The International Arms Market

The Economist’s #Dailychart  from yesterday revealed the countries that buy and sell the most weapons. The United States, Russia, Germany, China, and France accounted for three-quarters of international arms exports over the past five years, with the first two taking the lion’s share of the export market (largely a legacy of the Cold War, which led both nations to build up a massive and still influential indigenous arms industry).

 

Other major arms dealers include the U.K., Spain, Ukraine, Italy, and Israel. Only 10 other countries, mostly in the developed world, have some sort of presence in the global arms market.

Notably, China — which was once a net importer of weapons, mostly from the U.S.S.R. — has tripled its share of exports in that time, overtaking France and set to surpass Germany as the third largest arms dealer (it still receives almost as many weapons as it sells, however). Germany’s significant role in arms dealing is interesting given the country’s otherwise pacifistic and low-key foreign policy, which is characterized by a reluctance to intervene in international affairs.

Some of the bigger importers include rising powers like India, China, and to lesser degrees Pakistan and South Korea. The Persian Gulf nations of the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia also top the list, as does the tiny but influential city-state of Singapore (which is said to have one of the most advanced and well-trained armed forces in the world). Australia’s fairly high import rate likely reflect’s its growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region and its desire to play a bigger role therein.

Needless to say, this is revealing stuff. Read more about it here.

No Glory For Killed Soldiers

The following was a very interesting read, although I wonder if the issues described in the excerpt and wider article are really anything new in American history (or for that matter, military history in general).

Throughout history, our nation’s greatest leaders have understood on a deeply personal level that however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain, and that it is the responsibility of the leaders and citizenry to see to it that they don’t. Our country has lost its sense of that responsibility to a horrifying extent. Our generals have lost the capability to succeed and the integrity to admit failure. Our society has lost the courage and energy to hold them accountable. Over the last decade, our top leaders have wasted the lives of our sons, daughters, and comrades with their incompetence and hubris. After each failure, our citizens have failed to hold them accountable, instead underwriting new failed strategies as quickly as their predecessors with our apathy and sense of detachment. And then we use the tired paeans of “never forget” and “honor the fallen” to distract ourselves from our guilt in the affair. When we blithely declare that they did not die in vain, we deface their honor by using it to wipe the blood from our hands.

Thomas E. Ricks, Yes, Marcus. They Did Die in Vain.

What are your thoughts?

America’s Bloated Military

When one thinks of government largess and inefficiency, the military is hardly the first thing to come to mind — in fact, it’s very often seen as representing the pinnacle of efficiency and integrity, acting as a sort of foil for the incompetent bureaucrats and sleazy politicians in Washington.

Unfortunately, like any large institution, the military — and the rest of the defense apparatus — is just as prone to waste, abuse, and inefficiency, especially when you throw in the pernicious influence of big business (and their supporters/benefactors in Congress).

Mother Jones has provided an excellent in-depth look that explores just how costly our national defense is becoming. From opaque accounting practices and messy bookkeeping, to overindulgence in over-priced and questionable projects, it seems that our military is becoming an increasingly unsustainable burden on our budget and our wider economy (insofar as it drains resources from other worth initiatives).

I encourage you to read the piece in its entirety, as it’s one of the most comprehensive reports on the subject (at least to my knowledge). Obviously, investing in national security to some degree is necessary; but it’s unlikely that defending our borders to the fullest extent requires the amount of spending currently demanded.

Indeed, much of the money goes to things that seem irrelevant in the 21st century battlefield: are all those expensive overseas bases, particularly in peaceful allied countries and regions, necessary? Do we really need to invest tens of billions of dollars in maintaining a fleet of aircraft carriers, when only a handful of countries maintain no more than one or two? Maybe a case could be made to justify it, but in that instance, we should be evaluating such investments, not granting them as a given.

Of course, this is made all the trickier by the fact that many other industries — which tend to employ American labor — are dependent upon the defense apparatus’s largesse: from weapon’s builders to suppliers of food or textiles — not to mention the millions who work directly or indirectly for the many agencies and departments that fall under the national security umbrella. Cutting back on this military-industrial complex — and shifting the resources, money, and manpower to other needs — will take a lot of effort, especially with so many members of Congress having military-centered businesses in their constituencies.

