Above photo: A plane and missile storage and maintenance facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tuscon, Arizona. Mouser Williams.
Our national priorities have displayed much the same logic as the person who jumped off a 50-story building and observed, “This isn’t so bad,” as they hurtled past the 20th floor. But just like that fool, denial works for only so long. Then splat.
For decades, our leaders have invested handsomely in death, spending the majority of our annual tax payments on armaments and empire, leaving humanity and the planet to fend for themselves. Now, in a real crisis, we’re freaking out.
It’s not like there weren’t warnings, either. They even came in writing — on banners, picket signs, leaflets, newspapers, even a few on TV. The very best came on the wind, like this one from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
Doom, indeed. Visualizing the entire death machine simply beggars the wildest imagination. For instance, the warplanes pictured above are just a fraction of the surplus of what America treasures, waiting for another war or the scrap heap.
According to a Brown University study by Dr. Heidi Garrett-Peltier, the cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and whichever country you can keep track of comes to $4.93 trillion or $260 billion annually from fiscal years 2001 to 2019. That’s aside from the Pentagon’s ever-expanding annual budget — $738 billion this year — and the cost of veterans’ care.
Garrett-Peltiers also explains the crippling “opportunity cost” of such spending. Actually she reexplains it, since this is not a new idea. In 1983, during the Reagan administration, Employment Research Associates, a non-profit economic consulting firm based in Lansing, Michigan, found much the same thing: military spending not only produces far fewer jobs per dollar invested, it siphons off intellectual and scientific expertise needed to advance society.
For example, Garrett-Peltier reports that the $260 billion spent annually on war created about 1.8 million jobs, whereas that same amount invested in clean energy or infrastructure would create 2.5 million jobs. If invested in healthcare it would create 3.7 million and nearly 5 million if put toward primary and secondary education.
Stated another way by the American Friends Service Committee, just the cost of the 19 F-35 fighter planes Congress wants built — a number that actually exceeds the Pentagon’s request — would purchase the 30,000 ventilators Gov. Andrew Cuomo says New York will need very soon.
Military spending not only results in untold death and suffering around the world where the United States applies it, it destroys jobs and incomes here at home for all but weapons manufacturers and lobbyists.
Military spending permeates our economy and the relentless militarism of pregame flyovers, “hometown hero” events and incessant flag-waving permeates our culture, warping our sense of whose work is of value to society and to one’s fellow human beings.
We are constantly told to thank “the troops” for their service, no matter how problematic their actions. But what about all the people who serve but who don’t put on fatigues and carry guns — nurses, doctors, teachers, bus drivers, postal workers and grocery stockers among others? During this pandemic, they are the ones keeping us alive and helping make sure society functions while the rest of us shelter in place.
If we emerge from this pandemic with a very different idea of whom we should be grateful to for their service, we will be the better for it.
“Why warplanes and not ventilators?” my daughter, who works at a hospital, asked rhetorically the other day. “Because we like to kill people better than keep them alive. Because you can kill more brown people that way. Because the war lobby is stronger. Because we suck as a species and especially a country?”
Sometimes I agree with her. But mostly I think our fellow citizens are better than that. In fact, I believe a large majority of us feel quite the opposite. Why that doesn’t translate into vastly different policies is because corporations and the elite rule the United States, not our fellow citizens. We don’t need another economic impact study, we need the political power to shape the kind of life we deserve and our planet can live with. That, however, is a whole other story.
If we value what we stockpile, it sure isn’t ventilators.
Mike Ferner is a past national president of Veterans For Peace and a former member of the Toledo, Ohio City Council. He is currently the coordinator for Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.