How Much Is Enough? America's Runaway Military Spending

News Abroad

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."

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Nat Bates - 8/18/2010

Mr. Shcherban,

I'm a simple guy, rather content to warm myself in the sun. I am honestly not equipped to understand geo-politics beyond the ecosystem level. Frankly, the ecosystem ought to be the ideal geo-political unit, but I guess the end of the paleolithic period and the rise of the State makes that rather impossible. So, I am stuck with the world I see, not some world I might like.

The same could be said for military officers. The same could be said for police, judges, executives, and others who are functionaries of the elites above them. Most are probably simple guys. I am not excusing them, but, then again, I am also not excusing the regular public who sell out and think that they are getting something and then are shocked with they lose. They turned their back on people more poor and powerless than themselves, and then become shocked when they lose.

I have nothing against military officers, executives, policemen, and people who are functionaries. I would simply remind them that they are functionaries, and not sovereign individuals. In that way, I am encouraging the humility that leads to enlightenment. They become sovereign individuals when they realize that they are not.

With that humility, I would hope that people within the higher classes who are reasonable will see through the propaganda the next time we have a terror incident that is blamed on Venezuela or Cuba. I would simply encourage them to read Operation Northwoods, which is declassified. You should read it yourself. If enough of them can see through the disinformation, then perhaps we might begin to see clarity and reason.

By the way, if you want to know about lost freedom, local news reports that nursery schools are electronically monitoring students in the SF Bay Area (Richmond). This is a direct result of militarism (not the military soldiers). Apparently, some head start program got a grant for technology, which was used to create systems for monitoring students everywhere. Enjoy "Freedom."

Arnold Shcherban - 8/17/2010

You say: "I make a crucial distinction between soldiers who swear an oath to the Constitution and mean it,..."
I make such a distinction as well, and it's a valid one when made on moral grounds, but the reality on this issue is much more complex, on two main reasons: first - the US Constitution has been repeatedly ignored and/or violated, when the US elites chose to resort to war;
second - the false premises are given to the public by the same "chicken-hawks" you mentioned (through subservient to them enormous corporate propaganda machine) to fool the law-abiding Americans to make their bidding for them.
Common American soldier is not that
sophisticated or educated to sort out the thin reed of the truth from the stack of lies and/or distortions, but most of their commanding officers are.
The question is: why do they keep almost complete silence?
I sit because they are so much brainwashed and corrupted by the incessant ultra-patriotic militaristic propaganda or
because they are paid well for doing dirty work?

Nat Bates - 8/16/2010

I make a crucial distinction between soldiers who swear an oath to the Constitution and mean it, versus civilian chicken-hawks who come from Corporate America and whose allegiance is not to democracy but to the bottom dollar. It is the latter who push war against Hugo Chavez, or whomever, while at the same time want the military used against American civilians (most soldiers do not).

If I did not make that distinction before, I gladly do now.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/16/2010

no matter what they do,... unless they
drop their independence and blindly follow American superpower.
Notice, they are deemed "unstable unknown", not because of the weakness of their economy and, perhaps, skewed domestic policies, but because they provide fuel to Iranian nuclear reactor, in full correspondence with all international laws and agreements, including those
signed by the USA governments, but despite the will of the NATO's countries, who on their part helped or did nothing to prevent the development of creation of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, and India, who TWICE have been in war with each other, and of which, at least, the former was one of the epicenters of international territorism for decades?!
The US is the only country in the world that actually used nuclear weapons, and reamains one of the very few nations (all of which have participated in many military conflicts, as aggressors) refusing to sign the ban on their employ against even non-nuclear country?!
Not already mentioning its continuing AGGRESSIONS, according to all international definitions of an aggression versus a just war, against Iraq and Afghanistan.
If Russia would have done the same nowadays, it would have been either attacked by NATO, or at the least, as severely sanctioned, as Iraq under Baathist regime.

james joseph butler - 8/16/2010

Fitzharris, you're part of what I like about America, it's ginormous nuttiness. First, what is ROW? I googled it twice and read Olson twins before I came across anything relevant. You're upset with those "excessively fanatic do-gooders" who wanna paste a label on your McDouble Deluxe. I thought guys like you could handle the truth. The "service people" include teachers, firemen, and cops, some of whom might lose their jobs because of America's addiction to, in Eisenhower's original words, "the congressional, military, industrial, complex". Not that cops, firemen and teachers do anything important.

Joseph do you think you understand the neighborhood or farm or family a mile or 5,000 miles away? Would you think it wise to walk into their world with your M-16 and decide who the "bad people" are without knowing squat?

How about providing disaster relief assistance to the good ole USA, Joseph. We actually believe in America here in America, Joseph. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and Israel too, they don't believe in Uncle Sam the way you and I do. Let's rebuild America before we throw away another trillion and another American life.

Joseph Fitzharris - 8/16/2010

First, the US military is less of a threat to our liberties than those excessively fanatic do-gooders who would limit us for our own good - be it sugar, tobacco, or …. Their disdain for the rights of citizens - on the grounds of expertise and special knowledge is not sufficient to justify suspending our constitutional rights. Fascists is what they folk are. The service people, by contrast, take an oath to the constitution, an oath that they take seriously.

Second, Comparisons to ROW budget are skewed from the start by the reality that Europe does not spend much because it has us to do the heavy lifting. They can't even bring order in Europe (Kosovo). Russia continues to be an unstable unknown (nuclear fuel to Iran?) in the international equation and is not a reason for hope.

Third, the US is expected - by its own citizens and by the ROW - to provide disaster relief assistance even to enemies and psuedo friends (Pakistan). NGOs are simply not big enough or sufficiently equipped, trained, or disciplined, and lack the command and control systems necessary. Without the US military as the prime mover and lifter, the 20 million Paks would be in much worse shape.

That does not mean defense contractors (BAE, etc) are not part of the problem, but they are controllable if we have the POLITICAL will. See Mr. Franks (who is quotable but not part of any know solution) and his colleagues for that failure.

Hiring contractors like KBR to run dining halls frees troops for nasty little jobs like killing bad people and fixing schools. If they are over paid, that can (and should) be fixed. Again, much of this has more to do with politics. If Congress had spine, it could clean house. Unfortunately, it is the only species of pig lacking brain and backbone.

Nat Bates - 8/16/2010

Sadly, the threat to our liberty from a standing army was understood to those who opposed the Federal Constitution. Among them numbered some of the greatest Patriots of the Revolution, who did not want to exchange one militaristic empire for another. Thanks to them, we at least got a Bill of Rights, but they do not get a whole lot of thanks.

If we ever want to progress as a civilization to become interplanetary, we have to end war completely. Einstein knew it, Gandhi knew it, and I believe that JFK and MLK knew it before they met their untimely deaths. Oh, and Eisenhower knew it, warning us of the military-industrial complex.

Sadly, taking this stand does not win friends.