The War Budget

The giant millstone of the federal budget

Those who’ve read George Orwell’s 1984 remember the frequent—or rather incessant—rocket fire that occurred throughout Oceania. Destruction was always imminent and so commonplace that citizens took it in stride. Permanent war—by design. Though foreign terrorist attacks rarely happen in the “homeland,” America has been on permanent war footing since the Second World War. You’ve heard the catchphrases that summarize the idea. We’re a garrison state. We’ve traded perpetual peace for perpetual war. Beware the military industrial complex. Between 2002 and 2012 the U.S. war budget skyrocketed 48 percent when you include actual war costs, those special dispensations that Congress approves every year during one or another of our battlefield stalemates, where troop surges and guerilla terror trade punches in an endless tale of attrition. By contrast, domestic discretionary spending grew a torpid eight percent during the same period.

Judging Values by Allocation

Of course, musket-wielding conservatives complain that military spending used to be half the federal budget, but has shrunk to some 20 percent thanks to those disgraceful social programs Medicare and Medicaid. Herd-dwelling liberals, on the other hand, believe that President Obama, having cut a deal with Tehran and having once claimed to have shrunk the war budget by growing it less quickly as his predecessors, deserves our unqualified support.

But Obama funnels the pork to the Pentagon as cheerfully as any bought politician. In any federal budget there is mandatory, discretionary, and debt spending. The war budget claimed 53.71 percent of our discretionary spending in 2015. Not including funds flung into the Taliban-infested money pit of Afghanistan. Or the billion or so spent sustaining our death star on the Euphrates, sometimes called an embassy, in Baghdad. Or the open spigot of dollars presently being aimed at the suspiciously ineffective multi-country “war” on ISIS. When you combine all the baseline war costs and then mix in costs of equipment repair, medical treatment, interest on war debt and the like, Iraq and Afghanistan may end up costing us between four and six trillion dollars—over and above the annual Pentagon budget. More conservative estimates, like that of National Priorities, still put the figure well over a trillion and a half.

By contrast, education gets 6.28 percent of discretionary spending. The environment gets 3.51 percent. Science is a real laugher, at 2.67 percent. And these programs don’t have the luxury of announcing new imminent threats every six months to cull a fresh injection of cash from the venal militarist flunkies in Congress. If only the Department of Education could mount a massive digital literacy fear campaign once a year to suck more funds into schools. Certainly, the environment gets plenty of fearmongering help from climate scientists. But the only science anyone seems to care about is the calculus of short-term profit. But Obama did stand at the foot of an iceberg a few weeks ago and offer some soothing platitudes about dealing with global warming, although it was somewhat difficult to hear his eminence over the sound of all the arctic drilling in the near distance.

Cash Poor for Socialism

So when Vermont’s septuagenarian firebrand Bernie Sanders rails against the dying of the socialist light, one has to wonder where he expects to get the money for all of his progressive programs, particularly since he says so little about challenging the Pentagon? Most of our money is going to war. And most of the remaining revenue streams are being gutted by fanatical Koch brother campaigns to fix the debt. Perhaps, supporters would say, Bernie will gather his funds by taxing the rich and from a universal healthcare plan that would save us hundreds of billions (to be promptly funneled into redistributive initiatives). Good luck with that, especially when you are politically isolated like no one before you. So it is doubtful Sanders would seriously challenge the Pentagon, though he has noted how inflated it’s budget has become.

His voting, however, record doesn’t inspire much confidence. He voted for the Kosovo war in 1999. He voted for the Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) that gave remarkably opened ended powers to the Executive branch in the wake of 9/11, though he later voted against invading Iraq. He supported various Defense Department authorization and appropriations bills, though he began to vote against funding for Afghanistan and Iraq toward the end of the Bush administration. And he continues to advocate for enormous military aid outlays to Israel. This is not to mention his votes to massively fund the bloated Homeland Security, the so-called USA FREEDOM Act, and the repressive National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), each being important domestic elements of the garrison state.

