Compared to the Benefits of Peace, Spending Money on War Is Insane

While war is perceived by many as an inherent institution of the nation state, few people fail to recognize and regret the horror, death, destruction, suffering, and misery it inflicts. Another consequence of war, however, is less often considered, though it is in the long run even more damaging to the cause of human well-being. That is the waste of resources in preparing for, and waging, war that could otherwise be used to help meet the physical, economic, social, and cultural needs of ordinary people.

According to a reliable online information source, the U.S. accounted for 37 percent, or about $592 billion, of the more than $1.6 trillion in world military spending in 2015. That outlay amounts to roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets combined. (On September 11, 2017, a new defense spending authorization bill calling for a budget of $692 billion in fiscal year 2018 was introduced into the U.S. Senate.) Moreover, it has been estimated that overall annual U.S. military spending is actually about $1 trillion, when funding is counted not only for the Pentagon but for Homeland Security and other related government departments and agencies. In addition, the U.S. has spent approximately $2 trillion in direct costs for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That figure is itself raised to an estimated $6 trillion when indirect expenditures are added–such as future care of veterans and lost domestic investment opportunities.

If those dollars were made available instead for investments to meet the direct needs of people, a substantial portion could be used in our own country to help adequately fund two important projects: the long-neglected rebuilding of our crumbling physical infrastructure, and systematic progress toward a more cost-effective and environmentally-healthy green economy. Besides making life better for everyone, both investments would generate millions of new, good-paying jobs. Other diverted defense dollars could be used to fund projects abroad that help meet the basic needs of underdeveloped countries—such as food, clean water, medicine, agriculture, sustainable energy, and education. Those initiatives could greatly enhance the American image with the people of those countries, and, by providing young males a basis of hope for the future, reduce the allure of political extremism and help ease the threats to our own country posed by international terrorism.

The diversion of defense funds to meet human needs would also eliminate two deleterious characteristics of the war industry:

  • It is economically unfair. It shuttles public funds into increasingly privatized industries, which are subject to little public accounting and tend to place huge profits in the hands of corporate owners and directors.
  • It endangers both the environment and human survival. The U.S., with only 5% of the world’s population, consumes a quarter to a third of the world’s oil and other natural resources—much of it needed for war-making. This rate of consumption will ruin the earth’s climate and ecosystems long before its supply of fossil fuels and other natural resources are exhausted. Moreover, we can’t in any case continue to make use of the weapons produced by the war industry to further our exploitation of the natural resources of foreign lands. If we accept the scientific consensus that global warming is real and produced by human activity, our survival depends on a shift to renewable energy, or on the use of less energy. And that depends in turn on investing public funds now wasted on the preparation for war in efforts to find clean-energy solutions.

It can’t be denied, of course, that spending dollars on developing and building ever more sophisticated and lethal war machinery does create jobs for lots of people. Those beneficiaries, however, represent only a small percentage of the total population. Spending the same dollars on peaceful industries such as education, green energy, and infrastructure rebuilding would make good-paying jobs available to many more people—while leaving enough savings to provide training and other assistance to help everyone in the war industry make the transition to non-war-related work.

A Decline in War Spending Is Also a First Step Toward Peace and the End of War  

Another potential benefit of U.S. demilitarization is suggested by the results of a global survey conducted by WIN/Gallup International and released in 2014. In a poll of residents in 68 countries, 24 percent of the countries ranked the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace. The U.S. ranking was followed by Pakistan at 8 percent, China at 6 percent, and four countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, and North Korea) tied at 5 percent.

Given this highly disproportionate fear of U.S. aggression, a demonstrated U.S. commitment to demilitarization might well trigger a reverse arms race by nations throughout the world. This is the more likely, because no other countries (and that includes Russia!) are aggressively seeking to maintain a global empire, and therefore probably maintain a military establishment only for reasons of defense and/or national pride. In the absence of an American threat, such nations might be only too happy to divert funds now spent on defense to investments that develop their own economic strength and meet other needs of their population. To make that possible, they could then seek to negotiate legally-binding bilateral or multilateral agreements for gradual disarmament.

If such a course were pursued, it is highly probable that, among nuclear states, including the U.S., nuclear weapons–the most dangerous, costly, and least likely to be used of all weapons—would be the first to go. That result would not only finally put an end to a now seven-decades-old nuclear nightmare, but encourage consideration of further benefits that can be obtained by the elimination of all weapons of war.

