Warning! Defense spending can be addictive
By BILL PEATMAN
When we got the news that a nearby Navy base would be shut down, our entire community rose up in protest. People who were formerly dedicated doves, ardently opposed to military spending, argued that our shipyard in Northern California is somehow critical to national security. More specifically, our local economy was in large part dependent on the base. Dry cleaners, jewelers, coffee shops and department stores led the rallies and letter-writing campaigns to get the base closure committee in Washington to change its mind.
Unfortunately, every other community in the nation threatened by base closures made identical cases for the preservation of their own local military outposts. The closures, for the most part, took place as planned.
It's just another example of how the United States is economically hooked on defense spending, according to author Sanford Gottlieb. A former Navy officer and director of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, SANE, he documents the severity of our economic dependence on military spending. What is most alarming is the overwhelming evidence that even when the military attempts to reduce itself, the nation resists with the telltale behavior of a junkie: denying there is a problem, playing the victim and desperately searching for any way to keep the nectar of life, in this case Pentagon cash, flowing to the addict.
Gottlieb tells the story of the Seawolf nuclear submarine. The Seawolf was designed to detect and attack Russian submarines. The Bush administration proposed ending the $50 billion to $60 billion program in 1992 after the end of the Cold War. The Pentagon said they didn't need the Seawolf. The Senate Armed Forces Committee recommended terminating the program.
So General Dynamic's Electric Boat division summoned every resident of New London, Conn., its headquarters, and each of its subcontractors around the nation to lobby for the preservation of the Seawolf program. There were 25,000 jobs at stake, which meant 25,000 voters. The campaign was successful. A submarine that a defense hawk president thought was unnecessary and the armed forces didn't even want is still in production at a cost of tens of billions of dollars.
What makes Defense Addiction fascinating is the evidence Gottlieb presents that it isn't the military that has created our dependence on military spending -- it's huge aerospace corporations that have grown fat on contracts requiring no competition, little accountability and no free-market savvy. They simply can't free themselves from the financial smack.
"It's not hard to understand why companies such as General Dynamics have shied away from commercial work," Gottlieb quotes from a New London Day editorial. "They're used to dealing with one customer who sets the rules. They have huge overheads and are weak in commercial marketing skills."
And we're all paying the price for the sad fact that several giant corporations cannot find the backbone to move from military contracts to commercial business. We're all paying taxes to fund weapons we don't need, while badly pressing social problems go untreated. Witness the colossal welfare "reform," which amounted to cutting federal spending on behalf of our neediest citizens while we continue to buy Seawolf submarines no one wants or needs.
Gottlieb does point to some success stories where military contractors have converted themselves to produce commercial products. Perhaps the best example is Hughes Electronics, a division of General Motors. Hughes has marshaled some of its military-based satellite technology to launch DirectTV, a highly successful satellite television network. TRW converted some of its information technology to create a successful credit reporting business. Maine's Bath Iron Works has made a far rockier transition from building Navy destroyers to building commercial ships. In each case, however, these companies now employ a fraction of the work force they supported during the Cold War.
There is no easy way to end an addiction. It is painful, sometimes brutally so, to let go of something you have relied on for sustenance. The first step, as anyone who has dealt with any type of addiction knows, is to admit that there is a problem. This is what we must do in order to experience liberation, according to Gottlieb, and this is why he has written this book.
Gottlieb also points out that we stand to reap huge gains as a nation if we can overcome our defense addiction. What is now an enormous drain of natural resources, skills and brain power might be directed to the economic and environmental renewal of the country. Bases must close, companies will fold or recast themselves for a new purpose, and Congress will have to reshape its spending priorities in order for this renewal to take place.
It seems unlikely, in light of the extensive documentation Gottlieb has provided of the lobbying power of the defense-industrial complex, that this transformation can take place.
If you read Defense Addiction, you'll never respond as you once did -- in my case, with a yawn -- to news reports about military weapons programs. Behind every B-2 bomber, every proposed Stealth jet, stands a militia of lobbyist and corporate influence-peddlers shaping public opinion about the program.
Does the military itself even value the program? If more people read this book, more people might ask this kind of question. And we might be one step closer to getting the deadly weapons monkey off our collective back.
Bill Peatman is a freelance writer who lives in Napa, Calif.
National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997