Once upon a time, war profiteering was considered profoundly immoral, or so I am told. Today it is The American Way.
The prospect of decreasing the U.S. defense budget has the Pentagon brass and defense contractors (and their Congressional servants) squawking like chickens that the sky is falling. But here in the wondrous world of reality, even the “drastic” cuts envisioned by the sequester would roll defense funding back to “only” 2006 levels. Meanwhile, these unfortunate entities would ride out multi-billion dollar backlogs of existing military contracts. For years. Aww.
The public overwhelmingly supports significant cuts to the defense budget, even in districts flush with military cash. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama (2006-2011) posed these as rhetorical questions:
“Does the number of warships we have, and are building, really put America at risk, when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined — 11 of which are our partners and allies?
Is it a dire threat that by 2020, the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”
But to hear congresscritters tell it, such questions are hardly rhetorical and the answers are emphatically in the affirmative. In his final presidential address to the nation in 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned of the threat posed to democratic government by the military-industrial complex, noting: “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” Fifty years later, is there any doubt that his fear has come to fruition? (Eisenhower also feared that an arms race would siphon resources from vital government services, such as…building hospitals. How quaint. The government. Building hospitals! Okay, to be fair it sometimes builds hospitals — in Bagram and Baghdad. But certainly not here. Because FREEDOM!)
While the drums have been beating relentlessly for massive cuts to domestic spending, the defense industry has posted record profits year after year. In 2002 the combined profits of the nation’s five largest defense contractors totaled $2.4 billion (adjusted for inflation); by 2011 that number was $13.4 billion — an increase of over 450%. In the 2005 documentary film Why We Fight, foreign policy analyst Chalmers Johnson pointedly stated, “The ‘defense’ budget is three quarters of a trillion dollars. Profits went up last year well over 25%. I guarantee you: when war becomes that profitable, we’re going to see more of it.”
But all of these facts and figures tell only one part of the story. Even putting aside civilian deaths swelling the ranks of Al-Qaeda, encroachments on civil liberties and the militarization of domestic police forces, there are war costs that cannot be calculated in dollars. In a recent piece in the wake of the Newtown school massacre, provocateur Michael Moore explores why our citizenry is uniquely more violent than almost any other. He posits three causes: poverty, fear/racism, and a cultural ethos of what he calls “the ‘me’ society.” Yet he stops short of connecting these back to the one truly exceptional characteristic of the United States: enthusiastic warmaking.
Poverty is a symptom of the largest economy in the world spending more on its military operations than nearly the entire world combined. Over 46 million Americans — 15% — now live below the poverty line. More than one in five American children. Not since the early 1960s has there been a significantly higher poverty rate. Poverty is a symptom of our de facto plutocratic rule: when war is this profitable, we are indeed going to see more of it at the expense of ordinary citizens.
Fear, and its manifestation in the form of racism, are unfortunate human proclivities that any sane society would work to temper. Instead, we see them stoked to a roaring flame in support of our state of permanent war: dehumanizing rhetoric, especially with regard to Muslims, is now a staple of what passes for our political discourse. But this constant, fear-driven, Us-vs.-Them messaging, so necessary to maintain even minimal public support for vast war expenditures, inevitably fuels hatred and fear of The Other in many forms: xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia. It fuels a culture that venerates hypermasculinity and aggression. How could it not? More than ever before, the American public now approves of torture, a prospect utterly unthinkable in previous decades, as when Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture. It is hardly a mystery that Americans drowning in this toxic stew kill each other with alarming frequency.
Finally, there is what Moore calls the “me” society. The “rugged individualist” and bootstrap-pulling fetishes so beloved by conservatives are of course self-serving delusions, as those pesky fact checks of Mitt Romney’s ill-fated “I built that” campaign demonstrated beautifully. And speaking of inconvenient facts: as a social species our interconnectedness is just reality, whether conservatives like it or not. Moore characterizes this view as the “lone wolf,” but that’s not quite accurate; at least a lone wolf evokes a noble (if false) visage of an independent citizen. The real embodiment of this view is much darker: a vicious, dog-eat-dog world — a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever were one. It is on vivid display in the right’s hollow mantra of “personal responsibility,” for example in the notion that if one falls ill, fails to rise above one’s economic circumstances, or gets raped, this is a result of one’s own moral failings. Conservatives will dissemble and rationalize to an astonishing degree in order to convince themselves that this is so, and conversely, that proven solutions to societal problems (such as single-payer healthcare) do not work.
Moore rightly points out that this ethos serves no one in the long run — including, ironically, bootstrap factory owners themselves. It is here where he comes closest to the big picture:
“…Free medical care, free or low-cost college, mental health help. And I wonder — why can’t we do that? I think it’s because in many other countries people see each other not as separate and alone but rather together, on the path of life, with each person existing as an integral part of the whole. And you help them when they’re in need, not punish them because they’ve had some misfortune or bad break. I have to believe one of the reasons gun murders in other countries are so rare is because there’s less of the lone wolf mentality amongst their citizens. Most are raised with a sense of connection, if not outright solidarity. And that makes it harder to kill one another.”
Moore stops short on this train of thought, right where he might ponder whether the U.S. military-industrial complex would prefer a society where a real sense of connection makes it harder to kill other humans. None of these three contributors to our violent culture is happening in a vacuum: there is a perpetual — and perpetually profitable — state of war that lies right at the heart of it.
I had a wild idea recently: a requirement that defense contractors operate as not-for-profits. It would not end poverty, fear/racism, or the delusion of independence. It would not eliminate defense lobbying and media propaganda, or block the revolving door between the Pentagon and private industry. But it would certainly reduce these things. Of course, serious advocacy for such an approach would inevitably result in the swift suppression of its proponents — can anyone seriously doubt that?
So, you know, you definitely didn’t hear it here.