Ultimately, our society and economy alike need to shift focus to more constructive pursuits, such as infrastructure development and job training, perhaps in some cases through the existing military structures (such as the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for many building and maintaining civilian public works). Otherwise, there’s no doubt that far too much financial and productive power is put into national security than what is needed — and not enough people are questioning that, let alone doing something about it (although that seems to be changing, encouragingly).

What are your thoughts?

Your Tax Dollars at Work

While many Americans — particularly on the mainstream right — associate government inefficiency and waste almost exclusively with social programs (namely welfare and social security), the military is clearly not exempt, despite the tendency to lionize it as an almost flawless institution. It, too, is a bureaucratic state agency subject to perversion by special interests and self-serving politicians.

One major case in point concerns the F-35, a stealth fighter jet that is billed as the most sophisticated in the world. Setting aside the fact that modern warfare is relying increasingly more on intelligence and infantry rather than conventional military equipment, this boondoggle has managed to cost far more than its strategic value would merit. As Foreign Policy reports:

The Pentagon’s inspector general has found 363 problems in the way Lockheed Martin and five other defense contractors build the Pentagon’s primary fighter jet of the 21st Century. Hundreds of production errors  “could adversely affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and ultimately program cost” of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to an IG report published today.

The flaws largely consist of the companies’ failure to follow safety and quality control techniques while building the stealth fighter jets. Contractors failed to make sure that manufacturing spaces were clear of harmful debris or that glues used to hold parts of the jets together had not passed their expiration dates. Instructions telling workers how to install parts on the airplane were incorrect.

These production flaws likely contributed to each jet in a recent batch of F-35s needing an average of 859 “quality action requests” before they were ready for delivery, according to the IG. This means that about 13-percent of all work done on a brand new F-35 is “scrap, rework and repair work” to fix problems built into the planes, according the 126 page report.

And how many tax dollars went into this still-unfinished, 50-year project? $1.5 trillion.

But on the plus side, the Pentagon and Lockheed have already addressed 269 of the issues.

Say No to “Support the Troops”?

Steven Salaita of Salon takes a contentious — and no doubt widely-unpopular — stance on the oft-repeated exhortation to “support our troops”, a mantra that has become ubiquitous since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. His issue is less about actually providing material and emotional support to soldiers, but more about how this concept is abused, to damaging effect:

“Support the troops” is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation. The platitude abounds with significance but lacks the burdens of substance and specificity. It says something apparently apolitical while patrolling for heresy to an inelastic logic. Its only concrete function is to situate users into normative spaces.

Clichés aren’t usually meant to be analyzed, but this one illuminates imperialism so succinctly that to think seriously about it is to necessarily assess jingoism, foreign policy, and national identity. The sheer vacuity and inexplicability of the phrase, despite its ubiquity, indicates just how incoherent patriotism is these days.

Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany? Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq? The ones I’ve seen many times in the Arab world acting like an Adam Sandler character? “The troops” traverse vast sociological, geographical, economic and ideological categories. It does neither military personnel nor their fans any good to romanticize them as a singular organism.

And what, exactly, constitutes “support”? Is it financial giving? Affixing a declarative sticker to a car bumper? Posting banalities to Facebook? Clapping when the flight attendant requests applause?

Ultimately, the support we’re meant to proffer is ideological. The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical. To support the troops is to accept a particular idea of the American role in the world. It also forces us to pretend that it is a country legitimately interested in equality for all its citizens. Too much evidence to the contrary makes it impossible to accept such an assumption.

In reality, the troops are not actually recipients of any meaningful support. That honor is reserved for the government and its elite constituencies. “Support our troops” entails a tacit injunction that we also support whatever politicians in any given moment deem the national interest. If we understand that “the national interest” is but a metonym for the aspirations of the ruling class, then supporting the troops becomes a counterintuitive, even harmful, gesture.

Salatia also feels this has a negative impact on said troops as well:

This way of thinking also inversely demystifies the troops, who are burdened with untenable narratives of heroism the vast majority (like those in all professions) do not deserve. I am neither smart nor foolish enough to define “heroism,” but I am comfortable saying the mere fact of being a soldier doesn’t automatically make one a hero, just as the mere fact of being in prison doesn’t necessarily make one evil.

If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera. Such recognition is unusual, though. People speak frequently of “our troops,” highlighting the pronoun as if it is imperative to their sense of national belonging. It is an act of possession that projects fantasies of virtue onto an idealized demographic in the absence of substantive virtuous practices that might otherwise foster national pride. Plutocracy ravages the state; we rebuild it with narratives of glory and selflessness, the troops acting as both the signifier and the signified in this nationalistic uplift.