From the standpoint of physical security, the most important benefit of disarmament would be a massive reduction in the use of climate-damaging fossil fuels. To recap three points made earlier:

  • The development, testing, and use of military weapons consume vast amounts of fossil fuels.
  • Gaining or maintaining access to oil resources from which the fossil fuels derive can be a significant factor in instigating war.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense is the biggest single consumer of fossil fuels in the world.

In light of these realities, Americans need to ask themselves two questions: Why should we continue an institution of mass killing in order to maintain access to natural resources that will ruin the earth if war doesn’t destroy it first? And, if we are going to adequately counter climate change and environmental collapse, aren’t we going to need the nearly $2 trillion a year the world now spends on preparing for war?

A shift in public spending from war to peace could also promote unprecedented international cooperation in helping to meet the real needs of people around the world. Here are two ideas I’ve picked up in my research:

  • By diverting $500 billion of the roughly $1 trillion we now spend annually on war to meet the real needs of Americans, we could end college debt, provide housing for everyone, rebuild our physical infrastructure, and fund sustainable green energy and agricultural practices.
  • With the other $500 billion, we could provide the world with food and water, green energy, infrastructure, topsoil preservation, environmental protection, schools, medicine, cultural exchange programs, and the study of peace and non-violent conflict resolution.

Even much smaller investments to help poor or underdeveloped countries around the world could pay huge dividends.

  • Today, the U.S. spends just $23 billion a year on non-war-related foreign aid. It would cost just $7 billion more–about $30 billion a year–to end starvation and hunger around the world, and $11 billion a year to provide clean water to all populations in the world that don’t now have it.
  • By raising this spending to $100 billion, we could save many lives, greatly reduce suffering, and make ourselves the most beloved nation on earth–perhaps even removing ourselves thereby as a target of terrorist attacks. For fairness, however, even such a modest investment aimed at global rescue and well-being should also include the struggling millions in our own country.

As suggested by the global poll that picked the U.S. as by far the greatest danger to world peace, it seems evident that at least much of the world wants nothing to do with America’s current role as the world’s policeman. What it does undoubtedly want is what most Americans want for themselves: to live in peace, to enjoy a decent standard of living, and to have opportunities to develop and apply their own creative talents. It is perhaps an interesting irony that by diverting our defense dollars from policing the world to helping our fellow humans live a better life, we can best ensure our own security.

A Choice We Have To Make

War seems to me an obvious product of the nation we live in. America consists fundamentally of interlinked centers of economic, social, cultural, media, military, and political power that operate within an overarching national system dedicated to controlling the world in its own interest. Each of these centers is characterized by a prevailing group-think that is reinforced by competitive careerism. You have to go along not only to get along—but to get ahead. This mindset ensures that each center of power toes the system line, leaving its functionaries little capacity to empathize with those outside the power system or to walk a mile in their moccasins. As expressed in international relations, that same mindset leads all of the power centers—including the mass media, who should be America’s conscience!–to demonize adversaries, stand averse to conciliation with them, and to consider war a natural option for advancing the nation’s interests.

I had an experience the other day, however, that renewed my hope that things can change. I watched a short video that offered a glimpse into an elementary-school classroom in Russia. The focus of that glimpse was a young chap who asked an American visitor in halting, but understandable, English how American kids at age ten celebrate Halloween. He wanted to know especially about the trick-or-treat aspect, revealing that, when he had made that a part of his own Halloween practice in Russia, people didn’t open their door.

In watching the video, I was struck by how completely the innocence, friendliness, and eagerness to please of the Russian school children resembled that of the children in American elementary-school classrooms I have visited as a father and grandfather. That perception of the common humanity of our species behind its cultural differences reminded me again of why war, or even the threat of war, is an abomination. I find it difficult to accept that the friendly outreach of the little boy in the Russian classroom, and by children throughout the world, should ever give way to an acceptance of war as a natural part of human outlook and behavior. As those of us who hate war pursue the challenging, though we believe not unattainable, goal of its worldwide abolition, we too, like the civil rights marchers of the 1960s, have to keep our eyes on the prize. It can be found every day in the eyes of all the children of the world who reach out to it with curiosity and expectation.

Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, he has continued his work as a writer and manuscript copy editor, and also furthered a lifelong love of learning as a student of political science and philosophy, as a volunteer discussion-group leader on a variety of topics, and as a literacy tutor. Read other articles by Bob.