Protesting the military-industrial complex in Bath, England, February 2020.

The case for taking from the Pentagon and giving to the people

“Show me your budget, and I will tell you what you value.”
–Joe Biden

In 2019, America spent $732 billion on its military. China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and Brazil spent $726 billion combined. Since American defense philosophy is predicated on the belief that national defense is better carried out abroad rather than at home, it spends billions of dollars on overseas military bases—of which the U.S. has more than any other nation—and aircraft carriers.

Meanwhile, more than 210,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and more than 7 million have contracted the virus, according to the Center for Disease Control. But the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to approve bills initiated by the Democrats, which would provide relief of $2,000 per month to people deprived of an income, even as frontline healthcare workers struggled during the height of the pandemic to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) while the federal government declined to help. 

The country with the biggest economy in the world failed to protect its citizens from unemployment, economic recession, and a pandemic. 

It’s clear we value guns and other weapons of war over the medical needs of citizens those arms are supposed to protect. 

Last summer, as financial relief to individuals under the CARES Act was about to end, Senators Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey proposed an amendment to the $740.5 billion annual defense budget that would cut 10 percent, or $74 billion, and invest the funds in education, healthcare, and housing in poor communities. 

The Senate rejected the amendment, with 37 Democrats joining their Republican colleagues to vote “no.” Senators Sanders, Warren, and Markey were among those who voted in favor of the amendment. 

In the House, Democrats split 92-139 against the amendment to cut the defense budget. This prompted Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat representing California’s 17th District, to tweet: “I don’t want to hear anyone tell me that we can’t enhance expanded unemployment benefits when we spend more on endless wars than the next ten countries combined.”

Bernie Sanders argued that the cut would help create jobs by building schools, affordable housing, hospitals, sustainable energy, clean water facilities and other community centered needs that have been proven to improve health and decrease crime. It would help the federal government improve education by reducing class sizes, increasing teacher pay and supporting free public tuition for universities, colleges and trade schools.  

More poignantly, Sanders said:

 If this horrific coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything, it is that national security involves a lot more than bombs, missiles, tanks, submarines, nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction. National security also means doing all we can to improve the lives of the American people, many of whom have been abandoned by our government for decades.

The United States government claims to be protecting its citizens from foreign threats, yet cannot shield them from domestic ills like homelessness, underpaid teachers, the lack of universal healthcare, and failure to implement a minimum wage that keeps full-time workers out of poverty. 

The conservative position is that a superpower needs a strong military to protect itself from “emerging threats” in China, Iran, North Korea and Russia. 

But what good is a strong military if it protects a nation that cannot provide food to low-income school children

And what good is it to be a nuclear power if America cannot solve the problem of Black women—ironically America’s most committed voters—dying at childbirth at higher rates than any other ethnic group in America?

President Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961 of an oversized military when he spoke of an overinvestment in military spending and the excessive influence of the “military industrial complex.”

We have failed to heed that warning. We need to reimagine what safety means.

America’s defense policy needs to change, beginning with its position on nuclear weapons. As late as the 1980s, the United States and the former Soviet Union held close to 90 percent of the world’s nearly 75,000 nuclear weapons; through various nuclear non-proliferation treaties, that figure has dropped to around 14,000, with the U.S. and the Russian Federation continuing to hold 90 percent. 

Serious, knowledgeable people have called for reducing America’s weapons stockpile.

William Perry, who was Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Clinton Administration, wrote in a 2017 Washington Post op-ed that America’s proposed $1.7 trillion nuclear weapons spending was unnecessary. No surprise attack could destroy all of the navy’s submarines, he explained; but the risk of a conventionally armed cruise missile being mistaken for one with a nuclear warhead was real—as shown by the three narrowly averted Cold War catastrophes. Moreover, cutting nuclear-armed cruise missiles and cancelling plans to replace Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) stockpiles would save $30 billion and $149 billion, respectively—i.e., more than double the $75 billion that would be saved with a 10 percent cut to the current military budget. 

Similarly, Berry Blechman of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., argued in a 2016 opinion for the New York Times that the $1 trillion nuclear weapons modernization program approved by President Obama was unnecessary because it would “impose an increasing burden on the defense budget, making it difficult to maintain our conventional military superiority—the real guarantee of U.S. security.” Like Perry, Blechman recommends cutting more than 100 ICBMs. 

Defunding the Pentagon is an essential strategy for appropriating funds to social services, exactly as is defunding police departments that do not actually reduce crime. This is a message the public needs to hear.

America has 6,800 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. But it only takes 100 nuclear weapons to destroy the Earth. And yet, the Trump Administration has asked for $29 billion in nuclear weapons spending for the 2021 fiscal budget—even though the president’s own Air Force Chief of Staff has argued that the Pentagon cannot afford it. 

COVID-19 has killed more Americans than the five most recent wars the U.S. has been involved in combined. Our current military outlook is too focused on defending the homeland instead of actual Americans who actually reside in it. Republicans are angling to push through a SCOTUS nominee to end the Affordable Care Act, threatening to strip millions of Americans of the only healthcare safety net they have—during a pandemic.  

Small businesses are struggling to secure COVID-19 relief while Donald Trump, a billionaire, notoriously paid only $750 per year in federal income tax.

During the 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney worried that the U.S. had fewer naval ships than at any other point in the country’s history—to which Obama responded that it also had fewer horses and bayonets. In other words, having more doesn’t make us stronger; on the contrary, being smaller and nimbler makes us more efficient. Obama was wrong to dismiss the threat to U.S. security posed by the Kremlin, but Putin’s most potent weapon wasn’t the military: it was disinformation and election meddling, against which Republicans in Washington refuse to protect the nation. 

The United States Postal Service is an essential service, particularly during a pandemic election year, when millions are choosing to mail their ballots rather than risk being infected by COVID-19 while standing in line to vote. And yet, the USPS is facing a budget crisis. We are a democracy that can single-handedly destroy the Earth, but can’t make it possible for every citizen to vote.

The knowledge that we have an arsenal of unnecessary nuclear weapons and a military capable of occupying several nations simultaneously might make conservatives feel secure. I’m willing to bet, however, that most Americans would rather have universal healthcare, affordable housing, and improved public education. That silent majority must surely feel some bitterness at seeing their tax dollars allocated to fund endless wars when the local hospital doesn’t even have enough ventilators to save all the Covid-19 patients.