Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).
The August 9 announcement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates of cost-containment measures at the Defense Department should not obscure two underlying facts. First, as he conceded, these proposed economies will not result in cutting the overall Pentagon budget, which is slated for expansion. And, second, as a Washington Post article reported, "defense officials characterized them as a political preemptive strike to fend off growing sentiment elsewhere in Washington to tackle the federal government's soaring deficits by making deep cuts in military spending."
But why should anyone want to cut the U.S. military budget?
One reason is that—with $549 billion requested for basic military expenditures and another $159 billion requested for U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the record $708 billion military spending called for by the Obama administration for fiscal 2011 will be nearly equivalent to the military spending of all other nations in the world combined. When it comes to military appropriations, the U.S. government already spends about seven times as much as China, thirteen times as much as Russia, and seventy-three times as much as Iran.
Is this really necessary? During the Cold War, the United States confronted far more dangerous and numerous military adversaries, including the Soviet Union. And the U.S. government certainly possessed an enormous and devastating military arsenal, as well as the armed forces that used it. But in those years, U.S. military spending accounted for only 26 percent of the world total. Today, as U.S. Congressman Barney Frank has observed, "we have fewer enemies and we're spending more money."
Where does this vast outlay of U.S. tax dollars—the greatest military appropriations in U.S. history—go? One place is to overseas U.S. military bases. According to Chalmers Johnson, a political scientist and former CIA consultant, as much as $250 billion per year is used to maintain some 865 U.S. military facilities in more than forty countries and overseas U.S. territories.
The money also goes to fund vast legions of private military contractors. A recent Pentagon report estimated that the Defense Department relies on 766,000 contractors at an annual cost of about $155 billion, and this figure does not include private intelligence organizations. A Washington Post study, which included all categories, estimated that the Defense Department employs 1.2 million private contractors.
Of course, enormously expensive air and naval weapons systems—often accompanied by huge cost over-runs—account for a substantial portion of the Pentagon's budget. But exactly who are these high tech, Cold War weapons to be used against? Certainly they have little value in a world threatened by terrorism. As Congressman Frank has remarked: "I don't think any terrorist has ever been shot by a nuclear submarine."
Furthermore, when bemoaning budget deficits, Americans should not forget the enormous price the United States has paid for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the highly-respected National Priorities Project, their cost, so far, amounts to $1.06 trillion. (For those readers who are unaccustomed to dealing with a trillion dollar budget, that's $1,060,000,000,000.)
When calculating the benefits and losses of these kinds of expenditures, we should also include the opportunities forgone through military spending. How many times have government officials told us that there is not enough money available for health care, for schools, for parks, for the arts, for public broadcasting, for unemployment insurance, for law enforcement, and for maintenance of America's highway, bridge, and rail infrastructure?
Admittedly, there are other reasons for America's failure to use its substantial wealth to provide adequate care for its own people. Some Americans, driven by mean-spiritedness or greed, resent the very idea of sharing with others. Furthermore, years of tax cuts for the wealthy have diminished public revenues.
Even so, it is hard to deny that there is a heavy price being paid for making military power the nation's top priority. With more than half of U.S. government discretionary spending going to feed the Pentagon, we should not be surprised that—in America, at least—it is no longer considered feasible to use public resources to feed the hungry, heal the sick, or house the homeless.
We would do well to recall an observation by one of the great prophets of our time, Martin Luther King, Jr.: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."