A recent article by Joshua Holland for Enduring America provides a salutary analysis of the financial costs of recent military spending and war. It notes that since 9/11, the US has spent $7.6 trillion on the military and homeland security. Another recent media story notes that if operations continue against Libya, it will cost the UK taxpayers £1 billion by September this year. At the same time, the UK government has recently given the go-ahead for the renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine system which will eventually cost taxpayers £20 billion. Of course, it’s common knowledge that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone have cost the US $3 trillion and the UK £20 billion so far. With no end in sight in either of these wars, the billions continue to pour out like a ruptured oil pipeline.
These shocking figures are important because they give lie to the relentless political rhetoric of the debt crisis and the necessity to cut budget deficits. They demonstrate that there is in fact plenty of money which the government could use to keep its social programmes running; cuts are in fact a matter of budget priorities and a political choice. The figures clearly demonstrate that the priorities of our leaders are militarism and violence over social services, education, health, the homeless, mental health, libraries and ironically, debt repayment. There is always enough money for fighting wars and building weapons, it seems.
For me, one real sadness of these figures, apart from all the direct victims of widespread military violence, is the horrendous opportunity costs of such profligate spending: what else could we have spent all that money on (or even just a small fraction of it), and how much better off, happier, and more peaceful could the world have been as a result? Joshua Holland’s article mentions just a few things in answer to this question. Similar to other compilations of what a portion of the world’s military spending could achieve in terms of development assistance, the provision of clean water, education, healthcare, housing, peace education, and so on, Holland shows that:
1. Post-9/11 Defense Hikes Equal Five Times the “Medicare Gap”
Economist Dean Baker notes that “the projections in the Medicare Trustees report, as well as the CBO baseline budget, show that the program faces a relatively modest long-term shortfall.” The amount of money needed to balance the program’s finances over its 75-year horizon, he adds, “is less than 0.3 percent of GDP, approximately one-fifth of the increase in the rate annual defense spending between 2000 and 2011.”
2. Afghanistan Costs Alone Could Pay for 15.6 Years of Head Start
Head Start provides education, health, nutrition, and parenting services to low-income children and their families. It’s an incredibly successful, effective and popular program, but there are only 900,000 places in the program for more than 2.5 million eligible kids. According to the National Priorities Project, what we’ve spent on the Afghanistan war so far could fund Head Start for all eligible children for the next 15.6 years.
3. Covering the Uninsured
A 2007 study conducted by researchers at Harvard University estimated that 45,000 people die every year in the United States from problems associated with lack of coverage. The study found that “uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts,” even “after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors, and baseline health.”
According to NPP’s analysis, the costs of the Afghanistan conflict alone could cover every uninsured American for 1.7 years.
4. Closing State Budget Gaps
Forty-six states face budget shortfalls in this fiscal year, totaling $130 billion nationwide. The supplemental requests for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan this year add up to $170 billion – that doesn’t include the Pentagon’s base budget, nukes or Homeland Security.
5. Iraq, Just in 2011
Iraq is still a bloody mess, with an insurgency still underway. But our politicians have declared victory and the media have largely moved on. That doesn’t mean we won’t spend almost $50 billion on those “non-combat troops” which remain, however. What else could we do with that kind of scratch if we just brought them home? NPP tells us it would buy:
- 24.3 million children receiving low-income health care for one year, OR
- 726,044 elementary school teachers for one year, OR
- 829,946 firefighters for one year, OR
- 6.2 million Head Start slots for children for one year, OR
- 10.7 million households with renewable electricity — solar photovoltaic for one year, OR
- 28.6 million households with renewable electricity-wind power for one year, OR
- 6.1 million military veterans receiving VA medical care for one year, OR
- 9.8 million people receiving low-income health care for one year, OR
- 718,208 police or sheriff’s patrol officers for one year, OR
- 6.0 million scholarships for university students for one year, OR
- 8.5 million students receiving Pell grants of $5,550
I can’t also help wondering what a small portion of military spending invested in research into non-violence and peace-making could achieve. Is it possible that a few hundred of the world’s best scientists and academics, taking a year or two to examine how nations and communities might better resolve conflict without recourse to war and killing, could take us a real step towards a genuine alternative to war and militarism? It would only cost a day or two’s military budget, but the benefits and savings in the long run would be incalculable. Finally, it can be argued that all the spending on militarism and organized killing, and the lost opportunities of improving human well-being because all the money is being spent on war, actually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which further military spending is required. Not only is violence mimetic – an act of violence most often provokes a violent reaction – but the conditions of poverty, exclusion, and frustrated aspirations provide the pre-conditions which can later lead to intense violent conflict.
In the end, General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous criticism of the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States’ Cold War experience seems as depressingly relevant as ever:
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. … Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. … Is there no other way the world may live?
My question is: how can we break the cycle of militarism in our politics? How do we pressure our leaders to change their priorities to secure a more peaceful future? An important first step must be the de-militarisation of our own minds, thereby giving the politicians one less voter they can count on for their militarized patriotism and the endless feeding of the deathly war machine.