Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Money for **** and not for war

Justin Bronson Barringer - one of the editors for A Faith Not Worth Fighting For, a student of theology, a Christian mensch, and a Facebook friend - did me a good turn one time by reading my outlandishly long book and writing a pithy blurb for the jacket. So I owe him one.  This morning, he sent me a message on FB:  "Hey brother, I was wondering how much you know about public policy as it relates to the military-industrial complex. Do you know enough to write about alternative public policies that could both strengthen economy and prevent war?"

Headed out to work, I shot back a two word reply:  "big order."  But as I got to thinking about this throughout the day, the question - which I have given some thought - kept coming back, as well as my desire to do what I could to continue the conversation Justin had started. So this one is for you Justin.

It is pretty easy for me to morally justify arguments against militarism generally, against war, against violence, and against the kind of masculinity that underwrites the idea of violence as somehow redemptive.  As I said, I just wrote a pretty long book about that.  But when the question of what is to be done comes up, or more precisely, what is to be done by Americans, or even more specifically, what is to be done with public policy in the United States - here and now - then this gets complicated . . . which is why I have so little patience with sloganeering, like "Money for Schools and Not for War," or "Money for Health Care and Not for War, or "Money for Jobs and Not for War."

Not impatient with the desire to redirect resources from violent enterprises to nonviolent ones (though actually-existing schools are incubators for war - another post), but with the failure to grasp the reality of the exceedingly complex relation between war and money in the United States today.

Back in the Reagan days, when I was a special ops thug for the Army, I was posted to Guatemala and El Salvador once each, in each case where I spent a good deal of time at the United States Embassy.  Even as a man who was then 32, then 34 years old and in his second and fourth "conflict area," I was still - in some respects - naive. Naive in the sense that I didn't have much of an appreciation for the not-so Cold War in which I was participating as anything except ideological.  Like many of my colleagues, I self-medicated with adultery and alcohol, so things sank in slowly.  But one thing that was pretty obvious, even with chronic sleep deprivation and hangovers, was that the Ambassadors - Fred Chapin and Edwin Corr respectively - even in the midst of these civil wars, spent most of their time not with military or cultural attaches, but with the host nation Chambers of Commerce.

It was all about money; and the politics and war were superstructural.  This realization, slow as I was to absorb it, stuck with me and eventually led me to a pretty dramatically different perspective on these matters. I had to admit that we and our local hatchet men - under US guidance and with US support - were raping, shooting, torturing, and decapitating peasants and schoolteachers and union officials and journalists and even nuns . . . so someone somewhere could continue to make a shitload of money.  Lest anyone think those were the bad old days, I have bad news.  In 2009, with the able assistant of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US once again supported a coup d'etat against the democratically elected government of Honduras - because we didn't approve of their economic "deviations"; and she was ably assisted in this by the former Reagan trigger man, John Negroponte. This resulted yet again in the torture, disappearance, and assassination of peasants, schoolteachers, union officials, and journalists. So if anyone wants to know why I won't vote for Secretary Clinton, here you have my answer. If this is the "lesser evil," you can have it.

But back to the military-industrial(-financial-media) complex and policy. Before we can determine what possible alternatives there are for the status quo, we ought to have some reasonable grasp of what that status quo actually is. Quoting a few big numbers, like the comparative size of the US military budget, is not even close.

We can start there. Excluding the covert military spending through the Department of Energy and other non-DOD agencies, the Department of Defense (we are defending ourselves, get it?)  spends well over a half a trillion dollars a year (app. 630 billion this year), which is around 17% of the total US government's budget.  Even this is hard to pin down, because the government plays shell games with money, Social Security being a prime example (yet another post - no, SS is not broke!).  Also understand that HMOs, private corporations, get 24% of our budget, which provides the largest portion of that health care to . . . military personnel and veterans. My relatively inexpensive health care as a retired army guy is through a federally contracted HMO that is not part of the DOD budget.  (More now goes through the Affordable Care Act, which is also a federal gift to private health insurance outfits.) So you can begin to see, this is never easy.

A lot of people think most of the military spending goes to overpriced weapons systems or sweetheart deals for supplies. It is true, we do spend a lot of money on high-tech weapons systems - and many of them overrun costs in production and don't work as advertised. They are also all made almost exclusively of non-standard parts, so when a tank needs a hex nut, it's not one you can get at Lowes for 50 cents; it will cost $25 from an exclusive supplier.  And we've all heard about contractors like Kellogg, Brown, and Root - now with Cheney's company Halliburton, but one that made its bones in Vietnam under the patronage of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Breakfast in Afghanistan for a Marine that costs $35 a plate. $7,000 coffee pots.  It's all true.The money flows like water, but even that cannot account for half a trillion.  A trillion has 12 zeros.  It is a thousand thousand thousand thousand. (Did I get that right?)  It's more than $3,000 for every living soul, from infant to ancient, in the country.

No, the rest of the spending is on stuff that gets used a lot. Ninety-three percent of all the fuel used by the US government is used by the military. The DOD uses around 30,000 gigawatt hours of electricity each year - roughly what is used by Denmark. The DOD drinks 4.6 billion gallons of gas every year.  That is 12.6 million gallons a day. Ground vehicles suck up gas, but airplanes tear through it. In Fort Bragg, where I spent a good deal of time during my tenure with the Army, there are more than 50,000 troops stationed there. The post is prepared to feed around 40,000 of them a day. In purchasing, say, two eggs per person each morning, that means someone sells Fort Bragg - one post - 80,000 eggs a day.  I don't know who this is, but that means some outfit depends on the military in part or in whole for its income, and it means there are X number of jobs in place (at $8 an hour) to ensure the steady flow of eggs to hungry paratroopers. There are companies that supply all the things for an egg factory that are the benefactors.  There are the companies that supply them, and them, and them before; and there is North Carolina State University - not on the DOD budget - but which supplies the R&D for egg producers, and so on and so on and so on.