The selflessness of our troops is particularly sacred. Not only do they bring order and democracy to lesser peoples; they also risk (and sometimes give) their lives for the good of others, so that civilians might continue driving, shopping, dining and watching movies, the hallmarks of American freedom. That these notions of sacrifice connote a Christ-like narrative of individual-death-for-collective-pleasure only endows them with even greater cultural power.

I agree that soldiers, like any other social or professional group, have their mix of good and bad people, as well as their own complex motivations and ideologies (e.g. for some troops, their service is just another job or a way to get into school, rather than a selfless patriotic service). But do you agree with Salatia’s take? Is he attributing too much harm to this platitude, or over-analyzing? Or is it indeed problematic, and indicative of vast socio-political problems, to heap so much seemingly reflexively praise? What are your thoughts?

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The following graph compares the 2011 budgets on military and defense with spending on various scientific initiatives that year, as well as with the entirety of NASA’s budget since its foundation in 1958 (yes, it’s been adjusted for inflation).

The conclusion speaks for itself — we spend exponentially more on the military in a given year than we do in all scientific programs and departments combined; and despite all the renewed scientific and public attention on space travel, NASA’s collective budget still pales in comparison to a single year of military spending.

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A friend pointed out that the graph doesn’t take into account military R&D spending, which has historically accounted for many scientific achievements well beyond war and security. However, as of 2010, the year before this graph’s data, military spending in this area amounted to $80 billion, which is a drop in the bucket compared to overall defense spending (and in any case is slated to decrease in future budgets).

Obviously, the point of this chart isn’t to denigrate any spending on the military. Obviously, security and defense are vitally important matters, as is the health of our veterans. But we must question whether our national security actually necessitates $900 billion dollars in a single year. Even the Pentagon has begun to ask for less spending, particularly as it pertains to white elephants that have little relevance in modern warfare.

Of course, the military industrial complex remains stronger than ever, and for all vast social and environmental problems we face in the coming decades, science has yet to develop an equivalent force.

Getting Our Priorities Straight: Science Versus Military Spending

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Setting Our Priorities Straight: Military vs. Science Funding

Setting Our Priorities Straight: Military vs. Science Funding

This chart compares yearly science funding with the 2011 military budget and how much NASA has received in its entire history. Note that NASA’s total budget since its inception in 1958 is less than the total spent on the military in just one year. Also take into account how tiny the combined budgets of various scientific endeavors are.

Weekly News Wire

  • Is rapid population growth to blame for rising violence and terrorism in certain countries? An article in Foreign Policy cites a correlation, suggesting that the that problem requires not a military solution, but a public health one. 
  • A recent study shared by Raw Story found that, contrary to popular belief, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus – in other words, neither gender is inflexibly different from the other. While gender differences exist to some degree, they’re hardly iron law.
  • The BBC reports that bonobo apes, long known for their human-like display of empathy and emotion, demonstrate seemingly complex emotional behaviors – such as hugging and having sex for pleasure – even at a young age. It was previously believed that it would take sophisticated cognitive skills to do such things.
  • NBC has obtained a chilling Department of Justice memo that outlines the legal case of assassinating American citizens through drone strikes. The document concludes that the US government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda or “an associated force,” regardless of whether there is any evidence that they are engaged in an active plot to attack the US.
  • A study by the VA , reported in the Washington Post, has found that veteran suicides have hit record highs. Most of these veterans are in their 50s and served in Vietnam. What’s even more distressing is that this reflects a much wider national trend – suicides in the US increased 11% between 2007 and 2010.
  • To make matters more complicated, another report in Foreign Policy raises questions about whether the growing media attention on veteran and military suicides is actually making the problem worse. Known as the “contagion” or “Werther”  effect this long-observed phenomenon links increased reporting and publicity of suicides to an increase in suicides. The reasons are poorly understood, but it certainly makes an already difficult issue more challenging.

The Casualties of Veterans Day

Unfortunately, I was too busy yesterday to make a proper post about this commemoration. And while I’m tempted to make an idealistic and reflective post about the courage and tribulations of those in uniform, or to share the origins and history of the event, I wanted to take a different route from what is the norm.

