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Robert Gates' Epiphany and the Fate of Public Education

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"In the ensuing decades, a large, permanent military establishment emerged as a result of the Cold War -- an establishment that forged deep ties to the Congress and industry."-- Robert Gates in 2008

Secretary Gates, successor to Donald Rumsfeld, has led our ever-expanding military-industrial complex through both Bush and Obama regimes, the "surge" in Iraq and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Prior to that, Gates served for 26 years in the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, and under President George H. W. Bush as Director of Central Intelligence.

Neither of these two regimes have much to show for all that except mounting body counts, loss of American prestige and credibility around the world, and deepening financial crisis and collapsing infrastructure here at home. Perpetual war has helped make the U.S. a superpower in decline, in large part because militarization has replaced real productive growth and wealth within our national economic structure. The result has been a continuing decline in the real wages and living standards of American workers.

The expected toll upon the U.S. working class and the majority of society also includes abandoning many of the basic rights previously taken for granted -- like the right to unionize and bargain collectively. Another big toll is being extracted from our system of public education in the form of massive school closings and teacher firings amid a strategically aimed media and cultural assault on teachers and and their unions. It's this economic collapse which has precipitated the steady erosion of public space as well as the crisis in public education -- not the other way around, as claimed by the corporate reformers and power philanthropists who blame our economic decline upon "failing schools," "bad teachers," and their unions.

The cost for fighting two major land wars at the same time comes to about $120 billion annually. To put that in perspective, if that money was put into an investment fund, the interest alone could finance public education in New York City, the nation's largest school system, without closing schools or firing thousands of teachers and without even touching the principal.

As he nears retirement and makes his farewell tour of the military academies, Gates reflects on what he has learned from all that experience:

"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined.'"

Amen, Secretary Gates! But much too little and much too late.