War Does Not Bring Security

War Does Not Bring Security And Is Not Sustainable: Chapter 11 Of “War Is A Lie” By David Swanson


Terrorist incidents have increased during and in response to the “War on Terror.” This shouldn’t shock us. War has a history of provoking war, not peace. In our current society, war is now the norm, and eternal preparation for war is not viewed with the widespread horror it deserves.

When a public push begins to launch a new war, or when we discover that a war has quietly gotten underway without so much as a by-your-leave to the Constitution or we the people, that new condition of war does not stand out as significantly different from our normal existence. We don’t have to raise an army from scratch. We have a standing army. In fact, we have an army standing in most corners of the globe, a fact that more likely than not explains the need for the new war. We don’t have to raise the funds for a war. We routinely dump over half of our discretionary public spending into the military, and any additional trillions will be found or borrowed — no questions asked.

We also have war on our minds. It’s in our towns, in our entertainment, in our workplace, and all around us. There are bases everywhere, uniformed soldiers, Memorial Day events, Veterans Day events, Patriots Day events, discounts for soldiers, fund drives for soldiers, airport welcomings for soldiers, recruitment ads, recruitment offices, army-sponsored race cars, military band concerts. War is in our toys, our movies, our television shows. And it’s a huge part of our economy and of our institutions of higher learning. I read a newspaper story about a family that moved away from Virginia Beach because of the endless noise of military jets. They bought a farm in the countryside only to learn that the military would be opening a new airstrip right next door. If you really wanted to get away from the military in the United States, where would you go? Just try to get through a day without any contact with the military. It can’t be done. And almost everything non-military that you might come into contact with is itself deeply involved in the military.

As Nick Turse has documented, unless you buy local and non-corporate, it is nearly impossible to purchase or use a product of any sort in the United States that is not produced by a Pentagon contractor. In fact, I am typing this on an Apple computer, and Apple is a major Pentagon contractor. But then, so is IBM. And so are most of the parent companies of most of the junk food and trinket stores and coffee stands I can see. Starbucks is a major military supplier, with a store even in Guantanamo. Starbucks defends its presence on Torture Island by claiming that to not be there would constitute taking a political position, whereas being there is simply standard American behavior. Indeed. Not only are traditional weapons manufacturers’ offices now found alongside car dealers and burger joints in countless American suburban strip malls, but the car dealers and burger joints are owned by companies driven by Pentagon spending, just as are the media outlets that don’t tell you about this.

The military funds and consults on Hollywood movies, sends souped-up Hummers with sexy models to trade fairs, dangles $150,000 signing bonuses around, and arranges to be honored before and during major sporting events. Weapons companies, whose only possible customer in this country is a government that never listens to we the people, advertise as widely as beer or car insurance companies. Through this infiltration of every corner of our country, war is made to appear normal, sane, safe, and sustainable. We imagine that war protects us, that it can continue indefinitely without making the planet an inhospitable place to live, and that it is a generous provider of jobs and economic benefits. We suppose that war, and empire, are needed to preserve our extravagant lifestyle, or even our struggling lifestyle. That simply is not the case: war costs us in every way, and in return it provides nothing of benefit. It cannot go on forever without nuclear catastrophe, environmental collapse, or economic implosion.


Tad Daley argues in Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World that we can choose to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons or to annihilate all life on earth. There’s not a third way. Here’s why.

As long as nuclear weapons exist, they are likely to proliferate. And as long as they proliferate the rate of proliferation is likely to increase. This is because so long as some states have nuclear weapons, other states will want them. The number of nuclear states has jumped from six to nine since the end of the Cold War. That number is likely to go up, because there are now at least nine places a non-nuclear state can go for access to the technology and materials, and more states now have nuclear neighbors. Other states will choose to develop nuclear energy, despite its many drawbacks, because it will put them closer to developing nuclear weapons should they decide to do so.

As long as nuclear weapons exist, a nuclear catastrophe is likely to happen sooner or later, and the more the weapons have proliferated, the sooner catastrophe will come. There have been dozens if not hundreds of near misses, cases in which accident, confusion, misunderstanding, and/or irrational machismo have nearly destroyed the world.  In 1980, Zbigniew Brzezinski was on his way to wake up President Jimmy Carter to tell him the Soviet Union had launched 220 missiles when he learned that someone had put a war game into the computer system. In 1983 a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel watched his computer tell him the United States had launched missiles. He hesitated responding long enough to discover it was an error. In 1995, Russian President Boris Yeltsin spent eight minutes convinced the United States had launched a nuclear attack. Three minutes before striking back and destroying the world, he learned the launch had been of a weather satellite. Accidents are always more likely than hostile actions. Fifty-six years before terrorists got around to crashing planes into the World Trade Center, the U.S. military accidentally flew its own plane into the Empire State Building. In 2007, six armed U.S. nuclear missiles were accidentally or intentionally declared missing, put on a plane in launch position, and flown across the country. The more near misses the world sees, the more likely we are to see the real launching of a nuclear weapon to which other nations will respond in kind. And all life on the planet will be gone.

