By David Swanson
The new poor people’s campaign should get every ounce of support we can find and generate. I say that without the qualifications and caveats I would usually include, because the Poor People’s Campaign is doing something that may not be strictly unprecedented in U.S. history but is certainly extremely rare in recent decades. It’s pursuing a worthy noble goal, that of ending poverty, while making ending war a central part of its vision, and doing so voluntarily.
Of course this makes sense given the heritage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for the world.
Of course it makes sense given the major economic drain that military spending is, the preying of recruiters on the poor, the environmental injustice of military base pollution in poor neighborhoods, the militarization of police by the military in poor neighborhoods, the culture of violence that the military promotes, the culture of racism that war propaganda fuels and feeds off, and the incredible wonders that could be done if military money was diverted toward good ends.
Yet, typically, when there’s a multi-issue or other-issue coalition or mass effort put together in the United States, it takes a full-court-press of private and public lobbying, badgering, and shaming to get the organizers to slip the word peace in somewhere on page 38, or to allow a peace contingent to march at the back of the parade. It’s easy to miss, but I think we ought to recognize, the significance of the Poor People’s Campaign taking on war front-and-center and unasked.
I might overlook it more than others because of the religious focus of this campaign. I’m not religious and am convinced we’d be better off without religion. But we’re very obviously better off with these religious activists.
These are the new poor people’s campaign’s principles (I’ve added bolding):
- We are rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all. Moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy.
- We are committed to lifting up and deepening the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation and to building unity across lines of division.
- We believe in the dismantling of unjust criminalization systems that exploit poor communities and communities of color and the transformation of the “War Economy” into a “Peace Economy” that values all humanity.
- We believe that equal protection under the law is non-negotiable.
- We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources to overcome poverty are false narratives used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion, and deep inequality.
- We recognize the centrality of systemic racism in maintaining economic oppression must be named, detailed and exposed empirically, morally and spiritually. Poverty and economic equality cannot be understood apart from a society built on white supremacy.
- We aim to shift the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists in the nation from personal issues like prayer in school, abortion, sexuality, gun rights, property rights to systemic injustices like how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, women, children, workers, immigrants and the sick; equality and representation under the law; and the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations.
- We will build up the power of people and state-based movements to serve as a vehicle for a powerful moral movement in the country and to transform the political, economic and moral structures of our society.
- We recognize the need to organize at the state and local level—many of the most regressive policies are being passed at the state level, and these policies will have long and lasting effect, past even executive orders. The movement is not from above but below.
- We will do our work in a non-partisan way—no elected officials or candidates get the stage or serve on the State Organizing Committee of the Campaign. This is not about left and right, Democrat or Republican but about right and wrong.
- We uphold the need to do a season of sustained nonviolent civil disobedience as a way to break through the tweets and shift the moral narrative. We are demonstrating the power of people coming together across issues and geography and putting our bodies on the line to the issues that are affecting us all.
- The Campaign and all its Participants and Endorsers embrace nonviolence. Violent tactics or actions will not be tolerated.
I’ve bolded that last sentence because of its importance and rarity, even if it seems separable from the agenda of ending war. I think it’s intimately connected.
This excellent set of principles debunks the notion that the poor are too busy struggling for food and shelter to care about something as abstract as foreign policy. These principles recognize that the war economy requires those impacted by it to care. Yet, it’s not just selfish caring. What is to be valued, it says above, is all humanity. Peace activists sometimes ask to “bring our war dollars home.” Not only is that a selfish idea. It’s also an idea that depends on one’s not really grasping how much money war dollars is. Over $1 trillion in the U.S. alone every year for militarism is enough to transform this country AND all the other countries. We do not have to choose.
