Originally published in the Autumn 2018 edition of the Virginia Defender, printed November 13. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To download a PDF of this issue, see our Full Issues page.
By Phil Wilayto
No country spends more on war than the United States. With 5 percent of the world’s people, we are responsible for one-third of all military spending – more than the next seven or eight countries combined, and that includes both China and Russia.
We’re told that some 23 percent of our federal tax dollars go to the Defense Department. But that doesn’t include the cost of maintaining the nuclear arsenal, which comes under the Department of Energy. Or care for veterans, which comes under the Department of Veteran Affairs. Or the massive interest on the national debt, which is largely the result of borrowing money to pay for past wars. It doesn’t even include the actual cost of fighting today’s wars, which is a separate expenditure.
The truth is that fully half our federal tax dollars go to pay for wars, past, present and future.
What does this mean for us here at home? It means that, among all the major developed countries in the world and many of the less developed, we do not provide free health care for our people. It means our schools are funded by local property taxes, so poor communities get poor schools. Unemployed workers wind up in prison instead of in public jobs programs. We’re told there’s never enough money for decent social services, but always enough money for another war.
THE COST OF WAR
Each year we’re taxed more than a trillion dollars for war. What could this money buy here at home?
Let’s just take the base budget of the Department of Defense, which this year is over half-a-trillion. That could pay the salaries of 6.5 million elementary school teachers (educating 150.1 million students) for a year. Or wages for 9.5 million infrastructure jobs. Or four-year university scholarships for 16 million students. Or Head Start slots for 59 million children.
Jobs and education, or wars and occupations? What do we really want?
The antiwar movement in Europe is very aware of the relationship between wars and immigration. The U.S./NATO wars across the Middle East and North Africa have devastated whole countries, resulting in a mass migration to Europe. Germany alone, with a population one-quarter of that of the United States, has admitted a million refugees.
At the same time, right-wing organizations and parties in Europe have used this issue to build a nationalist/populist movement that has propelled them to power in Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Austria and Italy, with growing political power in France, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In response, the antiwar forces are working hard to explain to their national populations that refugees need solidarity, not hostility, and that it is the U.S./NATO wars that are responsible for the massive migration in the first place.
Here in the U.S., right-wing forces have also targeted immigration in order to build their political power, including the election of Donald Trump, but not enough of us are explaining how that immigration is tied to U.S. policies.
Within one year after President Bill Clinton signed the NAFTA agreement in 1994, the poverty level in Mexico doubled from an already high of 25 percent to 50 percent – half the population. Among other factors, U.S. corn growers, subsidized by the government, greatly increased their exports to Mexico, devastating the income of subsistence farmers, many of whom then travelled North to find jobs.
According to several immigrants this writer spoke with years ago in Prince William County, NAFTA also forbade the communal ownership of land, so Mexican peasants who had used these lands for centuries for grazing their animals were told they would now have to pay for the “privilege.” Immigration from Mexico is now declining, but it is increasing from Central America, propelled by extreme poverty and gangdriven violence.
We need to explain that it was the U.S. role in the 1980s in Central America that laid the basis for these social problems. Reactionary forces and death squads promoted by Washington morphed into the drug gangs of today. More recently, U.S. interference in Honduran presidential elections led to social conflict and repression. (See story on page 7.) In Nicaragua and Venezuela, U.S. pressure against the government has led to internal conflict, violence and migration.
Climate change and the increasing destruction of our environment are motivating millions of people to speak out and rise up against fossil fuels, carbon emissions and pipelines, often leading them to an understanding that it’s capitalism itself that is the real problem. But there is no force on earth more destructive to the environment than war.
During its war against Vietnam, the U.S. military sprayed dioxin-laden Agent Orange over one-tenth of the land mass of South Vietnam. Forty years later, the effects on the people and the ecology are still being felt. Vietnamese peasants are still dying from unexploded ordinances. The use of depleted uranium in armor-piercing projectiles used in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused massive health problems for the targeted populations. The U.S. Navy is the world’s largest user of petroleum products. Military bases pollute the surrounding communities. The examples go on and on.