Among the many programs that have fallen prey to the twin evils of the “starve the [state] beast” neoliberal ideology and the “feed the [war] beast” neoconservative ideology is the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC is in woeful shape. As Wall Street has expanded the kinds of activities requiring attention, the SEC’s workload has skyrocketed while its budget has grown only incrementally. The average time an investor held a stock in the 1960s was around eight years. Today it is five days. Imagine the volumes the SEC staff must try to come to terms with. If that thankless task wasn’t enough, the SEC is under perpetual assault from Congress. As one financial blogger noted, “Congress didn’t need to deregulate Wall Street. It just needed to defund the SEC.”

The fact is, we’ll be able to produce little significant change on the domestic front without first retreating from the battlefront. The military budget alone is also woefully inadequate at driving the general economy, as every year since 2008 should have made clear. According to the National Priorities Project, for every billion spent in the military budget, some 11,000 jobs are produced. For every billion the government allocates to education, more than 26,000 jobs are created. Tax cuts, energy, and healthcare spending all deliver more bang for the billion than military spending.

Future State

But calls for a higher military budget—to fight “real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad,” as James Madison once put it—are going nowhere. After all, a cursory glance at the 2015 National Military Strategy promises a metastasizing future of phantom enemies in what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey calls the “most unpredictable” global security environment he’s seen in 40 years. There are state conflicts and non-state conflicts and hybrid conflicts of every kind. There are Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) wielding WMDs in bunkers and IEDs on roadsides. There are expansionist powers with dreams of restoring past glory. There are mullahs with nuclear dreams that must be pinioned in a straight jacket of IAEA inspections (an organization funded and controlled by numerous entities committed to proliferation) and then deposed the moment they cross a tripwire. There are devious Asian militaries drudging up fake islands to commandeer commercial sea lanes.

And Dempsey should know. His military has some 800 bases in dozens of countries worldwide. No wonder he perceives instability—his own country is creating it. Whether it’s the military itself invading resource-rich countries, or the CIA and Pentagon channeling weapons to Islamists and training them, or the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) stirring up unrest via proxy NGOs. Whatever the case, clandestine actions are working to shatter the Shia Crescent in the Middle East, to envelop the Russian Federation and depose Vladimir Putin, encircle and destabilize China and align Japan and the Philippines and hopefully Thailand and India against it, and unseat the Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America, among many other activities. Talk about a budgeting nightmare. No wonder billions vanish from Pentagon ledgers on a regular basis.

Of course, some taxpayer dollars can be traced. As journalist Abby Martin points out on her new show, Telesur’s “The Empire Files,” we recently dropped a cool $13 billion on a newfangled warship for the Navy. Incredibly, thirteen billion doesn’t sound like a lot these days, given the numbers so cavalierly flung about for bank bailouts and quantitative easing programs. But think of what 13 billion could fund: it could pay 305,000 teacher salaries, send 1.5 million students to college for free, or put a roof over the heads of 1.3 million homeless (currently double the total number of street dwellers on the official rolls). When you look at the ease with which serious problems might be addressed, you recognize that our government’s priorities represent an obscenity hurled at humanity. Do we need 600 military outposts across Alaska depositing their carcinogenic signature into the landscape? Do we need to produce “lily pad” outposts within the existing bases of other nations receptive to our presence? Do we need more than 100 bases in Germany alone? Or the 800 worldwide?

Consider that the United States spends 43 percent of the world’s military spending (as of 2011). Our NATO allies spend another 19 percent of the world total. Given that overwhelming advantage in military spending and consequent technical prowess, why would the U.S. ever fear anyone? Precisely because, as our blind sages Wolfowitz and Cheney and Rumsfeld have admonished us, we mustn’t allow another rival to rise from the ashes of the former Soviet Union or any other location in noticeable proximity to Eurasia, which is where think tank mavens and their ilk have believed future hegemonies will be determined. This seems to have been the general consensus since Sir Halford Mackinder told us that Eurasia was the “world island” that must be contested. Thus began the dubious trade of geopolitics.

