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William Astore, America Hangs from a Cross of Iron

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Just in case you were wondering where your tax dollars went in this century, consider the American war, now 20 years old, in Iraq (and after 2014 in Syria as well). Neta Crawford of the invaluable Costs of War Project has just released her latest summary of what that invasion and the disaster that followed cost the American taxpayer. Her estimate: $1.79 trillion, if you don’t count the future costs of caring for that war’s damaged U.S. veterans. If you do, we’re talking about $2.89 trillion by 2050. And in case you think that’s all so been-there-done-that, don’t forget, while this country no longer has 170,000 troops in Iraq as it did in 2007, there are still 2,500 of them there and another 900 or so in Syria. Add in the no less disastrous war in Afghanistan, another $2.3 trillion or so, and you’ve already made it over the $5-trillion mark before you even include the costs of the rest of the disastrous global war on terror (still ongoing) in places ranging from Somalia to West Africa.

Think of that as the context for the latest Pentagon budget, already larger than those of the next nine countries combined, because here’s what couldn’t be stranger: the less successful the U.S. military has been globally, the more we, the taxpayers, have to ante up. Yep, the 2023 Pentagon budget, passed late last year, was $858 billion and, if you’re talking about the full “national security” budget, including all our intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, and the like, that figure is closer to $1.5 trillion annually.

In fact, these days, hiking the Pentagon budget may be just about the only thing congressional Republicans and Democrats can actually agree on, which means… yes, as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, blogger, and TomDispatch regular William Astore makes strikingly clear today, we’re still heading for the stratosphere (and I’m not thinking about the U.S. Air Force or even that American drone Russian planes forced down over the Black Sea recently). In fact, when it comes to that budget, the proverbial sky may not be the limit, but outer space itself. Tom

A Highway to Peace or a Highway to Hell?

The Vast Power of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

In April 1953, newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a retired five-star Army general who had led the landings on D-Day in France in June 1944, gave his most powerful speech. It would become known as his “Cross of Iron” address. In it, Ike warned of the cost humanity would pay if Cold War competition led to a world dominated by wars and weaponry that couldn’t be reined in. In the immediate aftermath of the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Ike extended an olive branch to the new leaders of that empire. He sought, he said, to put America and the world on a “highway to peace.” It was, of course, never to be, as this country's emergent military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) chose instead to build a militarized (and highly profitable) highway to hell.

Eight years later, in his famous farewell address, a frustrated and alarmed president called out "the military-industrial complex," prophetically warning of its anti-democratic nature and the disastrous rise of misplaced power that it represented. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, fully engaged in corralling, containing, and constraining it, he concluded, could save democracy and bolster peaceful methods and goals. 

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Andrew Bacevich, Duck and (Re)Cover?

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I can still remember sneaking into one of those old Broadway movie palaces (of the sort you can see in Edward Hopper’s classic painting) with two friends. It was 1959, in the midst of a global “Cold War,” and I was 15 years old, too young as I recall to be allowed in to see Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach without a grown-up.

We sat in the first row of the balcony (it was a thrill!) and watched the movie version of Neville Shute’s 1957 novel about — yes, there’s no way to prettify it (though a cast including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and — a blast from the past — Fred Astaire didn’t hurt) — World War III. As that movie opens the northern hemisphere has been totally nuked and wiped out, while the fallout is now being carried south — the film is set in Australia — and will, sooner or later, extinguish the rest of humanity, including Peck, Gardner, and Astaire.

And no, it didn’t actually happen (not yet anyway), but like TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author most recently of On Shedding an Obsolete Past: Bidding Farewell to the American Century, I grew up in a world whose end seemed eerily in sight. After all, as he reminds us today, On the Beach was just one of so many end-of-the-world movies, books, and magazine articles of that “duck and cover” era.