I read an article in Foreign Policy that reminded me not only of the true origins of Veterans Day, but on how the loss of its original source of commemoration has been detrimental to our understanding of war.

All of our nation’s veterans are honored on November 11, but it is important to recall that the origin of this observance was revulsion at the horrific casualties suffered by so many countries during World War I. Yes, a second and even more destructive conflict followed all too soon after the “war to end all wars,” impelling a name change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. And the rest of the 20th century was littered with insurgencies, terrorism, and a host of other violent ills — most of which persist today, guaranteeing the steady production of new veterans, of which there are 22 million in the United States.

But despite the seemingly endless parade of wars waged and fresh conflicts looming just beyond the bloody horizon, World War I still stands out for its sheer horror. Over ten million soldiers died, and more than twice that number were wounded. This is a terrible enough toll. But what makes these casualties stand out even more is their proportion of the total numbers of troops mobilized. For example, France put about 7.5 million soldiers in the field; one in five died, and three out of four who lived were wounded.

The other major combatants on both sides suffered horribly as well: the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s 6.5 million soldiers had a combined rate of killed and wounded of 74 percent. For Britain and Russia, the comparable figures totaled a bit over 50 percent, with German and Turkish losses slightly below one-half of all who served. The United States entered the conflict late, and so the overall casualty rate for the 4.3 million mobilized was but 8 percent. Even so, it is more than double the percentage of killed and wounded from the Iraq War, where total American casualties amounted to less than 4 percent of the one million who served.

Few conflicts in all of military history have seen victors and vanquished alike suffer such shocking losses as were incurred in World War I, so it is worth taking time to remember how this hecatomb came to pass. A great body of evidence suggests that this disaster was a product of poor generalship. Historian Alan Clark’s magisterial The Donkeys conveys a sense of the incredible stubbornness of high commanders who continued, for years, to hurl massed waves of infantry against machine guns and rapid-firing artillery. All this went on while senior generals stayed far from the front. A British field commander, who went riding daily, even had soldiers spread sand along the country lane he followed, to make sure his horse didn’t slip.

Indeed, World War I is often overshadowed in its barbarity by what followed it only around two decades later. But in many ways, as the article notes, it was just as tragic and horrific (all the more so because its very occurrence, along with the failure and arrogance of its victors, gave way to a second world war). It was also an ultimately unnecessary conflict that dragged on for far longer than any participant expected – a war that perpetuated itself beyond the need to rectify its original casus belli, and which did so at the literally unimaginable cost of millions of lives. Millions of individual persons (I feel the need to emphasize this as sheer numbers make it hard to remember the humanity of those they represent).

WWI was also but a large-scale example of what average troops, mustered mostly from the lower and middle-classes, have had to endure throughout history: being at the mercy of military and political leaders who were often too detached, elitist, and arrogant to take into account the well-being of their grunts. So long as there remained an ample supply of politically and economically powerless young men, there was little reason – in WWI or elsewhere – to be concerned about attrition – there were plenty of other men where those came from (though cruelly, this brutal calculation on the part of the Soviets in World War II is arguably what helped us win the day: they took on the overwhelming majority of Axis forces by sheer numbers, tenacity, and ruthlessness).

So after having read this piece, I came away with the idea that not only should veterans be rightly recognized for their courage and service, but that we mustn’t forget the horrors and brutality they (among others) had to endure in the wars they fought. All too often, I get the impression that we honor the valor and glory of those who served while forgetting that in most instance, even the “good” and victorious wars they partook in are tragedies in themselves. We should honor veterans not just be recognizing what their service but also by ensuring, as much as possible, that generations of young men won’t be grinded up or maimed in the cold machinery of war.

War, even when just and victorious, is always a terrible thing. It will always cost lives and create acrimony between men who may otherwise have no good reason to hate each other, let alone kill one another. I know that there will always be a need for war. I know some wars may be necessary. But just because something is needed doesn’t mean it isn’t detrimental or regrettable. Whether or not men and women had to answer the respective calls of duty that they did, doesn’t change the horror that they faced. They did something few of us would ever want to do – for good reason.

A Veteran’s Unlikely Find

A Russian World War II veteran finds the very tank he fought in during the entire war. It turned out, unbeknownst to him, that it was made into a monument for a small Russian town. He became so emotional – and eventually quite animated – that people worried his heart wouldn’t cope. Remarkable.