This is not a case of “If guns were outlawed, only outlaws would have guns.” The more nations that have nukes, and the more nukes they have, the more likely it is that a terrorist will find a supplier. The fact that nations possess nukes with which to retaliate is no deterrent whatsoever to terrorists who wish to acquire and use them. In fact, only someone willing to commit suicide and bring the rest of the world down at the same time can ever use nuclear weapons at all.

The U.S. policy of possible first-strike is a policy of suicide, a policy that encourages other nations to acquire nukes in defense; it is also a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as is our failure to work for multilateral (not just bi-lateral) disarmament and elimination (not just reduction) of nuclear weapons.

There’s no trade-off to be made in eliminating nuclear weapons, because they do not contribute to our safety. They do not deter terrorist attacks by non-state actors in any way. Nor do they add an iota to our military’s ability to deter nations from attacking us, given the United States’ ability to destroy anything anywhere at any time with non-nuclear weapons. Nukes also don’t win wars, as can be seen from the fact that the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China have all lost wars against non-nuclear powers while possessing nukes. Nor, in the event of global nuclear war, can any outrageous quantity of weaponry protect the United States in any way from apocalypse.

However, the calculation can look very different for smaller nations. North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and has thereby greatly reduced bellicosity in its direction from the United States. Iran, on the other hand, has not acquired nukes, and is under steady threat. Nukes mean protection to a smaller nation. But the seemingly rational decision to become a nuclear state only increases the likelihood of a coup, or civil war, or war escalation, or mechanical error, or fit of rage somewhere in the world putting an end to us all.

Weapons inspections have been very successful, including in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion. The problem, in that case, was that the inspections were ignored. Even with the CIA using the inspections as an opportunity to spy and to attempt to instigate a coup, and with the Iraqi government convinced that cooperation would gain it nothing against a nation determined to overthrow it, the inspections still worked. International inspections of all countries, including our own, could work as well. Of course, the United States is used to double standards. It’s OK to check up on all the other countries, just not ours. But we’re also used to living. Daley lays out the choice we have:

“Yes, international inspections here would intrude upon our sovereignty. But detonations of atom bombs here would also intrude upon our sovereignty. The only question is, which of those two intrusions do we find less excruciating.”

The answer is not clear, but it should be.

If we want to be safe from nuclear explosions, we have to be rid of nuclear power plants as well as nuclear missiles and submarines. Ever since President Eisenhower talked about “atoms for peace” we’ve heard about the supposed advantages of nuclear radiation. None of them compete with the disadvantages. A nuclear power plant could very easily be detonated by a terrorist in an act that would make flying an airplane into a building seem almost trivial. Nuclear energy, unlike solar or wind or any other source, requires an evacuation plan, creates terrorist targets and toxic waste that lasts forever and ever, cannot find private insurance or private investors willing to take a risk on it, and must be subsidized by the public treasury. Iran, Israel, and the United States have all bombed nuclear facilities in Iraq. What sane policy would create facilities with so many other problems that are also bombing targets? We don’t need nuclear power.

We may not be able to survive on a planet with nuclear power available anywhere on it. The problem with allowing nations to acquire nuclear power but not nuclear weapons is that the former puts a nation closer to the latter. A nation that feels threatened may believe that nuclear weapons are its only protection, and it may acquire nuclear energy in order to be a step closer to the bomb. But the global bully will see the nuclear energy program as a danger, even if it is legal, and become all the more threatening. This is a cycle that facilitates nuclear proliferation. And we know where that leads.

A giant nuclear arsenal does not protect against terrorism, but a single suicidal killer with a nuclear bomb could begin Armageddon. In May 2010, a man tried to set off a bomb in Times Square, New York City. It was not a nuclear bomb, but it’s conceivable that it could have been since the man’s father had once been in charge of guarding nuclear weapons in Pakistan. In November 2001, Osama bin Laden said

“If the United States dares to attack us with nuclear or chemical weapons, we declare that we will retaliate by using the same kind of weapons. In Japan and other countries where the United States has killed hundreds of thousands of people, the U.S. does not regard their acts as a crime.”

If non-state groups begin to join the list of entities stockpiling nukes, even if everyone except the United States swears not to strike first, the possibility of an accident increases dramatically. And a strike or an accident could easily start an escalation. On October 17, 2007, after President Vladimir Putin of Russia rejected U.S. claims that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, President George W. Bush raised the prospect of “World War III.”  Every time there’s a hurricane or an oil spill, there are lots of I-told-you-so’s. When there’s a nuclear holocaust, there will be nobody left to say “I warned you,” or to hear it.


