When budgets and deficits are discussed in the media, and on the floors of the senate and the house, Social Security and Medicaid are often called the ‘sacred cows’ of American politics, both by laissez-faire Conservatives, who think them a ‘Socialist’ abomination, and by Progressives, who see them as part of the safety net a humane society erects to protect its more vulnerable members. But the real sacred cow is so sacred, it’s rarely mentioned seriously as a candidate for pruning at all.
It’s the US military budget, of course. Currently, the US military budget proper is 515 billion for fiscal 2009. When discretionary and supplemental funding are included, that number soars to over 651 billion. Add to that military programs that are under the auspices of other departments (for example, most nuclear weapons research is actually funded by the Department of Energy), and you’re up over 660 billion. Along with veteran’s benefits and interest accrued, the United States is currently spending over 1 trillion dollars per year on defense and war.
One trillion is a very hard number to get your mind around. It is bandied about almost casually in media discussions of bailouts and wars to the point that it loses any real meaning. In America (as opposed to Britain), one trillion is a one followed by 12 zeroes. One trillion dollars is over 3,000 dollars for every single man, woman and child in America. But that’s still too abstract. How about this: one trillion seconds ago was 31,688 years ago! 31,000 years ago we were nomadic hunter-gatherers living in caves. Agriculture was still 20,000 years in the future! Woven cloth, domesticated animals, metallurgy, medicine, writing, the wheel, the arch, villages, cities, states and nations were all in the remote future.
Santayana said: “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”. Throughout history, empires from the Romans and Byzantines to the Spanish, Dutch, and English have all made the same mistakes. They’ve expanded rapaciously, taking more territory and human and natural resources, often under force of arms, and then rotted from within as their treasuries went deeper and deeper into debt supporting the vast weight of their conquests.
We are certainly following the imperial paradigm to the letter. As in Rome, our infrastructure is crumbling; our educational and health care systems are no longer nearly the world’s best, based on any standard metrics from mathematical literacy to infant mortality; Our families work harder and harder on an endless treadmill, only to see their standard of living eroding.
You and I may disagree over whether it is accurate to term America an empire. We use one quarter of the world’s fossil fuels. We have military bases all over the world, from remote islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans to the highlands of Scotland to Antarctica. Our military alone uses more fuel than the eighth largest country in the world, Nigeria, which has a population of over 140 million. And our military budget is greater than all other military budgets on earth, combined. But empire or not, do we really think that this country can keep spending over 3,000 dollars a year for every one of our citizens and survive? That’s over 10 percent of the average personal income for all employed adults in our country.
There is a large-format comic-style book called ‘addicted to war’ which details what our bloated military budget is costing us in terms of health and happiness. It also points out why this state of affairs persists decade after decade; Because our senators and congressmen are bought and paid for primarily by the Military-Industrial Complex, a term coined not by some left-wing radical, or populist in high dudgeon, but by Dwight Eisenhower, who originally called it the ‘Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex’. His parting speech as president, wherein he coined this term should be required reading in every school, as should Addicted to War, because we will not survive if our future continues to ape not only our own past, but that of every single empire that has preceded us.
Now, I’m not saying we don’t need a military; Far from it. There are real threats out there that must be met. Nor am I saying that our veterans don’t deserve the best possible care; they do. But I am suggesting that maybe the United States no longer needs bases in Germany, Poland and Great Britain. Maybe the European Union can figure out how to protect itself. Likewise, the South Koreans, whose economy is doing quite a bit better than our own is. I’m suggesting that a plane like the B2 bomber which was designed for a mission no longer needed and costs over 2 billion per airplane, is not the wisest way to spend our money. All the firepower in the world didn’t work in Vietnam, or in Afghanistan, or in Iraq. Our vaunted high-tech weapons are not making us secure, nor winning our military adventures.
It is my belief that if America can turn away from its Imperial past and stop trying to bend the world to its will, the need for such an overblown military will lessen. We will always need defense, and deterrence against aggression, but if we trade coercion for cooperation, we will see a precipitous drop in the number of enemies we face. America has an opportunity to step away from the twin imperial paths of decay from within and siege and attack from former colonies and lands laid waste from without.
Has this ever happened before in history? Has an empire ever willingly stepped away from domination to rejoin the community of nations as a good neighbor who plays well with others and shares its toys? I don’t know of any, but if you do, please drop me a line.
If she doesn’t change course, America could become a gutted impotent backwater, an oversized third-world failed state, rife with corruption and unable to care for her own people. Or worse, she could nova-out in an orgy of aggression, fomenting a third world war (probably with the third world), from which no-one might escape.
Before either of these tragedies ensues, we need to prod her towards one more American miracle, one more surprise that our vibrant, arrogant, creative, optimistic, terrifying and inspiring country could pull off: a peaceful de-escalation from unipolar hegemon to a cooperative, constructive member of the family of nations. We need to start agitating to get the military budget under control. It's the 800 pound gorrilla in the room, the one no one wants to talk about, and it's killing us.