Wars Get More Money Than We’re Capable of Understanding

Remarks on January 28, 2024, in Oakland, California.

Photos and videos here.

War is a top cause in the world of death, of injury, of destruction, of trauma, and of course far and away the leading cause of homelessness. And if you start looking at the long-term damage — the people who die a year later, the people who grow up believing in violent vengeance, the water and soil that have been poisoned forever, the economies that are not restored — then war is many times worse than an honest survey of its immediate damage, much less the picture presented to you by your television. War in all of its horrors is, for huge numbers of people on every side of every war as horrible as the U.S. corporate media tells you it is for Ukrainians and Israelis.

And yet, there is something worse. I don’t mean nuclear war, though there is that, and we’re as close to it as ever before. I don’t mean environmental collapse, though there is that, and war is a major unspoken contributor to it. I don’t mean Donald Trump. I don’t mean Don the Con, and I don’t mean Genocide Joe, though I do think the millions of dollars good people will waste on the choosing between those two sociopaths ought to be taken out of the general election and put into a general strike fund. And that begins to hint at what I do have in mind. The most expensive election in history three years ago cost less than one and a half percent of the annual U.S. military budget, or 0.35 percent of U.S. military spending over four years.

The thing that is worse than war is the war budget. The weapon that kills more than any other weapon is the moving of the money from useful things to the Pentagon. The people who are killed or injured or traumatized by war are far fewer than those who die and suffer because a tiny fraction of war spending wasn’t put into something actually useful. This will be true unless nuclear weapons are used (used isn’t the word, since there’s no useful thing they do, so let me say this: it will be true unless nuclear weapons are omnicided).

Now, some of us want to reduce the military spending by 100%. Some, when shown how much it is, want to reduce it by 50%. And almost everyone, when shown what you could do with 3 or 5 percent of it, want to move that much. Those who don’t are arguably acting on faith, rather than thought, because even the Pentagon cannot tell you where the last 3% of its budget even goes — so there is no way to rationally claim it goes into something better than ending starvation on Earth or hiring 33 thousand teachers, or providing 3 million units of public housing, or providing 60 million households with wind power, or any of the other things you could do with it.

Can I ask yall a favor, because you’re my friends? Can we all agree to stop saying Bring the war dollars home? It’s a failure of imagination. The war dollars can transform every bit of our planetary home including this little bit of it right here. We don’t have to choose. That’s not only a failure of imagination but also a misconception of what our home is.

And can we all try to get everyone to stop saying that the U.S. government is investing in the protection and wellbeing of Ukraine and Israel instead of that of the United States. Weapons shipments are fueling war in Ukraine and Israel to the great detriment of the people there. Nobody should wish for that here. Nobody should think that moving the warplanners’ attention to the border of Mexico is going to benefit anyone in the United States, Mexico, or any of the nations south of Mexico that the U.S. government is usually happy to inflict financial and military damage on as long as no victims flee north.

We may not always say it clearly. We may not have the polling companies working for us. But we who oppose wars, including the war on Gaza, are a strong majority. And Washington knows it. Don’t imagine they don’t know it. They just don’t care — yet. The 2020 Democratic Party Platform said that Democrats would reduce military spending: “We can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less.” Then a Democratic president proposed an increase each of the next three years, just as his Republic predecessor had done each year. And Congress not only went along but went over and above the proposed increases, with more bipartisan harmony than we are usually led to believe exists.

And we don’t get in the streets to stop the budget like we do the particular wars it drives. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a candidate anywhere for U.S. Congress with any position on what the budget should look like or how much of it should be military. But military spending is over half of discretionary spending, and a small fraction of it could transform any policy area that any candidate does have a position on. So this is the intentional and illogical avoidance of a topic, not simple neglect.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In no other corner of the world is it this way. Of 230 other countries, the U.S. spends more on militarism than 227 of them combined. In 2022 military spending per capita, the U.S. government trailed only Qatar and Israel. All of the top 27 nations in per capita military spending are U.S. weapons customers. The U.S. pressures other nations to spend more. Of 230 other countries, the U.S. exports more weaponry than 228 of them combined. Much of Donald Trump’s opposition to NATO, between 2017 and 2020, amounted to badgering NATO members to spend more on militarism. (With enemies like these, who needs boosters?) Russia spends less than 10% what the U.S. does on its military, and less than 6% what all NATO members and partners spend.

Our failure to envision alternatives to war and our failure to conceptualize what a trillion dollars a year looks like work together to block our progress. Because not only could we invest in actual aid. Not only could the U.S. government support the rule of law as South Africa does. Not only could we educate peacemakers, celebrate conflict resolvers, employ professional diplomats in place of campaign funders and politicians, and train a population of unarmed civilian defenders if we bothered to invest in knowing what those are, but we could do all kinds of unimagined things, insane-sounding things, to prevent mass killing if we were willing to spend on the prevention of mass killing the kind of sums that are spent on the mass killing. A government that can send in multi-billion-dollar loads of bombs is perfectly capable of dropping in 10,000 shiny new tractors with ribbons on them, or green energy equipment on a scale to take the fight out of wars for pipelines, or of parachuting in an entire state fair with food, games, rides, and music. By now you could have built Israel a giant prosperous island in the Mediterranean with what you’ve spent helping it ethnically cleanse Gaza.

It’s dangerous to imagine what could be, because it makes you realize how unnecessarily bad things are. This is how we get to the action that can bring about a world beyond war. So we say with Shelly

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’


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