At World Beyond War we maintain that one of the key reasons to end war is that war impoverishes us:
War has a huge direct financial cost, the vast majority of which is in funds spent on the preparation for war — or what’s thought of as ordinary, non-war military spending. Very roughly, the world spends $2 trillion every year on militarism, of which the United States spends about half, or $1 trillion. This U.S. spending also accounts for roughly half of the U.S. government’s discretionary budget each year and is distributed through several departments and agencies. Much of the rest of world spending is by members of NATO and other allies of the United States, although China ranks second in the world.
Not every well-known measure of military spending accurately conveys the reality. For example, the Global Peace Index (GPI) ranks the United States near the peaceful end of the scale on the factor of military spending. It accomplishes this feat through two tricks. First, the GPI lumps the majority of the world’s nations all the way at the extreme peaceful end of the spectrum rather than distributing them evenly.
Second, the GPI treats military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) or the size of an economy. This suggests that a rich country with a huge military can be more peaceful than a poor country with a small military. This is not just an academic question, as think tanks in Washington urge spending a higher percentage of GDP on the military, exactly as if one should invest more in warfare whenever possible, without waiting for a supposed defensive need.
In contrast to the GPI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) lists the United States as the top military spender in the world, measured in dollars spent. In fact, according to SIPRI, the United States spends as much on war and war preparation as most of the rest of the world combined. The truth may be more dramatic still. SIPRI says U.S. military spending in 2011 was $711 billion. Chris Hellman of the National Priorities Project says it was $1,200 billion, or $1.2 trillion. The difference comes from including military spending found in every department of the government, not just “Defense,” but also Homeland Security, State, Energy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Veterans Administration, interest on war debts, etc. There’s no way to do an apples-to-apples comparison to other nations without accurate credible information on each nation’s total military spending, but it is extremely safe to assume that no other nation on earth is spending $500 billion more than is listed for it in the SIPRI rankings.
While North Korea almost certainly spends a much higher percentage of its gross domestic product on war preparations than the United States does, it almost certainly spends less than 1 percent what the United States spends.
Wars can cost even an aggressor nation that fights wars far from its shores twice as much in indirect expenses as in direct expenditures. Economists calculate the U.S. wars on Iraq and Afghanistan have cost, not the $2 trillion spent by the U.S. government, but a total of $6 trillion when indirect expenses are considered, including future care of veterans, interest on debt, impact on fuel costs, lost opportunities, etc. This doesn’t include the much greater cost of the increased base military spending that accompanied those wars, or the indirect costs of that spending, or the environmental damage.
The costs to the aggressor, enormous as they are, can be small in comparison to those of the nation attacked. For example, Iraq’s society and infrastructure have been destroyed. There is extensive environmental damage, a refugee crisis, and violence lasting well beyond the war. The financial costs of all the buildings and institutions and homes and schools and hospitals and energy systems destroyed is almost immeasurable.
War Spending Drains an Economy:
It is common to think that, because many people have jobs in the war industry, spending on war and preparations for war benefits an economy. In reality, spending those same dollars on peaceful industries, on education, on infrastructure, or even on tax cuts for working people would produce more jobs and in most cases better paying jobs — with enough savings to help everyone make the transition from war work to peace work.
Recent cuts in certain areas to the U.S. military have not produced the economic damage forecast by the weapons companies.
So, in the short term, military spending is worse than nothing economically. In the long term it may be even worse. Military spending does not produce anything of use to people but depletes people’s supply of useful goods.
War Spending Increases Inequality:
Military spending diverts public funds into increasingly privatized industries through the least accountable public enterprise and one that is hugely profitable for the owners and directors of the corporations involved. As a result, war spending works to concentrate wealth in a small number of hands, from which a portion of it can be used to corrupt government and further increase or maintain military spending.
War Spending Is Unsustainable, As Is Exploitation it Facilitates:
While war impoverishes the war making nation, can it nonetheless enrich that nation more substantially by facilitating the exploitation of other nations? Not in a manner that can be sustained. The leading war-making nation in the world, the United States, has 5% of the world’s population but consumes a quarter to a third of various natural resources. That exploitation would be unfair and undesirable even if sustainable. The fact is that this consumption of resources cannot be sustained. The resources are nonrenewable, and their consumption will ruin the earth’s climate and ecosystems before supplies are exhausted.
