Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Be all that you can be in the mercenary reserves

Conservatives and libertarians alike generally claim that anything that "The Government" does is bad more or less by definition, and that a smaller, leaner government which manages fewer services is better.

One notable exception, at least where Republicans are concerned, is the military. The one truly legitimate function of government, as far as they're concerned, is in maintaining a kick-ass defense force that can take on the world. In fact, according to this source, the U.S. currently spends more of its budget on the military than the next fourteen countries combined, and that accounts for about 43% of all the military spending in the whole world.

So conservatives hate government but love the military, which should come as no surprise to anyone who's had a pulse at any point in the last 25 years. And I'm not going to pass a value judgment on the relative amount we spend on the military, at least not in this post. All I'll say is that there are lots of things in the world that can kill people, and foreign armies are only a few of them. Like, say, hurricanes. Collapsing bridges. Poverty. Those kill people too.

That's not to say that people don't die from military attacks as well. I'm just saying, you know, if the purpose of spending money on the military is to prevent Americans from dying, then what you've got is a minimax problem: save the most lives for the least dollars. And I find it hard to believe that for our current spending rate, you couldn't save a few more lives by doing something else with the cash we could save by reducing our total military spending a bit. Say we used only 40% of the total world expenditures on military. Say we only spent as much as the next 12 countries combined. That's a lot of repaired bridges, know what I mean?

I'm not a pacifist, though. I believe that maintaining a certain level of military is necessary to the survival of a country. You need to keep the Visigoths from sacking the city, as it were. It's just that reasonable people can disagree on what the ideal level is, and I happen to think the level is substantially less than ten times that of our nearest ally. Speaking of the Roman Empire, bear in mind that they maintained a badass army for a long time before they experienced a financial collapse due to bad management. It was only after that, that the barbarians who had waited politely outside the gates for centuries got to just stroll in the crumbling front door.

Anyway, if there's one thing conservatives like more than spending money on the military, it's privatizing functions that are currently managed by government. After all, everyone knows that when you leave things up to the Stupendous Free Market, you guarantee that they will be done much better and more efficiently than if you, um, took concrete steps towards actually getting them done. Really. Just trust us on this one.

So anyway, under the Bush administration, apparently the military no longer gets a special exemption from this rule. That's why we are now paying for Blackwater, a private security contractor that is now in charge of guarding diplomats. We pay approximately $445,891 per year for the privilege of hiring a Blackwater security specialist. By contrast, a military sergeant costs us around $69,000 per year on the high end, including room and board. See how efficient the private market is?

I was never tempted to join the army. Call me a coward or a spoiled brat, I'll probably own up to it. I'd also probably make a lousy soldier, because I'm not good at unquestioningly following orders. I question tasks a lot at my job, not because I'm trying to be a pain, but because I feel that I can execute a task more effectively when I understand what the intention is behind the task. I'm not saying this to brag or show that I'm in any way "better" than a big tough military guy. I'm just saying that my mindset is somewhat different from what's required in a military role, and they'd have to beat a lot out of me to get me there. I recognize that having an army that is willing to follow order is pretty important, however.

I'm taking a class in Project Management right now -- hooray for the LAST class I need to complete for my Master's! One of the issues that is discussed in the text is that the larger your project gets, the more important it is to maintain a strict structure in your organization. The proverbial "two guys in a garage" can accomplish a small project very well, but a hundred people who all demand creative control over the same project is a disaster waiting to happen. Now apply that to the military, which is arguably one of the biggest freakin' projects anybody could ever undertake. I mean, post-surge Iraq currently has around 175,000 soldiers on the ground, to say nothing of the people at home who are connecting them with the civilian leadership.

I can't really imagine what's involved with organizing so many people, but it's pretty clear to me that if you have a general telling his underlings saying "We need to accomplish X, see that that gets done," and then a colonel below him says "All right men, let's figure out how to do Y, which is a sub-task on the way to accomplishing X," and then some clown of a Lieutenant way down the line says "No, screw this task, I don't want us to accomplish X anyway!" then you've got a problem. It's not because that lowly Lieutenant is necessarily wrong about the quality of the final objectives, or because he couldn't necessarily do a better job of managing the war than the general. The problem is that everybody can't be a general, and if you let all 175,000 soldiers make the decisions then you've got a fine mess, and people are fighting against each other instead of working toward a common goal.

