Should We Keep Wasting Money on Missile Defense―or Invest in Something Useful?

By Lawrence Wittner

When Americans criticize wasteful government spending, they often fail to realize that the biggest sinkhole for public funds is what’s described as “national defense”―a program that, all too often, does little or nothing to defend them.

Take national missile defense, a program begun with much fanfare during the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan realized that U.S. nuclear weapons could not prevent a nuclear attack upon the United States. According to the President, his Strategic Defense Initiative (lampooned as “Star Wars” by Senator Edward Kennedy) would safeguard Americans by developing a space-based anti-missile system to destroy incoming nuclear missiles. Most scientists doubted its technical feasibility, comparing it to using one speeding bullet to destroy another speeding bullet. Critics also pointed out that development of such a system would simply end up encouraging hostile nations to build more missiles to overwhelm it or, if they wanted to avoid the additional cost, to use decoys to confuse it. In addition, it would create a false sense of security.

Although “Star Wars” was never built, the fantastic dream of a missile shield took hold in Congress, which began to pour billions of dollars into variants of this program. And, today, more than thirty years later, the United States still lacks an effective missile defense system. The U.S. government, however, ignoring this dismal record, continues to lavish vast resources on this unworkable program, which has already cost American taxpayers over $180 billion.

One of the major components of the missile defense program is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. Better known as GMD, it is designed to use ground-based “kill-vehicles” to destroy incoming nuclear missiles by colliding with them. In 2004, before any indication that GMD would work, President George W. Bush ordered the deployment of its interceptors. Today, there are four located at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and 26 at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and the Obama administration has given orders to increase the total to 44 by the end of 2017. The GMD cost thus far is $40 billion.

All of this might be viewed as water under the bridge―or perhaps water down the drain―were it not for the fact that a third GMD site is now being considered. Military contractors are ferociously lobbying for it, communities in New York, Ohio, and Michigan are actively competing for it and, given long-time Republican enthusiasm for missile defense, this expansion seems very likely to be implemented by the Trump administration. The cost? An additional $4 billion.

Is this a good investment? GMD, it should be noted, was designed to defend against a nuclear attack by Iran or North Korea. But, thanks to the Iran nuclear agreement, its nuclear program is frozen until 2030 or later. North Korea is also not a nuclear threat to the United States, for it does not possess long-range missiles. Of 14 North Korean missiles tested during 2016, some failed to clear the launch pad while others traveled distances ranging from 19 miles to 620 miles. Naturally, as a small-scale system, GMD would be of no value against Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal.

In fact, at this point GMD is of no value against anything. Thus far, the Pentagon has conducted 17 tests of GMD interceptors since 1999―all in conditions that should produce success. In a situation quite unlike armed combat, the people conducting the tests knew the speed, location, and trajectory of the mock enemy missiles ahead of time, as well as when they would be launched. Nevertheless, the GMD system failed the tests eight times―a 47 percent failure rate.

Nor has the GMD test record been improving in recent years. Quite the contrary. GMD has failed six of its last 10 tests and three of its last four. In mid-2016, a report written by three physicists and released by the Union of Concerned Scientists declared that the GMD system is “simply unable to protect the U.S. public.” Indeed, they concluded, “the system is not even on a path to achieve a useful ability” to do so.

Why, then, despite the enormous cost and the lack of useful results over many years, is this project continuing? One factor is clearly the U.S. fear of hostile governments. Beyond this, however, as David Willman―a journalist who has done extensive investigations of GMD―has reported, lies “the muscle wielded in Washington by major defense contractors, which have billions of dollars of revenue at stake.” Three of them, in fact―Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman―donated $40.5 million to congressional campaign funds from 2003 through October 2016.

GMD “will not work,” U.S. Representative John Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Willman. “Nevertheless, the momentum of the fear, the momentum of the investments, the momentum of the industry” carry it forward.

A key factor keeping billions of U.S. tax dollars flowing to this ill-conceived project is the desperation of declining American communities, anxious to attract the jobs a GMD installation would provide. The three communities vying to house the third GMD site are all in the hard-hit Rust Belt, and their public officials are eager to secure it. “Our community has been dying a little bit at a time,” an Ohio mayor explained. “So we’re hoping that the [local] site is selected.”

But if the only good reason for missile defense is that it provides a jobs program, why not invest those billions of dollars in jobs doing useful things? Why not invest in factories turning out solar and wind power components, high-speed rail cars, and inexpensive medicines? Why not invest in health care clinics, day care centers, libraries, schools, job-training facilities, community centers, concert halls, bridges, roads, inexpensive housing, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes?

This country has made useful investments before. With the political will, it could do so again.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark? An earlier version of this article was posted to the History News Network.

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The Great American “Welcoming” Break-Out: What’s Not to Like?

By Jerry Lembcke

My hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts is dealing with the sanctuary city issue. Officially, Worcester is not a sanctuary city but its Mayor, Joe Petty, has declared that it will not cooperate with federal law enforcement efforts to identify undocumented residents. One disgruntled city counselor, aching for a fight, is demanding that the city either formalize the Mayor’s position or get in step with federal practice; other council members, some openly supportive of the Mayor, seem content to leave the matter as is.

