The Change We Need (Part One)

Dashiell

There’s nothing like a crisis to get people moving towards change. The crisis commonly known as “Bush-Cheney” naturally tends to focus our energies on the immediate goal of breaking the far right’s grip on power. But this is also a time to evaluate the changes we need to make in the long term. For this particular crisis did not emerge from a vacuum, or erupt like a fever from an otherwise healthy body politic. One might more accurately characterize Bush-Cheney, to extend the disease metaphor, as a catastrophic, life-threatening symptom of a sickness that has long threatened the well-being of the country and the world. For the greatest challenge we face, I believe, is the challenge of peace. This applies to all the countries and peoples of the world, but I here apply it especially to the United States, by far the world’s leader in military spending. It is absolutely necessary that the U.S. change from a war society to a peace society.

I don’t just say “a war economy,” because the pervasive influence of war and militarism on our country goes beyond economic affairs—it permeates our political, social, and cultural fabric as well. However, the economic reality is of great enough importance to examine first. Realistically speaking, about 54% of the budget consists of military or military-related spending (the government tries to make this percentage seem smaller by including trust funds, not paid for by the income tax, in its budget). All the smoke and mirrors make it hard to find reliable numbers, but most objective analyses range between one to one-and-a-half trillion dollars a year on “defense.”

Now, there’s a lot of Pentagon money not being reported. There’s a so-called “black budget” for classified programs, and there is virtually no oversight of this money because, of course, it’s classified and the military can’t trust our elected representatives to peek at it. Not so coincidentally, this “black budget” has been subject to mismanagement, influence-peddling, and outright theft of hundreds of billions of dollars.

If there were a real housecleaning, the recovery of misused funds alone could pay for a huge number of infrastructure improvements, schools, hospitals, programs, and other benefits for ordinary citizens. Furthermore, if the defense budget were cut by only a third, the budget deficit would be easily eliminated. In addition, the national debt could be paid off within our lifetime.

Politicians never propose cutting the defense budget, at least none of them who seek real power and influence in Washington. If anyone proposes such a thing, he or she is denounced as weak on defense, putting our nation at risk, anti-military and so forth. The entire Pentagon budget, regardless of the merits of any of its various elements, has become a sacred cow. The Congress writes a blank check for the military, or else risks the wrath of the war party, which is composed (may I remind you) of both Republicans and Democrats.

The war party makes it seem as if attacking the sacred cow is attacking the troops. But in fact, only about a fourth of the defense budget (I’m being conservative here; the percentage is probably smaller) goes to pay, feed, and house the troops, as well as provide benefits for veterans. Everything else goes for ships, planes, weapons, spying, R&D, etc. And every Congressional inquiry of the last thirty years has shown that these areas are monumentally wasteful and driven by profit and self-interest rather than by need. The defense industries—corporations such as Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, etc.—need to keep cranking the stuff out in order to make their huge profits, and the more weapons they crank out, the more profit. They have an economic interest in war. The Pentagon shares this interest. It is inherent in the Pentagon’s self-interest that there should always be great threats to national security, which require more money to ward off. Defense analysts over-estimated the Soviet Union’s military capacity for years, which justified huge outlays of funds. Now the threat of terrorism is being grossly overrated for the same reason.

The truth is that the defense budget could be cut significantly, and all the fraud and waste cleaned up, while increasing the wages and benefits for the troops. The military structure treats the troops like garbage now—they’re way down on the list of priorities. The war party cares about the dollars flowing in from defense industry contributors, not the poor grunts out there doing the work. We could actually have superior armed forces with more people willing to serve and better morale, at half the total cost.

We always hear the lie that war is good for the economy. World War II was a fluke because it mobilized a citizenry that had suffered during the Great Depression. It organized resources, under a real foreign threat, that we didn’t know we had. None of the imperial wars have helped the economy since then. Vietnam ruined the promise of LBJ’s “Great Society.” Iraq is an unprecedented economic disaster. The recession that we’re seeing the beginning of now is in large part a consequence of the outlandish waste of our money on the so-called “war on terror” and the looting of the treasury by Bush-friendly corporations and contractors.

The U.S. is of course the largest exporter of weapons and military technology in the world. But the military industry doesn’t add real value to an economic and social structure, the way industries based upon human needs (such as agriculture, housing, or health) adds value. Countries in which a greater percentage of spending is for such human needs, with an accompanying modest percentage of spending on national defense, have a better distribution of wealth and a more prosperous economic life for the average citizen. The rise of the defense industry in the U.S., powered by its own self-serving political interest, has contributed to a top-heavy economy with a few very rich individuals benefiting from war profits, while the standard of living for the vast majority gradually declines.

I’ve taken the time to outline these monetary aspects of the war society so as to clarify how economically disadvantageous it is for the country to be dominated by the Pentagon and the defense industry. Economics is often the first argument one hears against cutting defense—old myths die hard, and many people still assume that war products are vital to the economy. Sooner or later, this issue will need to be addressed. We need to challenge the war budget in public, over and over, and the public officials we seek to elect and influence will have to take a risk and speak out against this waste of our resources. Events are already overtaking us. The consequences of our neglect of vital infrastructure are becoming more evident—the failure of the New Orleans levees and the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge are portents of what is to come if we continue to squander our wealth on the bloated American military. Some leader, or leaders, is going to have say “enough,” and that won’t happen unless we make them say it.

But the economic argument, as important as it is, leads to the recognition of a larger political reality. The war party is driven by a world view, a set of beliefs about America that have turned us into a war-based society. These beliefs can be boiled down to one central idea: the necessity for American preeminence on the world stage, or to put it bluntly—empire. This set of beliefs has virtually owned the field in Washington for the last sixty-three years. And for all that time it has filtered down into public discourse through indoctrination of one sort or another. Therefore, in order to make the difficult transition from a war society to a peace society, it will not be enough for us to merely urge a new economic direction. An entire way of thinking about ourselves will need to be challenged, and a new vision, with peace at its center, will need to be offered in its place.

(This is the first part of a two-part article.)

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~ by cdash on July 10, 2008.

3 Responses to “The Change We Need (Part One)”

  1. That’s the rub, innit. American exceptionalism has to die a bloody, painful death. Doubtful it ever will until enough bridges collapse, enough homes get foreclosed, gas hits 10 bucks/gallon, enough people are barely getting by hoping to not get too sick. For all of our bluster, we’re certainly not an attacking nation, but a read-and-react one that usually gives up the 80 yard bomb for a touchdown.

    I mean, support the troops.

  2. Excellent post.

    Therefore, in order to make the difficult transition from a war society to a peace society, it will not be enough for us to merely urge a new economic direction. An entire way of thinking about ourselves will need to be challenged, and a new vision, with peace at its center, will need to be offered in its place.

    Well, one might’ve thought that was coming when the Baby Boomers shouted “Flower Power”, burned draft cards and protested the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, too many in that generation abandoned those ideals (guess it was a fad) and decided to follow the same old path as their predecessors. If you want to argue that they actually made things worse, I wouldn’t stand in the way.

    Maybe in another 20 years (assuming we have that much time), as the current generation of American leaders are swept aside, we’ll have a chance.

  3. […] (Part I can be read Here) […]

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