Moral Questioning and the American War Machine | Opinion

In the 1960s, the war on poverty, the civil rights movement and anti-war movements made strides against what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism." None of the three was eradicated, of course, but they were certainly hit hard. President Lyndon B. Johnson built a federal framework for poverty eradication, legalized segregation was abolished and the Vietnam War came to an end in the face of massive protest. While no one at the time thought America's problems had all been solved, those struggles for justice were real and in many ways successful.

Today, a similar era of protest has erupted as a new generation of Americans—representing even greater numbers—struggles to tackle existential threats and injustices in our midst. Desire to end poverty is expressed in calls for a higher minimum wage, union protections, a tax system that doesn't favor the rich and the removal of college loan debt. Desire to end systemic racism is expressed in Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, and increased calls for police and criminal justice reform. Americans are pushing back passionately in the face of economic and racial injustice.

Yet the "third evil" decried by Dr. King—militarism—does not get the passionate protest today that it got in the 1960s. Perhaps this is due to the fact that during the Vietnam War, it was everyone's son, brother, husband, lover or friend constantly threatened by the specter of a low draft number, whereas today there is no draft at all. Today's armed forces are manned by a volunteer army, making their deployment here or there far easier to ignore. The military is so much a part of the way we function that those born since 9/11 have grown up never having known an America not at war. They never knew a time when we didn't have over 800 military bases in over 150 countries, and on every continent in the world except Antarctica. To them, a sign that says "Ban the Bomb" would be seen as a quaint reminder of a time gone by. The system has succeeded in distracting and exhausting people to the point of acquiescence. All they have to do is tell us we're leaving Afghanistan, and we're too distracted to ask then why they're still spending all that money.

What a tragedy that is. For American militarism today is no less dangerous, and no less a threat to our democracy and to our world, than it has ever been. In fact, it is more so. It is a budgetary behemoth that pollutes our planet, defines our economy, undermines our moral authority around the world and recklessly increases the risk of nuclear tensions all in the name of our "security."

In no area has the wool been pulled over the eyes of the modern American than in the area of our perpetual war machine. Every year—unchallenged and under-investigated by our mainstream media—in slavish devotion to defense contractors who fuel their campaigns, both political parties pass an increasingly gargantuan National Defense Authorization Act in easy breezy lockstep. Our military budget, almost twice the size of the military expenditures of every other country on Earth, is like a sacred edict handed down from on high, treated with some weird political reverence as though to question it is to suggest that our safety and security do not matter.

But this has little to do with our safety and security, and everything to do with how things work in Washington. Our current secretary of Defense is a former general and Raytheon board member, in defiance not only of Congress' own injunction against military leadership at the DOD (they simply waived their rule for Secretary Jim Mattis under Donald Trump, then did the same for Lloyd Austin), and seemingly with no concern that someone who had just been a board member at one of America's major defense contractors just might have a teensy bit of proclivity for seeing our defense through the eyes of those for whom the most money is to be made.

President Joe Biden's $715 billion proposed defense budget this year has less to do with our security than with our economy, as 54 cents of every dollar of discretionary spending in America is spent on defense related activity. Politicians tout how many jobs are created by the defense industry, in clear absence of any moral consideration of what all that equipment is used for and whether it serves humanity that the United States is the world's biggest supplier of arms as well as the biggest perpetrator of military misadventures. While it's been proven that investment in education and infrastructure actually provides more return on investment in terms of job creation, there is very little serious talk of how to move us from a war economy to a peace economy. MSNBC and CNN aren't going to touch that any more than Fox will.

Military
Members of the US Army 1st Division 9th Regiment 1st Battalion unload heavy combat equipment including Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles at the railway station near the Pabrade military base in Lithuania, on October 21, 2019. PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images

Romantic views of the U.S. military as a purveyor of freedom have withered away, the coattails of World War II having long given way to the cynical truth of our post-war military involvements. The people of the world no longer see America as a champion of democracy, and rightfully so. The U.S. military has become less a purveyor of freedom and more a purveyor of protection for the corporate forces they represent, from the military defense industry to the fossil fuel industry and more. No less powerful a person than the vice president of the United States said recently that, "For years and generations, wars have been fought over oil"—she said she had learned this from "attending a lot of meetings on foreign policy"— and it hardly made a headline. My God, how cynically accepting we are of people in other parts of the world dying so we can keep the lights on in every room of the house.

I guess it's good we're not even pretending anymore. But perhaps we could drink in what that means. The perverse size of our military budget does not simply represent money that could have been used to help people in the United States; it also represents a lot of harm done to people in other parts of the world for reasons that are neither altruistic nor even honest. What a moral void exists in the center of the American psyche now, that the murderous mistakes of Vietnam, Iraq and Libya have earned little more reaction from political officialdom than, "Oops. Yeah, we probably shouldn't have done that."

There are people raging at the machine, to be sure. The People over Pentagon campaign has called for a $200 billion reduction, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus has proposed a 10 percent reduction in annual defense spending. The Friends Committee on National Legislation and others have argued vigorously for an end to U.S. support of Saudi Arabia's blockade of Yemen. But it's the people ourselves who need to rise up now against the military madness in our midst.

It's important we understand how aberrational is this chapter in our history. At the outset of World War II, the United States didn't have a standing army. By the end of that war, our triumphant military machinery was not dismantled but rather repurposed for the post-war era. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander during World War II turned president seven years later, warned us in his 1961 Farewell Address of the dangers of the "military industrial complex." Interestingly enough, he originally called it the "military-congressional-industrial complex," and he was right. This isn't just an unholy alliance between the military and industry; it's a corrupt, murderous and immoral three-way.

"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," said Eisenhower. "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. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."

Those words would mean so much less were they not spoken by the man who had himself led America's military through World War II, a man who knew as few ever did what it means to fight a necessary, even a moral war. The man who led the D-Day invasion was hardly soft on the military. But he was strong on the moral questioning of war, and that is what we are lacking today.

Marianne Williamson is a Newsweek columnist, best-selling author, political activist and spiritual thought leader. She is founder of Project Angel Food and co-founder of the Peace Alliance, and was the first candidate in the 2020 presidential primary to make reparations a pillar of her campaign. She is the author of 13 books, among them Healing the Soul of America and A Politics of Love.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.