The environment as we know it will not survive nuclear war. It also may not survive “conventional” war, understood to mean the sorts of wars we now wage. Intense damage has already been done by wars and by the research, testing, and production done in preparation for wars. At least since the Romans sowed salt on Carthaginian fields during the Third Punic War, wars have damaged the earth, both intentionally and — more often — as a reckless side-effect.

General Philip Sheridan, having destroyed farmland in Virginia during the Civil War, proceeded to destroy American bison herds as a means of restricting Native Americans to reservations. World War I saw European land destroyed with trenches and poison gas. During World War II, the Norwegians started landslides in their valleys, while the Dutch flooded a third of their farmland, the Germans destroyed Czech forests, and the British burned forests in Germany and France.

Wars in recent years have rendered large areas uninhabitable and generated tens of millions of refugees. War “rivals infectious disease as a global cause of morbidity and mortality,” according to Jennifer Leaning of Harvard Medical School.  Leaning divides war’s environmental impact into four areas: “production and testing of nuclear weapons, aerial and naval bombardment of terrain, dispersal and persistence of land mines and buried ordnance, and use or storage of military despoliants, toxins, and waste.”

Nuclear weapons testing by the United States and the Soviet Union involved at least 423 atmospheric tests between 1945 and 1957 and 1,400 underground tests between 1957 and 1989. The damage from that radiation is still not fully known, but it is still spreading, as is our knowledge of the past. New research in 2009 suggested that Chinese nuclear tests between 1964 and 1996 killed more people directly than the nuclear testing of any other nation. Jun Takada, a Japanese physicist, calculated that up to 1.48 million people were exposed to fallout and 190,000 of them may have died from diseases linked to radiation from those Chinese tests.  In the United States, testing in the 1950s led to untold thousands of deaths from cancer in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, the areas most downwind from the testing.

In 1955, movie star John Wayne, who avoided participating in World War II by opting instead to make movies glorifying war, decided that he had to play Genghis Khan. The Conqueror was filmed in Utah, and the conqueror was conquered. Of the 220 people who worked on the film, by the early 1980s 91 of them had contracted cancer and 46 had died of it, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell. Statistics suggest that 30 of the 220 might ordinarily have gotten cancer, not 91. In 1953 the military had tested 11 atomic bombs nearby in Nevada, and by the 1980s half the residents of St. George, Utah, where the film was shot, had cancer.  You can run from war, but you can’t hide.

The military knew its nuclear detonations would impact those downwind, and monitored the results, effectively engaging in human experimentation. In numerous other studies during and in the decades following World War II, in violation of the Nuremberg Code of 1947, the military and the CIA have subjected veterans, prisoners, the poor, the mentally disabled, and other populations to unwitting human experimentation for the purpose of testing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as drugs like LSD, which the United States went so far as to put into the air and food of an entire French village in 1951, with horrific and deadly results.

A report prepared in 1994 for the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs begins:

“During the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of military personnel have been involved in human experimentation and other intentional exposures conducted by the Department of Defense (DOD), often without a servicemember’s knowledge or consent. In some cases, soldiers who consented to serve as human subjects found themselves participating in experiments quite different from those described at the time they volunteered. For example, thousands of World War II veterans who originally volunteered to ‘test summer clothing’ in exchange for extra leave time, found themselves in gas chambers testing the effects of mustard gas and lewisite. Additionally, soldiers were sometimes ordered by commanding officers to ‘volunteer’ to participate in research or face dire consequences. For example, several Persian Gulf War veterans interviewed by Committee staff reported that they were ordered to take experimental vaccines during Operation Desert Shield or face prison.”

The full report contains numerous complaints about the secrecy of the military and suggests that its findings may be only scraping the surface of what has been hidden.

In 1993, the U.S. Secretary of Energy released records of U.S. testing of plutonium on unwitting U.S. victims immediately following World War II. Newsweek commented reassuringly, on December 27, 1993:

“The scientists who had conducted those tests so long ago surely had rational reasons: the struggle with the Soviet Union, the fear of imminent nuclear war, the urgent need to unlock all the secrets of the atom, for purposes both military and medical.”

Oh, well that’s all right then.

