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By Errol T. Louis

LIFE UNDER the Reagan Administration can be especially frustrating for anti-militarism organizers. Last June, hard work and commitment resulted in the huge disarmament rally in New York's Central Park--but on television that same day. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger '38 flippantly dismissed the historical event and said the administration's plan for an arms buildup would not be changed. And almost exactly two months after the New York demonstration, Pentagon officials said they plan to exceed an already unprecedented military spending schedule by requesting $247 billion from Congress for defense in fiscal year 1984.

But despite ominous trends, recent events suggest that Americans have been convinced that preparing for war simply costs too much.

A new Business Week/Harris national opinion poll, for example, shows a general reluctance to follow Reagan's lead in "making America strong again." One question asked was "In general, do you favor increasing the present defense budget?" Between March and October of this year, the percentage answering "yes" fell from 43 percent to 17 percent, the lowest number since 1971. The erosion of public support takes on even greater significance considering that 71 percent of those polled in 1980 thought spending more on weapons was a good idea. Reagan helped stir up a broad consensus for a more powerful military during the 1980 Presidential campaign, but his once-convincing rhetoric seems to have lost its punch as the buildup actually begins.

The recent creation and production of new, high-technology instruments of destruction has not gone unnoticed by Americans; it is no longer possible to pass off U.S. defenses as outdated or inadequate, as Reagan did when seeking the Presidency. In 1980, about 41 percent of Americans believed candidate Reagan's contention that the Soviet war machine was superior to that of the U.S. The new poll shows the percentage has fallen to 35 percent. The pollsters believe the change was "influenced in part by the spectacle of Israeli pilots flying American warplanes over Lebanon and making hash of Soviet-made planes and missiles."

Another factor contributing to America's new mood is the increasingly-publicized wastefulness of the military industry. Corporations that make missiles, planes, submarines and other weapons have historically used tax dollars to finance budget-busing cost overruns and outright fraus. More important, they have been allowed to do so by the Justice Department, which in theory acts as a watchdog over defense contracts.

Just last January, the Department announced it had dropped an investigation of fraud at the General Dynamics Corporation's Electric Boat subsidiary. The move prompted criticism later the same month from retiring Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who told a Congressional panel that investigated false and inflated claims by contractors were nothing unusual: "Today, defense contractors can do anything they want with nothing to hinder them."

Under pressure from disarmament groups, who publicized statements like Rickover's along with data on cost overruns, the Justice and Defense Departments set up a special investigation unit to prevent further abuses by the weapons makers. As one official familiar with the project put it, "When an agency is going to spend about $500 million a day, it's worth taking a very close look at how they're spending it." The administration has also taken steps to insure that money given to defense corporations will no longer be spent by those companies to lobby Congress. Under the traditional "cost-plus" system of contracting, the Pentagon could be charged for expenses such as fuel for executive jets; but a Defense Department directive issued Oct. 22 forbids companies from freely adding extraneous costs to contracts. Weinberger promised, "We will disallow all such outrageous costs."

As tempting as it may seem to believe that the administration has finally decided to try to control the wastefulness of military spending, the new emphasis on limiting the contractors is probably just a reaction to the fading public faith in the new arms race. Both the President and his military advisors rely on polls, and the ten-year low in Americans who want a buildup has surely affected policy decisions. And, as one contractor complained, the crackdown on wastefulness actually seems to be a ploy to regain support for the overall escalation: "The Administration is out to show that it's being tough with us so it can keep public acceptance of its big military budgets."

For those interested in ending the arms race altogether, the new poll should be viewed as inspiring evidence that their message has not fallen on deaf ears. And the latest Reagan moves to reduce endemic military inflation should be pointed out for what they are: an attempt to make relatively superficial reforms while mindlessly continuing to prepare for war.

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