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The military music war heats back up

Last year, the Washington Post's Walter Pincus caused a lot of monocles to drop into a lot of cocktails with his frontal assault on the military's bands. How can defense advocates complain about budget cuts, Pincus argued, when DoD has more musicians than the State Department has foreign service officers? Why do American taxpayers need to support so many different bands across the four services? There was a media dust-up as band leaders defended their missions as ambassadors and recruiters for the service, and after a few weeks, the kerfuffle died down.

Now another Washington heavyweight, defense commentator Loren Thompson, has brought it roaring back. And this time he's not just taking on the military's expenditures on musicians, he's taking on the news media, which he says distort statistics about his beloved F-35 Lightning II to make it sound as dysfunctional and expensive as possible.

Or as Thompson wrote on Tuesday:

[T]he nation's military services really are going to spend over $25 billion on music bands in the coming years. In fact, if you add inflation and indirect costs like retirement benefits, the "then-year" cost of military bands is more like $50 billion. But here's the catch: I'm talking about the cumulative cost for military bands between now and the year 2065.

Ridiculous, right? By the time we get to 2065, the bands will probably be unmanned (robotic) anyway. But that hasn't stopped various news organizations from reporting that the after-inflation "life-cycle cost" of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter through 2065 has risen above a trillion dollars. The story generated a lot of buzz, mainly because few of the reporters who cover the Pentagon know anything about economics. If they did, they'd realize that in the 1970s you could buy a new Mustang convertible for less than $5,000 and half a century is a very long time in economic terms.

I imagine a few grizzled editors actually did know this, but they just couldn't resist attaching a trillion-dollar pricetag to the F-35 because it was a sure-fire way of attracting readers. So how come they never apply the same bogus methodology to other government expenditures -- like music bands? Walter Pincus reported in the Washington Post on September 6, 2010 that the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines were spending around $500 million annually on bands. Multiply that number by 50 years and then add in a modest inflation factor -- say 2.5 percent per year, compounded -- and half a century later you're talking real money, as the late Senator Everett Dirkson might have put it. Many tens of billions of dollars, it turns out.

The answer to Thompson's question is that Americans have developed a deep-seated aversion toward criticizing people in the military, as opposed to hardware. A fighter jet can be "wasteful," but calling a group of uniformed service members -- whatever they do -- "wasteful" smells like criticizing the troops, which we taught ourselves never to do after Vietnam. It's so unthinkable that a few years ago The Onion ran a satirical story headlined "Bush: Maybe U.S. Military 'Just Not Very Good.'" Also, disputing $500 million in the context of a $700 billion defense budget seems kind of churlish ... then again ... you could buy a littoral combat ship with that kind of money.

What do you think? Are military music expenses fair game in Austerity America, or is there an apples-and-oranges problem juxtaposing hardware costs with personnel costs?

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