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OpEdge: Restraining the Military Budget

Marc Jampole
September 12, 2017


by Marc Jampole

THE AGENDA of the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans includes raising military spending by billions of dollars. A lot of that money will go to developing a new generation of smaller, “smarter” nuclear weapons and to developing weapons that will inflict damage on the enemy without prior command by a human, so-called automated weapons systems — robot weapons.

Both new weapons systems raise grave questions of morality and ethics, starting with the fact that each has characteristics that make its use easy to justify. Instead of slowly dismantling our nuclear capability or letting it go obsolete, which President Obama pledged to do, the plan — approved by Obama — is to spend more than a trillion to build smaller nukes that inflict pinpoint damage, which would enable generals to make the claim that they are almost conventional and therefore okay to use. I can imagine a future Buck Turgidson (from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) assuring a future president that the bomb he wants to drop on Pyongyang will only kill 20,000 and not the 146,000 killed by the Hiroshima blast, and that the radiation fallout will be negligible and limited to a small area, maybe the size of France.

Automated weapons incite a number of ethical challenges. We can anticipate that decision-making weapons will be as susceptible to bugs, hacking and programming errors as other sophisticated systems based on digital technology, such as bank databases, credit card companies, government servers, clouds and the Internet. Triggered by a hacker or by a bug in one of millions of lines of code, a robot could turn on us, kill the wrong target or mindlessly start slaughtering innocents.

There is also the moral issue of agency. The very thing that makes automated weapons so attractive — that we can send them into battle instead of live soldiers — also underlies the essential immorality of using robots to kill other humans. It’s so easy to kill an animated figure on a screen in a video game. And then another, and then another, each of them so realistic in their detail that they could almost be human. Pretty soon you’ve knocked off hundreds of imaginary people. Not so easy, though, for most of us to pull a trigger, knowing that a bullet will rip through the heart of someone standing ten feet away and end their existence. Perhaps we instinctively empathize with the victim and fear for our own lives. Or maybe most of us kill with difficulty because the taboo against killing is so strongly instilled in us, that moral sense that taking the life of another human being is wrong, sinful.

The problem with all advanced military technologies is that they turn war into a video game, and by doing so distance the possessors of the technology from their adversaries. Whether the attack is by conventional bomber, missile, drone or the decision-making robot weapons now under development, the technology turns the enemy into video images. Remote warfare dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill lots of them without giving it a thought. The bombardier doesn’t see the victims below, or if he can, they look like specks. The operator of the drone is even farther away from his intended victims. The operator of robots even more so.

DEVELOPING EITHER or both of these advanced weapons systems will lead to an arms race with any number of other countries, including China, Russia and Iran. History and their own actions suggest to me that neither China nor Iran really want to spend any more money on military spending than they have to. But they will, if they have to; we can be sure of that. Let’s not forget that as countries develop new systems to keep pace with us, the chance grows that these weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of countries led by irresponsible leaders such as North Korea and…and…and, oh my god!, the United States.

Seriously (or at least not mordantly funny) … it’s not enough merely to cut development of nuclear and automated weapons from the Pentagon budget. Pentagon spending has been at historically high levels for more than a decade. When we correct for inflation, every year since 9/11 we have spent from 20-55 percent more than the average annual outlay for defense in 1962-2018 (est.). The average is $486.9 billion and includes the most expensive years of the Viet Nam War and the build-up under Reagan. We’ve spent about $600 billion annually the last few years, and the Pentagon wants to boost that to about $650 billion.

Over the last ten-year period for which we have statistics (2004-2014), the United States spent more on the military than China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, India and Saudi Arabia combined. Plus, our NATO and other major allies collectively spent almost as much as we did.

What’s worse — most military build-ups in American history have lasted five to ten years. Our current orgy of spending on weapons and wars has lasted sixteen years and counting. The best source I have found for facts and figures on military spending is the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the Quakers’ lobbying arm.

As FCNL reminds us, besides making the world a much more dangerous place, military spending makes no economic sense. Each billion dollars spent on the military creates about 12,000 jobs, including 6,800 direct jobs. These job numbers created by military spending are paltry in number compared to the jobs generated by the same investment in education (25,000 jobs, including 15,300 direct), health care (17,000; 8,400 direct) or clean energy (17,000; 7,900 direct). To an advanced economy, spending on defense is almost the 21st century equivalent of a potlatch, the ceremonial festival held by the Kwakiutl and other Northwest American Indian tribes in which the host enhanced his (and it was always a “his”) social status in the tribe by the destruction of his personal property. I write ”almost” because our military potlatch also kills other human beings, many of them non-combatants.

THE MILITARY establishment, Trumpty-Dumpty and his team, most Republicans and many Democrats proclaim that we have to boost military spending because of the dangers in the world. Remember that the military establishment speaks in a self-serving voice. Trump and the GOP are the same people who tell you that our cities are war-zones, when crime is at historic lows everywhere save Chicago, Milwaukee and Baltimore. They are the people who tell us that immigrants create crime waves, when immigrants have a much lower crime rate than those born here. They are the people who tell you it was better for American society for rich folk to get a tax break than for 22 million people to get health care. They want to cut spending on education, health care, food stamps and other social welfare programs and they don’t seem to care a gnat’s buttocks about infrastructure, but when it comes to arms, it’s more, more, more, more and more.

But we’ve done more, and it has left the country broke and with little if nothing to show for our wars and military excursions except death, destruction and a loss of reputation. Meanwhile, a cheap economic boycott and a little diplomacy produced the truly transformative nuclear deal with Iran.

We can remain the world’s strongest nation while improving our economy by cutting military spending to about $400 billion a year. I’ve selected that amount for several reasons. It’s one quarter less than the average for the past 55 years. More to the point, it’s what we spent in the mid-1970s. For those too young to remember, the mid-1970s was not only the era in which we spent relatively little on the military, it also saw earnings for the average American worker peak. It was when America experienced the least inequality of wealth and income.

Limiting Pentagon spending to $400 billion a year must come with a stipulation that none of it be spent on developing a new generation of nuclear weapons or automated weapons. Yet even without these expensive programs for mass destruction, the Pentagon will still have to cut elsewhere, and that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of fat, especially in military contracts to for-profit companies to fight senseless, goalless wars in the Middle East.

But we’ll benefit from cutting the Pentagon budget to the bone only if government spends the money represented by those cuts to create new jobs. Congress can’t let the private sector — AKA rich folk — try to create jobs via tax cuts, because they won’t. They’ll put the added cash in their pockets or in Jeff Koons paintings, high-tech stocks and never-occupied apartments overlooking Central Park.

Now that I have convinced you that instead of increasing military spending, we should be decreasing it, here’s the call to action: Tell your elected officials.

Contact your two senators and your congressperson and make demands as explicitly as possible:

  1. Stop all research and development in automated weapons and new nuclear weapons.
  2. Cut the total military budget for the next 10 years to $400 billion a year -- no inflation increase.
  3. Use the more than $200 billion in savings per year on education, mass transit and the development of alternative fuels.

I would recommend contacting these elected officials once a month until there is a budget vote later this year. And you might want to donate some money to FCNL, which seems to be leading the charge on the issue of reducing military spending.

Marc Jampole is author of Music from Words (Bellday Books, for sale at our Pushcart). A former television reporter, he is a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board, blogs regularly (“OpEdge”) at our website, and writes frequently for our magazine.