, consider the Republican presidential debate in Iowa on January 28. Jeb Bush led the rhetorical charge by claiming that President Obama was “gutting” the military. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio eagerly agreed, insisting that a “dramatically degraded” military had to be rebuilt. All the Republican candidates (Rand Paul excepted) piled on, calling for major increases in defense spending as well as looser “rules of engagement” in the field to empower local commanders to take the fight to the enemy. America’s “warfighters,” more than one candidate claimed, are fighting with one arm tied behind their backs, thanks to knots tightened by government lawyers. The final twist that supposedly tied the military up in a giant knot was, so they claim, applied by that lawyer-in-chief, Barack Obama himself.
Interestingly, there has been no talk of our burgeoning national debt, which former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen once identified as the biggest threat facing America. When asked during the debate which specific federal programs he would cut to reduce the deficit, Chris Christie came up with only one, Planned Parenthood, which at $500 million a year is the equivalent of two F-35 jet fighters. (The military wants to buy more than 2,000 of them.)
Throwing yet more money at a spoiled military is precisely the worst thing we as “parents” can do. In this, we should resort to the fiscal wisdom of Army Major General Gerald Sajer, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner killed in the mines, a Korean War veteran and former adjutant general of Pennsylvania. When his senior commanders pleaded for more money (during the leaner budget years before 9/11) to accomplish the tasks he had assigned them, General Sajer’s retort was simple: “We’re out of money; now we have to think.”
Accountability Is Everything
It’s high time to force the Pentagon to think. Yet when it comes to our relationship with the military, too many of us have acted like Ethan Couch’s mother. Out of a twisted sense of love or loyalty, she sought to shelter her son from his day of reckoning. But we know better. We know her son has to face the music.
Something similar is true of our relationship to the US military. An institutional report card with so many deficits and failures, a record of deportment that has led to death and mayhem, should not be ignored. The military must be called to account.
How? By cutting its allowance. (That should make the brass sit up and take notice, perhaps even think.) By holding senior leaders accountable for mistakes. And by cutting the easy praise. Our military commanders know that they are not leading the finest fighting force since the dawn of history and it’s time our political leaders and the rest of us acknowledged that as well.