Fortunately, greater consumption and destruction does not always equal a superior standard of living. The benefits of peace and international cooperation would be felt even by those learning to consume less. The benefits of local production and sustainable living are immeasurable. And one of the largest ways in which wealthy nations consume the most destructive resources, such as oil, is through the very waging of the wars, not just through a lifestyle supposedly permitted by the wars. What’s needed is greater ability to imagine a shift in spending priorities. Green energy and infrastructure would surpass their advocates’ wildest fantasies if the funds now invested in war were transferred there.
World Beyond War also argues that humanity and the world need $2 trillion a year for better things than war:
It would cost about $30 billion per year to end starvation and hunger around the world. That sounds like a lot of money to you or me. But if we had $2 trillion it wouldn’t. And we do.
It would cost about $11 billion per year to provide the world with clean water. Again, that sounds like a lot. Let’s round up to $50 billion per year to provide the world with both food and water. Who has that kind of money? We do.
Of course, we in the wealthier parts of the world don’t share the money, even among ourselves. Those in need of aid are right here as well as far away.
But imagine if one of the wealthy nations, the United States for example, were to put $500 billion into its own education (meaning “college debt” can begin the process of coming to sound as backward as “human sacrifice”), housing (meaning no more people without homes), infrastructure, and sustainable green energy and agricultural practices. What if, instead of leading the destruction of the natural environment, this country were catching up and helping to lead in the other direction?
(Note that education, like healthcare, is an area where the U.S. government already spends more than enough to make it free but spends it corruptly.)
The potential of green energy would suddenly skyrocket with that sort of unimaginable investment, and the same investment again, year after year. But where would the money come from? $500 billion? Well, if $1 trillion fell from the sky on an annual basis, half of it would still be left. After $50 billion to provide the world with food and water, what if another $450 billion went into providing the world with green energy and infrastructure, topsoil preservation, environmental protection, schools, medicine, programs of cultural exchange, and the study of peace and of nonviolent action?
U.S. foreign aid right now is about $23 billion a year. Taking it up to $100 billion — never mind $523 billion! — would have a number of interesting impacts, including the saving of a great many lives and the prevention of a tremendous amount of suffering. It would also, if one other factor were added, make the nation that did it the most beloved nation on earth. A recent poll of 65 nations found that the United States is far and away the most feared country, the country considered the largest threat to peace in the world. Were the United States responsible for providing schools and medicine and solar panels, the idea of anti-American terrorist groups would be as laughable as anti-Switzerland or anti-Canada terrorist groups, but only if one other factor were added — only if the $1 trillion came from where it really ought to come from.
Ceasing to fund militarism would save a great many lives and halt the counterproductive work of antagonizing the world and generating enemies. But moving even a fraction of that money into useful places would save many times that number of lives and begin generating friendship instead of animosity.
Now, most people in the United States, and many people in a lot of wealthy nations find themselves to be struggling. How can they think about a massive rescue plan for the rest of the world? They shouldn’t. They should think about a massive rescue plan for the entire world, including their own corner of it. The United States could end poverty at home and transition to sustainable practices while going great distances toward helping the world do the same, and have money left over. The climate doesn’t belong to one part of the earth. We’re all in this leaky little boat together. But $1 trillion a year is a truly mammoth amount of money. It’s $10 billion 100 times. Very few things are funded with $10 billion, almost nothing with $100 billion. A whole new world opens up if military funding stops. Options include tax cuts for working people and a shift in power to state and local levels. Regardless of the approach, the economy benefits from the removal of military spending. The same spending in other areas, even in tax cuts for working people, creates more jobs and better paying jobs. And there’s enough savings to make sure that every worker who needs it is retrained and assisted in making a transition. And then the $1 trillion doubles to $2 trillion if the rest of the world demilitarizes as well.
