Matt Reimann / Mother Jones - There shall be no federal progress if we continue to ignore the warning President Eisenhower presented to us more than 60 years ago. In his 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech, Eisenhower proposed a radical vision—a modern world no longer obligated to squander its wealth and promise on war:
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.
The wisdom of this appeal has been undermined by decades of conduct to the contrary. A lack of necessary conflict has not prevented the United States from launching interventions large and small, from phosphorus-lit conflagrations in Iraq and Vietnam to splendid little assaults in the deserts of Yemen and the jungles of Nicaragua. War — hellish, expensive, often counterproductive war — appears the human inevitably it was millennia ago, a prophecy as inscribed in the verses of Homer or in the blade lacerations of a 600,000-year-old skull.
The cool, cynical, and artistic belief to hold, the one that thinking minds tend to have the most trouble shaking, is that the march of civilization will be forever restricted by unchanging human nature, that our species does not progress as much as it gyrates; a little here, a little there. “It makes no difference what men think of war,” says Judge Holden, the avatar of violence in Blood Meridian. “As well ask men what they think of stone.”
If it’s fatalism we want, we will find no shortage of history to support us. The past provides us with few civilizations that have triumphed against the ravages of racism, poverty, or environmental exploitation. But this does not exempt us from effort or concern. The moral urgency of a situation does not diminish with the immensity of the task, not even as it approaches the impossible. For when the purported benefits of modern American war (safety, freedom, rights, democracy, even revenge) are weighed against the cost of war to the people who pay for it, what it requires of the people who fight it, and what it does to the people upon whom it is waged, what we might find is a severe inequality to which the sane response is a wish to remedy. At this moment when anti-militarism is barely debated seriously, when it is a subject scarcely touched by elected politicians, even the most ambitious and faulty proposals warrant attention. Essential to the continuation of any problem is a lack of imagination. We have indulged such a strategy long enough.
We are obligated to face the terrible consequences of war. Since 2001, 7,000 U.S. soldiers have died. We find 200,000 cases of PTSD coming from the war on terror and untold difficulties as soldiers return to a society generally incurious about the realities of their sacrifice. We find staggering rates of internal abuse, with 14,900 of our service members sexually assaulted last year alone. Hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million civilians, have been killed since 2001. Though statistics on the matter are secretive, U.S. drones alone have killed approximately 200 children.
To move from the catastrophic human cost to the economic toll, American war survives today by drawing significantly from the wealth of its citizens and the national prosperity. The Pentagon consumes 16 percent of the federal budget. The average taxpaying citizen pays $2,373 a year for militarism alone.
These are great and unignorable consequences of war, but if we are to truly to propose solutions for a more prosperous country, humane world, and vigorous civil life, we must acknowledge war’s benefits and merits.
War affects three principal factions of society: military personnel, politicians, and citizens. The third group are generally complacent when it comes to their role in hoisting up the cross of iron. “War taxes are the only ones man never hesitates to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us,” William James argued in his pragmatic lecture “The Moral Equivalent of War.”
There are a number of contradictions behind this quality of the civil and, especially, the spirit. If the U.S. citizen, who presumably wants a happy and prosperous home, must choose a program to cut to fund tax relief, she prefers to diminish one that helps neighbors than one that harms foreigners. The U.S. citizen also wants to be safe but is more likely to direct her support to bombing the marginal specter of ISIS than to addressing the far more lethal threats of guns at home or the violence that necessarily supports an illicit drug trade.
Dora and Bertrand Russell described the peculiar pathology of the middle-class taxpaying citizen in 1923. He is tax-averse, comfortable, suspicious, and filled with ample resentment. “Middle-class men,” they wrote, “rejoice in war because it gives them a chance to thwart the young who have to do the fighting.” As citizens, they are “politically opposed to everything calculated to benefit wage earners, such as education, sanitation, maintenance during unemployment, knowledge of birth control (which the middle class practice as a matter of course), housing reform, and so on. They believe that their opposition to these measures is based on economy and a desire to keep down the taxes, but in this they deceive themselves, because they do not object to the spending of vastly greater sums on armaments and wars.”
War is palatable enough to the comfortable and middle-aged because they do not have to take part in it. It allows them at once to feel like patriots while exempting them from understanding the lamentable and intolerable consequences of war.
