Sold on war

By Robert Sanchez

CORVALLIS, Ore. – War sucks: Literally. Defense spending is a discretionary budget component, paid for out of the general fund of the federal government. This means that money spent on “defense” is a direct subtraction from other discretionary components such as education, development of clean technologies, law enforcement, environmental protections, and economic development. Defense increases must be “sold” to the public. We must be made to believe that building new weapons and training more troops takes precedence over funding schools and other domestic needs. Protecting our nation and our allies is vitally important; the question is “are current levels of defense spending justified?”

In attempting to answer this question, I have looked at data tables from the Congressional Budget Office and from the US government’s Budget of the United States for the years 1962 through 2005. I looked for trends, and considered what was going on in the world that may have influenced or created these trends.

Beginning in 1966, the Vietnam War caused spending to spike up from $53 to almost $83 billion, the highest levels since World War II. Spending dropped after 1969, but never again went below $77 billion.

The Reagan presidency saw unparalleled peacetime defense spending increases. In seven years, from 1976 to 1983, defense spending more than doubled, going from $90 billion to $209 billion. By 1989, defense spending had reached $304 billion. Operation Desert Storm caused spending to jump to $319 billion in 1991. Under President Clinton defense spending dropped to $266 billion.

Following 1996 spending rose slowly, until 2000, when George W. Bush became president. In five years, defense spending rose by nearly $200 billion, spurred on by the “War on Terror,” increasing from $295 billion in 2000 to $493 billion in 2005.

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Between the years 1962 and 2005 defense spending has increased from around $50 billion to nearly $500 billion, a 1000 percent increase over 43 years.

When inflation is considered, defense spending does not rise so sharply, and has major dips, indicating times when inflation decreased. When adjusted for inflation, the 2005 defense outlays are relatively close to the amount spent during the Vietnam War, or during the height of the Reagan military build-up. As a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, defense outlays grew by 33 percent between the years 2000 and 2005, increasing from 3 to 4 percent.

The data show a general military build-up beginning in the mid 1970s. The fact that this buildup occurred during peacetime suggests a cultural change in the public perception of warfare and international relations. We no longer need a clear threat to justify increased military spending; any hint of a threat is reason enough. War has gotten into our culture, become a part of our identity as Americans. We have the right to wage war on anyone who threatens our way of life. American security is of paramount importance, and it can only be assured through global military dominance. Diplomacy is for the weak, and America is strong. We will pay any price to maintain the war machine, even if it means sacrificing our future by compromising the quality of our education, our environment, our health care, and our economy. It is our duty as patriotic citizens, and no cost is too high. These are the assumptions we operate under, and without examination, these assumptions can seem like truth.

We have heard the booming of the war-drum for so long that we have forgotten what it is to live without its sound. Modern media technology disseminates a skewed vision of reality more rapidly and more completely than ever before. This distorted perception forms the foundation of our collective Conventional Wisdom, what “everyone knows to be true.” The trends in defense spending analyzed above reflect the machinations of political leaders more than they reflect a true need. Reasons to increase defense outlays do exist, but they do not necessitate or justify such vast increases as the past forty years have seen.

It is arguable that all wars which the U.S. has been involved in since World War II were discretionary wars — fought not to defend ourselves or our allies, or because of a moral imperative, but rather wars that were fought for political or economic reasons. Such socioeconomic class-motivated decisions must be framed carefully to make them palatable to the public.

The Vietnam War was sold to us as necessary to prevent the spread of communism. Various covert [illegal] wars were fought or supported for similar purposes all throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The threat to our lifestyle posed by Soviet communism was a threat to the economic hegemony of our ruling upper-class, rather than a serious threat to our sovereignty or physical security. Our foreign policy encouraged the Soviet Union to try to match our military spending, creating a positive feedback loop leading to unprecedented militarization of our economy and our culture.

The current War on Terror offers a new “threat;” it is a war fought against the whole world, a war against human resistance to Western economic imperialism, a war that will only be won when the whole of humanity is “democratized” and “liberalized.” Let us ask ourselves: Given continuing economic globalization, are we really seeing a rise in terrorism, or are we seeing a rise in resistance to corporate coercion and the loss of national sovereignty and human rights that accompanies such economic “liberalization?”

No genuine threat to American sovereignty exists, and it is unwise to compromise so much for the sake of enriching war-profiteers and spreading economic liberalization. Real security is a strong economy, a clean environment, and a healthy, well-educated population. Many in our country are politically apathetic. We devalue our individual power as citizens, unaware of our options, myopically obedient to our government. It is lack of information and clear understanding of democracy and citizenship that limits us, rather than true lack of power. We have an enormous measure of influence over our government and over our lives, but we often choose to abdicate our power.