Of course, a military that works as a single unit can do great evil. Of course, a single individual can also do great evil. But there's MORE of the military, so they can do MORE evil because they're acting as a single body. We need a military, because there is this one big task that is necessary to accomplish. Adequate national defense is absolutely vital to the health of a nation in a non-utopian world. So is executing wars, in such cases where war is necessary and right. By which I mean, not this war.

The problem with the military right now is not that it is a military; it's that it's a military in the hands of people who are hell-bent on using it towards nefarious ends. No, strike that. They don't set out saying "Let's all do bad things now." Really. Not even Bush. The key to understanding the Bush presidency is personal cronyism. Bush didn't pick "Heckuva job Brownie" to head FEMA because he intended to put an incompetent boob in the job. No, the chain of events is: first Joe Allbaugh was given the job because he helped run Bush's 2000 campaign, and then Brownie was picked to succeed Allbaugh because he was Allbaugh's old college buddy.

By and large, the members of the Bush administration see government jobs as an opportunity to make money, and to kick more money over to their friends. Other people may get hurt, killed, or impoverished as a result of this focus, but that is a by-product of the official policy, not the intention of the policy itself. What's happening here is that the president and his cabinet all have an attitude that, basically, who gives a crap if government is effective, as long as I'm helping out my friends? And that attitude gets trickled down through the ranks, because people with that perspective will pick friends who often have the same perspective, who in turn pick THEIR friends who have that perspective, and so on.

The military privates aren't part of this tree of mutual back-scratching. Demographically speaking, if they were well-connected then they probably either wouldn't be signing up (like me), or else they would be signing up as lieutenants rather than privates. But the privates are following the orders of people in the back-scratching tree. Orders to do annoying things like "treat prisoners humanely" and "follow the Geneva conventions" and "Please don't kill civilians if you can help it" ultimately need to come from the top of the command chain, and the problem is that those orders aren't coming. It's not because the kids signing up for the military are bad people. Rather, doing those things to improve international relations is harder than not doing them, and everyone has the capacity to do evil and then rationalize it, given the right circumstances and enough peer pressure. I believe that this probably includes many of the very fine and moral people here, myself as well. But for people who voluntarily joined the military, gave up many of their civil rights, and accepted a program of unquestioningly following orders, maybe it's especially true. I don't know.

But really, the problem is the lax attitude at the top, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in Blackwater. Blackwater is given that sweet deal that nets them over 400 grand a year. They are paid by the US government as if they were a military force, but they are not subject to the military code of justice. In essence, there is no law governing them, which goes some of the way towards explaining why they keep getting involved in incidents like this recent one where they gunned down 14 Iraqi citizens in cold blood.

If the Blackwater employees were soldiers, they would be directly accountable to the their commanding officers and the US government, who still at least have SOME standards of behavior, and have the authority to court martial and imprison the offenders in extreme cases. But no one has any such authority over Blackwater. Even though we're paying them with our tax dollars, they are not required to do anything we ask them to.

And astonishingly, the Bush administration is standing behind them and refusing to give anyone the go-ahead to investigate this incident. Nuri al-Maliki, the US-picked prime minister of Iraq, now wants to ban Blackwater from his country. Only Bush doesn't want to let him.

It's worth pointing out that the head of Blackwater is a member of an evangelical political group called "Christian Freedom International", and is well-connected in politics by virtue of being related by marriage to Amway magnate and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos. See? It pays to be connected. Ahhh. Good old Amway.

So, you know, don't blame the military. While lots of bad things are done by military grunts who are required to do whatever they are asked to, even worse things are being done by people who have no orders to follow. They're given free reign of the place, they're not required to follow any international codes of conduct whatsoever, and their only real objective is to do their job in such a way as to loot as much money as possible. Both from Iraqis and from Americans.

The fact that military personnel do bad things does not mean that the institution of the military is the problem. Just like the fact that corrupt crony governments doing bad things does not mean that "government" is the problem and should be abolished. The problem is that we have some really bad leaders right now, who are turning a blind eye towards violations of ethical conduct, if not outright endorsing it.

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