The animating force of American government is war. Every year, the United States bombs multiple countries, conducts special forces raids across several continents and spends hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain a military presence in 70-plus countries, either in the form of occupying armies or large bases. Now that the U.S. is widely seen as a bungling, belligerent pariah, even allied nations no longer want American troops on their territory. The Japanese complain that U.S. military personnel sexually assault women without consequences and spread the coronavirus, while Italian villagers object to the aesthetic and sonic assault of a foreign military installation on their otherwise quiet country lifestyle.
Regardless of who is president or which party holds power, the federal government spends more than half its annual discretionary budget — roughly $721 billion in fiscal 2020 — on so-called “defense,” which translates into weaponry and technology that benefits no one but the major corporations that gratuitously profit from massive defense contracts.
There is no possible way to fund social services adequately without reducing the military budget, and no matter the good intentions of Democrats who advocate for aggressive policies to combat climate change, their credibility cannot withstand scrutiny if they refuse to discuss the toxic effect of the U.S. military. According to multiple studies, including a particularly detailed report from Brown University, the Department of Defense is the biggest polluter in the world.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, free nations faced a choice whether to construct a welfare state or a warfare state. The United States alone — or, one might say, “exceptionally” — decided to go the way of warfare. In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began killing thousands of people, forcing the closure of countless businesses, citizens of welfare states could take for granted that government-funded health care, unemployment compensation and public health infrastructure would help sustain them through the crisis. Here in the warfare state, people can take nothing for granted.
Nurses do not have adequate personal protective equipment, recovering COVID-19 patients receive bills totaling thousands of dollars, small business owners are compelled to lay off workers while multinational corporations receive large tax breaks, and many impoverished families have not even received disaster relief funds to cover the cost of burying their loved ones.
Despite widespread death and deprivation, the warfare state marches on without interruption. Two weeks ago, Congress, including most Democrats, voted overwhelmingly to defeat a measure sponsored by the Progressive Caucus that proposed reducing the “defense” budget by 10 percent and reallocating those funds to COVID-19 testing and relief programs.
The absurd fact that the world’s richest country spends more money on bombs, missiles and tanks than medicine in the middle of a pandemic is made even more blatant by the failures of the warfare state to “defend” itself. How effective was the world’s largest military on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 terrorists armed with box-cutters murdered nearly 3,000 Americans? How indestructible does the United States look as its coronavirus death toll climbs toward 200,000, while welfare states have largely gotten the crisis under control?
Political campaigns and cable-news pundits ignore these questions,, and refuse to deal with the consequences of militarism. The one issue most elected officials or candidates of both parties refuse to discuss is also the most important. Warfare is the water in the political version of the old “fish don’t notice the water” adage.
With Donald Trump at the helm of a leaky ship, America is beginning to drown. The two catastrophes that confront America during the current campaign season are closely connected, especially if one considers the destructive influence of the military-industrial complex, and how America’s successive investment in empire, rather than democracy, has set the table for both fascism and a pandemic.
Historians identify the birth of the national security state in the years after World War II, when under President Harry Truman’s direction, the United States increased its military budget and created several military and intelligence agencies, including that international philanthropic organization whose handiwork is visible everywhere from Chile to Iran — the CIA.
After 9/11, both political parties eagerly injected steroids into the warfare state, enabling its extension into every aspect of American life. The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement began to closely monitor domestic “threats,” and the PATRIOT Act made a mockery of the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
When Barack Obama became president, too many liberals acted as if the dangers of the warfare state had evaporated into thin air because an intelligent and charismatic Black Democrat was in the White House. Drone strikes, NSA surveillance and the president’s ability to marshal federal forces against protesters no longer seem innocuous when the man calling the shots is irredeemably narcissistic, power hungry and — according to the expert testimony of hundreds of psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers — probably insane.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump confounded observers by declaring within the same paragraph of non-sequiturs that he would “end stupid wars in the Middle East” and that he was the “most militaristic person” to ever run for the presidency.
Even though Trump has somehow avoided starting a major war, he is the apotheosis of the warfare mentality in American politics. The governing philosophy of his administration is to identify enemies and then devote the power of the state to their eradication or expulsion.
To justify the creation of a massive national security apparatus, Sen. Arthur Vandenburg advised Truman he would have to “scare the hell out of the American people.”
