Column: Wanted: Public Service Not Lip Service

Thomas “Tip” O’Neill was the Speaker of the House of Representatives when Ronald Reagan was President.  He was asked to characterize how the U.S. government functioned under President Reagan, and he allegedly responded, “We borrowed a trillion dollars and threw a party.” We may still be paying the tab for that party, but at least we got to witness the bankrupting of the Soviet Union and an end to what had been viewed as a Cold War with billions of people at risk of nuclear annihilation. With the withdrawal of the last American military service member from Kabul on August 31, 2021, we are left with awful human and incomprehensible financial losses. We borrowed much more than a trillion dollars, and no one is partying.

With every war, we mourn the loss of life. Given that the loss of life is soul-shattering for those who loved the fallen, one would think that our leaders would work long and hard to avoid deadly conflicts. We spent 10 years in Vietnam for unclear objectives before our leaders decided we had spent enough blood and money to dignify a retreat. Even before we finished providing rehabilitation services to our wounded servicemen and servicewomen and mourning our thousands of war dead, our leaders, political and military, decided to send our children into a conflict that even our adversary, Russia, had declared unwinnable. They justified this plunge into a nightmare to apprehend our former ally, Osama bin Laden. We ended up stuck in a quagmire for 20 years, long after Seal Team 6 shot bin Laden (in Pakistan), filmed his funeral, and buried his remains at sea.

As our inept Congress spouts irrelevant accusations across the aisle, it is time for us to consider the cost of this tragic misadventure. Aside from temporary advances in women’s rights and soon to be erased reductions in infant mortality, we have nothing to show for ourselves or for the people of Afghanistan for the sacrifices made by us and by them. The Associated Press reports that during these 20 years of war 2,448 American servicemen and servicewomen, 3,846 U.S. contractors, and 1,144 nonAmerican NATO troops were killed in action. Multiply that by at least five-fold for the number permanently disabled by the war. The loss of Afghan life cannot even be estimated. 

The money borrowed by the U.S. government to pay for this war exceeds 2.3 trillion dollars. Yes, the money was borrowed, and the interest coming due for payment by the American taxpayers over the next 30 years exceeds 6.5 trillion dollars. That is all interest, not principal. The international bankers of the world in China, Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, et al. will be grateful for the support we are providing their economies for decades to come while our government struggles to find money to pave roads and find clean water.

Of course the banks and nations holding our debts are not the only entities grateful for America’s largesse during wartime. We are disabling, destroying, or simply leaving behind enough military hardware to outfit several third-world countries. All of those lost guns, vehicles, airplanes, and support materials need to be replaced.  Even as the last American airplane exited Kabul, military contractors and lobbyists were already swarming the halls of Congress, the Pentagon, and the CIA to feed the ever-growing military-industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about more than 70 years ago.

Our Congress, which seems incapable of agreeing on much besides military spending, will reward these hucksters with financing for equipment and materials long ago deemed unnecessary or obsolete.  In Afghanistan, we spent more than 28 million dollars on ‘forest camouflage’ in a country with less than 2 % forest. Money was appropriated to buy truck engines for vehicles that are no longer in use. Helmet rangefinders were distributed that proved to be distracting, rather than instructive. The list of useless or unneeded expenditures is awesome, and each line item can be attributed to a Congressman or Congresswoman whose district housed a political contributor who insisted on the military necessity of the item he or she was selling. For 20 years, Washington threw a party, but the invitation list did not include environmentalists, sanitary engineers, virologists, educators, or even historians who might have helped to predict the inevitable outcome of a war in Afghanistan.

We have a government that values civilian control of the military but does not require any military knowledge or experience for those controlling the levers of war. This is like having a postal delivery service that does not require mail carriers to be able to read. Our Constitution demands little more of an office holder than that he or she survive to a specific age and be a citizen. In 1789, the mere survival to adulthood was a major accomplishment. That the office holder was a citizen helped cut down on foreign influences, a requirement that no longer provides any protection from foreign agents working at the highest levels of the government.

Let us consider Constitutional amendments that would protect the citizenry from real threats, foreign and domestic. How about financial disclosures from all those seeking public office? How about transfer of all of an elected official’s government associated financial activities to a blind trust? How about military, national, or international service requirements? These are not excessively burdensome requirements for people managing a multitrillion dollar economy, a huge segment of which is involved in national and international military activities.

The politically ambitious, from Nelson Rockefeller to Michael Bloomberg, have revealed their massive financial portfolios in an effort to assure the public that they would focus on public service, not empire building. Candidates for President, from John F. Kennedy to John S. McCain, established their military credentials by putting their lives on the line in service to their country. We need leaders who are not merely ambitious, but who are also knowledgeable. 

The Founding Fathers may have started as country squires and simple lawyers, but they proved themselves in numerous different roles vital to the establishment and survival of this nation. We need leaders and representatives with qualifications, not slogans.  We need representatives without conflicts of interest, who will spend our money on what we need to survive and prosper, not on what they need to hold onto their offices and fringe benefits.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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