Nuclear weapons production sites in Washington, Tennessee, Colorado, Georgia, and elsewhere have poisoned the surrounding environment as well as their employees, over 3,000 of whom were awarded compensation in 2000. When my 2009-2010 book tour took me to more than 50 cities around the country, I was surprised that many of the peace groups in town after town were focused on stopping the damage that local weapons factories were doing to the environment and their workers with subsidies from local governments, even more than they were focused on stopping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Kansas City, active citizens had recently delayed and were seeking to block the relocation and expansion of a major weapons factory. It seems that President Harry Truman, who had made his name by opposing waste on weaponry, planted a factory back home that polluted the land and water for over 60 years while manufacturing parts for instruments of death thus far used only by Truman. The private, but tax-break-subsidized factory will likely continue to produce, but on a larger scale, 85 percent of the components of nuclear weapons.

I joined several local activists in staging a protest outside the factory gates, similar to protests I’ve been part of at sites in Nebraska and Tennessee, and the support from people driving by was phenomenal: many more positive reactions than negative. One man who stopped his car at the light told us that his grandmother had died of cancer after making bombs there in the 1960s. Maurice Copeland, who was part of our protest, told me he’d worked at the plant for 32 years. When a car drove out of the gates containing a man and a smiling little girl, Copeland remarked that toxic substances were on the man’s clothes and that he had probably hugged the little girl and possibly killed her. I can’t verify what, if anything, was on the man’s clothes, but Copeland claimed that such occurrences had been part of the Kansas City plant for decades, with neither the government, nor the private owner (Honeywell), nor the labor union (the International Association of Machinists) properly informing workers or the public.

With the replacement of President Bush with President Obama in 2010, opponents of the plant expansion deal hoped for change, but the Obama administration gave the project its full support. The city government promoted the effort as a source of jobs and tax revenue. As we’ll see in the next section of this chapter, it was not.

Weapons production is the least of it. Non-nuclear bombs in World War II destroyed cities, farms, and irrigation systems, producing 50 million refugees and displaced people. The U.S. bombing of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia produced 17 million refugees, and as of the end of 2008 there were 13.5 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world.  A long civil war in Sudan led to a famine there in 1988. Rwanda’s brutal civil war pushed people into areas inhabited by endangered species, including gorillas. The displacement of populations around the world to less habitable areas has damaged ecosystems severely.

Wars leave a lot behind. Between 1944 and 1970 the U.S. military dumped huge quantities of chemical weapons into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1943 German bombs had sunk a U.S. ship at Bari, Italy, that was secretly carrying a million pounds of mustard gas. Many of the U.S. sailors died from the poison, which the United States dishonestly claimed to have been using as a “deterrent,” despite keeping it secret. The ship is expected to keep leaking the gas into the sea for centuries. Meanwhile the United States and Japan left over 1,000 ships on the floor of the Pacific, including fuel tankers. In 2001, one such ship, the USS Mississinewa was found to be leaking oil. In 2003 the military removed what oil it could from the wreck.

Perhaps the most deadly weapons left behind by wars are land mines and cluster bombs. Tens of millions of them are estimated to be lying around on the earth, oblivious to any announcements that peace has been declared. Most of their victims are civilians, a large percentage of them children. A 1993 U.S. State Department report called land mines “the most toxic and widespread pollution facing mankind.” Land mines damage the environment in four ways, writes Jennifer Leaning:

“fear of mines denies access to abundant natural resources and arable land; populations are forced to move preferentially into marginal and fragile environments in order to avoid minefields; this migration speeds depletion of biological diversity; and land-mine explosions disrupt essential soil and water processes.”

The amount of the earth’s surface impacted is not minor. Millions of hectares in Europe, North Africa, and Asia are under interdiction. One-third of the land in Libya conceals land mines and unexploded World War II munitions. Many of the world’s nations have agreed to ban land mines and cluster bombs. The United States has not.

From 1965 to 1971, the United States developed new ways of destroying plant and animal (including human) life; it sprayed 14 percent of South Vietnam’s forests with herbicides, burned farm land, and shot livestock. One of the worst chemical herbicides, Agent Orange, still threatens the health of the Vietnamese and has caused some half million birth defects. During the Gulf War, Iraq released 10 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf and set 732 oil wells on fire, causing extensive damage to wildlife and poisoning ground water with oil spills. In its wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the United States has left behind depleted uranium. A 1994 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs survey of Gulf War veterans in Mississippi found 67 percent of their children conceived since the war had severe illnesses or birth defects.  Wars in Angola eliminated 90 percent of the wildlife between 1975 and 1991. A civil war in Sri Lanka felled five million trees.

The Soviet and U.S. occupations of Afghanistan have destroyed or damaged thousands of villages and sources of water. The Taliban has illegally traded timber to Pakistan, resulting in significant deforestation. U.S. bombs and refugees in need of firewood have added to the damage. Afghanistan’s forests are almost gone. Most of the migratory birds that used to pass through Afghanistan no longer do so. Its air and water have been poisoned with explosives and rocket propellants.

