Tuesday, May 3, 2011

‘Know the cost of war’? You joke

   Amid the endless flotsam — the thin lubricant that to the Internet is what plasma is to corpuscles — you will find on YouTube a stunning commentary by Isao Hashimoto, one without so much as a word.

    In time-lapse across a darkened map of the world, the Japanese artist shows every nuclear blast from 1945 to 1998.

    In the process, we see a one-time superpower, the Soviet Union, effectively blow itself out. Yes, a suicide bomber. And just as the Berlin Wall is consigned to wet tissue in 1989, the nuclear blasts start petering out, rolling to a stop at 715.

    Staggering, yes. Except that the United States over those 53 years staged 1,032 blasts, two for keeps.

    Watching this, one naturally thinks of poisoned water and soil, and of course poisoned relations between nuclear powers.

     Who, however, thinks of dollars? The first two hydrogen bombs cost roughly $1 billion apiece. That would be $26 billion today. Let's see: times 1,032 blasts for science and show. Gulp.

    The Brookings Institute's estimate is that we spent $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons from 1940 to 1996 — exceeding total federal spending on education, employment, social services, agriculture;, the environment, general science and space research, not to mention natural disasters, law enforcement and energy production.

    Many will say it was money well-dealt, that we spent the Soviets into submission. What one cannot defend, regardless, is the proposition how we as a society have refused to pay what it cost.

    Back in the early 1990s I asked Sen. Phil Gramm to defend the Reagan years borrowing to fund the largest peacetime military buildup in history. Gramm compared it to a mortgage on a house, and called the result well worth borrowing to do so.

    What Gramm was really saying was that America had bought more government, more military might, than he and his supply-side compatriots were willing to pay for. with taxpayers suitably appeased. And the federal debt soared.

    We remain on that path. President Obama offered a modest course correction — to end the tax breaks for America's wealthiest that were penned into law by George W. Bush. Obama had to backtrack in January when Republicans took control of the House.

    I said "modest." Obama's proposal was way too modest. Every American of every income should be paying more in taxes, now and for the foreseeable future, to pay for the military might and missions to which they consented over the last 30 years.

    Was the killing of Osama bin Laden worth the investment in arms and intelligence? Then pay for it. Don't slough it off onto today's kindergartners.

    When the president reported bin Laden's death, he conveyed many truths about a frayed sense of unity, about selfless individuals serving us overseas. One thing he said, however, that was pure falsehood, that today's Americans "know well the cost of war."

     Please. Only tiny speck among us knows war's cost — those who have bled overseas, those who have served tours and multiple tours, and of course, their families.

     The rest of us? It's all been a video game, and not even one that took the commitment of a quarter. It's been a free pass at the arcade.

      If, as Sen. Gramm said, this military might has been worth every penny, then it is worth paying for it — now — by every American, and for the long haul.

      Back in 1987, not long before the weight of military adventurism helped drag to a halt the Soviet experiment, Mikhail Gorbachev said, "We can't go on living like this any longer."

       How much longer can the Soviets' former nuclear rival continue on the same pace? And if we can't slow the pace, how will generations to come pay for all the bombs we bought?

       Former Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com

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