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Time for a New Look at Defense Spending


Once again we’ve celebrated July the Fourth with “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” And now it’s time to think about the cost of fireworks.


So in doing this thinking, let’s go back to the origin of fireworks in China, maybe as long as 2,000 years ago. The discovery could have come in a kitchen with the accidental mixing of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter. From the very beginning, the fireworks that developed from this discovery were thought to have the power to frighten away ghosts and evil spirits. It was when the powder made its way to Europe that it was converted into gunpowder for military purposes.

On the Fourth of July, fireworks accompanied by the National Anthem evoke the imagery of battle, more specifically, the glory of battle. Since it hasn’t been glorious for a very long time, have we had enough of that yet? Can we somehow turn it into ancient history? The question comes up because, after three years of drops in defense spending, it began to climb again in 2014, and the line on the graph envisioned looks very steep. That’s why I’m suggesting that it’s time to think, and a recent article made that task look even urgent.

Based on new “threat assessments,” the military is proposing an array of new weaponry with a heavy focus on nuclear. The cost? According to the Monterey Center for Nonproliferation Studies, about one trillion dollars.

In an article published in June, Andrew Cockburn, the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, summarized some of the plans as follows:

  • The F-35 Joint Striker Fighter, a tactical nuclear bomber
  • A fleet of nuclear submarines loaded with new intercontinental missiles
  • A land-based intercontinental missile, a land-and-sea based tactical nuclear fighter plane, and at least three new designs for nuclear warheads
  • New nuclear command-and-control systems for a fleet of satellites

The estimated one trillion-dollar-cost for these developments is scary enough. However, we all know how prices rise. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to cost no more than $35 million per plane, but that figure is now rising above $200 million.

U.S. Defense Spending

U.S. Defense Spending

Now I’m just a regular person who reads about stuff like this, but let me get this straight. As revealed by the chart to the right, the United States already spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined. I would think that’s a very reassuring margin. And our biggest threat at the moment are these scrambling groups of terrorists, only one of which, ISIS, has even an abstract state as in caliphate, who fight with scavenged weapons and equipment; who have cloth headgear for helmets; who raise funds through fraud, theft, blackmail, and kidnapping; and whose most effective innovation has been the use of social media to recruit and psychologically terrorize.

So why are we arming up for a nuclear war? Cockburn’s explanation is that the new nuclear weaponry is perceived by its proponents as a deterrent to war. So why don’t we just maintain the weaponry we already have? I mean, looking at that chart, it’s clear that even if China and Russia became allies, they couldn’t touch us in terms of resources. And why would any entity launch an attack when we could swiftly blow them off the face of the earth? This new buildup strikes me as being crazy.

Cockburn goes on angrily to say that the military establishment does know what it’s doing, even though it looks like overkill. Its purpose is to rake in billions and billions of dollars for the Pentagon and its industrial and political partners. When we’re not actively engaged in a war, the strategy has long been to request funding to “modernize.” And the assumption is that Congress will continue to support this, just because it has become the way of things.

And the danger that this would become the way of things was anticipated long ago by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I have heard his warning about the military industrial complex paraphrased many times, but here is the longer version, delivered on his last day in office in 1961. He spoke of how World War II had forced the country for the first time to create an immense military establishment and an armaments industry of vast proportions, and he warned:

“The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

One can see now that Eisenhower was prescient–and that a very long, troubled road lies ahead for those who dare to act on the reality of out-of-control defense spending.  It involves not only addressing this issue but also the degradation of our democracy.The first priority, however, is to get the whole thing in perspective, and I discovered a video on Facebook the other day that did this.

“Lessons from Life Undercover” is a talk by Amaryllis Fox, who worked for the CIA for 10 years as an officer in clandestine service. She spoke about how the issues that create war are oversimplified by a small number of people who amass large amounts of power and wealth by convincing the rest of us to keep killing each other. And she shared the perspective of a member of Al Qaeda. He explained that their fighters saw themselves as the small, scrappy band of heroes fighting a technically advanced invader, as in one of our favorite science fiction movies. Rings true, doesn’t it?

A few days after that point went home, pertinent commentary appeared in the newspaper. Dianne Feinstein, a senator from California and vice chairwoman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, and Ellen O. Tauscher, former California representative and under-secretary of state for Arms Control and International Security, wrote urging Congress to question the Defense Department’s effort to develop a new nuclear cruise missile called the Long-Range Standoff Weapon. They pointed out that it is very likely accidentally to set off a nuclear war. Better to invest the $30 billion it would cost in reducing our nuclear arsenal and developing advanced conventional weapons capacities.

Feinstein and Tauscher concluded with the statement: “The United States must lead the way to a nuclear-free world.” Boy, what a challenge. However, it’s an appropriate challenge since we started the whole thing. Their courage in speaking out, along with the former CIA officer, was very encouraging. Let us hope that there is time for more and more voices like theirs to rise demanding a more rational defense policy.

And as I write that, another quote comes to mind, this time from the Dalai Lama: “The World will be saved by the Western woman.”

Didn’t see that coming, did you? But maybe this too is appropriate, since the story of gunpowder began in the kitchen.



6 Responses to “Time for a New Look at Defense Spending”

  1. Yvonne

    Excellent and informative as always Ellen. Thank you!

  2. Judyth A Scott

    Well done, Ellen. This information should be shared, so I’ll do it!

  3. Elizabeth Robechek

    Such a consequential piece, Ellen,….brilliant and timely!!!

    AND, somewhere I have seen Eisenhower’s hand written notes for this speech. What he wrote, and was then “encouraged” not to edit out, is: ” the military, industrial, congressional complex.” Ah, yes, ‘we have met the enemy and he is [congress] us.’ Don’t think that Pogo would mind this alteration of his quip!?!

    Keep ’em coming, dear friend!!


  4. Connie Jarrett

    Excellent, Ellen! President Eisenhower, being a military man, had a unique perspective on how this might come to pass. Too bad no one seems to be listening…
    Hope all is well with you!

  5. Joel

    Good Morning Ellen,
    This is one of your best articles in a long time, and very well researched, even with charts. I would highly recommend you send this one into the N Y Times and see if they’ll print it – it would “fit” !