Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"What do the Taxpayers Have to do With This?"

Guest Blogger Ryan Bodenheimer is an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, recently returned from Afghanistan.  He is a founding member of Flying Scarfs, recently profiled at Disruptive Thinkers, and OnwardGeneration.


I’ve never questioned American greatness, but I can’t help but sometimes wonder why this is so.  This was especially evident as I prepped my combat survival vest for an upcoming flight into the Hindu Kush, a mountain range in North-Eastern Afghanistan. I asked myself what separates America from everyone else.  On that Winter morning in 2011, as now, I couldn’t help but be struck by a recent quote I had read. 

As Fareed Zakaria describes in his book “The Post American World," the reasons for American strength and power have changed. 
The Tallest building in the world is now in Dubai. The world’s richest man is Mexican, and its [the world’s] largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese. The world’s biggest plane is built in Russia and Ukraine, its leading refinery is in India, and its largest factories are all in China. The world’s largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore. Its number one casino is not in Las Vegas but Macao, which has also overtaken Vegas in annual gambling revenues.
This list does not gain virtue by comparing the sizes of Ferris wheels, but instead, by illuminating categories that, twenty years ago, were dominated by the United States.

Shortly after prepping my vest, and reviewing the imagery for a coalition commander’s plan to clear a village, my flight stepped to the weather desk to receive our last update before blasting off in our F-15E Strike Eagles.

We were told that current weather conditions made the mission unworkable, and ground forces had cancelled all requests for close air support. We had jets on alert, with a 15 minute response time in case anything happened, but for the time being there was no need for us to be airborne.  Yet, we planned to press with the mission anyway.

Perplexed, I suggested to the mission commander that we save taxpayers the roughly $125,000 in jet fuel it would cost for our two jets to fly, and cancel our mission.  Unfortunately, I was the junior man, and a higher-ranking officer spoke up saying, “What do the taxpayers have to do with this?”

I could feel my heart thump harder against my chest as I looked him in the eye and saw no regard for the people I had sworn to protect.  I once swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” As I stood there I came to a new realization and understanding of our military: We must protect our citizens from unnecessary military spending.

During that flight we remained in the weather for the entire 5 hours, contributing nothing to America’s national security and her interests.

I understood that an enemy to the American people could also be bankrupting them with superfluous military expenses. It was clear to me that this spending, at the tip of the spear, sometimes has no real checks and balances.

Given this, I silently wondered what does, in fact, make America great.  Is it our military that makes us great? Undoubtedly, the military has some of the finest Americans within its ranks. Americans willing to sacrifice their lives and time both for people they love and for people they will never meet.

Yet, what must come first?  A great nation or a great military? If we didn’t have the resources and the resolve as a great nation to build airplanes and tanks for World War II, our military would have crumbled. Without the budget produced by taxpayers, along with innovative American companies, there would be no bank account for national defense. Without education, we would not be able to prepare military warriors for the intense curriculum demanded of the modern warfighter. To me it seems reasonable that the strength of the United States is deeply rooted in things outside the military. Education, infrastructure, hospitals, commerce, and innovation all allow for the United States to have a military rivaled by no one else in the world.

When military officers like the one I flew with on that cloudy, winter day forget who they work for, the United States starts down a path of excessive spending misaligned with the principles of trust, innovation and integrity.  It is compounded when men like him are assigned to the fast track, as he was, attending prestigious leadership schools with a likelihood of being promoted to a position of eventual policy influence. 

Should the military be concerned with taxpayer dollars, or is that the job of our civilian leadership?  Constitutionally, Congress sets our budgets, but too often our civilian leaders defer to the military. This can be for a multitude of reasons, the first of which may be a misunderstanding of actual military need due to lack of military experience.

In my limited experience in the military thus far, I have met only one military leader who I truly believe would be fiscally faithful to civilian leadership. The problem is that most see the information advantage they have as a springboard for their own career. Conversely, I have met dozens of younger officers who see rampant waste and are willing to speak up about it. Unfortunately, perhaps by military design, these younger officers do not have the ear of our legislators.

Some may argue that it’s not the military’s job to think about the taxpayer. Maybe it wasn’t 10 years ago. But today, as we wade through the recession, witness the financial crisis in the euro-zone and fight new forms of terrorism, we must have honesty and transparency in our requests for funding. 

As President Eisenhower described,
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
Having a strong military contributes to a strong nation.  Yet, there is a difference between spending that creates a lean, efficient combat effective force, and one that is wasteful. Our needless $125,000 flight may not seem like much when stacked against a $650 billion defense budget, but these actions repeated over and over add up quickly. 

We must have people we can trust and who tell the truth, absent their own career goals or pride, in top military positions. It is a culture change that should be demanded at all levels of the military to create an atmosphere that remembers who it is we work for.  Not for ourselves, nor our careers, but for the American people and their interests.

Solutions apart from pouring more into the coffers of defense must be considered and encouraged. Innovation, creativity and technology have a real place in solving war, poverty and other world problems.

For instance, Flying scarfs aims to help end the insurgency in Afghanistan by empowering local artisans through economics and education -- all at no cost to the government.   Another organization, OnwardGeneration, was created to highlight the need for a broader worldview and to help create organizations in America and abroad that solve social problems with entrepreneurial pursuits. 

Ventures like these prove that America has the same formula for greatness as it did when the framers of the Declaration of Independence gathered to make their break with antiquated government systems.

Combining best practices of business, social and military entrepreneurs will facilitate lasting change in war-torn, terrorist-laden regions. Leveraging local, economically focused empowerment, in concert with military action, will bring lasting results and long-term stability to these unstable regions.  It will also be a more effective use of government funds. 

America will remain the centerpiece of this new and adapting world if we are not afraid to adapt our philosophy with it.  The interconnectedness of our world requires that we understand how our actions ripple through other nations, their governments and non-state sponsored groups.

In order to keep America great, new ideas must keep flowing. They are the lifeblood of all things American. From the decision to declare Independence in 1776 to 3M’s 15% rule, outside the box, disruptive thinkers have and will continue to keep America at the pinnacle of economic, political and military dominance.  It is readily evident that what truly makes America great are people who are not afraid to think.

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