In our present world, some sixty-odd years later, no schoolchildren are taught to save themselves from atomic destruction by leaping under their desks, hands over their heads. We’re in a world where “the end,” the potential dystopian finale of human civilization via the fossil-fuelized overheating of this planet, won’t come in a moment. No ducking and covering like Bert the Turtle of my school childhood years when climate change is the culprit. But cheer up, as Bacevich suggests, those old nuclear war films may still have something to teach us in the Ukrainian moment of the twenty-first century. Tom

On Missing Dr. Strangelove

Or How Americans Learned to Stop Worrying and Forgot the Bomb

Bosley Crowther, chief film critic for the New York Times, didn’t quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove at the time of its release in January 1964. Stanley Kubrick’s dark antiwar satire was “beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across,” he wrote. But if the film had its hilarious moments, Crowther found its overall effect distinctly unnerving. What exactly was Kubrick’s point? “When virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane -- or, what is worse, psychopathic -- I want to know what this picture proves.”

We may find it odd for an influential critic to expect a movie to “prove” anything. Kubrick’s aim was manifestly not to prove, but to subvert and discomfit.

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Rebecca Gordon, Singing the “Bourgeois Blues”

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On my way home from the doctor’s office, I regularly pass the New York apartment building where I grew up. I would invariably stop, stare, and feel an overwhelming desire to visit the place I hadn’t seen in perhaps 60 years. The street door hadn’t changed a bit.

A few months ago, on a whim, I looked for the buzzer to apartment 6D, pressed it, and a woman’s voice answered. I promptly said, “Hi, I’m Tom Engelhardt. I grew up in the apartment you now live in and was wondering whether you’d let me see it again.” To my amazement — yes, this is New York City! — she promptly buzzed me in and I found myself riding to the 6th floor on the barely updated gate elevator I used as a kid. Ours was, I must tell you, a remarkable apartment. Even to get to it, you had to step out of the elevator, walk down a short corridor out onto a covered but open catwalk (where you can still see the roofs of New York around you), and then down another corridor.

So many years later, I did just that and, when the present resident of 6D let me in, felt overwhelmed with memories as I saw the staircase to the second floor where my old bedroom was, the living room with the remarkable skylight under which my mother drew her caricatures, and even the little porch beyond it. And yes, it sounds, I know, like quite a place, which it was (and remains). Today, fully renovated, it’s undoubtedly a wildly expensive coop or condo, but, in 1946, when my parents got that duplex apartment, just after my father left the Air Force in the wake of World War II, it was rent-controlled and cheap as hell. (Lucky for them as, in the 1950s when I was a kid, they were eternally short on cash.) But no surprise then either. After all, at the time, all of New York was rent-controlled and veterans stood a reasonable chance of getting a fine apartment they could actually afford.

As in much of the country now, rent control in New York is largely a thing of the past as rents here have all too literally gone through the roof, with even studio apartments soaring toward $4,000 a month. As Bloomberg News reports, there’s never been a worse time to rent in the big city. More than three bedrooms will cost you an average of $9,592 per month. And yes, that’s to rent, not buy! Imagine that! Once upon a time, that apartment of mine was something like $190 per month! And with that in mind, let TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon fill you in on rent madness in twenty-first-century America. Tom

Don’t Try to Find a Home in Washington, D.C.

Or Pretty Much Anywhere Else If You’re a Renter

In 1937, the American folklorist Alan Lomax invited Louisiana folksinger Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly) to record some of his songs for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Lead Belly and his wife Martha searched in vain for a place to spend a few nights nearby. But they were Black and no hotel would give them shelter, nor would any Black landlord let them in, because they were accompanied by Lomax, who was white. A white friend of Lomax’s finally agreed to put them up, although his landlord screamed abuse at him and threatened to call the police.

In response to this encounter with D.C.’s Jim Crow laws, Lead Belly wrote a song, "The Bourgeois Blues," recounting his and Martha’s humiliation and warning Blacks to avoid the capital if they were looking for a place to live. The chorus goes,

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