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The Pentagon Church Militant and Us

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen hold a briefing at the Pentagon, Feb. 1, 2010.
AP Photo/Kevin Wolf
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular.  He currently teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and may be reached at wastore@pct.edu. His piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.
When it comes to our nation's military affairs, ignorance is not bliss.  What's remarkable then, given the permanent state of war in which we find ourselves, is how many Americans seem content not to know.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs.  Our civilian leaders encourage us to be deferential toward our latest commander/savior, whether Tommy Franks in 2003, David Petraeus in 2007, or Stanley McChrystal in 2010.  Our media employs retired officers, most of them multi-starred generals, in a search for expertise that ends in an unconditional surrender to military agendas.  A cloud of secrecy and "black budgets" combine to obscure military matters, ranging from global strategy to war goals to weapons procurement.  The taxpayer, forced to pony up about one trillion dollars yearly to fund our military, national security infrastructure, and wars, is sent a simple message: stay clear and leave it to the experts in uniform.

The powerlessness of ordinary Americans in military matters is no accident.  Recall the one-word reply -- "So?" -- Dick Cheney offered in March 2008, when asked to comment on popular opposition to the war in Iraq.  The former vice president was certainly far blunter than Washington usually is, and for that we may owe him a measure of thanks.  By highlighting the arrogant dismissiveness of Washington's warrior-elite when it comes to American public opinion, he revealed more than he intended.

Time for Vatican II at the Pentagon

If military power is the church at which we worship and the Pentagon is our American Vatican, then it is desperately in need of the equivalent of Vatican II which, in the early 1960s, opened the Catholic Church to greater participation by the laity, a vitally important change in ethos.  Instead of continuing to pray at the altar of their particular services, we need our Pentagon "priests" to turn to the laity -- us -- and seek our input and sanction.  Instead of preaching in unintelligible Pentagonese, with its indecipherable acronyms, secret doctrines, and spidery codenames, it's long past time for them to talk to us in a language that reasonably informed adults can understand. 

Think about this: last year, our country held innumerable public hearings on health-care reform.  Congress continues to fight about it.  It's constant news.  There's a debate alive in the land.  All this for a program that, in ten years, will cost the American people as much as defense and homeland security cost in a single year.

Yet runaway defense budgets get passed each year without a single "town hall" meeting, next to no media coverage, and virtually no debate in Congress.  Indeed, you'd think each Pentagon budget was an ex cathedra pronouncement, given the way Congress genuflects before them and Americans accept them without so much as a peep of protest. 

Those "Crazy" Kiwis
Imagine, for a moment, if Pentagon officials, supposedly toiling in our name, actually condescended to ask us for our thoughts.  What do we think about global military strategy, garrisoning the planet, the ways in which our forces are structured, and how, where, and for what they should be deployed abroad?   

Sound crazy?  Here in the U.S.A. it most distinctly does, but not to the citizens of New Zealand.  A Kiwi friend of mine recently sent me "Defence Review 2009," a publication of New Zealand's Ministry of Defence (MoD). And catch this:  it includes a survey soliciting the advice of ordinary New Zealanders with respect to military affairs.  It actually asks for the counsel of civilians on a "top ten" list of questions whose topics are remarkably comprehensive, including what the priorities of the country's Defence Force should be, both now and in the future.  Citizens can even present their views on military matters at a public hearing attended by MoD representatives, all in the name of public consultation.  And the Defence Minister responds to the people in clear English sans the cobwebs of jargon that typically entangle our military pronouncements.