To these examples of the types of environmental damage done by war must be added two key facts about how our wars are fought and why. As we saw in chapter six, wars are often fought for resources, especially oil. Oil can be leaked or burned off, as in the Gulf War, but primarily it is put to use polluting the earth’s atmosphere, placing us all at risk. Oil and war lovers associate the consumption of oil with the glory and heroism of war, so that renewable energies that do not risk global catastrophe are viewed as cowardly and unpatriotic ways to fuel our machines.

The interplay of war with oil goes beyond that, however. The wars themselves, whether or not fought for oil, consume huge quantities of it. The world’s top consumer of oil, in fact, is the U.S. military. Not only do we fight wars in areas of the globe that happen to be rich in oil; we also burn more oil fighting those wars than we do in any other activity. Author and cartoonist Ted Rall writes:

“The U.S. Department of [War] is the world’s worst polluter, belching, dumping, and spilling more pesticides, defoliants, solvents, petroleum, lead, mercury, and depleted uranium than the five biggest American chemical corporations combined. According to Steve Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International, 60 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions between 2003 and 2007 originated in U.S.-occupied Iraq, due to the enormous amount of oil and gas required to maintain hundreds of thousands of American military forces and private contractors, not to mention the toxins released by fighter jets, drone planes, and the missiles and other ordnance they fire at Iraqis.”

We pollute the air in the process of poisoning the earth with all variety of weaponry. The U.S. military burns through about 340,000 barrels of oil each day. If the Pentagon were a country, it would rank 38th in oil consumption. If you removed the Pentagon from the total oil consumption by the United States, then the United States would still rank first with nobody else anywhere close. But you would have spared the atmosphere the burning of more oil than most countries consume, and would have spared the planet all the mischief our military manages to fuel with it.  No other institution in the United States consumes nearly as much oil as the military.

In October 2010, the Pentagon announced plans to try a small shift in the direction of renewable energy. The military’s concern did not seem to be continued life on the planet or financial expense, but rather the fact that people kept blowing up its fuel tankers in Pakistan and Afghanistan before they could reach their destinations.

How is it that environmentalists have not prioritized ending wars? Do they believe the war lies, or are they afraid to confront them? Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spends $622 million trying to figure out how we can produce power without oil, while the military spends hundreds of billions burning oil in wars fought to control the oil supplies. The million dollars spent to keep each soldier in a foreign occupation for a year could create 20 green energy jobs at $50,000 each. Is this a difficult choice?


In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union discovered that it had destroyed its economy by spending too much money on the military. During a 1987 visit to the United States with President Mikhail Gorbachev, Valentin Falin, the head of Moscow’s Novosti Press Agency, said something that revealed this economic crisis while also presaging the post-911 era in which it would become obvious to all that inexpensive weaponry could penetrate to the heart of an empire militarized to the tune of a trillion dollars a year. He said:

“We won’t copy [the United States] any more, making planes to catch up with your planes, missiles to catch up with your missiles. We’ll take asymmetrical means with new scientific principles available to us. Genetic engineering could be a hypothetical example. Things can be done for which neither side could find defenses or counter-measures, with very dangerous results. If you develop something in space, we could develop something on earth. These are not just words. I know what I am saying.”

And yet it was too late for the Soviet economy. And the strange thing is that everyone in Washington, D.C., understands that and even exaggerates it, discounting any other factors in the demise of the Soviet Union. We forced them to build too many weapons, and that destroyed them. This is the common understanding in the very government that is now proceeding to build way too many weapons, while at the same time it brushes aside every sign of impending implosion.

War, and preparation for war, is our largest and most wasteful financial expense. It’s eating our economy from the inside out. But as the non-military economy collapses, the remaining economy based around military jobs looms larger. We imagine that the military is the one bright spot and that we need to focus on fixing everything else.

“Military Towns Enjoy Big Booms,” read a USA Today headline on August 17, 2010. “Pay and Benefits Drive Cities’ Growth.” While public spending on anything other than killing people would usually be vilified as socialism, in this case that description couldn’t be applied because the spending was done by the military. So this seemed like a silver lining without any touch of gray:

“Rapidly rising pay and benefits in the armed forces have lifted many military towns into the ranks of the nation’s most affluent communities, a USA TODAY analysis finds.

“The hometown of the Marines’ Camp Lejeune — Jacksonville, N.C. — soared to the nation’s 32nd-highest income per person in 2009 among the 366 U.S. metropolitan areas, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data. In 2000, it had ranked 287th.

“The Jacksonville metropolitan area, with a population of 173,064, had the top income per person of any North Carolina community in 2009. In 2000, it ranked 13th of 14 metro areas in the state.

“The USA TODAY analysis finds that 16 of the 20 metro areas rising the fastest in the per-capita income rankings since 2000 had military bases or one nearby. . . .

