Sunday, August 5, 2012

Some Trust in Chariots

Google “dangerous defense cuts” and you might find yourself believing our nation is on the very brink of military disaster. If the Budget Control Act passed last summer goes into effect this fall, about $500 billion, or $55 billion a year over nine years, will be cut from the defense budget, on top of the $487 billion in cuts already planned.

Leave aside the fact that the defense budget itself won’t be cut at all – it just won’t grow quite as fast as originally planned. (Confusing? That may be the point). And leave aside questions of who would be responsible if those agreed-on “cuts” do take place.  

And set on hold the questions about just war, rights of nations to defend themselves, the role of the Christian in advocating peace, and just what Jesus might have meant when he said “Blesssed are the peacemakers”.

Consider, instead, this simple graph from SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a globally recognized think tank on armed conflict and disarmament:

Supporters of ever-higher defense spending find the graph offensive. Chinese soldiers aren’t paid as much as American soldiers. And if we’re going to be a superpower, we need to spend like one, right?

But how much are we spending? The official 2012 defense budget is $530 billion, but according to a recent Atlantic article, almost half the money spent on defense is squirreled away in other places: spending on nuclear weapons development ($18.5 billion), Homeland Security ($46 billion), the cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, veterans’ medical care, military aid to allies, interest on the military’s portion of national debt. The estimated total:  $986.1 billion in 2011.

The numbers make my eyes glaze over. But it’s impossible to talk about our national priorities without getting into numbers. Like the percent of GDP spent on defense (the graph to the left offers those numbers).

I’m reminded of the saying “Figures lie and liars figure.” You can twist the numbers any way you want.

But some numbers don’t get much air time. Like $11 billion – the amount written off as “lost” in Iraq in 2007.

Or $60 billion: the amount “lost” in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. 

When you think about it, though, money not officially “lost” is often lost in other ways:

Billions spent on updating an aging nuclear arsenal that retired military officers say  should have been dramatically reduced decades ago.

Billions spent on weapons that don’t make it into production, or prove too expensive to build or maintain.

Billions spent to keep men and women stationed on over 1000 military bases in over 130 countries, many on bases left over from World War 2 and the Cold War. (Do we really need  200 base sites in Germany? 108 in Japan? 82 in South Korea?)

Billions given in military aid to repressive governments, so they can buy our guns and keep their citizens in line.

In a world where one out of six people lack access to safe drinking water, where 2.4 million children die each year from preventable diseases despite the availability of effective vaccines, who decides where our dollars are spent? And who benefits from those decisions?
"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.  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 clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."  (Dwight D. Eisenhower, speech, American Society of Newspaper Editors, 16 April 1953)
Eisenhower, a five star Army general and Supreme Commander of the Allied forces during World War II began his time as president deeply concerned about military spending. In his farewell speech eight years later he warned of the continuing danger of military influence:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. ” (Farewell Address to the Nation  January 17, 1961)  
Is our current American citizenry alert and knowledgeable enough to ensure that security and liberty prosper?

The more I read, the more doubtful I become. We repeat what we’re told, without wondering whose words we’re repeating.

Right now we’re being told that cuts to defense will endanger jobs and threaten our security.

Whose jobs? How many?

Are those jobs more important than those we’ve lost already?

And do all those billions spent really make us safer?

Columnist Robert Koehler, considering cuts to mail delivery service, notes:
"The proposed cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, mental health services, environmental cleanup, National Parks programs and even, yeah, Saturday mail delivery are miniscule compared to the unmet social needs we haven't yet begun to address in this country, in education, renewable energy and so much more. But we're spending with reckless abandon to arm ourselves and our allies and provoke our enemies, and sometimes arm them as well, creating the sort of world no one (almost no one) wants: a world of endless war. . . .
"'National defense' is perhaps the most cynical -- and effective -- lie in human history, commanding the quaking allegiance of the populace over and over again, justifying virtually any activity, devouring the planet's resources, and ever failing to deliver the promised peace, indeed, delivering only the conditions for the next war. Few things in today's world are more unsettling than the fact that "national defense" still owns the country's politics, its budget -- and the minds of far too many of its citizens."
FCNL: Where Do Our Income Tax Dollars Go?
Is he right?

Does “national defense” own the country’s politics, its budget, the minds of citizens?

How many key staffers are recent employees of major defense contractors? How many hold stock in those corporations? How many expect to return to those companies after their time on Capital Hill?

Which legislators have received money from defense contractors? How much? With what expectation?

Why do legislators committed to a balanced budget cry foul at any hint of cuts in military spending?

Why is there such hot opposition to an international arms control treaty, an attempt to curb the flow of guns to countries where genocide and human rights violations are taking place?

In 2001, just weeks after the tragedies of 9/11, Wendell Berry warned against a false hope in violent retribution. In Thoughts in the Presence of Fear, he reflected on the false promise of military expenditure:
XX. The aim and result of war necessarily is not peace but victory, and any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence. If we are serious about innovation, must we not conclude that we need something new to replace our perpetual “war to end war?”
XXI. What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money.
XXII. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice. It is wrong to suppose that we can exploit and impoverish the poorer countries, while arming them and instructing them in the newest means of war, and then reasonably expect them to be peaceable.
The discussion about national security, defense budgets, arms control, the safety of our nation, will continue, with more and more heat, less and less wisdom, through the months ahead.

What do I take from this?
  • As I’ve noted before: industry money controls the conversation, shapes legislation, and drowns out the legitimate concerns of citizens.
  • Politicians who say “it’s dangerous to cut defense” without clear discussion of numbers and possible options are not being honest with the American people.
  • Christians who promote ever-increasing investment in defense need to rethink their loyalties, the source of their safety, and the uncompromising witness for peace of faithful believers across the centuries.
  • As an agent of peace, and a citizen of the most powerful nation on the planet, I have a moral obligation to be alert, knowledgeable, and articulate about the dangers we equate security with dollars spent on guns.
This is part of an continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform?

More than ever, I welcome your thoughts about which issues to consider, as well as your insight, comments, and questions.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.