The town of Fayetteville, NC, where two of my kids live with their kids, and where I lived for a good many years off and on, beginning with my return from Vietnam, has almost 205,000 people within the city limits. If Fort Bragg were closed, where 50,000 troops, another 20,000 civilian employees, and the families of these folks, spend the money that gets pumped in there from DOD, it would summarily result in a kind of retail Armageddon.  The "money for schools" in Fayetteville comes from property taxes that are paid into the community via the DOD.  Where is the either-or?

Fort Bragg is a FORSCOM base (major Army ground units).  There are thirteen more in the United States: in Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, California, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington state.  Just Army, not Air Force, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard. In one guise or another, we now have almost 1.4 million people in uniform.  Two of them are my kids. One joined while working at McDonalds.  The other was working at Walmart.  The day they joined, they started receiving the equivalent of almost $20,000 a year, plus housing allowance, plus food allowance, and full-on free health care for themselves and their families.  Within six years, they were receiving - before extra pays - more than $35,000.  They can retire after twenty years at 50% of their base pay.

If you want a real eye-opener, read this Bloomberg report on state-by-state military expenditures, then explain how you - as a candidate for Congress, say - go to Virginia voters saying money for X and not for war, when 14% of the state total budget is precisely money-for-war. This is even more complicated when you get to the Congressional district level. Here are the top 100 defense contractors of 2015. Top contractor Lockheed-Martin employs 110,000 people.  With a family average of four, that means 440,000 people depending on Lockheed-Martin for their livelihood.

The United States runs a trade deficit.  That means it imports more than it exports.  Depending on which school of thought you adhere to on the subject of economics, whether classical, monetarist, Keynesian, Marxist, or some syncretic combination; in any abstracted model this should mean that the country which imports more than it exports is losing wealth . . . and JOBS.  But that is not altogether true, as we can see.  One theory is that the DOD serves the US as a kind of surrogate export market; and this has some merit.  People do have JOBS making things to sell to an entity that exists somewhat apart, even though the money that gets printed to support this surrogate exportation is in the same country.  The problem with that theory it that we are still talking about more than half a trillion dollars, when the trade deficit is just over $40 billion.

Of course, we are the second largest exporter of weapons in the world, after Russia, so there is actually some export.  And this certainly makes likely, given the unstable political ecology of the world at large, that these weapons abroad will one day be used in wars our leaders will - as always, Lord have mercy - find irresistible.

In fact, while there is an element of truth in the surrogate market idea, the international reality - which is probably another long post - is best explained by economist Michael Hudson, who shows how we are actually forcing the rest of the world to bear the burden of our military expenditures. Without restating Hudson's thesis (all of you can click and read), how does this all relate to policy?

And here is where we come back to that question, because one can begin to see that there is not some magic wand any one person or even legislative body can wave to change this without disorganizing an entire economy.  The United States economy is tangled up with war spending all the way down to the most granular level. The question is not how do we cut the budget, it is where to begin, and how to do it without precipitating an economic catastrophe.  That's some catch that Catch-22.

More to the point for Christians who experience this as a moral dilemma, what can we do to reduce and finally end our complicity in all this? And therein may not be a policy solution, if indeed politics is "the art of the possible." We are in a state of structural sin. That may be why we are so keen so often to accept the prevailing national myths and ideological justifications.

If there are any policies in store for the future, the first policy must be the withdrawal of all US military forces from abroad.  All of them.  Then we can begin to think about public works jobs programs to repair the environment, about nationalizing banks and major industries in preparation for closure or retooling.

But unless and until that begins, the moral imperative seems to me to begin to reduce our dependency on the system itself, our dependency on its money and its "jobs."

None of this happens without repentance. Without a great psychological, intellectual, and spiritual "turning around" from strength to vulnerability, from center to margin, from power to love.


  1. Dear Mr Goff,

    This is unrelated to you post, but I wanted to show you this video out of a Phoenix AZ church called "A Call to Battle: A Short Film on ‘Society’s Crisis in Masculinity’:

    I was raised Catholic but fell away from the Church when I became a feminist and started reading work by you and some other intellectuals. Lately I have been going to mass again but cant fully commit myself to Catholicism because of these sorts of ideas.
    This felt too macho and backwards and the emphasis on jingoistic rhetoric was very disappointing to me, someone who grew up with a lot of violence based around macho violent men.
    I'm conflicted. I have so much respect for so many Catholic practices, traditions, and individuals but material like this short film keep me from fully returning to the faith.

    I feel like I dont have a "home". I dont feel I can belong to the Church because of my differences but I dont belong anywhere else.

    I'm rambling but was hoping you could post a response to this. If you dont have time or interest, I understand. Please delete this post if you find its location inappropriate.

    Your writing has me missing the Church but this video triggered a lot of bad memories you could say. I feel like a wish washy anarcho-Chrstian but I dont thats me anymore. Happy New Year and God bless.

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