“ . . . Pay and benefits in the military have grown faster than those in any other part of the economy. Soldiers, sailors and Marines received average compensation of $122,263 per person in 2009, up from $58,545 in 2000. . . .

“ . . . After adjusting for inflation, military compensation rose 84 percent from 2000 through 2009. Compensation grew 37 percent for federal civilian workers and 9 percent for private-sector employees, the BEA reports. . . .”

O.K., so some of us would prefer that the money for the good pay and benefits were going into productive, peaceful enterprises, but at least it’s going somewhere, right? It’s better than nothing, right?

Actually, it’s worse than nothing. Failing to spend that money and instead cutting taxes would create more jobs than investing it in the military. Investing it in useful industries like mass transit or education would have a much stronger impact and create many more jobs. But even nothing, even cutting taxes, would do less harm than military spending.

Yes, harm. Every military job, every weapons industry job, every war-reconstruction job, every mercenary or torture consultant job is as much a lie as any war. It appears to be a job, but it is not a job. It is the absence of more and better jobs. It is public money wasted on something worse for job creation than nothing at all and much worse than other available options.

Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier, of the Political Economy Research Institute, have collected the data. Each billion dollars of government spending invested in the military creates about 12,000 jobs. Investing it instead in tax cuts for personal consumption generates approximately 15,000 jobs. But putting it into healthcare gives us 18,000 jobs, in home weatherization and infrastructure also 18,000 jobs, in education 25,000 jobs, and in mass transit 27,700 jobs. In education the average wages and benefits of the 25,000 jobs created is significantly higher than that of the military’s 12,000 jobs. In the other fields, the average wages and benefits created are lower than in the military (at least as long as only financial benefits are considered), but the net impact on the economy is greater due to the greater number of jobs. The option of cutting taxes does not have a larger net impact, but it does create 3,000 more jobs per billion dollars.

There is a common belief that World War II spending ended the Great Depression. That seems very far from clear, and economists are not in agreement on it. What I think we can say with some confidence is, first, that the military spending of World War II at the very least did not prevent recovery from the Great Depression, and second, that similar levels of spending on other industries would very likely have improved that recovery.

We would have more jobs and they would pay more, and we would be more intelligent and peaceful if we invested in education rather than war. But does that prove that military spending is destroying our economy? Well, consider this lesson from post-war history. If you had that higher paying education job rather than the lower paying military job or no job at all, your kids could have the free quality education that your job and your colleagues’ jobs provided. If we didn’t dump over half of our discretionary government spending into war, we could have free quality education from preschool through college. We could have several life-changing amenities, including paid retirements, vacations, parental leave, healthcare, and transportation. We could have guaranteed employment. You’d be making more money, working fewer hours, with greatly reduced expenses. How can I be so sure this is possible? Because I know a secret that is often kept from us by American media: there are other nations on this planet.

Steven Hill’s book Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age has a message we should find very encouraging. The European Union (EU) is the world’s largest and most competitive economy, and most of those living in it are wealthier, healthier, and happier than most Americans. Europeans work shorter hours, have a greater say in how their employers behave, receive lengthy paid vacations and paid parental leave, can rely on guaranteed paid pensions, have free or extremely inexpensive comprehensive and preventative healthcare, enjoy free or extremely inexpensive educations from preschool through college, impose only half the per-capita environmental damage of Americans, endure a fraction of the violence found in the United States, imprison a fraction of the prisoners locked up here, and benefit from democratic representation, engagement, and civil liberties unimagined in the land where we’re teased that the world hates us for our rather mediocre “freedoms.” Europe even offers a model foreign policy, bringing neighboring nations toward democracy by holding out the prospect of EU membership, while we drive other nations away from good governance at great expense of blood and treasure.

Of course, this would all be good news, if not for the extreme and horrible danger of higher taxes! Working less and living longer with less illness, a cleaner environment, a better education, more cultural enjoyments, paid vacations, and governments that respond better to the public — that all sounds nice, but the reality involves the ultimate evil of higher taxes! Or does it?

As Hill points out, Europeans do pay higher income taxes, but they generally pay lower state, local, property, and social security taxes. They also pay those higher income taxes out of a larger paycheck. And what Europeans keep in earned income they do not have to spend on healthcare or college or job training or numerous other expenses that are hardly optional but that we seem intent on celebrating our privilege to pay for individually.

If we pay roughly as much as Europeans in taxes, why do we additionally have to pay for everything we need on our own? Why don’t our taxes pay for our needs? The primary reason is that so much of our tax money goes to wars and the military.

