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View from the USA: War, what is it good for?

As the USA’s defence budget continues to soar, a tour of the Pentagon reveals the parodox at the heart of the American war machine

View from the USA: War, what is it good for?
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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In his farewell address on 17 January, 1961, President ‘Ike’ D. Eisenhower warned United States citizens to be vigilant against the growing might of the military industrial complex: the network of companies and institutions involved in arming and defending the country. He foresaw their increasing political influence and worried that our peacetime goals would soon be marshalled by war-time leaders, that our democracy itself could be undermined in the pursuit of a perpetual, profitable war. 

Sound familiar? For a country that prides itself on the promise of world peace, America sure does like a fight: the US spends roughly $600bn (£443bn) annually on defence, more than the next eight countries combined. The ‘war on terror’ has cost close to $4 trillion (£3 trillion). We could literally feed every hungry person on the planet for more than a century, according to UN estimates, for the same cost. “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they’ll believe it.” Hitler said that. The beast is out of control. America is the biggest warmonger on the planet. 

This is going through my head as I walk through the security gates of Ike’s worst nightmare: the Pentagon, in Arlington, Virginia. This otherwise friendly annex to D.C. on the other side of the Potomac River is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense. The concrete and steel building, with five wings each five stories tall, looks more like the hub of some giant conglomerate than the fist of the mightiest nation on Earth.

And, in many ways, that’s accurate: with more than six million square feet of floor space inside, it is indeed the largest office building in the world and the only one with the codes to the nuclear arsenal in the basement. Surprisingly, given it’s the most sought-after intelligence target in the known universe, it’s also open to the general public for tours. Sweat dripping, mouth zipped, I enter the belly of the beast. 

At the centre of the building is a leafy five-acre courtyard where, at the height of the Cold War, a hot dog stand used to attract such a queue every lunchtime that Soviet satellite reconnaissance monitored it closely. Apparently the Russians thought it was the entrance to the underground command bunker (which is indeed here, but not under the hot dog stand — or so they say).

“The US Marine Corps, where I served, is a department of the Navy,” my tour guide, a retired colonel, says by way of an introduction. He shows us the Hall of Heroes, dedicated to the more than 3,500 recipients of the US’s highest military decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor; the Air Force, Navy and Marine corridors, filled with paintings of fighter jets, battles and warships. We pass three star generals in the hall (the colonel saluting, me waving awkwardly) and see exhibits dedicated to test pilots, treaties and prisoners of war: patriotic displays interwoven with the offices of actual military brass.

Near the end of the tour, we stop beside a painting of an 1812 naval battle which depicts two warships in full sail, locking hulls in a fight to the death. It’s a classic image of what war used to be: up close, bloody, both sides risking their lives in equal measure. But, of course, war isn’t like that anymore. 

“The Americans can be right old bastards,” the colonel says. “We aren’t interested in a fair fight.” Technology, he goes on, has allowed us to retreat further and further from the battlefield. But what are the consequences? “If a drone pilot,” he asks, “drops a bomb on the Middle East from a base in Nevada, clocks off and is then killed by a terrorist at his kid’s soccer game later that day, is that murder or an act of war?” The further we remove ourselves from the battlefield, the colonel argues, the more the battlefield comes to us. The military industrial complex, designed to keep us safe, is doing the opposite. 

But Ike also saw a solution. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” he said, “can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so security and liberty may prosper together.” America may be the world’s biggest warmonger, but the path to peace isn’t forged by men with guns. Ike was right: time to put the beast back on the lead. stayarlington.com

Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)