By Martin Hart-Landsberg | May 25, 2023 | Originally published in Monthly Review
There is a lot of talk lately about the federal budget, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over whether to raise the debt ceiling and allow the government to borrow enough money to fund already approved agency budgets and programs. But you know what they never argue about—financing the military.
Showing the love
In December 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, approving “national defense” spending of $858 billion for fiscal year 2023. The act covers Pentagon spending as well as work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy. That total represents a 4.3 percent increase over the previous year’s authorization, the second biggest increase in inflation-adjusted terms since World War II. If spending on other military-security related programs were added, such as homeland security, veterans’ care, and Ukraine related military aid, the total would exceed $1.4 trillion.
The National Defense Authorization Act was overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives passed it 350 to 80. The Senate 83 to 11. In fact, Congress actually voted to give the military $45 billion more than what Biden and the Pentagon had originally requested. Now, that is showing the love!
In March, the military proposed a national defense budget for fiscal year 2024 of $886 billion. We shall see how much that figure will grow once Congress takes it up.
The ever-growing defense budget is said to be needed to keep us safe. Left unsaid is that the roughly $80 billion increase over last year’s National Defense Authorization Act is itself bigger than the military budgets of every country in the world but China. That country’s military budget, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, is $293 billion. North Korea, another country said to be a major threat to U.S. security, has a military budget of approximately $4 billion according to the U.S. State Department.
One reason we spend a lot is that our government and corporations have an expansive view of our national interest, one that takes in the entire globe. And they want a military presence everywhere to defend it. As the military analyst William Hartung points out, we have “750 U.S. military bases scattered on every continent except Antarctica, 170,000 troops stationed overseas, and counterterror operations in at least 85–no, that is not a typo–countries.” China, in contrast, has a total of eight foreign military bases, one in Djibouti and the rest on human-made islands in the South China Sea.
Another reason is that military spending is directly profitable for a core set of major U.S. corporations. More than half of national defense spending goes to private firms, with the largest share going to the top five military contractors, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman. These firms aggressively push for adoption of new weapons systems, regardless of their effectiveness, and use their deep pocketbooks to gain Congressional approval. The current head of the House Armed Services Committee received over $444,000 in campaign donations from weapons-making companies in the most recent election cycle; the head of the Defense Appropriations Committee picked up $390,000.
The military also does what it can to create a favorable environment for its budget requests and recruitment efforts. The Department of Defense, using our tax money, has long worked closely with filmmakers to boost the image of the military as a defender of the nation and an attractive career. For example, it played a major role in the script development and filming of the popular film Top Gun: Maverick. One study using internal Defense Department and Agency documents found that “the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have exercised direct editorial control over more than 2,500 films and television shows.”
The Pentagon has also generously funded foreign policy think-tanks, helping to shape the national conversation on national security by funding research papers and developing the experts that appear on news shows to provide commentary on critical issues. And it has long partnered with the National Football League, directly paying teams to host ceremonies honoring veterans and stage full-field flag displays and stadium flyovers by military jets.
The military also runs an aggressive recruitment program in high schools. A case in point: its Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program. Some 3500 high schools across the country have JROTC programs, with their classes taught by military veterans and with textbooks written by the military. And while participation in the program is supposed to be voluntary, the New York Times found that “thousands of public-school students were being funneled into the classes without ever having chosen them, either as an explicit requirement or by being automatically enrolled.” The Army reports that “44 percent of all soldiers who entered its ranks in recent years came from a school that offered JROTC.”
The military is now even offering programs to fifth graders. STARBASE programs are said to help students with their STEM education and a growing number of schools, short on funding, are happy to have the military take over some of the educational burden. Classes are held at National Guard, Marine, Air Force Reserve, Army, and Air Force bases across the country, where young students are taught by military approved instructors and get to see all the onsite military hardware.
The militarization of our country comes at high cost. At the top of the list is the possibility of war. The Biden administration seems determined to use our military to drive a new cold war in Asia largely to isolate and economically weaken China. In April 2023, Biden announced that the U.S. will be deploying nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea for the first time in more than 40 years. That same month, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, at U.S. urging, agreed to hold joint missile defense and anti-submarine exercises to counter North Korea and “promote peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region,” with special emphasis on “peace and security in the Taiwan Strait.”
The Philippines recently granted the U.S. access to four additional military bases. These were needed, said the U.S. Secretary of Defense, because “the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims” in the South China Sea. The U.S. will soon be holding bilateral military exercises with Australia, which are, according to Australian officials, designed to “demonstrate our ability to receive large volumes of personnel and equipment into Australia from across the Indo-Pacific and stage, integrate and move them forward into the large exercise area.” And thanks to U.S. efforts, even NATO now lists China as one of the organization’s greatest threats because of its challenge to the “interests, security and values” of NATO member countries
The threat of war with China, or possibly North Korea is real and growing. But even if war is averted, U.S. actions are fueling the militarization of the Asian region, with governments throughout the region boosting spending on their respective militaries to the detriment of their people’s wellbeing.
We suffer a similar fate. For example, the U.S. defense budget now gobbles up more than half the federal discretionary budget, limiting the amount of money available for public health, education, housing, environmental protection, and transportation. The growth in military spending has also led to the militarization of our police. For years, the Pentagon provided surplus military equipment to police agencies, allegedly to support the “war on drugs.” This transfer dramatically changed police training practices and relations between police and community members, especially people of color, who came to play the role of the enemy that needed to be suppressed.
The militarization of our foreign policy has also promoted a sense of American exceptionalism and national superiority. This development, encouraged by many of our elected leaders, has intensified distrust and dislike of people of color and immigrants, often leading to acts of violence against them. It has also contributed to growing rightwing efforts to purge books from our libraries and classrooms that include passages that might lead to a critical understanding of the American experience.
More could be said, but hopefully the point is clear: we need to build an anti-militarism movement, one that targets not just the size of the military budget, but more importantly our foreign policy which sees domination and violence as an acceptable, if not desirable, way to promote our so-called national interest. It’s a big challenge, but the cost of inaction is too great to ignore.
Martin Hart-Landsberg, Korea Policy Institute Board Member, is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon; and Adjunct Researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences, Gyeongsang National University, South Korea. His areas of teaching and research include political economy, economic development, international economics, and the political economy of East Asia. He is also a member of the Workers' Rights Board (Portland, Oregon) and maintains a blog Reports from the Economic Front where this article first appeared.