Reducing military spending would reign in U.S. debt and improve global security

July 11, 2023 2:13 pm
KYIV, UKRAINE - APRIL 28: Smoke rises after missiles landed at sunset on April 28, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, said on his Telegram account that Russian strikes hit the lower floors of a residential building in the Shevchenkivskyi district. The attack coincides with today's visit to Kyiv by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

KYIV, UKRAINE – APRIL 28: Smoke rises after missiles landed at sunset on April 28, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, said on his Telegram account that Russian strikes hit the lower floors of a residential building in the Shevchenkivskyi district. The attack coincides with today’s visit to Kyiv by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

At the time of his death in 1940, Major General Smedley Butler was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. Yet in the last decade of his life, Butler became an outspoken critic of U.S. wars and imperialism. He had seen first-hand the profit motive behind war. Words from Butler’s seminal 1935 work, War is a Racket, are particularly relevant today:

WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

The American people must demand their representatives heed Butler’s almost century-old warning, because while the recent debt ceiling negotiations delivered $136 billion in budget cuts, military spending, the most significant contributor to America’s debt, was not even considered for the chopping block. In fact, the military budget was increased from $857 billion to $886 billion, forcing Americans into more debt and promising further U.S.-involved conflicts around the globe.

The real costs of war and what the military budget actually funds

In 2000, U.S. debt was $3.5 trillion, equal to 35% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

By 2022, the debt had risen to $24 trillion, 95% of GDP. Had the debt remained at 35% of GDP from 2000 to 2022, it would have risen to $9 trillion. How did the U.S. government incur $15 trillion in excess debt?

Most of it was military spending. Between 2001 and 2022, the U.S. spent $8 trillion on war. While the U.S. comprises just over 4% of the world’s population, it is now responsible for 40% of global military spending, more than the next ten top-spending countries combined.

But where does the spending go? Since 9/11, the military-industrial complex (MIC,) the most powerful lobby in Washington comprised of weapons industries, has lobbied the U.S. into wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and now Ukraine. These conflicts have racked up trillions of dollars in debt and made defense contractors extremely wealthy.

The costs of those wars are measured in dollars and lives. The Watson Institute estimates that U.S.-led, post-9/11 wars have claimed between 906,000-937,000 lives from direct violence. Another 3.6-3.7 million are thought to have died from indirect causes of our wars, such as economic collapse, food insecurity, infrastructure destruction, environmental contamination, and disease. At least 7,000 U.S. service members have been killed in post-9/11 operations. Another 30,177 have died from suicide.

Americans incur debts and bury their loved ones to provide the grist for the U.S. war machine, yet they have nothing to show for it, as global security has not improved from U.S.-led campaigns overseas. 

While the MIC succeeded in scaring Americans with villainous (and not inaccurate) depictions of Afghanistan’s Taliban, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and now China’s Xi Jinping, one cannot honestly say any of those countries where the U.S. intervened are better off, safer, or less hostile today. 

Iraq, America’s centerpiece in its War on Terror, is now “a laboratory in which militant groups such as Islamic State have been able to hone their techniques of recruitment and violence.” In Afghanistan, the Taliban are back in power after a 20-year U.S. occupation that cost $2.3 trillion and 243,000 lives.

Americans overwhelmingly oppose more military spending and U.S. involvement overseas

Outrage at the human toll and financial costs of U.S.-led wars is justified, especially considering Americans no longer back such operations. Pluralities of Americans support reducing U.S. intervention abroad, drawing down U.S. troop deployments overseas, and engaging in multilateralism —𐐣countries working together to pursue a common goal — instead of unilateralism — the U.S. working alone to further its global objectives.

Anti-imperial and anti-militaristic sentiments have always been present among Americans, but they reached plurality and even majority levels shortly after the Iraq Invasion and have only grown since. For example, in the current conflict in Ukraine that has seen the U.S. send $76.8 billion in mostly military aid, 52% of Americans now want their government to play a minor role in the conflict,  Twenty percent  want the government to play no role at all, and just 26% want it to play a major role.

Yet democracy is defunct when military contractors are embedded in congressional districts

Though Americans overwhelmingly oppose U.S.-led foreign wars and the colossal debts incurred by them, the MIC is embedded in every congressional district in the United States. The Congressional Research Service’s recent report to Congress states, “Defense spending touches every Member of Congress’s district through pay and benefits for military service members and retirees, economic and environmental impact of installations, and procurement of weapons systems and parts from local industry, among other activities.”

Because of that strategy, few members of Congress are willing to vote against more military spending, despite the broader wishes of the American people to end U.S. intervention abroad.

Diplomacy and arms control agreements would save lives and pump the brakes on runaway military spending

Peace could be achieved through diplomacy rather than war-mongering and failed interventions. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, highlighted how diplomacy could reduce U.S. debt. “A quarter or more [of military spending] could be avoided by ending America’s wars of choice, closing down many of America’s 800 or so military bases around the world, and negotiating new arms control agreements with China and Russia,” he said.

Sachs also highlighted how, if Congress and the White House could be compelled to stand up to the forces within the MIC that push for NATO expansion — new NATO members equal big contracts for weapons manufacturers — then the U.S. could play a diplomatic role in ending the war in Ukraine that has claimed at least 354,000 lives.”

Citizens in every Congressional district must remind their elected officials that they answer to American voters, not American weapons contractors who want the U.S. to play the role of global policeman. Only by using our democratic institutions to insist we become a force for peace in the world can the U.S. move away from its increasingly costly and lethal tryst with the MIC.


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Ren Brabenec
Ren Brabenec

Ren Brabenec is a Nashville-based freelance writer and journalist. He reports on politics, local issues, environmental stories, foreign policy, and the economy. For questions, comments, or to suggest a story, email, [email protected].