It sounds like a dream, and surely it must be a dream. Don’t we need military spending to protect ourselves and police the planet? We do not. We have other means of protection. The militarism is making us less safe. And the rest of the planet is screaming at the top of its lungs that it would like to cease being policed by a self-appointed and not truly international police force that does more damage than it claims to prevent and leaves ruined nations in its wake after each effort of supposed nation building.
Why do other wealthy nations not find it necessary to spend even 10% of what the United States spends on so-called defense? Well, most of their military spending, like most U.S. military spending serves no defensive purpose. Even if one still believed in military defense, defense means a coast guard and border patrol, anti-aircraft weapons, tools for fighting off a feared invasion, the fear of which would diminish rapidly if nations moved toward departments of actual defense. Weapons in the seas and skies of the world and outerspace are not defensive. Troops permanently stationed in the majority of the world’s nations, as U.S. troops are, is not defensive. It’s preemptive. It’s part of the same logic that leads to aggressive wars aimed at removing possible future threats, real or imaginary.
One need not believe even in the necessity of a scaled back, truly defensive military. Studies of the past century have found that nonviolent tools are more effective in resisting tyranny and oppression. If one nation were to attack another in a demilitarized world, these things should happen: the people of the attacking nation should refuse to take part, the people of the attacked nation should refuse to recognize an invader’s authority, people of the world should go to the attacked nation as peace workers and human shields, images and facts of the attack should be made visible everywhere, governments of the world should sanction the government responsible but not its people, those responsible should be tried in international court, and disputes should be brought to international arbitration.
Because war and war preparation is not needed to protect us and is widely acknowledged to generate hostility, thus making us less safe, we can list all of its consequences on the same side of a cost-benefit analysis. There are no benefits that could not be better created without war. The costs are extensive: the killing of large numbers of men, women, and children in what have become very one-sided slaughters, the remaining violence that lasts for years to come, the destruction of the natural environment that can last for millennia, the erosion of civil liberties, the corruption of government, the example of violence taken up by others, the concentration of wealth, the wasting each and every year of $2 trillion.
Here’s a dirty little secret: war can be abolished. When dueling was abolished, people didn’t keep defensive dueling. Ending war entirely means ending defensive war. But nothing is lost in that bargain, as stronger tools than war have been developed for defensive needs during the 70 years since the last war that many like to claim proves war’s capacity for goodness and justness. Isn’t it odd that people have to skip back over so many dozens of wars to a radically different epoch to find what they think of as a legitimate example of what has been our top public investment ever since? But this is a different world from the world of World War II. No matter what you make of the decades of decisions that created that crisis, we face very different crises today, we’re not likely to face that same type of crisis — especially if we invest in preventing it — and we do we have different tools with which to handle it.
War is not needed in order to maintain our lifestyle, as the saying goes. And wouldn’t that be reprehensible if it were true? We imagine that for 5 percent of humanity to go on using 30 percent of the world’s resources we need war or the threat of war. But the earth has no shortage of sunlight or wind. Our lifestyles can be improved with less destruction and less consumption. Our energy needs must be met in sustainable ways, or we will destroy ourselves, with or without war. That’s what’s meant by unsustainable. So, why continue an institution of mass killing in order to prolong the use of exploitative behaviors that will ruin the earth if war doesn’t do it first? Why risk the proliferation of nuclear and other catastrophic weapons in order to continue catastrophic impacts on the earth’s climate and ecosystems? The fact is that if we are going to adequately address climate change and environmental collapse, we are going to need that $2 trillion that the world invests in war.
