The Iron Triangle

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

When I read about the Defense Department’s plans for my future security, why do I feel so insecure?

The New York Times privileged us the other day with another dispatch from what we used to call — back in my days as a toiler in the journalistic trenches of Chicago’s teeming neighborhoods — the Iron Triangle: that tight configuration of news bounded by reporter, editor and source, into which extraneous concerns, such as what the reader might care about, are never allowed to penetrate. We worried about the Iron Triangle in those days. It yielded only half-stories, the “official” half, dry, pat, seemingly innocuous.

Such grind-’em-out stories are more than the products of a beat reporter’s hardened routine. They’re a default conspiracy on the part of a closed system, involving all parties concerned, to dictate what matters, and are frustrating enough, from a reader’s point of view, when they emanate from the local school board or police department. When they emanate from the Pentagon . . . well, uh, this is about the future of the human race, bitten off in chunks half a trillion dollars at a time.

These stories should never be routine or limited to a single category of sources. This is my complaint with Thom Shanker’s June 23 piece on the shift in high-level defense thinking about the kind of wars we need to be preparing for, which, in its narrow scope, is typical of the mainstream fare that is poisoning the national debate about war and peace.

Indeed, as I read the story, which concerns Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ status-quo-disrupting embrace of “hybrid war” planning — anticipating “that future conflicts will include a complex mix of conventional, set-piece battles and campaigns against shadowy insurgents and terrorists” — I was more aware of what wasn’t there than what was.

The problem was not simply gaps or “lack of balance” in the reportage, but the utter lack of a larger context: some hint that military planners are accountable to more than themselves. Even more significantly missing was an awareness that not just wars but war planning — especially U.S. war planning — has consequences for every resident of the planet and all future generations. After 10,000 years or so of organized warfare, why haven’t we figured this out yet?

I guess I hardly expect Pentagon brainiacs, immersed as they are in their reality — money, weapons, tradition, an ever-present but shape-shifting enemy out there somewhere — to see or plan beyond what they know. But the primary role of an independent fourth estate is to report from outside official reality: to take responsibility for assessing the implications of the actions and decisions of the powerful, which the powerful themselves are unable or choose not to address. For reporters to do any less is to collude in official not-knowing.

The Times article informs us: “The shift (to hybrid-war planning) is intended to assure that the military is prepared to deal with a spectrum of possible threats, including computer network attacks, attempts to blind satellite positioning systems, strikes by precision missiles and roadside bombs, and propaganda campaigns waged on television and the Internet. The new strategy has broad implications for training, troop deployment, weapons procurement and other aspects of military planning.”

All this is no doubt accurate. But without a context — a restless wondering about the ultimate objective, which is national safety and security (and the word “national” applies only to that artificially segmented portion of humanity within U.S. borders, a troublesome smallness of concern in our intricately linked world) — we can only align ourselves, as we read, with the pat thinking of the planners:

A. No matter what kind of war we’re preparing for — set-piece battles a la the two big 20th century conflagrations or stateless terrorism — adequate defense involves either pre-emptive attack or retaliation: dealing crushing blows to those that would deal the same to us.

B. Planning a defense against any of the above possible threats need not concern itself with reasons why these threats are viable.

C. Planning a military defense need not concern itself with any of the obvious consequences of high-tech warfare: collateral damage to civilians or the environment; the creation of future enemies; the gouging of the national budget and diversion of spending from social services and education to armaments and the care and feeding of a standing army (including the care of physically and psychologically injured soldiers afterward).

D. Planning for war — building weapons systems, taking aim — is not in and of itself an act of war; or at least a magnet for counter-belligerence, and there is no self-interest involved in such planning.

E. Past military mistakes don’t matter.

F. Might makes right.

And so the cycle continues, with “the next war” inevitably begetting the one after that, and true security, based on deep, organic awareness of our global society, will remain beyond our grasp until — first — the media dismantle the Iron Triangle and demilitarize.