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Infatuation With Force
America Marches Toward a Military State

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President Bush’s 2008 budget includes a $625 billion request for the military, up from $295 billion the year Bush was elected — a 112 percent increase. It’s about $100 billion more than all other military budgets in the world, combined. Plenty of attention is being paid the exhausted military fighting president Bush’s various wars. There’s no denying it. It’s overstretched and undermanned. It makes you think the Pentagon needs more money, not less. But little attention is paid the flip-side of that story — the squandering of money down the drain of defense contractors’ swindles, whether it’s the superfluous $66 billion F-22 fighter jet program — one of three jet fighters in development — the $9 billion-a-year missile shield, which, one test aside, hasn’t gotten much past its middle school science project concept since Ronald Reagan fancied it a quarter century and $160 billion ago, or the Navy’s $21 billion DD(X) destroyer program, wonderful hardware if the Soviets were the enemy.

The military is strapped by its own doing. Lawmakers are complicit. Job-producing military contracts are seeded throughout the land’s congressional districts like above-board bribes. But lawmakers couldn’t get away with it if the military wasn’t the subject of a misplaced, ill-informed and dangerous public infatuation that’s been changing American society for the worse since the early 1980s — the period when Reagan built up the military into the creepy colossus it’s been since. As Andrew Bacevich, author of “The New American Militarism,” wrote, “The ensuing affair had and continues to have a heedless, Gatsby-like aspect, a passion pursued in utter disregard of any consequences that might ensue. Few in power have openly considered whether valuing military power for its own sake or cultivating permanent global military superiority might be at odds with American principles. Indeed, one striking aspect of America ’s drift toward militarism has been the absence of dissent offered by any political figure of genuine stature.”

The military’s misuse abroad and its escalating burdens on taxpayers are well documented. The consequences of the infatuation on civilian society are documented less well, because the effects are more subtle than convoys of tanks down Main Street . The consequences are more diffuse, more pernicious. There is, for example, the increasing role the military is playing in domestic life, secretly and not-so secretly, crumbling an almost a century and a half old prohibition against military meddling in civilian business. Five years ago the Pentagon established a “Northern Command” over the United States, the first time such a command was based on the mainland, ostensibly to coordinate responses to terrorist attacks. The Pentagon is actively engaged in domestic intelligence gathering, something that would have been thought outright illegal a generation ago. In December, the president signed a law that gave him the authority to declare martial law virtually at will.

Militarization is happening in more direct ways. Last week the Associated Press circulated a story about the Pentagon selling surplus hardware to police agencies. The story projected a happy, fortunate circumstance. The tone was approving. The suggestion rewarding. A picture featured a young police officer called Shane Grammer holding up a massive M-16 rifle with at least two scopes and a muffler-size barrel, a Chevrolet Blazer behind him, also military surplus, cluttered up with soldiers’ helmets, camouflage and gear. The officer was a member of the Litchfield, Pennsylvania, police department. Litchfield is a minuscule township of 500 families. Who does Officer Grammer intend to use his M-16 against? The difference between police agencies and military units is becoming difficult to distinguish. They love their helicopters, they love their night raids, their SWAT teams, their chases, their drawn guns.

We often hear about how “attitude” is in itself a trigger of violence among gang members. What we don’t often hear about, but endure, because the media are too busy writing cute features about military surplus property in the hands of local police agencies, is the same attitude from police — the very same approach: Look at an officer the wrong way and you’ll be in jail before the rooster crows once. Because all that military hardware brings with it an attitude all its own, a sense of power and presumption that has to be exercised.

At this rate a police state would be a blessing. What we’re heading toward is a military state, perpetually at war abroad, but also perpetually mobilized at home down to the tiniest mom-and-pop police agency. Uniforms are the new cult, force the presumed solution to order’s challengers. The law can wait. When a society is no longer exclusively and vigilantly civil, its claim to be a civilized society, let alone a civilizing one, is in peril. Other countries have been discovering that about the United States . We’re discovering it at home, too, every time a police shield is flashed with the presumptive power of an M-16 burst.

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