A War of Diminishing Returns

“Another day, another blister,” as your editor’s father, a cabinetmaker by trade, likes to say.

Yesterday was a celebratory day for patriots…and an apathetic one for the rest of us. If we are to believe the various American defense and intelligence establishments, Osama bin Laden finally got the bullet that was long coming his way over the weekend. Two of them, actually. Already the Internet is abuzz with rumor, conjecture and “alternative” theories. Call them conspiracy mongers or call them skeptics. In the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn’t matter either way.

As far as this editor can tell, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not likely to draw to a close simply because one cave-dwelling icon of evil reached room (and then deep sea) temperature. Neither are not-so-covert operations in Yemen and along the conveniently porous Pakistani border likely to begin winding down anytime soon. Instead, we are sure to see an intensification of paranoia and consequent military adventurism as the federal government issues travel warnings and security threats as casually as it inks new dollars to help protect us from their associated “menaces.”

Wrote Addison in yesterday’s issue of The 5, “Al-Qaida pulled off the Sept. 11 attacks for somewhere in the vicinity of $500,000, according to the final report of the 9/11 Commission.

“By the end of fiscal 2011, the US government will have spent $1.26 trillion fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Center for Defense Information. A total equal to nearly 9% of the national debt.”

Quite a lamentable “return on investment” for the now-dead Al-Qaida leader, no?

“Based on the figures above,” continued Addison, who alongside Bill Bonner addressed the touchy subject of military imperialism in their 2005 book, Empire of Debt, “bin Laden pulled off a 2,514,000:1 return. And that’s just versus US interests.”

Indeed. It’s difficult to get a good handle on the sheer size – much less real cost – of the US military machine. And that’s probably not a good thing.

Official counts put the number of US military personnel serving on foreign soil somewhere around 2.5 million souls. Maybe more. According to the Department of Defense Base Structure Report for Fiscal year 2007, the Empire then boasted – unashamedly, mind you – 823 military bases around the planet. The same report from a year earlier gives some idea as to just what this means in real terms.

Worldwide, the Department of Defense occupies 32,408,262 acres, according to the report, including 712,199.5 acres for military bases alone. As a point of reference: New York City is 309 square miles (i.e. 197,760 acres). Ohio is 41,328 square miles (i.e. 26,449,920 acres).

Leaving aside the point about whether or not these folks are doing good work – or God’s work, as some contend – the fact remains that installing and maintaining such an extensive network is not cheap, neither in dollars nor the various unquantifiable costs associated with camping out and firing off rounds in other folks’ backyards.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. Having been long oppressed themselves by a professional army, the Founding Fathers were loath to establish one of their own. This philosophy is underscored clearly in the Second Amendment, which calls for a “well regulated militia” and protects the rights of the people to “keep and bear arms” in order that they may defend themselves; a small scale, individual alternative to the common practice of maintaining a standing army.

Secretary of State William Marcy, explaining why the United States would not sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783, perhaps summed it up best when he wrote:

“The United States consider powerful navies and large standing armies as permanent establishments to be detrimental to national prosperity and dangerous to civil liberty. The expense of keeping them up is burdensome to the people; they are in some degree a menace to peace among nations. A large force ever ready to be devoted to the purposes of war is a temptation to rush into it.”

During the more than two centuries that have since passed, careful to ignore Secretary Marcy’s words, The United States of America has built out the most expansive military complex ever known to man. At home and abroad, this behemoth – and its associated, ironically-named federal agencies of “intelligence and security” – pose increasing threats to that same national prosperity and civil liberty Marcy and his like had hoped to protect.

It is at least worth considering, therefore, that the real enemy might not be a culturally sub-evolved, cave-dwelling fanatic running scared from the world’s largest gun. As it turns out, the enemy might just be the gun itself…and the ever-present temptation to use it.

Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning