Do you think following national security is something you should do, because it’s important, but don’t know where to start? I felt this way myself for many years. I’d like to think the topics and perspectives in this post are a worthwhile primer on starting and maintaining a critical eye toward this destructive arm of the U.S. government.
If you’re wondering how important our military actions, and expansive preparation for them, are to individual citizens like yourself, consider this passage from a speech by WWII general Dwight Eisenhower, toward the end of his subsequent presidency:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
My first thought after reading this was that the U.S. hasn’t had a president brave enough—or disentangled from defense industry enough—to say a similar thing in a long time. Maybe in 50 years or more.
My second thought when I tell people about this wild speech a president gave in our grandparents’ lifetimes is to emphasize that Eisenhower wasn’t talking about dollars, but human energy. He probably realized, being a product of WWII, that the government creates money and can create nearly as much of it as needed to serve a goal the government gets behind. Eisenhower witnessed the greatest single expenditure of national treasure in the 20th century, and he knew that the government printed money to make it happen. (“Printing” money is a misnomer; money technically comes into existence when the government writes checks to pay expenses.)
These days, this idea is called “modern monetary theory,” but there are plenty of historical examples (like WWII) to support its use. The key is political will: does a quorum of government want to accomplish the goal? You might be surprised to learn that political will is the only barrier to ensuring, for example, that all children are fed and all veterans are housed. By extension—and by definition, if you accept this premise—not enough of the current government wants to do those things.
Yes, the “MMT” people say, the specter of inflation is real, but, the theory goes, those who make decisions for the rest of us have convinced us of an untruth. Our politicians and business leaders tell us that inflation would show up far sooner than it actually would—MMT adherents posit—if austerity were abandoned. One way to ensure runaway inflation doesn’t affect us all is to back off from austerity piecemeal. First, make sure everyone is fed and see what happens. During the following year, make sure everyone has a home. Next, provide real healthcare for all. And if those don’t kick inflation up beyond something we’re willing to live with, tackle higher education using federally created dollars.
All this might feel like a digression from national security, but it’s central to Eisenhower’s point: that money is fake, but human effort—worker-time, worker-energy—is real and finite. So government has a choice. It can either influence the construction of arms and train the personnel to support war efforts, or it can influence the creation of infrastructure that benefits people. Either put people to work making widgets that do nothing but kill or put them to work making widgets that build people up, however long those widgets remain around.
Proponents of the full extent of our current national security, “natsec,” efforts suggest that a large defense apparatus helps people beyond putting humans to work building it. They cite shadowy threats that unfortunately they can’t tell us about. We’re just supposed to trust them. But consider that our best intelligence has determined our armed forces are equal to the seven next-largest-military spenders combined. Since that data was released, our military “budgets” have roughly doubled. (I use air quotes there purposefully. You’ll see why soon.) Other key metrics demonstrate U.S. dominance: our aircraft carriers number roughly the total of the rest of the world. We have more foreign military bases than any empire in history. All this expense isn’t necessarily a waste of “money,” as you now know. But it is a waste of human energy—of person-power.
One should also note what a viral tweet made clear this month as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan:
I get that $2 trillion is a lot of money and so it’s worth reflecting on, but it’s also kind of gross to talk about the occupation of Afghanistan in terms of financial cost to US taxpayers when the really morally relevant thing about it was the cruel violence of imperialism.
— they/them might be giants (@babadookspinoza) August 17, 2021
It’s a new frontier of journalism that can count the cost of something not just in terms of taxpayer dollars. (Because what is a tax dollars figure if not a desperate grasp to quantify a cost to a society, to compare with a given program’s benefit.) Any newsroom worth its salt in 2021 will make an honest attempt at elaborating “cost” beyond the one to the public coffers. I will add that any such attempt should count ruining (or ending) a foreign life the same as ruining (or ending) an American life. (How to make an American care about someone from a different culture is another post for another day.)
I’ll admit that I’m not the closest observer of national security topics. But I’ve been paying attention, as I can, with the critical eye of a journalist for about a decade now. I’ve been an independent reporter for The Guardian and Al Jazeera, and have worked as a researcher with ProPublica, Washington Post, and a D.C.-based economic think tank. This list was also partially informed, as you’ll see noted therein, by some conversation with a national security reporter for The Intercept, Alex Emmons.
Without further ado, here are national security topics a progressive observer should know and keep a long memory about.
Climate change as a national security issue
As of April of this year, the Department of Defense (DOD) considers climate change near the top of its list of threats; potentially its top threat. As you might suspect, I don’t trust the word of the military industrial complex on much, but when a famously conservative institution publicly announces it’s paying very close attention to a popularly progressive cause, I listen. That said, the DOD is the single biggest polluter on the planet, so if you’re fighting climate change, it pays to advocate for downsizing the DOD.
Authorization for use of military force and the war powers act
Will Congress take back the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which allows the declaration of war, that it relinquished to Bush after 9/11? How will it define “war”— ideally, it would be as “any attack on any place, whether by plane, drone, or boots on the ground.” Emmons adds: “What are the geographical or temporal limitations on future authorizations for use of force? And how do we limit the scope of who we’re authorizing force against? (2001 AUMF has more recently been invoked to go after Al-Shabab in Somalia, for example.) Should it be acceptable to use drones outside of AUMF-approved theaters of conflict?”
Defense budget should be, ahem, real
DOD accounting is in shambles, according to the Treasury department, as outlined in this eye-opening Rolling Stone report. To cite just one example, the U.S. Army made $6.5 trillion (with a “T”) in “improper adjustments” (unfounded fixes) to its accounting books in fiscal 2015 alone. By comparison, the entire U.S. GDP in 2015 was $18.2 trillion; this Reuters story is about accounting absurdity in only one of five military branches. We the public have no idea what we spend. Some suggest the DOD knows; some suggest they don’t. It could be several times the actual DOD budget. Again, the dollar amount hardly matters; it’s the opportunity cost of what people could be doing elsewhere, in ways that could help other people.
Defense budget should be a full tally
Did you know that in the “defense” (usually meaning “Department of Defense”) budget that’s covered at length each budget season, the following items needed for war-making are not included: The Department of Veterans Affairs, including the gigantic network of medical providers (“The VA”) it operates; nuclear weapons programs, which are housed at the Department of Energy; the black budget for intelligence services; interest on war bonds; parts of FBI used in war prosecution; and budgets for actual war fighting as opposed to just the operation of the apparatus? (The war budget in 2004 alone was $1 trillion, and it went up from there. Drones and AUMF actions likely are included here, which means they’re not included in the DOD budget.)
Has anyone at DOD analyzed “security” holistically?
Are you starting to understand that “national security” is jargon? It’s a euphemism; it’s branding that makes any listener feel like it’s necessary. If one takes the word “security” seriously, and fully, one should wonder whether spending on widgets that can (and do) kill people makes us less secure than if we had spent the same worker-effort on schools; more accessible health care; or elimination of other population stressors that ultimately decrease our national output, capability, and happiness. Happiness, if you don’t care about it for its own sake, of course affects the first two. The DOD is fond of studies. Has it commissioned or seriously considered a study on the toll our military-first policies have taken? The opportunity cost?
Did you know that in 2019, the U.S. and its local allies killed more Afghan civilians than the Taliban did? Deaths from the folly-filled war we just departed likely number in the hundreds of thousands. The war in Iraq likely took “between 700,000 and 1 million” civilian lives, according to a round-up of science-based studies by academics at MIT. That’s far more than the few hundred civilian deaths officially acknowledged by the Pentagon. Emmons asks: How should U.S. policy reduce civilian casualties? How can we create resources and mechanisms that are designed to investigate them? (Clearly the current ones aren’t working.) How/should the U.S. be taking responsibility for them, and making ex gratia payments?
Inability to admit we were wrong
Speaking of untold civilian consequences: we used depleted uranium bullets in Baghdad when, for a few cents more per bullet, we could have used a metal that doesn’t give babies birth defects for generations. How do we make that right? Can we as a nation admit we did wrong in the past? Can we ever win support or make it right without admitting we did wrong in the past? (We’ve still never formally apologized for Hiroshima & Nagasaki; Obama had the perfect opportunity to do that and he declined. Here’s a scathing list, in Washington Post, of all the other things the U.S. should apologize for.)
The U.S. enabled the rise of ISIS
This seems comically familiar to one of many supervillain origin stories. Allegedly unintended consequences by a superhero end up creating their nemesis. Unfortunately, this is real life, and ISIS is a real fighting force that, like the U.S., takes innocent lives. A few minutes of internet search finds a number of well-sourced reports on ISIS leaders becoming radicalized for the first time in U.S. prison camps during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, specifically Camp Bucca—at the time, the largest prison in the world, just beating out Chicago’s Cook County Jail—and the notorious, contractor-managed, Abu Ghraib. One must wonder if, for all the research the DOD commissions, it knows full well what the blowback for its violence will be, and welcomes it with open arms.
Nuclear arsenal — a danger to all humankind
I used to think, well, since it’s politically unfeasible for any established nation to use nuclear weapons at the moment, we’re all fairly safe from this threat, long a darling of lefty activists. Then after reading Daniel Ellsberg’s book “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a nuclear war planner” (and reading about a few others with more recent revelations), I’ve come to the same conclusion as Ellsberg: the entire world needs to make these far more difficult to use. I had no idea how lucky we are that all of humanity hasn’t yet been obliterated. Our luck continues, but with plans and systems in much the same state they were in Ellsberg’s time, how long will it last?
U.S. allies, and installed regimes, are often anti-democracy
This isn’t all ancient history. Many of our current public allies are blatant violators of democratic governance and human rights and embrace authoritarianism. Saudi Arabia seems like example #1, considering it pretty much orchestrated 9/11 and has a continuing ugly human rights record, executing countless peaceful political dissidents and, it must be said, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Israel seems like example #2. Who cares whether elections are democratic if every elected leadership engages in ethnic cleansing?
Emmons adds: Should we be arming Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates? Should we give $1 billion in weapons to Egypt every year? What about smaller dictatorships, such as in Thailand and Jordan? How should the U.S. deal with other problematic allies that are backsliding towards dictatorship, including the Philippines, Brazil, and Hungary? Trump rewrote the arms export rules so that we can sell more weapons with fewer restrictions. Are we going to reverse the rule changes? Are we going to sell to human rights violators?
What is the U.S. doing to close Guantanamo Bay? What should the final dispensation of detainees be? How is this detention camp still operating, having spanned two administrations each, of both major parties? (Or perhaps we should think, what does this say about both these parties?)
Emmons says: Many of these are worth watching out for. They might be hired as contractors for the feds or local places for nefarious stuff, but they’re also a national security risk, because of the data they possess that foreign governments could hack. We have to ask, “who is the next Palantir, Blackwater, or Cambridge Analytica?” And consider Oxio, Anduril—of which everyone seems to be ex-Palantir—and Vigilant solutions as the answer.
Brandon Smith is an investigative journalist in the accountability tradition. He has used documents to break stories on police brutality, surveillance of activists, public health and pollution, monopoly, and military spending. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, In These Times, and the Chicago Reader. He is based in Washington, DC.