That tactic has proved successful for a series of presidents, all of whom oversaw the propagation of what Gore Vidal mockingly called the “enemy of the month club.” Without a credible enemy overseas, Trump has opened his kennels of rabid supporters against enemies at home. Immigrants, Black activists, “left-wing mobs,” and the simultaneously everywhere and nowhere threat of antifa promise the death of the “real America” — a mythical utopia where “suburban housewives” till their gardens in a lily-white neighborhood, bikers for Trump rev up their Harleys in church parking lots, and children play hide-and-seek around statues of John Wilkes Booth.
In 2016, two-thirds of Trump voters viewed the presidential race as America’s “last chance to survive,” as if the racist TV pitchman’s opponent was Osama bin Laden. With the same mentality giving him justification, Trump has taken a brazen leap from secretive persecution of dissenters, as with COINTELPRO in the 1960s and ’70s, to openly ordering federal military-style officers, with no clear insignia or nametags, to treat Portland, Oregon, as enemy territory. In an American city, ostensibly tasked with protecting a federal courthouse, these Keystone Kops fascists have seized peaceful protesters off the streets, attacked journalists and clubbed ordinary citizens for asking them questions.
Such outrageous defiance of democratic norms in an American city would have seemed unthinkable even during the Bush-Cheney years. Americans are beginning to learn that the warfare state will eventually turn its guns against its own people.
The first sign of Trump’s escalation of the warfare state was his family separation policy at the border, which Benjamin Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, condemned as a “crime against humanity.”
Now, Trump and the Republican Party, having already mastered voter suppression schemes in key states, are committed to debilitating the Postal Service, with the apparent goal of making mail-in voting difficult or impossible. After making the world decidedly less secure by rescinding the Iran nuclear deal, backing out of nonproliferation treaties, and refusing to take even minimal action to address the existential crisis of climate change, Trump is implementing his strongman techniques to make the American election less secure.
If current polls are accurate, and Joe Biden manages to overcome the Republicans’ cheat-to-win strategy, the left will have to exert pressure on the Democrats to diminish the warfare state, adopt a less belligerent posture toward the rest of the world, and at last begin to embrace the policies of a welfare state. There are promising signs that Biden, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “is an empty can you can kick the right direction.”
Faced with demands from the burgeoning progressive faction of the party, Biden has delineated surprisingly aggressive proposals on climate change, environmental justice and child care. He has also moved, albeit at a snail’s pace, toward a progressive higher education plan for student debt forgiveness and tuition subsidies for low-income students.
The former vice president’s record on foreign policy, however, is alarming. As the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was a champion of the war in Iraq, and as the American Prospect reports, he has had a “lifelong love affair with the CIA.”
It is worth acknowledging, however, that when the Obama administration was considering war with Syria after its president, Bashar al-Assad, crossed Obama’s “red line” with a chemical weapons attack against civilians, Biden was one of the most persistent and persuasive anti-war voices in the White House.
Just as Democrats have forced their nominee to re-evaluate his positions on issues of domestic policy, they will have to influence him to act more as he did during the Syria debate than when he warned the American people about the “imminent threat” of Saddam Hussein’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction.
Unfortunately, early indicators are not encouraging. With little to no opposition, Trump has significantly increased drone strikes in multiple countries, and has even revoked the measures that Obama enshrined in his second term to minimize civilian casualties. If Democrats will not “resist” Trump’s unlawful assassinations of foreign nationals, one cannot expect them to demonstrate opposition to a Democratic president overseeing the same policy. Innocent passersby are nothing more than “collateral damage,” to evoke the ugly language of the warfare state.
The warfare ethos now inflicts damage at home, as American citizens, especially the elderly and infirm, become COVID-19 collateral damage in the Republican zeal to “reopen” businesses, reduce unemployment aid and force children back to school.
It is hard to imagine anything more instructive than a pandemic when determining the failures of the warfare state. As Americans find themselves confused and frustrated with the incompetence of their country, perhaps they should reflect on the words of one of its great sages, George Carlin:
We like war! We like war, because we’re good at it. And it’s a good thing we are. We’re not good at anything else anymore. We can’t build a decent car. We can’t make a TV set worth a fuck. We’ve got no steel industry left. We can’t educate our young people. We can’t get health care to our old people. But we can bomb the shit out of your country.
It was easy to laugh when the late comedian made those remarks in 1992. Nearly three decades later, it is easier to cry.