We also funnel it to the wealthiest among us through corporate tax breaks and bailouts. And our solutions to human needs like healthcare are incredibly inefficient. In a given year, our government gives roughly $300 billion in tax breaks to businesses for their employee health benefits. That’s enough to actually pay for everyone in this country to have healthcare, but it’s just a fraction of what we dump into the for-profit healthcare system that, as its name suggests, exists primarily to generate profits. Most of what we waste on this madness does not go through the government, a fact of which we are inordinately proud.

We are also proud, however, of shoveling huge piles of cash through the government and into the military industrial complex. And that is the most glaring difference between us and Europe. But this reflects more of a difference between our governments than between our peoples. Americans, in polls and surveys, would prefer to move much of our money from the military to human needs. The problem is primarily that our views are not represented in our government, as this anecdote from Europe’s Promise suggests:

“A few years ago, an American acquaintance of mine who lives in Sweden told me that he and his Swedish wife were in New York City and, quite by chance, ended up sharing a limousine to the theatre district with then-U.S. Senator John Breaux from Louisiana and his wife. Breaux, a conservative, anti-tax Democrat, asked my acquaintance about Sweden and swaggeringly commented about ‘all those taxes the Swedes pay,’ to which this American replied, ‘The problem with Americans and their taxes is that we get nothing for them.’ He then went on to tell Breaux about the comprehensive level of services and benefits that Swedes receive in return for their taxes. ‘If Americans knew what Swedes receive for their taxes, we would probably riot,’ he told the senator. The rest of the ride to the theater district was unsurprisingly quiet.”

Now, if you consider debt meaningless and are not troubled by borrowing trillions of dollars, then cutting the military and enlarging education and other useful programs are two separate topics. You could be persuaded on one but not the other. However, the argument used in Washington, D.C., against greater spending on human needs usually focuses on the supposed lack of money and the need for a balanced budget. Given this political dynamic, whether or not you think a balanced budget is helpful in itself, wars and domestic issues are inseparable. The money is coming from the same pot, and we have to choose whether to spend it here or there.

In 2010, Rethink Afghanistan created a tool on the FaceBook website that allowed you to re-spend, as you saw fit, the trillion dollars in tax money that had, by that point, been spent on the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.  I clicked to add various items to my “shopping cart” and then checked to see what I’d acquired. I was able to hire every worker in Afghanistan for a year at $12 billion, build 3 million affordable housing units in the United States for $387 billion, provide healthcare for a million average Americans for $3.4 billion and for a million children for $2.3 billion.

Still within the $1 trillion limit, I managed to also hire a million music/arts teachers for a year for $58.5 billion, and a million elementary school teachers for a year for $61.1 billion. I also placed a million kids in Head Start for a year for $7.3 billion. Then I gave 10 million students a one-year university scholarship for $79 billion. Finally, I decided to provide 5 million residences with renewable energy for $4.8 billion. Convinced I’d exceeding my spending limit, I proceeded to the shopping cart, only to be advised:

“You still have $384.5 billion to spare.” Geez. What are we going to do with that?

A trillion dollars sure does go a long way when you don’t have to kill anybody. And yet a trillion dollars was merely the direct cost of those two wars up to that point. On September 5, 2010, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes published a column in the Washington Post, building on their earlier book of a similar title, “The True Cost of the Iraq War: $3 Trillion and Beyond.” The authors argued that their estimate of $3 trillion for just the War on Iraq, first published in 2008, was probably low. Their calculation of the total cost of that war included the cost of diagnosing, treating and compensating disabled veterans, which by 2010 was higher than they had expected. And that was the least of it:

“Two years on, it has become clear to us that our estimate did not capture what may have been the conflict’s most sobering expenses: those in the category of ‘might have beens,’ or what economists call opportunity costs. For instance, many have wondered aloud whether, absent the Iraq invasion, we would still be stuck in Afghanistan. And this is not the only ‘what if’ worth contemplating. We might also ask: If not for the war in Iraq, would oil prices have risen so rapidly? Would the federal debt be so high? Would the economic crisis have been so severe?

“The answer to all four of these questions is probably no. The central lesson of economics is that resources — including both money and attention — are scarce.”

That lesson has not penetrated Capitol Hill, where Congress repeatedly chooses to fund wars while pretending it has no choice.

On June 22, 2010, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer spoke in a large private room at Union Station in Washington, D.C. and took questions. He had no answers for the questions I put to him.

Hoyer’s topic was fiscal responsibility, and he said that his proposals — which were all pure vagueness — would be appropriate to enact “as soon as the economy is fully recovered.” I’m not sure when that was expected.

Hoyer, as is the custom, bragged about cutting and trying to cut particular weapons systems. So I asked him how he could have neglected to mention two closely related points. First, he and his colleagues had been increasing the overall military budget each year. Second, he was working to fund the escalation of the war in Afghanistan with a “supplemental” bill that kept the expenses off the books, outside the budget.

