A Great Nation Deserves Great Tanks

"Light wages - heavy tanks." Silkscreen street poster produced by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective during the Paris student/worker revolt of May 1968.
"Light wages - heavy tanks." Silkscreen street poster produced by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective during the Paris student/worker revolt of May 1968.

Few artworks from the 20th century make the connection between war production and the impoverishment of society as clearly as the French poster from May 1968, “Light wages – heavy tanks.”

Created by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective that was active in Paris during the student/worker revolt of May ’68, the poster came to mind when I read the news that the Obama administration was further escalating the war in Afghanistan. On Nov. 19, 2010, U.S. defense officials confirmed that a company of M1A1 Abrams Battle Tanks – 16 in all – are being deployed to Afghanistan; it will be the first time the U.S. has used tanks in the nine-year long Afghan war.

Manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems (formerly “Chrysler Defense,” a division of the Chrysler Group), each M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank costs $6.21 million. Weighing 68-tons, the M1A1 is equipped with two 7.62 M240 machine guns, a .50 caliber M2 machine gun, and a 120mm cannon that can pinpoint and destroy a building from a mile away. The tank has a crew of 4, carries 40 standard armor piercing or depleted uranium cannon rounds, and is also equipped with a full array of computerized targeting and control systems. The heavily armored tank is the most advanced combat vehicle in existence.

On Nov. 19, 2010, the Pentagon correspondent for CNN, Barbara Starr, reported that the M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank uses “300 gallons of fuel in 8 hours.” In my Dec. 1, 2009 article, “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” President Lyndon Baines Johnson in Poster Art: 1962-1968, I wrote that Pentagon officials “stated that it costs an average of $400 to put a single gallon of fuel into a combat vehicle in Afghanistan.” Surely that price has gone up since I published my article, but when considering Obama’s deployment of M1A1 tanks to Afghanistan, let us examine the cost in dollars.

Based on the Pentagon’s 2009 cost estimate for fuel, that would mean running a single M1A1 tank for 8 hours a day would cost approximately $120,000. Running 16 tanks for 8 hours a day would cost roughly $1,920,000. To run 16 tanks 8 hours a day for 1 month would cost $57,600,000. Running 16 tanks 8 hours a day for a one year period would cost $691,200,000. Fueling those 16 tanks for 4 years of war – the minimal amount of time spent at war that Obama and NATO have agreed will be necessary before the “beginning” of U.S. troop withdrawals – that cost will be $2,764,800,000. Yes, that is correct – the cost would approach 3 billion dollars.

The costs above are for fuel only, and do not include tank maintenance, ammunition, compensating the crews and associated costs, i.e., medical, veterans benefits, etc. The above calculation also does not include inflationary costs, or the likely expansion of the one company tank force of 16 to include dozens more of the heavily armored combat vehicles. In its Nov. 19 report on Obama’s tank deployment, The Washington Post quoted an unnamed U.S. officer saying that “The tanks bring, awe, shock and firepower – it’s pretty significant.” The paper also quoted that same officer as saying the number of tanks deployed could expand “depending on needs.”

Here I must note that President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011 includes the meager sum of $161.3 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); an amount that will cover the cultural and artistic needs of the entire U.S. for one year. This of course means that Mr. Obama will be spending more than four times the annual NEA budget in order to fuel 16 battle tanks in Afghanistan for a period of just one year – that is, $691,200,000. There are many vital social services in the U.S. that could use such a cash infusion, but since my web log is devoted to an examination of art and its intersection with politics, I am restricting my commentary to the nation’s arts budget.

The NEA’s slogan is “A great nation deserves great art,” but it seems there are those who believe that it is not great art that we need, but great tanks.

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