THE BLOG
03/10/2011 12:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Take Proper Aim at a Target Rich Environment

Officially, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense is the Pentagon. But it also goes by other names. One of the more accurate, from the viewpoint of trying to understand it, is simply the "Puzzle Palace." There is good reason for that. Hands down, without question, the U.S. Department of Defense is, from both an accountability and cost-effectiveness perspective the most dysfunctional executive branch department of them all.

From an economic viewpoint of getting good value for one's tax dollar or, to use military argot, getting bang for the buck, the Pentagon has long under delivered and underwhelmed. When one considers the gargantuan amounts of money that are annually shoveled into the gaping monetary maw of the U.S. military one can't help but paraphrase Winston Churchill's famed quote on the RAF; never has so much been given to so little effect.

Think I'm joking? Consider that the Pentagon is facing a congressional mandate to become audit ready by September 2017. At this point, no armed service has completed an audit.

The fiscal crisis that now permeates the nation is so sweeping that even the Pentagon can no longer rely on its traditional immunity to budget cuts, however paltry and negligible they might be. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has tried to get ahead of looming cuts by ordering the Pentagon's bureaucracy to find $100bn of efficiencies. Similar promises have been made by his predecessors for decades.

And after prodding by the White House, he also agreed to cut planned spending by a further $78bn over five years, which would mean the Pentagon budget leveling off in 2015 and 2016. But that is as far as he wants to go. And that is not very far. According to Gordon Adams, of the American University in Washington, "It is simply not credible to describe a reduction of even perhaps $23bn from the 2011 defense budget as the end of the world - it is about 3 per cent of the department's resources last year,"

Yet, changing the military-industrial-congressional status quo is not easy. If it were it would have happened decades ago. Effective action demands informed understanding. And to that end one would be very well advised to read a recently published book. It is The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays To Help You Through It. The title is particularly apt. Those who remember their Greek history will recall that the Labyrinth was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur, a mythical creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus. Daedalus had made the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it. Rather fitting when you consider that three years ago it was estimated that the Iraq war would cost at least $3 trillion, which roughly equaled a $10,000 burden on every man, woman and child in the United States. Try escaping that burden by not paying taxes and see what happens.

While there are numerous books, both past, present, and forthcoming, on the military and strategic policies of the United States it is rare to find one, especially an edited work that is so richly informative, highly entertaining, and incisively insightful; all in the space of just 142 pages.. One can't help but admire a book where the authors are not afraid to name - how do I put this delicately? -corporate courtesans.

The authors are some of the most experienced observers of the perennial Pentagon Power Games in the nation. As the sub, sub-title notes it was written by 10 Pentagon Insiders, Retired Military Officers and Specialists With Over 400 Years of Defense Experience.

The book was published by the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information (in the interest of full disclosure I once worked at CDI several years before the SMRP was established).

All the authors have been around observing the endless Pentagon-congressional follies for decades. To a man they have been insiders on both military and congressional fronts, exposing waste, fraud and abuse on a scale that beggars the imagination.

To give you just a sample of their insights read the following excerpts, From the first chapter on why the book is necessary:

People say the Pentagon does not have a strategy. They are wrong.

The Pentagon does have a strategy; it is: 'Don't interrupt the money flow, add
to it'

Col. John R. Boyd (U.S. Air Force, ret.)
Fighter Pilot, Tactician, Strategist,
Conceptual Designer, Reformer



Today, 20 years after the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the
Soviet Union, the United States spends more on defense than at any time since
the end of World War II. This is true even if one removes the cumulative effects
of 65 years of inflation from the current defense budget. Yet, notwithstanding
the absence of a nuclear-armed superpower to threaten our existence, this
gigantic defense budget is not producing a greater sense of security for most
Americans.

Indeed, we have become a fearful nation, a bunkered nation, bogged down in
never ending wars abroad accompanied by shrinking civil liberties at home. We
now spend almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, yet the
sinews of our supporting economy, particularly the all-important manufacturing
sector, are weakening at an alarming rate, threatening the existence of the high-
income, middle-class consumer society we built after World War II.
...

This current-war problem is a symptom of a deeper, more subtle web of intractable defense pathologies. These pathologies flow out of military-bureaucratic belief systems and distorted financial incentives that evolved slowly over the 40 years encompassing the Cold War. These pathologies and belief systems slowly insinuated themselves deeply and almost invisibly into a domestic political economy that nurtures financial-political factions of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (MICC). The result is a voracious appetite for money that is sustained by a self-serving flood of ideological propaganda, cloaked by a stifling climate of excessive secrecy. President Eisenhower warned us to guard against the corrosive danger of exactly this in his 1961 farewell address. He was ignored, and today, 50 years later, the domestic political imperative to steadily increase the money flowing into the MICC reaches into every corner of our society. It distorts and debases our economy, our politics, our universities and schools, our media, our think tanks and our research labs, just as Eisenhower predicted it would. Even without the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to hype the money flow, Mr. Obama could not have escaped massive pressures to increase defense spending.

