The Military, What is It Good for?

A Manifesto for the United States of America, Part V

In Part IV, we noted that the U.S. is ruled by a few hundred oligarchs and corporations, and that as long as power resides among this tiny elite, the chances of making headway against racism, police brutality, poverty and exploitation are exceedingly slim. The societal changes proposed in Parts I – IV can do much to remove power from that elite and redistribute it among the rest of the citizenry, upon whom the U.S. Constitution nominally bestows power, but who have never exercised more than cosmetic authority – least of all Blacks, Indigenous peoples, the poor and the disenfranchised.

History tells us that the wealthy do not accumulate and spend their wealth merely for their personal comfort and that of their families and friends. No, the seduction of wealth is that it brings power over other people, including that of life and death, war and peace, servitude and freedom. The ultimate expression of this power is empire, for which nations will crush others into dust to realize their ambitions. ((The caption of a 1968 Playboy cartoon by Jim Handelsman expresses this principle well. “Megadeaths! Man, this company has come a long way from typewriter spools.”)) The Roman treatment of Carthage is an early example of such practice, which has apparently served as a model for U.S. treatment of its victims, from the Cherokee nation to Vietnam and Iraq. Concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small oligarchy within a major power like the U.S. inevitably leads to projection of power well beyond its borders. [For an extensive history of national power, see The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by Paul M. Kennedy].

In the case of the U.S., the enormous concentration of wealth has, in simple terms, been employed for the purpose of ruling the world through military power. The Wolfowitz Doctrine and its variants have, since 1992, all been based upon challenging and weakening or destroying all potential rivals. The result is that little is left for human development. The US ranks 28th in the world in human development (and dropping), below that of Slovakia and Poland, according to the UN Development Program’s inequality-adjusted human development index (IHDI). The Defense budget occupies 54% of discretionary spending in the U.S. federal budget, currently standing at more the $700 billion per year, and equal to that of the 12 next highest national military budgets in the world, combined.  By comparison, the per capita military expenditure of Denmark, a NATO member, is only a third that of the U.S., and it ranks seventh in the IHDI, a full 21 ranks higher than the U.S.

It is clear that U.S. military expenditures are a great obstacle to any sort of social progress of the type that we see in countries like Denmark, which is by no means the only example. Even many poorer countries invest a greater part of their wealth into human development than does the U.S. The consequences for the U.S. of such extravagant expenditures on death and destruction are not only the enmity of the entire world, but also poverty, homelessness, a lower standard of education, inadequate health services for many, a higher crime rate and much more for its own people. Of course, for its victims in other lands, the consequences are much greater still. It recalls the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer (taken from the Bhagavad Gita scriptures), at seeing the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Abandoning our national policy of piracy, looting and pillaging is not merely the right thing to do.  It is the obvious thing to do.  When we are no longer a threat to others, many of our enemies will cease to be a threat to us.  Of course, that is not a formula that worked for the nations to which we have laid waste, so it is understandable if we will not be quick to entirely abandon a reduced, purely defensive force. We hope that we will not have to use it, and in the future we might eventually be able to do away with entirely, as Costa Rica has done. In the meantime, I suspect that we will be able to make common cause as needed with other countries in order to confront any threat that might arise.  The military-industrial complex will simply have to retool for ploughshares.

In order to assure the implementation of these plans and intentions, several measures are advisable.  First, U.S. troops will not be allowed to engage in combat unless a state of war has been declared by the U.S. Congress, as provided in the U.S. Constitution, except when an immediate threat requires defensive response until the Congress can meet. Second, the CIA will end all clandestine military and subversive activities anywhere in the world. These are a form of warfare and therefore only permissible by armed forces, and only under a declaration of war.  The sole function of the CIA must be intelligence. Finally, the U.S. must negotiate for progressive nuclear disarmament with all nations currently possessing nuclear weapons. These weapons are simply too dangerous for any other option, and must not be allowed in the hands of people who might contemplate using them.

These steps obviate the need for others that are inevitable. If we have no troops overseas, there will no prisoners held in overseas detention facilities, and any held in the U.S. will be subject to U.S. civilian and military law, neither of which permit indefinite detention without trial. Habeas corpus also applies to all persons held in the U.S. for any reason. And finally, while peace, threat reduction and good relations are some of the most important benefits from the changes proposed in this article, the reduction in cost is hardly negligible: probably a half trillion dollars or more. For anyone wondering how some of the other costs of the measures proposed in previous and future installments of this manifesto, this fact will overcome any shortfall not already covered by other suggested revenue sources.

Paul Larudee is a retired academic and current administrator of a nonprofit human rights and humanitarian aid organization. Read other articles by Paul.