Federal Defense Spending: A Humanist Perspective

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower said this on January 17, 1961, in his presidential farewell speech. It’s surprising that the decorated World War II general and conservative, who successfully ran for president in 1951 on a campaign against communism, Korea, and corruption, would prove to be one of the staunchest political critics of the military-industrial complex in the last sixty years, but he proved to be just that. As president, Eisenhower tried to cut the Pentagon’s budget repeatedly in the attempt to rein in defense spending. He saw it as a threat to democracy, and even more than that, a threat to our shared humanity. “The jet plane that roars overheard costs three quarters of a million dollars. That’s more than a man will make in his lifetime. What world can afford this kind of thing for long?”

Eisenhower’s warnings on rampant military spending appear especially significant in 2017. This past week President Trump revealed his first budget proposal, with a $54 billion increase in defense and security spending as its centerpiece. According to Trump, it’s “a budget of great rationality” that would bring discretionary defense spending to a whopping estimated total of $603 billion. The funding for this “great rebuilding of our military might” (as Trump put it in a speech Thursday to Navy sailors and civilian shipbuilders) is slated to come from cuts to “most federal agencies”—in other words, from the rest of the federal government minus the Pentagon. One of the major agencies on the chopping block is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If you’re scratching your head at this, or are skeptical of the budgetary direction the current administration is taking, you’re not alone.

Defense spending has remained a federal fixture in the United States for both Democrat and Republican presidents in spite of Eisenhower’s warnings for potential abuses. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks defense spending skyrocketed under George W. Bush and then slowly dipped in the years of the Obama administration but never got close to pre 9/11 levels, circa 2000.

The first obstacle to Trump’s proposal of rebuilding America’s military power is reality. The US spends by far the most in the world on defense, more than the next seven countries combined. Our closest competitor, China, is left far behind when it comes to the federal defense outlay. The government budget is a snapshot of our country’s priorities, and this is what should give humanists everywhere food for thought. The current trend of jingoism mixed with militarism is a distinctively un-humanist combination.

“I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” Trump said at a November 2015 rally in Iowa. “I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers.”

This is a direct challenge to an inclusive humanism. In fact, the goals of an inclusive humanism, based on community, reason, and freedom, are actively threatened by an unchecked military industrial complex.

“The world in arms is not spending money alone,” Eisenhower reminded us. “It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

The military industrial complex has a large institutional hold on US policy and economics. The troubling reality of this privileged position is not only the finished aircraft carrier or jet plane that counts—it is the entire process that goes into producing that aircraft carrier or jet plane.

As humanists, we need to ask ourselves: Where are our priorities? Take the proposed cuts to the EPA as an example. Clean water and clean air are issues that impact American citizens on a daily basis. However, the political will is not behind ensuring clean water and air for our country—it is to continue expanding US military power, effectively making environmental protections an expendable issue. I do not believe access to safe drinking water in Flint or any other city is an expendable issue. Climate change is apparently another nonexistent problem when we look at the Trump administration’s budgetary proposal or the priorities of the Republican majority in Congress. Other issues such as public education funding, growing wealth inequality, updating an aging infrastructure or equitable health care are explicitly judged as lesser issues. But these are complex, actual problems that require innovative solutions.

We’re already the global leader in military power many times over. What will it take to explore political alternatives to spending billions more on defense? If the incoming administration wants to spend a massive amount of money on a false perception of American military power, it’s not only bad politics, it’s a willful disregard for the reality the average American citizen faces. Period.