I came to Washington, DC in January for my senior internship, among other things, hoping to learn about how the government spends taxpayer money.
I confirmed that a lot of it is going down a rathole.
I learned about something called the F-35 — a spectacular $400 billion failure nicknamed the “Lightning II.” It’s a fighter jet that cannot fly in the rain, attempts to kill its pilots, and shoots itself. Nevertheless, the Pentagon will spend another $1.3 trillion on it in coming years, which mainly seems intended to pad the pockets of its maker, the giant weapons contractor Lockheed Martin.
One of the people most responsible for wasting our money on this plane is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith. He and his committee largely decide how much goes to the Pentagon each year, and for what purposes. Speaking about the F-35 last month, he said he wants “to stop throwing money down that particular rathole.” But it appears he can’t. A powerful mix of politics, special interest lobbying, and a few jobs strategically spread across congressional districts keeps the money flowing down the chute.
My generation is always told “there is no money.” But for the cost of this boondoggle, Congress could wipe out all student debt, which today equals the F-35’s lifetime cost of $1.7 trillion. And this is just the latest in a long list of failed Pentagon money pits. It seems we are being robbed, but we are strangely silent about the this whole military-industrial-complex. Why?
Maybe we are silent on the diversion of money to wasteful weapons programs because we are being diverted. One thing I learned during my time in Washington is that hundreds of think tanks and universities have financial backing from war contractors. This army pumps out articles hyping threats, defending weapons systems, or helping war-hawks to shape conversations from classrooms to dinner tables, normalizing acceptance of $400 billion planes that can barely fly in the name of “national security.” Lockheed Martin and others who profit by taking in our tax dollars use a good sum of that money to set the terms of the debate and keep us compliant.
The conditioning extends right down to my generation. Those graduating college today barely remember 9/11, if at all. We don’t remember Congress voting for the Iraq War in 2003. For many in my generation, Barack Obama was our first introduction to politics. Along with hope and inspiration, he introduced us to American military interventions — in Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. Growing up in forever wars introduced us to the idea that America will always be at war. We see children of soldiers fighting on the same fields as their fathers. This is the norm, and maybe it explains our lack of outrage or effort to change this reality.
Or maybe we have other priorities. A recent panel on Gen Z and U.S. foreign policy highlighted how young people are actually politically active, with economic security, racial inequality, and climate change as core concerns. But if climate is a priority, then the U.S. military — one of the world’s largest consumers of fossil fuels — should not be left out of the discussion. War without end also has serious implications for racialized and militarized policing in the United States. And, our economic security could be greatly improved if the massive investment in the F-35 was directed toward paying off student loans instead.
My generation is vocal on issues. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, protests were organized on a massive scale — often by people my own age. We turned out to the People’s Climate March, the Women's March, and the ballot box. Maybe we should start to follow the money and help divert some of it from these ratholes and instead toward our actual needs and desires.