Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Spoils of War, Pentagon Style

One of the biggest news stories this morning said that the Pentagon would be looking into allegations of a pattern of misconduct by one of its major contractors in the war in Afghanistan. There has been credible evidence for years that this contractor has been improperly diverting supplies and equipment intended for particular uses, and using them for its own benefit. There are also reasons to question whether the contractor is qualified to do the work that the Pentagon has been paying it to do. For years the Pentagon was content to look the other way and hope for the best. Now, apparently, that is changing.

Supposedly the inquiry is being done at the request of a senator, but my hunch is that the real story is that the White House Chief of Staff, or someone like that, called up the Pentagon and starting asking questions, in a conversation that might have gone something like this: “Well, is it true that this contractor has been stealing stuff from the government in Afghanistan, or not? — What do you mean, you don’t know? — Well, don’t you think you’d better look into it?”

If my hunch is approximately correct, this could be a watershed moment for the Pentagon. The chief concern there in recent years seems to have been the spoils of war, obtained not from the “enemy,” who can scarcely be identified, but from the Pentagon’s ever-growing share of the federal budget. Now perhaps there is a shift in emphasis to focus more on effectiveness. What other conclusion can you draw from an organization that for years couldn’t be bothered to check whether hundreds of billions of dollars was being spent well, now suddenly investigating allegations of corruption that may involve one billion dollars or less?

I hope this is the case, anyway. War should never be undertaken with an eye on corporate profits, but only to save a group of people from a fate considerably worse than war. The United States went into Afghanistan to save the country from starvation at the hands of a brutal regime that had gone to great lengths to wipe out agriculture there, but that objective was achieved in a matter of months. The reasons for the continued U.S. presence there, in what could easily become the longest war in U.S. history, are much harder to explain. When anything lasts as long as this war has, you have to look at the profit motives involved. When profit can be taken out of war, peace can come with surprising speed.