Goin' Broke Paying for War More than a Catchy Slogan

Paul Olson
UNL Emeritus Professor

Speaking Our Peace Graphic

The ‘Goin’ Broke Paying for War’ message that NFP has been pushing the past two years (first with bumper stickers—and now with yard signs) is more than just catchy language. Both economically and culturally, it’s patent truth.

In our obsession with security (the U.S. is now spending more than $2 billion a day on the Pentagon—as much as the rest of the world combined), we’ve driven ourselves to the brink of bankruptcy. And, ironically, wound up making ourselves even more ‘insecure.’

Throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we were told by almost everyone (save former General and President Dwight Eisenhower) that we needed a massive military machine to stop the Soviets. Today, we know that the Pentagon and the CIA deliberately overestimated the strength and sophistication of Soviet militaries to up military spending on armaments. Were we more secure? 

We were told that we would have a ‘peace dividend’ once the Soviets fell. But though military budgets fell briefly in the Clinton years (from a Reagan/Bush the Elder average of about $500 billion per year to a Clinton average of about $400 billion), under George W. Bush, they nearly doubled to $700 billion. Obama, who ran on a peace platform of getting out of Iraq and reducing nuclear weapons, seems captive to this compulsive behavior as he too keeps upping military spending. As the chart below shows, the budgeted average from 1988 to 2009 moves steadily upward, to almost double—despite the end of the Cold War.

At the same time, spending on what we need to stay alive as a country and to keep our citizens fed, clothed and strong (medicine, education, infrastructure, agriculture, energy and transportation) stayed even at about $400 million. Reagan’s plan to starve the social service sector reduced the civilian budget to a low of $250 billion, from which it only gradually crept upward until it spiked a bit under Bush Jr. to pay for the damage from Hurricane Katrina. In 2008 and 2009, domestic spending had leveled out to where we’d been in 30 years before, in 1977. During the three decades from 1977 to 2009, non-military spending on ‘butter’ items (as opposed to ‘guns’) remained virtually constant. 

The War Resister’s League annually produces a telling pie chart.

What this chart shows is that 54 percent of the 2009 discretionary budget went to present and past military costs. (The federal government’s pie chart conceals this reality by including trust funds such as Social Security in the budget—and not including the leftover costs of past military ventures.) 

We live in a democracy moving toward a military state, as Pierre Tristan argued in the February 6, 2007 Florida News Journal. This means that the first priority of our government is military spending… that apparent ‘peaceniks’ who campaign for federal office soon become hawks after their elections because of military pressure… and that every member of Congress has military industry propping up their district’s local economy.

Most of this spending, as we know, is downright frivolous. From the $600 toilet seats that Ronald Reagan made an issue of to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s admission that the Pentagon “cannot trace $2.3 trillion in transactions,” we know the Pentagon is the premier practitioner of ‘waste, fraud and abuse.’ As much as 25 percent of what the military spends cannot be accounted for, according to the Pentagon’s own auditors. Special ‘no-bid’ contracts with Halliburton. Shadowy agreements with private mercenaries like Blackwater/Xe. And then the seemingly endless parade of deals with arms contractors for weapons we don’t need and ultimately end up junking (like the $66 billion F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet program).  

I have never heard of a single member of Congress bucking the presence of military industry in their home district—though for every $10 billion of investment, military spending generates 40,000 fewer jobs than $10 billion spent on civilian programs.

The military state means that almost every university worthy of the name sucks up the swill of Pentagon pork to feed itself. In the case of our own University of Nebraska system, that includes the publication of Afghan gun-banger textbooks teaching Jihad by the UNO Afghan Center, the UNL College of Law’s Space and TeleCom Law program’s cozy arrangement with StratCom, and a plethora of other military and scientific research projects scattered across the campuses. Incidentally, the University of Nebraska system has no ‘Peace Studies Department’ (though Peace Studies—which former Nebraska Senator Jim Exon consistently supported in his campaign for a U.S. Peace Academy—is a well-recognized academic study). 

In the globalized economy of the 21st century, war-mongering is almost guaranteed to be the least viable path to security. Resentment fostered by our imperialist and colonialist foreign policy—our shameful heritage of support for slavery, racism, corporate exploitation of the resources, and the installation of brutal dictators like Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and the Shah of Iran (men who served our narrowest interests in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and some parts of Africa)—has only increased our insecurity. Despite our noble intonations of ‘democracy,’ our foreign policy has not respected traditional cultures, national self-determination or human dignity. And daily, we are paying the price for this destructive history, both through our burgeoning military expenditures (and ballooning national debt) and the hatred our belligerent foreign policy is engendering.

If our government was concerned about security in any real sense, we would immediately start reducing our nuclear stockpile down to zero, as nuclear weapons and delivery systems do not deter men willing to blow themselves up to stop us. Real security comes from striving to collectively meet the needs of the whole world—not from forcefully trying to bend the rest of world to our will. 

But as a nation, we are naked when it comes to the real security. Naked economically, militarily and politically. We have so much sovereign debt that we soon will not be able to pay our bills. We cannot meet the needs of an economy in recession. Our Republican and some of our Democratic leaders tell us that Medicare, Medicaid, TARP, Social Security, healthcare and jobs programs all cost too much. We are so poor nowadays—our political leaders who are poised to approve the biggest military budget in the history of the earth—that we can’t even afford to stop global warming (as the failure to produce an outcome at Copenhagen so amply demonstrated). 

And according to our own military, our failure to deal with global warming is itself a security threat. In the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review mandated by the Congress, 

Pentagon officials conclude that climate change will act as an ‘accelerant of instability and conflict,’ ultimately placing a burden on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. The Defense Department also acknowledges in the QDR Review that climate change will affect the military’s operating environment, roles and missions. Climate-related changes include heavy downpours; rising temperature and sea level; rapidly retreating glaciers; thawing permafrost; and lengthening ice-free seasons in oceans, lakes or rivers. Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change will have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and weakening of fragile governments… ” (Homeland Security Defense Library)

Shortly after the Soviet Union fell, I lectured in Moldova—one of the first parts of that former union to declare its independence and the poorest country in Europe. People told me that Reagan had not defeated the Soviet Union. It had defeated itself, in that everything went to the military—all the money, all the intellectual resources and the best infrastructure. 

Today, reconfigure the U.S. as the Soviet Union. A behemoth on its last legs. 

During the Vietnam War, a commander was heard to say, “We had to destroy the village to save it.”  Today military spending speaks. It says, “We have to destroy the global village to save it.” We have to have universal poverty and global warming to pay for our security. 

This is pure bunk, and no one—not one candidate for Congress—should be elected who does not pledge to bring the U.S. back to, at least, 1977 priorities. And no one should be reelected who does not produce on this agenda. 

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