Military spending is supposed to be about keeping America safe. It’s supposed to be tied to vital national interests. And at roughly $750 billion a year (for defense, homeland security, wars overseas, the VA, and nuclear weapons), it’s a colossal chunk of money, representing nearly two-thirds of federal discretionary spending.
There’s also a colossal amount of waste in defense spending, and nearly all of the major candidates currently running for commander-in-chief want more. Only Bernie Sanders has suggested, tepidly, that defense spending might be cut.
Why is this? It’s because much of Pentagon spending is not about “keeping us safe.” Listen to the social critic and essayist Lewis Lapham. For him, the U.S. military establishment is both “successful business enterprise and reformed church.” In his words, “How well or how poorly the combined services perform their combat missions matters less than their capacity to generate cash and to sustain the images of omnipotence. Wars, whether won or lost, and the rumors of war, whether true or false, increase the [defense] budget allocations, stimulate the economy, and add to the stockpile of fear that guarantees a steady demand for security and promotes a decent respect for authority.”
Is Lapham too cynical?
It’s true that the more ISIS or China or Russia are hyped as threats, the more money and authority the Pentagon gains. Not much incentive – if any – exists within the Pentagon to play down the threats it perceives itself as facing. Minimizing danger is not what the military is about. Nor does it seek to minimize its funding or its authoritative position within the government or across American society. Like a business, the Pentagon wants to enlarge its market share and power. Like a church, it’s jealous of its authority and stocked with true believers.
There was a time when Americans, as well as their commander-in-chief, recognized the onerous burden of defense spending as a regressive tax on society and humanity. That time was 1953, and that commander was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former five-star general who’d led the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
This is what Ike had to say about “defense” spending:
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 not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Economists use the term “opportunity cost,” and certainly massive spending on weapons and warfare is an opportunity lost for greater spending in needed areas such as education, infrastructure, environmental preservation, and alternative energies.
Keeping Ike’s words in mind, Americans may yet come to recognize that major cuts in the Pentagon “tax” are in the best interests of all. Even, I daresay, the Pentagon.