The Pentagon’s Costly One-Stop-Shopping Approach to Waging War

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Aug 11 2016

The U.S. military is massive. Despite recent cuts, it includes some 1.3 million active-duty personnel and another 800,000 reservists across the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. The Defense Department also has a massive real estate portfolio that includes more than 562,000 buildings and structures on 523 bases, posts and centers. The Pentagon in April estimated that by 2019 nearly a third of all Army and Air Force infrastructure will be unnecessary surplus, according to Reuters. And some policy experts and analysts insist the government could likely save an additional $2 billion a year or more by pruning the Pentagon’s far-flung real estate holdings.

But if the past is prelude, congressional leaders and defense hawks will once again block any attempt at a fresh round of base closures. Part of the reason for that is obvious: Military bases are an economic engine in many regions of the country, including California, Florida, New York, Texas, Virginia and South Carolina. They provide enormous numbers of jobs for military personnel and civilians alike. And no member of Congress would want to see any base in his or her state shuttered.

Related: Half a Trillion for the Pentagon? Why Defense Spending Is Only Going Higher

Those bases have become indispensable sources of commercial activity to hundreds of thousands of Americans. By attempting to close any one of them, the Defense Department would be literally tearing at the economic and social fabric of a community. As Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks writes in her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, the distinction between the Pentagon’s responsibilities as a fighting machine and its ancillary role as the world’s largest commercial landlord has become dangerously blurred over time.

Military installations have become indispensable massive one-stop shopping outfits for their communities and regions — akin to a “Super Walmart” with everything under one roof — as well as facilities for training and deploying troops, Brooks wrote in a Foreign Policy Magazine column, adapted from her book. 

The Pentagon complex is the central nervous system of the world-wide U.S. military system. Considered the ultimate embodiment of this extraordinary duality of purpose, 23,000 military and civilian employees and 3,000 other support staff work in the building. 

Related: Congress to Pentagon: Don’t Even Think About Closing Military Bases

Brooks, a former Defense Department employee, recalls taking her mother on a tour of the Pentagon early in the Obama administration. As they went through the entrance and began passing the Pentagon’s florist shop, banks, nail salon and food court, her mother turned to her and said, “So the heart of American military power is a shopping mall?” 

Indeed, the Pentagon’s 17.5 miles of corridors had sprouted dozens of shops and restaurants catering to the employees and visitors. “And, over time, the U.S. military has itself come to offer a similar one-stop shopping experience to the nation’s top policy makers,” she wrote. 

“At the Pentagon, you can buy a pair of new running shoes or order the Navy to search for Somali pirates. ... You can buy yourself a new cell phone or task the National Security Agency with monitoring a terrorist suspect’s text messages. You can purchase a small chocolate fighter jet or order up drone strikes in Yemen.” 

Related: BRAC Is Back – but Will Congress Actually Close More Military Bases? 

For the sake of argument, one might point out that the Defense Department had little choice but to create this military/commercial amalgam. The Pentagon is remotely situated in suburban Virginia, not far from the U.S. Capitol, and thousands of employees working there day and night need ready access to food courts, banks, department stores and, yes, even manicurists.

From Brooks’ standpoint, however, the military’s transformation into a massive one-stop shopping center is an ominous development. That’s because, as she puts it, “It’s at once the product and the driver of seismic change in how we think about war, with consequent challenges both to our laws and to the military itself.”

By her lights, the defense establishment is now locked in a “vicious cycle” in which it redefined the meaning of “war” by asking the military to assume “an ever-expanding range of nontraditional tasks.”

In the most mundane of terms, this could mean providing Walmart-style one-stop shopping for members of the military and their families on military bases or at the Pentagon. But the real threat, she said, is that the military is being forced to assume greater responsibility for new global challenges, such as mounting threats from non-state terrorist networks, cyber terrorism and the destabilizing impact of worldwide poverty, genocide and political repression.

Related: The Battle Is On to Save Military Bases from Closure

Many of these challenges were once the purview of the State Department or U.S. international agencies, but now have been assumed by the military. And because their principal job is waging war, not engaging in diplomacy or nation building, military leaders of today can’t help but view every new threat or challenge through the lens of war, Brooks argues.

“Viewing more and more threats as ‘war’ brings more and more spheres of human activity into the ambit of the law of war, with its greater tolerance of secrecy, violence and coercion — and its reduced protections for basic rights,” she wrote.

“Like Walmart, today’s military can marshal vast resources and exploit economies of scale in ways impossible for small mom-and-pop operations,” she added. “And like Walmart, the tempting one-stop-shopping convenience it offers has a devastating effect on smaller, more traditional enterprises — in this case, the State Department and other U.S. civilian foreign-policy agencies, which are steadily shrinking into irrelevance in our ever-more militarized world.”

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