Our politicians have long been happy to oblige our complacent support of war. Since 1945, presidents and legislators from both parties have agreed, perhaps more than on any other issue, on the logic of endless war and intervention. Why is this so? The writer Lewis Lapham may have provided the best explanation:
I suspect that the best is the simplest. War is easier than peace. The government elects to punish an enemy it perceives as weak because it’s easier to send the aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf than to attempt the harder task of making an American society not so wretchedly defaced by its hungry children, its crowded prisons, and its corporate thieves.
In March, the Trump administration proposed, in the midst of a government-gutting mission, a $52 billion spending increase on the military. In his unwavering faith on the nobility of American weaponry, the president has most in common with his predecessors. It has always been far easier to order munitions than to govern.
It is essential that we understand, if we are to escape the clutches of the military-industrial complex and avert the horizon of endless war, the real benefits of the military to people within it. We know of war’s horrors, but we rarely speak of what makes it ennobling, exciting, and endearing to the human spirit.
A soldier learns to forfeit self-interest to commit herself to the collective good. She finds a fellowship and camaraderie that seems impossible, even antithetical, to civilian life. Every day, she exerts herself and exercises and cultivates her own ennobling will and strength. H.G. Wells wrote:
In many ways, military organization is the most peaceful of activities. When the contemporary man steps from the street, of clamorous insincere advertisement, push, adulteration, underselling and intermittent employment into the barrack-yard, he steps on to a higher social plane, into an atmosphere of service and cooperation and of infinitely more honorable emulations. Here at least men are not flung out of employment to degenerate because there is no immediate work for them to do. They are fed a drilled and training for better services. Here at least a man is supposed to win promotion by self-forgetfulness and not by self-seeking.
Any alternative to our perpetual war is set to fail if it does not take such militaristic virtues into account. William James, in his lecture, proposes his utopian plan: a mandatory conscription for the young, a kind of public works program, in which martial values may be applied to unifying and productive labor rather than war. The young, says James, should be sent “[t]o coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”
James’ proposition is worth our renewed consideration, though modifications are necessary to his 1906 prescription. First, mandatory conscription “of the whole youthful population” sounds fundamentally un-American and authoritarian. There is no reason to delay the schooling of doctors or the apprenticeship of electricians. And the United States, as a liberal society, gives every citizen, as Jonathan Franzen says, “the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.”
But what we cannot do by force we can make up for with compensation. We have done something similar before, in the New Deal programs of Roosevelt and Eisenhower, public projects that James did not live to see. We should consider, in practical terms, cutting the military budget down to around $200 billion — a remarkable sum of money, though still far ahead of what the nearest spender, China, pays. It provides enough to wage whatever wars or interventions we need in the Middle East and to improve the disasters we have exacerbated. It may seem huge to cut some $425 billion from the Pentagon, but we ought to remember that only 20 years ago, in the days of balanced budgets, the military budget hovered around $260 billion. What we gain by such a cut is an enormous sum of money with which we could do very much productive and abundant good, amounting, in a pure sense, to 7 million people employed at $60,000 per year.
The government could pay its young people, its able-bodied, and its unemployed a high salary for physical and mental work, anywhere in the country, with priority put on areas of rising unemployment and poverty. They could work on roads, bridges, and parks; on cleaning cities and towns; and building public transportation — efforts that would also absorb the many brilliant engineers no longer supported by defense contractors. Much of the industrial infrastructure James invokes (iron foundries, coal mines) is no longer with us, but this gap can be filled with expensive and environmentally minded projects, such as recycling and waste management, as well as more experimental projects like milling otherwise-incinerated lumber following hurricanes and cleaning up plastic in the oceans.
These projects will have pleasant ramifications beyond the lives of those employed. Such a program will make stronger and more joyous the general spirit of the country. Infrastructure projects will boost the economy. Our public spaces will be cleaner and more beautiful. We stand to be more respectful of our neighbors and more appreciative of our land and country. We will, in all, feel less like taxpayers and more like citizens, as dutiful participants in a worthwhile future.
We have much to gain from this vision of a more peaceful world and spiritually healthy country. Advancing these goals — a better landscape, wealthier workers, increased opportunity and fellowship, respect and care for one’s citizens, greater purpose, less trauma and death for Americans and people of the world — will require a robust commitment of strength and patriotism that decades of spiritually idle militarism have denied us. Such a program would be a staggering undertaking, but one far less misguided and dangerous than the insistence that there is no better world available.