During the last three years of the Bush administration, I reported on the military budget, following the supplemental spending bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since Congress has not formally declared war since World War II, these budget bills were the mechanism that was keeping our wars going.
Every time the war budgets came up for a vote, I held my breath. Even though I knew better, I watched C-SPAN for hours, hoping for a surprise. There were a few stalwart Congress members who usually held out — Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Dennis Kucinich — but for the most part, Republicans and Democrats alike got in line to flood the war coffers, again and again. Eventually, I stopped watching; I could practically write my articles ahead of time. If a flight of angels crashed through the ceiling of the Capitol and announced, “The world is ending tonight,” they’d still vote to fund tomorrow’s wars.
The predictable passage of blank checks for war was an expression of the acceptability of the status quo. The status quo was murder, but within the halls of Congress and, of course, the White House, there was a level of comfort with that. From the US’s early days, the military evolved largely as a vehicle for colonialism and genocide. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, “the Iraq War was just another Indian war in the US military tradition.” This country’s military has long been more of an offensive force — charging ahead with the winds of white supremacy and capitalism at its back — than one of “defense.” The Iraq War is one moment in its long legacy of actively disrupting, upending and devastating the lives and communities of millions of people of color, both at home and abroad.
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Much of the government seems to view perpetual war as an inevitability, the way most of us, in the words of Angela Davis, “take for granted” the existence of prisons. Davis has written that, although prisons as we know them are a fairly recent addition to the world, they have become so embedded in our society that “it is difficult to imagine life without them.” The US’s brand of imperialist militarism, too, is seen as natural. In the mid-2000s, many liberal Democrats were arguing for a strategy of amelioration: a small-scale withdrawal of troops, the cutting of some “waste” from the Pentagon budget, a halt to the production of a couple of bizarrely expensive fighter jets. These measures were aimed at mitigating the damage, instead of disrupting the overall project of war, militarism and the destruction of communities, most of them in Muslim-majority countries.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did scale down over the course of Obama’s presidency, but in one form or another, they’ve persisted — and other undeclared wars have been and continue to be waged. In 2016 alone, the US bombed Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Somalia. Every year since 2003, the military has occupied the majority of the US discretionary budget. We are currently spending much more on the military (accounting for inflation) than we were at the height of the Vietnam War.
The way in which US militarism is taken for granted mirrors the ways in which other forms of mass violence are deemed inevitable — policing, deportation, the genocide and erasure of Indigenous peoples, the exploitative market-driven health care system, the vastly inequitable education system and disastrous environmental policies. The generally accepted logic tells us that these things will remain with us: The best we can hope for, according to this narrative, is modest reform amid monstrous violence.
We have to choose life-giving priorities over violent ones. We have to stop granting legitimacy to all forms of state violence.
Now, we have a president who has no interest in modest reform. His draft budget, released last week, is a caricature of our bad budgets past. Not only will the Pentagon continue to occupy the majority of our discretionary budget this year, but if Donald Trump has his way, military spending will jump by 10 percent. Vital programs — programs that support survival instead of murder — will be slashed or eliminated. If his administration gets what it wants, the Department of Education will take a 14 percent hit, Health and Human Services will shrink by 16 percent, the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget will decrease by 16 percent, and the EPA will suffer a 31 percent blow. Under Trump’s proposal, funding would be eliminated for the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Chemical Safety Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Legal Services Corporation (which provides civil legal assistance to low-income people).
The proposed budget doesn’t simply represent an act of deprioritization or neglect of most people’s needs. It is an attack on the lives of poor people and people of color. It is a call-to-arms against the environment, and thus, against the long-term survival of most species on Earth. It is a battle against the arts, against learning, against recreation, against shared space — against the things that help give us life beyond mere survival.
We should not be surprised that these attacks on civil society and fundamental human rights are accompanied by a surge in military spending. The cuts and the hikes are part of the same murderous project.
The ground is already laid for that project to be built. Already, the US military budget exceeds the combined military budgets of the next seven countries: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, India and Germany.
If we are going to confront Trump’s proposed cuts to key domestic programs, we have to also confront the legitimacy that has been granted to endless war and militarism over the course of the past 16 years — and throughout our country’s history. We can’t just add the priorities of health and life to the stock priorities of death and destruction. We can’t just advocate for a few less fighter jets or a downsizing of Pentagon bureaucracy. We have to choose life-giving priorities over violent ones. We have to stop taking all forms of state violence — war, militarism, deportations, prisons, surveillance, colonial destruction, disinvestment and deprivation — for granted.
One way to start might be to imagine how we could reroute the money currently funneled toward this violence. For example, the National Priorities Project suggests that instead of increasing the military budget by $54 billion, as Trump suggests, we slash the military budget by that same amount. That $54 billion could provide Medicaid for 15 million adults, or grant 1.6 million students a free four-year college education, or create 1 million infrastructure jobs, or fund the Meals on Wheels program for 7,180 years.
Taking this a step further, military cuts could easily help fund programs that we don’t yet have but desperately need, such as Medicare for all. With real cuts to the budgets of murder and devastation — including not only the military, but also police, prisons, ICE and other violent institutions — we could set viable plans to end homelessness, dramatically step up climate justice efforts, provide universal child care and more.
“Real cuts” would not only mean slicing off a certain number of dollars. They would also mean challenging the specific ways in which that money is spent. As United for Peace and Justice lays out, in addition to demanding a stop to US wars, we must also demand an end to the drone program, the closure of US military bases throughout the world, the start of active negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons and the demilitarization of local police forces. I’d go a step further to say that the demilitarization of police forces is not enough — we should move toward dismantling them.
Moreover, confronting militarism would require a fundamental prioritization of racial and social justice. Both within the US and abroad, the military and other forms of state violence overwhelmingly target, harm, displace and kill people of color. Within the US, poor and working class people are targeted for recruitment into the military, pulled in via a long string of false promises. Once we acknowledge that these realities are not accidents, and are not new, we can conceive of how injustice is not simply a side effect. It is embedded in the practice of US militarism.
Trump’s budget was released on March 16, the anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, when the US military murdered the majority of people living in the small Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, including many children and elderly people. This should serve as a reminder for all of us that rising military budgets are not a prescription for “public safety,” as Trump has claimed. They are a prescription for murder.
As long as taxpayers continue to be complicit in filling that prescription, it seems that we have a responsibility to act against it.
We need to call and write to our Congress members and demand they reject the $54 billion increase to our military budget and the brutal cuts to crucial domestic programs. We have to stop taking our wars, our drones, our bombs, our imperialism and our decades of colossal military budgets for granted. We have to “imagine life without them.” And we have to imagine — and work to create — the life-giving, healing, transformational priorities that will take their place.