Aberdeen becomes a boom town

Bruce Fleming, the astute and outspoken professor of English at the Naval Academy and author most recently of "Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide," says conservatives tend to give the U.S. military blank-check approval while liberals give blanket suspicion. I agree with half of that assertion.

While the latter might have once been true — certainly during the Vietnam War and, to a lesser extent, during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War — there's not much recent evidence that the American left is any different than the rest of the country: It's just not paying much attention anymore. Like the rest of the country, there's general support for the troops but no interest in joining them in Kandahar.

While some Americans are troubled by our continued efforts in Afghanistan, the war is low on the list of public concerns, even with its $6.7 billion-a-month cost.

But I certainly agree with Professor Fleming that there's a military-civilian divide in the U.S., and one that it is perhaps wider than at any time in our history. There hasn't been a draft since 1973. In the age of the all-volunteer force, we've splintered into two cultures: those who choose to serve and risk their lives in combat, and those whose closest experience of war comes from playing "Call of Duty: World at War" on Xbox 360.

There are two subgroups on the non-uniformed side — hundreds of thousands of civilian employees of the armed forces, and thousands of contractors who wouldn't even exist if not for the billions upon billions in taxpayer dollars that channel through the Pentagon every year.

Last week, it was standing room only for a briefing at Aberdeen Proving Ground as the Army shared details of $25 billion — I said billion — in contracts coming to the region with military base realignment. The numbers were kind of staggering. One contract alone is valued at more than $10 billion, according to Sun reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins. Another is worth an estimated $7 billion.

No wonder some of the likely bidders were heard to utter, "Wow" as they scribbled notes at the briefing. Among the big-ticket items:

•$10.2 billion over five years for hardware, software, engineering services and other work related to "tactical command, control and communications systems."

•A $7 billion software-engineering contract.

•A five-year contract worth about $475 million for research and development in "radar technologies" and "radio-frequency sensors."

•A three-year contract worth about $513 million for IT support. (That must be some help desk!)

•A multiyear, $1 billion contract for "tactical biometrics systems."

By the sound of some of these contracts, you'd think we were facing a world of enemies with advanced technologies, or that we were in the midst of a new kind of weapons race against high-tech superpowers. Doesn't the Army have enough tools at its disposal already?

Attention, fiscal conservatives and military-patronizing liberals: At 23 percent, defense still consumes the largest part of the federal budget pie — more than Medicare, more than Social Security — at more than $700 billion a year.

The Army's roll-out of the big contracts at APG comes just a month after a midterm national election in which Republican candidates beat up President Barack Obama and the Democrats for spending money the government doesn't have. I find that amusing, even ironic. In fact, I'd be willing to bet lunch at the New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen that most of the contractors at Thursday's APG briefing believe that their income taxes are too high, that the federal government is too big and that Congress needs to stop all its wild spending — except on the military, of course, and except nearby. Just a hunch.

The government reported the nation's unemployment rate Friday at 9.8 percent. The labor secretary estimated the number of "discouraged workers" at 1.3 million, up significantly from a year ago. "These individuals were not looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them," the government said.

But the Army is hiring. Aberdeen has openings for "contract performance specialists," with some positions paying up to $67,114 and some paying up to $115,000 a year, both with nice benefits. It's a great deal: As a civilian employee, you don't have to go through basic, don't have to serve in combat, and, given the way we continue to spend money on defense, you probably don't have to worry about ever getting laid off again. Good luck.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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