Monday, September 29, 2008

The Long War - Consequences and Costs (Part I)

Veteran foreign policy consultant, author, and former professor of history and politics, William R. Polk spoke at Bennington College, 7:00 pm, Monday, September 15, in the Deane Carriage Barn. His lecture, “The Long War: Consequences and Cost,” examined the assumptions and perceptions underlying the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and analyzed the United States’ military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan with reference to the record of counterinsurgency warfare in the 20th century. Presented in four parts is the transcript of Polk's talk.

I want to talk with you today for just an hour. To bring order into my remarks, I will divide what I have to say into four categories: where we are coming from; where we now are; where we are going; and what you can do about the conditions that will shape your lives.

First, Where we are coming from:

At the end of the Second World War, Americans had cause to be euphoric and we were. Most of us believed that the future was ours. Ours was the American Century.

The Cold War changed the world for both America and Russia . We like to think that we “won” the Cold War, but the history of events since it ended shows that we both really lost it. This is because of its impact on both Russian and American societies and economies. To match one another, we both were turned into militaristic states and our economies suffered. In America , we can trace our transformation -- perhaps uniquely in history – to a single piece of paper. Paul Nitze’s National Security Council Paper, “NSC 68” convinced President Harry Truman that we could sustain our economic growth and ensure full employment by applying John Maynard Keynes’ emphasis on the role of government in the economy but apply it in the military or “security” sphere. President Truman signed it as a basic U.S. policy doctrine on September 30, 1950. This was a program that the wise American specialist on national policy, Chalmers Johnson, has termed “military Keynesianism.” (His “blowback” trilogy should be required reading in every American college.)

Following the new strategy, the government used the power of the purse to divert our then efficient and productive civilian economy to the military. So profound was this change that by 1960s we were no longer competitive in manufacturing and distributing most civilian goods. Our civilian industrial plant was allowed to become obsolescent or even to deteriorate. Worse, our managerial skills, on which we had prided ourselves, atrophied. The new American business ethos no longer emphasized competition because military contracts were often awarded without bid and were frequently awarded at cost-plus.

While our industrial plant and managerial skills began to decay. Japan forged ahead. From Japan we bought TV sets, our cameras, our computers, our cars. We were no long competitive in the world market. It is now estimated by the American Society for Civil Engineers that it would take $1.6 trillion just to bring our industrial plant and our supporting infrastructure back up to world standards . This was graphically demonstrated last week. As you probably read the automobile companies’ executives have said that without massive government help they could no longer compete in the world market.

What happened was that we turned our skills and investments to military production: in the 1950s and 1960s, we were superb in weapons and space-related production but could no longer compete on civilian goods. We stopped trying to make many things our people wanted and were buying. Even those things we put out under American labels, like TV sets, were often just American wrappers on Asian components.

I watched this happen. I visited Japan in 1962 as a guest of the Japanese government. While there, I was taken on a tour of the Canon and Toshiba plants. I expected to see how cheap Asian labor was making possible the Japanese boom. What I saw was quite different. Labor was cheaper, it is true, but what really made the difference was automation, skilled technique, able management and intelligence.

Our companies didn’t need these things: their market was increasingly our government. So why bother with making cameras or washing machines when you could make jet bombers or rockets. The profits were larger and distribution was no problem. Management could afford to be lax since mistakes could be repaired by overruns.

Even our universities fell into this trap. Getting government contracts was such an easy way to raise money. It was far easier than soliciting private support and it allowed expansion into new fields. Look at the budgets of even the private universities: Harvard, MIT, Chicago and many “ came to rely on government subsidies for a large part of their expenditures and in return spent much of their intellectual energy on “security”-related studies. We even created new universities and dozens of research institutes for these activities. America was becoming a very different place than it was in 1945.

And the world began to see America in this new light. The America of 1945 was almost universally beloved -- that is not too strong a term. When, as a young student, traveling through Asia and Africa, I was often in danger: everyone in a village would come nearly to blows to determine who could entertain me. Today, America is feared and hated in much of the world. Now, if I went back to those same villages, I would risk being shot.


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