Statistics come and go, at least in my mind. It’s hard for me to hold onto the myriad of numbers quoted, misquoted, and laid down as fact, which we all come upon in any given day’s newspaper. However, one such item I read recently has stuck with me, and it is this: the United States spends more money on defense than all the other nations of the earth combined.
The question that this obviously raises is simply to ask why. Why are we spending more than seven hundred billion dollars each year on defending our country? And against whom are we defending it? For many years, the answer to that question was, against Communism. Do you remember Communism? It was that world evil which wanted to spread its unholy gospel of Godlessness and suppression over all the nations of the earth. Please do not misunderstand me; I am no fan of Communism. Its totalitarian madness found its apex in the frightening excesses of Stalinism, and no sane person could want that. Therefore, as long as the old Soviet Union and “Red China” were out there, waiting to take us over, then we had no choice but to spend and spend in order to defend ourselves, didn’t we? Or did these countries arm themselves to the teeth because they saw that we were arming ourselves to the teeth, and so pretty soon everybody’s mouth was too full of guns and bombs and missiles to talk to each other?
If so, it was expensive dental work, and remains so today, when even the term communism is beginning to take on a quaint and, dare I say, almost nostalgic tone. The Russians, of course, continue to oppose us in many areas of world politics, as do the Chinese. Still, nobody in his or her right mind can think that they are about to attack us. They’ve got enough to contend with internally, and externally they are no more or less aggressive in their geopolitical intent than we are. It does appear, though, that we need some kind of opponent to justify our continuing to spend those seven hundred billion dollars on. That justification is, of course, the so-called War on Terror. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and now Mali, and other hot spots around the globe, have taken over and become the great bugaboo that communism once was. Even North Korea, as pathetic and crippled a country as exists anywhere on earth, rises to threaten us.
So, is this why we have military bases in so many countries around the globe, although we are virtually the only nation on the planet that still maintains them? Is this why today, some sixty-eight years after the end of World War II, we still have fifty-five thousand troops in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten-thousand in Italy? Is this why we spent eight years fighting in Iraq, even though everyone on earth knows that we went in under false pretenses? And is this why we are still in Afghanistan today, after twelve long years, and we still do not seem to know how to fully extricate ourselves?
The world is a dangerous place and always has been. It is true that there are people out there who despise us, and I am the first to admit that I would never want to live under Taliban control. I say that because I would be among the first to be hanged if I were under their authority, and if I did not live in a democratic country. But does anyone truly believe that the United States, or any of its allies, is in danger of falling under their dominance?
As much as some may disagree, I think of myself as something of a middle of the road Progressive. I am not against all military spending, and I am definitely not against defending ourselves against real attack. But even in the case of the horror of 9/11, was the answer to spend untold trillions – yes, trillions, with a “t” – on going to war with countries which had not actually attacked us in the first place? Were there not, and are there not now, other means at our disposal to combat and to counteract the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism?
Not only are there other ways, such as diplomacy and education, but the cost of maintaining constant, and constantly escalating, military preparedness is becoming untenable. In an article entitled “The Force” in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Jill Lepore quotes Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower, no friend of what was even then called the military-industrial complex, says: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” He goes on to question whether this is the wisest way to spend not only our money, but also our creativity and our genius. And he ends with these chilling words: “Under the clouds of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
If we do not wish to hang ourselves on this cross, it is imperative that we, as a nation, achieve some kind of compromise when it comes to spending on the military. We have to decide, for example, whether maintaining so many soldiers in countries across the globe is really necessary from a military perspective, or whether this is more of a proxy related to our greater economic and political prominence. And if so, is this truly a priority of ours, and is it something we can afford, given the internal needs of our country and our citizens?
As a whole, Americans do not want to go abroad and fight. This is why we have a so-called volunteer army, because young men and women, for the most part, do not want to be drafted into a force that puts them in harm’s way. And who can blame them, except it is then left to those with fewer advantages in society to do the fighting, because it is one of the few places where they can get jobs and an education?
I do not think it is in anyone’s best interest to romanticize soldiering, or going to war. People die there, or if they live, they come home so damaged and traumatized that they have to struggle for years in order to overcome the horror they have both seen and participated in.
For their sake, and for the sake of all of us, we must rethink both how and why we engage in military operations, and how much we spend on our so-called military preparedness. If we were even to cut the current Pentagon budget in half, say to a mere three hundred and fifty billion dollars a year, could we not still protect ourselves from ragtag Taliban fighters, and put that freed-up money to better use? We could, but it would demand many other changes, including rethinking why the United States supplies more guns to the world than any other country (to say nothing of guns to its own citizens).
What I am advocating for is reasonableness, not apocalyptic change. What I am suggesting is a reprioritizing, not a total revision of our way of life. What I am saying, along with Pres. Eisenhower, is that we can find a way to feed the hungry and clothe those who go unclothed. We can educate our children, rebuild our roads and highways, and take care of our sick and elderly, all the while, protecting ourselves from those who mean to do us harm. But all this will not come about unless we have a reasoned debate about the size of our defense spending, and unless the American people tell Congress and the President to make cutting out-of-control military spending a priority both now and in the future.