Then there are the social effects of the wars on our society.
MILITARIZATION OF POLICE
After the 2014 police murder of 18-yearold Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., we saw what looked like a military invasion of the Black community: armed personnel carriers, combat-grade uniforms and weaponry that looked like it came right off the battlefield. That’s when many people first learned about the Pentagon program that transfers so-called surplus equipment to local police departments, for free. This militarization of local police forces greatly exacerbates the existing problems of police racism and brutality.
People have the right to the responsible ownership of guns, but there’s something deeply wrong with the gun culture in this country.
With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we own half the world’s privately owned guns. And it’s not just the numbers – it’s the glorification of guns and gun violence. It’s in our movies, TV shows, all of our popular culture. And it’s promoted by the Pentagon, which encourages Hollywood war movies as recruitment tools and even develops its own war video games. The military is in our schools. The teenager who shot up his former high school in Parkland, Florida, learned to shoot in a Junior ROTC program at that very school.
Some years ago I was talking with a teenager in my neighborhood in Richmond’s East End. There were a lot of street shootings at the time, as there are now, and I asked him what you do if you think someone is out to get you.
“You get him first,” he said.
At that same time, President George Bush was telling us that Saddam Hussein was out to get us and so we had to get him first. These values are being taught at the highest levels.
Street violence is something that oppressed communities are deeply concerned about and something about which the left movement typically has little to say. The common wisdom is that the shootings devastating so many poor communities of color are driven by the combination of poverty, the drug trade and the prevalence of guns. But we need to push that analysis further.
Back in the mid-1970s, the end of the Vietnam War coincided with the deindustrialization of the economy and the resulting loss of good-paying factory jobs, just as massive numbers of veterans were trying to enter the workforce.
Many GIs were coming home with physical and emotional wounds. The percentage of homeless, drug-addicted and imprisoned vets skyrocketed. At the same time, there was a massive influx of drugs into oppressed communities: first heroin, from Southeast Asia in the Vietnam era, then cocaine, transported from South America through Central America during the contra wars, with both drug operations abetted by the CIA.
Returning vets, fewer jobs, an explosion of drugs and the proliferation of guns all played their roles. The despair of today’s poor youth that leads to seemingly senseless street violence is a direct result of this perfect storm, and the wars were a major factor. The same scenario is now being played out again, with fully one-quarter of returning combat vets experiencing PTSD.
GLORIFICATION OF VIOLENCE
You cannot have a society that is continuously at war and not have it deeply affect the home society itself.
Our society is addicted to violence. We glorify it as part of our history, as part of who we are as a people. Our country was founded in genocide against indigenous people. It was developed through the violent exploitation of enslaved Black labor, the theft of half of Mexico and its participation in two world wars and scores of smaller ones, from Korea to Vietnam to Syria.
This cult of violence seeps into every aspect of our lives and gets worse with every passing year. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” he was talking about our times as much as his own.
The U.S. is now openly at war in Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan. It has military bases in 70 countries and a military presence of some kind in 150. The wars are not being fought for our defense and they do not make us safe. They are being fought to protect the ability of U.S. corporations to make unprecedented profits and they are making us much less safe by creating millions of enemies we never had before.
And worst of all, these wars inflict unimaginable suffering on mainly poor people of color who are totally innocent of any crime against us or anyone else. As we demonize these same people of color, we build on and expand the legacy of white supremacist power that enables the building of an Empire on the bodies of the oppressed.
As we address the many problems here at home, we must be just as concerned about the many problems the government and its military are creating in other countries. Our sense of outrage over injustice cannot end at our borders. Our own future is intimately bound up with all of humanity.
We must unite and work, with all our passion and courage and energy, to stop the wars at both home and abroad.
Categories: International & Antiwar News