Now that the media are running out of engrossing revelations regarding the private lives of powerful generals and spy chiefs, we have to revert to the infinitely less entertaining topic of the "fiscal cliff" and all that it may entail. But the two issues have more in common than most people might think.
Lavish four-star lifestyles, complete with beribboned uniforms, private jets, police motorcycle escorts, cooks and valets, sound very much like militarism, defined by its historian, Alfred Vagts, as "transcending true military purposes … displaying the qualities of caste and cult." In contrast, Vagts defined the "military way" as fighting and winning efficiently "with the least expenditure of blood and treasure."
Taxpayers can easily understand that cooks and valets don't have much to do with fighting, and would be happy to see them tossed off the cliff. But what's the big difference between a military servant raking the leaves on an admiral's lawn and a fighter plane that can't fight or an impressive-looking warship that leaks? They don't pose much of a threat to the enemy, but they do make admirals, generals and associated defense corporations happy (somebody has to supply the leaf rake).
So it's really not surprising that defense officials in and out of uniform are issuing ever more fervent jeremiads in the face of threatened military budget cuts of $500 billion over the next 10 years if we go over the fiscal cliff. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta compares the cuts - which would bring spending back to the 2007 level - to "shooting ourselves in the head," while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaks gloomily of a "hollow force."
This sounds pretty bad, except that much of that $500 billion they are fighting to save is earmarked for items such as the F-35 "Lightning II" Joint Strike Fighter, which currently consumes no less that 38 percent of the entire defense procurement budget. Credible estimates by Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight put the overall lifetime cost of the plane at $1.5 trillion, more than the annual gross domestic product of Spain.
Even were the aircraft a miracle of combat efficiency, such staggering expense would be unpalatable. But 20 years of development has produced a fighter that is more sluggish, with a shorter range and 50 percent less payload than the F-16 it is slated to replace. Potential foes fearful of its advertised radar-evading stealth features will find Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms export agency, happy to sell them a mobile, low-frequency stealth-defeating radar for $10 million each.
Despite this sorry record, the Air Force is reportedly preparing to fight to the death for the F-35. Nor are the other services any less ready to defend their own cherished projects.
The Navy determinedly fends off all budgetary threats to the 3,000-ton Littoral Combat Ship, though at $500 million each we might expect more than a lightly armed (one gun, one defensive missile launcher) vessel with an inherent tendency to veer off course at high speeds and to develop cracks and rust.
The Army, meanwhile, wants to spend $34 billion (at least) on the Ground Fighting Vehicle, a troop carrier currently projected to weigh up to 84 tons - more than an M1 tank. Gorgon Stare, a drone-mounted video system touted as capable of surveilling an entire town in the sharpest detail day and night, failed its tests so dramatically that testers urged it not be fielded, but the Air Force shipped it to Afghanistan anyway, and has since adamantly refused to release any details of its actual performance. The list goes on, but the picture is clear.
Once in a while, a politician calls the military's bluff. Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev recalled his admirals fighting to retain big surface ships because, though useless in combat, "our naval commanders thought they were beautiful and liked to show them off to foreigners."
It's unlikely that President Barack Obama would ever express such sentiments, even if he harbors them. Nevertheless, even while the rest of us tut-tut over the perks of our high-ranking military caste, we might ask a few questions about where the really big money goes, and for whose benefit.
Andrew Cockburn is the author of "Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.