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IDEAS

Too much military spending got us into this mess

A lesson from the pandemic: reduce the Pentagon budget and invest in programs that actually keep us safe.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly by the Washington Monument on May 2, in a salute to coronavirus responders.
The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly by the Washington Monument on May 2, in a salute to coronavirus responders.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

The coronavirus pandemic — and all its far-ranging societal, economic, and global consequences — are the manifestation of four catastrophes of America’s own making: An endlessly growing “War on Terror”; deepening economic and health inequalities due to declining investment in public goods; a rise of anti-democratic governance; and an unsustainable relationship with the planet we all exist on. If we recognize that this emergency didn’t appear out of nowhere, we can use it as an opportunity to imagine and build a better world.

For the majority of the past two decades, the US government has equated Americans’ national security with military supremacy, spending and obligating $6.4 trillion on America’s post-9/11 wars and allocating over two-thirds of the federal discretionary budget — the part that pays for public health, environmental protection, and virtually everything the government does other than programs like Medicare and Social Security — to the Pentagon each year. At the same time, the government has cut funding for public health programs, scrimped on investing in infectious disease research, and stockpiled weapons instead of medical equipment.

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Since the pandemic began, the US military has hardly been able to protect itself from the coronavirus, much less protect the American people. Nothing made that more obvious than the Pentagon’s decision to pay tribute to the nation’s front-line workers with a series of expensive flyovers by Blue Angels and Thunderbird squadrons planned for at least 22 cities. At over $60,000 for each flight hour, that’s a total of at least $1.32 million — enough to provide many ventilators, masks, and other equipment that’s been in short supply.

In a country in which the top 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, it makes sense that a common refrain has become “we all face the same storm with the coronavirus, but we are not all in the same boat.” According to American Public Media’s Research Lab, the latest available COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.6 times higher than the rate for white Americans. Due to highly unequal access to education and jobs, most of the workers deemed “essential” are people of color and women; they’re also more likely to be immigrants. They are more likely to live below the federal poverty line or hover just above it. They’re not only facing repeated exposure to the virus; “diseases of poverty” and inadequate access to health care make them less likely to recover. America’s distorted priorities have exacerbated these economic and health inequalities. Instead of investing in programs and supplies that would have saved thousands of lives, our leaders were investing trillions in new weapons and continuing old wars.

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The Trump administration hasn’t let the pandemic stop it from selling weapons to some of the world’s most repressive, anti-democratic regimes. In the last month alone, it has proposed billions of dollars worth of arms sales to the Philippines, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. In Libya, for example, the UAE is being accused of equipping mercenaries, using airstrikes to kill civilians, and just generally sowing chaos. In the manufacturing plants that would supply those weapons, “essential workers” have been forced to show up — even as a number of employees at those factories tested positive for coronavirus.

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COVID-19 proves that things can’t change until we decide they can. For so long, climate change has been considered “too complex to fix.” Last year, our research showed that the US military is one of the most significant contributors to climate change in the world. Its annual emissions are larger than those of Portugal, Sweden, or Denmark.

We need to recognize that business as usual is not good enough. Why does the military have universal health care, while many other Americans are in a lesser category, with their health dependent on their ability to pay? We’re squandering the chance to save lives on an average day — as well as in a pandemic. If we continue investing in hundreds of military bases and wars, while putting Americans back to work in fossil fuel-heavy industries, we miss the chance to avert further climate change. If we continue to prop up cruel dictators, while failing to reform our own election financing and ballot access, we will slide closer to authoritarianism.

Now is the time for fundamental change premised on the value of real security as human security. We can make our infrastructure both green and good for the economy. We can finance public education, public health, and high-quality veterans care. But, to do so, we have to reduce the Pentagon budget, invest in the programs actually keeping us safe and end the post-9/11 wars.

Otherwise we’ll just be sleepwalking back toward another version of the mess we’re in now.

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Neta C. Crawford teaches at Boston University and Catherine Lutz at Brown University. They co-direct the Costs of War project at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and BU’s Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.