War is not a tool for bettering the world. War costs the aggressor nation severely, but those costs are as nothing compared to the damage inflicted on the attacked. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia have suffered, and will go on suffering severely from recent U.S. wars. These wars take large numbers of lives, almost all of them on one side, almost all of them the lives of people who did nothing to the nations attacking them. But, while war costs a great many lives, many times that number of lives could be saved by redirecting a fraction of the enormous pile of money spent on war. For far less than war and war preparation cost us, we could transform our lives at home, and make our country the most beloved on earth by providing aid to others. For what it has cost to wage the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, we could have provided the world with clean water, ended starvation, built countless schools, and created green energy sources and sustainable agriculture practices in much of the globe, including our own homes. What protection would the United States need from a world to which it had given schools and solar energy? And what would the United States choose to do with all of the money left over? Isn’t THAT an exciting problem to be faced with?
Do we need war to prevent something worse? There isn’t something worse. Wars are not effective tools for preventing larger wars. Wars are not effective at preventing genocides. Rwanda needed a history with less war, and it needed police, it did not need bombs. Nor are those killed by a foreign government any less tragically killed than those killed by their own government. War is the worst thing we’ve invented. We don’t speak of good slavery or just rape or humanitarian child abuse. War is in that category of things that are always evil.
Aren’t we stuck with war because we’re humans? There are few things we say that about. Not slavery, not blood feuds, not dueling, not waterboarding, not sweatshops, not the death penalty, not nuclear weapons, not child abuse, not cancer, not hunger, not the filibuster or the senate or the electoral college or fundraising phone calls at dinner time. Almost nothing that we dislike do we claim to be permanently stuck with against our will. How many major institutions requiring great funding and the coordinated efforts of huge numbers of people can you think of that we claim to be stuck with forever against our will? Why war?
If we were to create a new institution that required a global investment of some $2 trillion a year, about $1 trillion of that from the United States alone, and if this institution hurt us economically, if it damaged our natural environment severely, if it stripped us of our civil liberties, if it funneled our hard-earned wealth into the hands of a small-number of corrupt profiteers, if it could only function through the participation of large numbers of young people the majority of whom would suffer physically or mentally and who would be made significantly more likely to commit suicide, if merely recruiting these young people and persuading them to take part in our new institution cost us more than it would to provide them with college educations, if this new institution made self-government more difficult, if it made our nation feared and hated abroad, and if its primary function was to kill large numbers of innocent children and grandparents and people of all ages, I can think of a lot of comments we might hear in response to our creation of this marvelous new institution. One of them is not “Gee it’s too bad we’re stuck with this monstrosity forever.” Why in the world would we be stuck with it? We made it. We could unmake it.
Ah, someone might say, but a new creation is different from an institution that has always been with us and always will be. No doubt that’s true, but war is actually a new creation. Our species goes back 100,000 to 200,000 years. War goes back only 12,000. And during these 12,000 years, war has been sporadic. Most societies at most times have done without it. “There’s always been a war somewhere,” people say. Well, there’s always not been a war many somewheres. Cultures that have used war have later abandoned it. Others have picked it up. It has not followed resource shortages or population density or capitalism or communism. It has followed cultural acceptance of war. And people who have done without war have not suffered for its absence. There is not a single recorded case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder created by war deprivation. On the contrary, most people suffer severely from participation in war and must be carefully conditioned prior to taking part. Since war ceased to involve hand-to-hand combat, it has been as open to women as to men, and women have begun to take part; it would be just as possible for men to cease taking part.
At this moment the vast majority of people on earth are represented by governments that invest less in war and war preparation than the United States does — significantly less, measured absolutely or as a percentage of nations’ economies. And some people are represented by governments that have not waged war in decades or centuries, some by governments that have literally put their military in a museum.
Of course, one might argue that the influence of the military industrial complex and its lobbyists and propagandists is invincible. But few would believe that. Why would something as new as the military industrial complex be permanent? Certainly ending war will require more than telling pollsters we want it ended. Certainly our governments are less than ideally responsive to public opinion. Certainly we are up against skilled people who will struggle to keep the cushy deal they’ve got. But popular activism has stood up to the war machine many times, including in rejecting proposed U.S. missile strikes on Syria in the summer of 2013. What can be stopped once can be stopped again and again and again and again forever, until the idea of it ceases to be thinkable.