World-Historical Change Agents

But we should remember that the Bildersburg elite looks at life through the long lens of history. There’s an anecdote, imperfectly rendered here, of some media scribe asking Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski if he worried about the chaos in Afghanistan and elsewhere the Americans had played a hand in the Cold War. The venerable statesman, steeped in the grandeur of his own illusions, brushed aside the query, stating something to the effect that what was the instability in Afghanistan stacked against the historic defeat of Communism? So too Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dismissed concerns about the half million dead babies that her country’s needless sanctions on Iraq had produced. Surely the payoff was worth the cost? To couch it in a cliché that everyone understands, these people are thinking “big picture.” They don’t sweat the details.

It is the military budget that fuels the historical march of empire. It is, after all, the one percent that the military serves. Armies are little more than the vanguard of capital. They pluck unwitting youth from our parallel army of reserve labor, arm and train them, and parachute them into conflict zones at the behest of elite capital, which happens to profit handsomely from each war, especially energy conflicts (as if there were any other kind). The immediate challenge is checking Eurasian growth, which threatens American dreams of worldwide hegemony built on the back of our reserve currency and the headstones of a million lost souls. Spurred by the joint development ventures of Moscow and Beijing, the Eurasian threat is aided and abetted by dozens of hopeful states lining the proposed path of the New Silk Road project, which stretches across the Chinese imagination from Beijing to Lisbon.

Many of those states are gas-rich former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc. To fund all that development, unimaginable amounts of energy will be needed, much of it drawn from deposits beneath the Muslim world. And so the Middle East must be sorted first. Shia Crescents must be shook from their fantasies of independence and rendered subservient. Afghanistan, too, must be kept within the ambit of American power, sustained by 10,000 troops across nine bases, despite the $2 billion dollar a week price tag that hangs like an albatross around the neck of taxpayers. This is because of its geostrategic value in the heart of Eurasia just beneath the –stans mentioned above. For our efforts thus far, Kabul is home to a corrupt and repressive government, a resurgent Taliban combs the country, and 90 percent of the world’s opium comes from Afghani fields (it had been nearly eradicated pre-9/11).

Becoming a Number

It would be remiss to talk about war budgets without noting the casualties of war. Twenty-four hundred soldiers dead in Afghanistan, 26,000 Afghanis; four thousand soldiers dead in Iraq, several hundred thousand Iraqis dead, perhaps four million exiled from their home, astounding infant mortality rates; two-hundred fifty thousand likely dead in Syria, half the country driven from their homes, either internal or external refugees. Several thousand dead from drone assassinations in numerous Muslim nations. All of this is not even to mention the tens of thousands maimed.

Not all of these casualties were from American munitions. Many were caused by sectarian battles. But to paraphrase the presiding American judge at the Nuremburg Nazi trails, Robert Jackson, wars of aggression are the ultimate international crime because they contain within them all of the ills that follow. None less than Iraq offers a crystalline view into the disastrous epiphenomena that proceed from war. In the same way, the war budget is the real rot in the federal budget because it is the seed of so many funding shortfalls in the domestic arena.

Coda to the Next Conquest

Tocqueville described permanent war more bluntly than Orwell: “All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it.” America’s great blind spot is its military. So long as it is funded with bipartisan consensus before a complacent public, the foreign wars will rage and the domestic dreams of upstarts like Sanders will wither on the proverbial vine, even as the circle of liberty is circumscribed. On our planet of perpetual warfare and borderless battlefields, conflict has come to perversely resemble the definition of the divine given by 3rd century theologian Alain de Lille, namely that “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” If war is our god, it is rather our complicity and the suffering of others that is truly boundless.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, political commentator, and veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He is the recent author of Imperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at Read other articles by Jason.