If you were wondering lately about the role of journalism in this day and age of information overload, The Washington Post’s multi-year investigation into the 18-year debacle in Afghanistan is the answer. The report revealed a tireless persistence and commitment to uncovering the truth that our Twitter age tends to lack. The journalists have done their job. The question that remains is, will we in the public do ours?
Congress has made clear it isn’t moved by these revelations of dishonesty and waste in our war-making. On the same day The Post released this bombshell report, Congress’s Armed Services committees released their compromise bill on defense spending, increasing the Pentagon’s budget once again by $22 billion, to a total of $738 billion. The number was particularly unseemly given news of Trump cutting food stamps for 750,000 people to save a mere $1.1 billion next year.
Rather than outrage or demands for accountability, our elected leaders carried on with business as usual. It’s clear Congress won’t care unless we make them, and this will require a shift in our national attitude.
In the wake of 9/11, unblinking support for an ever-growing military became a fundamental part of patriotism and questioning it became treasonous. This sentiment was further fueled by our growing defense contractor industry, which received nearly half our military budget by 2018 ($358 billion). Our civilian foreign affairs resources turned into military assets. And with its 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF), Congress traded in its oversight role for that of enabler.
The Afghanistan Papers provide clear evidence of the costs of Congress relinquishing its oversight role, but this is hardly a concern of the past. Military operations have been launched in more than a dozen countries since 2001. And not one of those operations received even the initial level of scrutiny the Afghan war did 18 years ago. With no need for specific congressional authorization, we have had no public debate on the goals, spending, or unintended consequences of military operations in countries as varied as Georgia, Yemen, and Somalia. When four U.S. service members died in Niger two years ago, what shocked the American public was that no one realized we were fighting there in the first place.
It isn’t just where and how we fight that we must inquire about. We need also to ask how we spend. The Pentagon has an abysmal record of accounting, facilitated by years of getting away with it in the absence of scrutiny or consequences. The Pentagon alone ignored a 1990 law requiring every federal agency to conduct a full audit by 1992. In fact, the Pentagon’s first ever audit was only completed in November 2018, and it revealed a mess. Only five of the 21 individual audits involved actually received fully passing grades. Outside experts and defense officials alike agreed that the accounting “gaps” would take years to fix. The audit alone cost $413 million, and the Pentagon will spend $406 million to address issues identified along with another $153 million on “financial system fixes.” More money isn’t the obvious answer here to better defense.
The Pentagon has a weak tradition of transparently tracking both costs and results, so we have little understanding of what we in fact get from hundreds of billions spent on defense each year and about 200,000 troops deployed overseas. The time has come to start asking questions. Call your representatives in Washington, write them, go to their town hall meetings and ask: When will we replace the 2001 AUMF with a defined scope appropriate to the threats we face today? When will we hold robust hearings addressing each of our armed conflicts, to ensure congressional oversight is specific and that our continued role in each of these conflicts makes sense? What kind of oversight will Congress implement on our military activities to ensure we don’t end up with another damning report 20 years from now exposing costly and dramatic military missteps that we could have avoided with greater scrutiny? Ask these questions, too, of presidential candidates. Executive leadership will also be necessary to alter this trend.
Demanding more accountability from the Pentagon isn’t unpatriotic at all. It’s the best thing we can do to ensure that our troops have the support and supplies they need and that they are never risking their lives in vain. We owe them that much.