By Bill Boyarsky
El Segundo Boulevard, near the Southern California beaches, represents the heart and soul of the military-industrial complex. On either side of the boulevard—its streets mostly barren of pedestrians—are the offices and plants of companies locked in permanent embrace with Washington. War and space activities fuel them. Their campaign contributions and lobbying spending fuel Congress.
I drove to the boulevard, which runs through the city of El Segundo, last week for a column on the June special election in the 36th Congressional District, which extends along the coast southwest of Los Angeles. The election is to fill the seat of Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, a military-industrial complex supporter and a power in intelligence and defense policy, who resigned to take over the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. With a liberal, anti-war candidate, Marcy Winograd, in the race, this is likely to be the year’s first national electoral test of support for the Afghanistan War.
After my visit to Harman’s district, I checked on the companies located there, consulting the invaluable Open Secrets.org website of the Center for Responsive Politics.
It showed for 2010: Boeing, $17.89 million for lobbying, $2.80 million in campaign contributions; Lockheed Martin, $12.77 million for lobbying, $2.66 million in campaign contributions; Raytheon, $7.18 million for lobbying, $2.17 million in campaign contributions. Across the boulevard from Raytheon is the big Los Angeles Air Force Base, where engineers design space systems. Raytheon works hand in hand with them on projects such as a space tracking and surveillance system to detect incoming missiles. The “Star Wars” program still lives, long after President Ronald Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative.
I don’t expect Marcy Winograd to be trolling El Segundo Boulevard for contributions. The industry supported Harman, and she signaled her favorite in the campaign by inviting Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn to join her in hearing President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an industry favorite, and a bunch of local Democrats are supporting Hahn. Another Democratic candidate is Debra Bowen, the current secretary of state.
It looks as though Winograd has a tough fight in this, her third try for the seat. “We need to bring our troops home,” she said. We met for coffee late in the afternoon after she had completed her day teaching at Crenshaw High School, a predominantly African-American and Latino school in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. Almost 80 percent of the students are in government-subsidized lunch programs.
“The larger issue is that we have to transition to a new economy. Why can’t we give out huge sums to build a mass transit system? If there were the same amount of dollars to build a rapid transit system that we spend on weapons systems, what would you prefer? How many weapons do you need?”
She discussed the war and weapons in terms of her students, who are facing post-graduation unemployment. Many of her students tell her they will join the military service. “They tell me [that by doing so] ‘I’ll get a job, I’ll get benefits,’ ” she said.
Winograd is talking about a war that has become part of the background noise of American life. The Afghanistan War has slipped off the charts in the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism survey of how much coverage is given to major events. We’re like the British of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, going about their business while volunteer soldiers were dying in a futile effort to subdue Afghanistan. It’s necessary to go to sources other than the mainstream media on most days to find out about a war that may claim the lives of some of Winograd’s Crenshaw students.
An invaluable source is the new book “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan” by Bing West, an ex-Marine combat officer in Vietnam and former Reagan administration defense official, now 70 years old, who slogged through patrols and firefights, up mountains and into canals with much younger men to learn on the ground about the futility of the Afghanistan War.
He had been with a battalion assigned to clear guerrillas out of a town called Barge Matal that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai needed for support in his phony re-election campaign. Killed in the effort was a squad leader, Eric Lindstrom, who had recently helped a nearly dead West, suffering from cholera, to a rescue helicopter. Describing his time recovering in a hospital with a wounded soldier who had been with Lindstrom, West wrote: “When you lose somebody, you wonder about the mission. You need a faith or a cause to compensate for loss. Jake and I were pretty damned mad about the lack of cause. What made Barge Matal worthwhile? What were American soldiers doing in unnamed mountains, fighting tribes forgotten by time and history, while the bastards that murdered 3,000 Americans on 9/11 were protected in the country next door? What was accomplished in such a lost place? Why did Eric die where no sensible infantry should have been sent?”
These are the questions that Marcy Winograd and other peace candidates should ask. They are not being addressed in Washington and only occasionally raised in the news media. And these questions certainly won’t be asked by the corporate bosses on El Segundo Boulevard or other stops along the military-industrial trail—now extending to the East and South—where products are made for use in Afghanistan.