Hoyer replied that all such issues should be “on the table.” But he did not explain his failure to put them there or suggest how he would act on them. None of the assembled Washington press corpse (sic) followed up.

Two other people asked good questions about why in the world Hoyer would want to go after Social Security or Medicare. One guy asked why we couldn’t go after Wall Street instead. Hoyer mumbled about passing regulatory reform, and blamed Bush.

Hoyer repeatedly deferred to President Obama. In fact, he said that if the president’s commission on the deficit (a commission apparently designed to propose cuts to Social Security, a commission commonly referred to as the “catfood commission” for what it may reduce our senior citizens to consuming for dinner) produced any recommendations, and if the Senate passed them, then he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would put them on the floor for a vote — no matter what they might be.

In fact, shortly after this event, the House passed a rule putting in place the requirement that it vote on any catfood commission measures passed by the Senate.

Later Hoyer informed us that only a president can stop spending. I spoke up and asked him “If you don’t pass it, how does the President sign it?” The Majority Leader stared back at me like a deer in the headlights. He said nothing.


The path of disarmament, clean energy, and investment in the peaceful economy is wide open before us. In the 1920s, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison proposed we create an economy based on carbohydrates rather than hydrocarbons. We have ignored that opportunity up to this point. In 1952, President Truman’s Materials Policy Commission recommended a shift to solar power, predicting that three-quarters of homes would be solar powered by 1975. That opportunity has been sitting there waiting for us until now.

In 1963, Senator George McGovern (D., S.D.) introduced a bill, cosponsored by 31 senators, to establish a National Economic Conversion Commission, as did Congressmen F. Bradford Morse (R., Mass.) and William Fitts Ryan (D., N.Y.) in the House. The bill, developed with Seymour Melman, the author of several books on conversion from a war economy to a peace economy, would have created a commission to begin that process. Unbeknownst to the country, our military at the time was conducting secret attacks and provocations against North Vietnam, and strategizing on how to get Congress to pass a resolution that could be treated as authorization for war. A month later President Kennedy was dead. Hearings were held on the bill, but it was never passed. It lies there waiting for us to this day. Melman’s books, too, are still widely available and highly recommended.

Benito Mussolini said “Only war brings to the highest tension the energies of man and imprints the sign of nobility on those who have the virtue to confront it.” Then he wrecked his country and was murdered and hung upside down in the town square. As we saw in chapter five, war is not the only source of greatness or heroes. War has been made sacred, but need not be. Peace need not be boring. A sense of community can be created through projects other than mass murder.

William James in 1906 published The Moral Equivalent of War, proposing that we find the noble, courageous, and exciting aspects of war in something less destructive. No one alive, he wrote, would prefer that the U.S. Civil War had been resolved peacefully. That war had become sacred. And yet, no one would willingly start a new war either. We were of two minds, and only one of them deserved to be followed.

“Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.”

James suggested that we needed the imagination and willingness “first, to envisage a future in which army-life, with its many elements of charm, shall be forever impossible, and in which the destinies of peoples shall nevermore be decided quickly, thrillingly, and tragically by force, but only gradually and insipidly by ‘evolution,’“ and in addition “to see the supreme theatre of human strenuousness closed, and the splendid military aptitudes of men doomed to keep always in a state of latency and never show themselves in action.” We could not counter such desires, James counseled,

“. . . by mere counter-insistency on war’s expensiveness and horror. The horror makes the thrill; and when the question is of getting the extremest and supremest out of human nature, talk of expense sounds ignominious. The weakness of so much merely negative criticism is evident — pacifism makes no converts from the military party. The military party denies neither the bestiality nor the horror, nor the expense; it only says that these things tell but half the story. It only says that war is worth them; that, taking human nature as a whole, its wars are its best protection against its weaker and more cowardly self, and that mankind cannot afford to adopt a peace economy.”

James believed we could and should adopt a peace economy but would be unable to do so without preserving “some of the old elements of army-discipline.” We could not build “a simple pleasure-economy.” We would have to “make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest . . . .”

James proposed universal conscription of young men — and today we would include young women — not for war, but for peaceful enterprise, for building a better world for the common good. James listed such projects as “coal and iron mines,” “freight trains,” “fishing fleets,” “dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing,” “road-building and tunnel-making,” “foundries and stoke-holes,” and “the frames of skyscrapers.” He proposed a “warfare against nature.”

Today we would propose the building of trains and windmills, solar arrays and projects to harness the energy of the tides and the earth’s heat, the restoration of local agriculture and economies, a “war” if you insist against corporate greed and destruction, a humanitarian “war” if you like on behalf of nature.

James thought that young people returning from peaceful service would “tread the earth more proudly” and make better parents and teachers of the following generation. I think so too.

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