A February 1 rally at city hall turned out one of the largest public demonstrations I’ve seen here in twenty-five years. Despite the 6:00 pm darkness, 20 degree temperature, and falling wet snow, a thousand-plus people voiced their support for the mayor, loudly and stridently announcing that Worcester welcomes immigrants, refugees, and Muslims—Worcester is a “Welcoming City” shouted speaker after speaker.

Placards reading “Welcome Immigrants”; “We are all Immigrants”; “No Hate, No Fear, Everyone is Welcome Here”; and “Who would Jesus Deport” speckled City Hall Plaza. Many of the signs had American flag images or phrases associating Worcester with the best of America’s tradition of being a “welcoming” nation.

I went to the rally generally supportive of the Mayor trying to do the right thing, and in solidarity with my immigrant friends. My mood began souring when the first speaker invoked Worcester’s revolutionary legacy as the site of a first-reading of the Declaration of Independence. Wait a minute, I wondered, what’s that connection? Before I sorted through the issues of conquest and the genocide of indigenous people underway in the 18th century, that he seemed to have glossed over, he confected something about the first Thanksgiving that seemed (at my distance from the podium) to imply that it’s a holiday celebrating a great American tradition: welcoming immigrants.

As it progressed, much else in the rally was discordant with my sense of history, politics and political culture. There were numerous invocations of Christian religion—as in “welcoming” is the Christian way-to-be—with no recognition of the thirteenth-century Crusades against Islam as a legacy in the politics of the present. One speaker feared the besmirching of Worcester’s reputation as a City on the Hill were it not to welcome all who come. Another, channeling the old IWW slogan that an-injury-to-one-is-an- injury-to- all, declared that “A Ban on One Religion is a Ban on All Religions.” Hmm, I thought, banning all religions—how about that?

With the weekly city council meeting set to begin at 7:00, the assembly pressed into the building to pack the hallways in support of the Mayor who would uphold Worcester’s reputation as a city that welcomes everyone. My sense of their being something off-key about the event was additionally confirmed when a trumpet player standing high on the stone abutment to the City Hall entrance began playing the Star Spangled Banner—and then repeated it as the crowd moved slowly into the building. Standing now with toes and fingers that felt like icicles, I commented to the man next to me that I usually did not stand for the national anthem—with no sign from him that he got the sarcasm.

Something off-key, but what was it? It wasn’t until thawing-out that I remembered Yen Le Espiritu’s 2014 book Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees in which she calls-out the narcissism threading ways that Americans remember their wars. Using the war in Vietnam as a case study, she reassessed the “refugee” narrative of migrants’ resettlement in the United States. Viewing them as refugees, she argues, extends into the present the mythology that the ten-year U.S. military presence in Vietnam was a response to the fledgling nation’s request of assistance in repelling the foreign aggression of communism. In that narrative, the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 was a noble “rescue” mission by Americans to “save” helpless South Vietnamese from the communists. Framed that way, she says, the story of Vietnamese Americans is really code for the heroic altruism of Americans—a story-line she rejects.

Body Counts provides a template to help interpret events like that in Worcester that are being staged throughout the country. We are cast in these demonstrations as the principle actors, the welcoming good-people, hierarchically positioned as the providers and protectors for refugeed-subordinates subject to our discretionary goodwill. The script elides our previous role as participants—and it is a democracy in which we participate, a fact the same narrative proclaims—in the foreign and military policies that created the refugees in the first place. Most gratingly, the good-democrats, as cast in the performance as refugee-friendly humanitarians, are often the very politicians who marched lockstep with their party’s neoliberal regime-change policies that tossed millions of people into the streams of global migration. Can we really not see through their theatrics?

And ala the Vietnam case, the present story-line makes no distinction between the migrants displaced by the U.S. invasion, and the local mercenaries who served the occupation forces as flunky translators and informants. When the helicopters lifted off for the last time from Saigon in 1975, they carried mostly the comprador South Vietnamese who had sold themselves to the Americans—a fact obscured in the popular 2015 film Last Days in Vietnam. Now, we see the crocodile tears of liberal democrats attacking the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee character of the Trump administration as it, sniff, sniff, abandons the Iraqis and Afghanis who were bribed, err, promised eventual passage to the U.S. in return for their services.

The “militarized refugees” in Espiritu’s title refers to their use as props in pro-war propaganda, which is to say that even mere immigrants imaged as refugees help demonize the parties said to be responsible for their displacement making them targets of additional U.S. military strikes—a course leading to more refugees, of course. More perniciously, the sympathy for refugees that often translates into a righteous anger for their mistreatment that gets redirected from the Euro-American centers of power—which are, after all, viewed as refugee-rescuers in Espiritu’s decoding of the refugee narrative—to the post-colonial settings where it can only inflame the conflicts.

The instinct to welcome immigrants and refugees is a good one but the welcomings now underway across the land fit perfectly into the pattern of easily-exploited humanism described by Espiritu. The anti-war movement needs to approach the immigration issue more politically with a tactical approach designed to enhance its capacity to end U.S. wars of expansion and occupation that generate refugees—how does that rethinking begin?

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at College of Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of VietnamCNN’s Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam’s Last Great Myth and more recently Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. He can be reached at jlembcke@holycross.edu

This article originally appeared in Common Dreams.