Or consider this, from George Wilson, the former chief military correspondent of the Washington Post, on the ad state of accountability on military issues:

Where is all that taxpayer money going and why? Those are questions that persons in the news media, Congress, the Pentagon and White House should be asking every day. Sadly, Congress has all but forfeited its powers written in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution to "provide for the common defense" and "to declare war." Not since Congress declared war in 1941 in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor have the lawmakers, hired hands of voters living in their states and Congressional districts after all, exercised those Constitutional powers. The legislative branch since 1941 has allowed the executive branch, in the person of both Democratic and Republican presidents, to send young American men and women into battles abroad where many tens of thousands have been killed and wounded. Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973 in hopes of getting back some of the powers it foolishly gave away to the president. But this has not happened. In my view, the lawmakers are guilty of malfeasance or nonfeasance, but few in the government or media are demanding accountability.

Why is effective oversight of military affairs so difficult? Partly it was because to many people have too much invested in the status quo. Looking at one just small part of it there is an overwhelming number of people who value career over ethics and honor. In short, there is an abundance of both military and civilian careerists. As the chapter on careerism puts it:

President Eisenhower's worst nightmare described in his January 1961 farewell address has become fulfilled. Today's consolidated defense industries have become inseparable from the government and hold political careers in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives at risk if sufficient tax dollars are not committed to the industries' expensive defense products. That the politicians succumb, holding their political well-being above the merits of any weapons debate, is the very definition of careerism. Unless and until the politicians realize their political fate hinges on a broader perspective, their votes on defense issues will be driven by their narrowly perceived short-term interest, mostly "pork" and campaign contributions.

The "revolving door" enriches civilian executives in the defense industry, and its supporting consulting businesses, for periodic service in the Department of Defense, and it rewards retired generals and admirals for their access to the men and women they left behind in the Pentagon and not coincidentally promoted to flag rank. Rewards are particularly plentiful for the three- and four-star officers who supported and defended expensive defense programs even when the usefulness of the programs was doubted inside their own service bureaucracies, among other places.

Consequently, it's no surprise that federal auditors, poring over the Defense Department's conflicting financial statements, missing data and accounting discrepancies, are unable to provide an accurate accounting of the Defense Department's books. According to a July 8, 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, the generals in U.S. Central Command and Washington, D.C. lost $1.2 billion worth of war materiel shipped to Iraq for the campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power. More recently, a congressional staff report found aid to Afghanistan ending up in the hands of the Taliban. This sort of thing would almost be funny, in an insane sort of way, if poor senior leadership did not result in the loss of American life in uniform, undermine American strategic interests abroad, drain the United States Treasury of its hard-earned tax dollars, and erode the economic well-being of the American people the nation's flag officers are sworn to defend.

Perhaps, the lack of accountability explains why supposedly objective, retired military officers retained as analysts by national television networks have little incentive to jeopardize their lucrative contracts with the political and industrial elites to tell the American people the hard facts about events in Iraq or Afghanistan? Nurturing the Pentagon money flow and the domestic political environment that supports it while influencing their chosen successors--often their former aides--to keep the money spigots open profoundly changes the message the retired generals and colonels send to the listening audience.

While every chapter is worth reading the one "Decoding the Defense Budget" by Winslow Wheeler, who runs the Straus Military Reform Project, is particularly valuable insofar as it clearly explains how both the government and the media routinely obfuscate military costs. It reminds one that if the Department of Defense were any other executive branch departments many of its officials would long ago have been sent to jail under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) statute.

The last section, which contains recommended readings, includes some of the best writings on military reform from the past thirty plus years.

Remember that one reason why it is so hard to change things is that politically, military spending, always euphemistically described as defense spending, is a sacred cow. As the saying goes, nothing is too good for our boys, and nowadays, girls, in the armed forces. But as most people who have ever been in would tell you there is a corollary to that cliché, which is, "Nothing is too good for our boys. So that's what we'll give them."

Right now we have a system that far too often gives us nothing, instead of something. For those who seriously want to engage with the militarized status quo this is a book that nobody should do without. And given that it is freely downloadable there is no reason not to have it.