In my initial post reacting to Donald Trump’s election as president, I stated that I would take a wait and see approach before offering any type of analysis of his policies. I am going to hold firm to that position and give him the standard “100 days” before I really delve into any serious critique. However, in light of his pronouncement that he intends to increase national spending on defense by ten percent, which would amount to approximately $60 billion dollars per annum, I feel that it is important to ask ourselves the question “if this is necessary” immediately. Personally, I could not think of a worse way to spend our tax dollars than on increasing an already vastly obese defense budget. I imagine that some people will argue that there is no price too steep to pay for national security. To this, I ask, well do you feel safer each year, as defense spending increases? Apparently not, and I think a simple analysis of basic statistics and history will lay these claims to rest. However, I also recognize the cultural, economic, and egoic investments this country and many of its citizens have individually and collectively in inflating the military and military prowess to demi-god like status. Aside from that, I respect that political priorities may differ and the reminder of this post will be persuasive rather than authoritative.
Perhaps another irony of Trump’s announcement for me personally was that it coincided with my reading a chapter in David Loy’s book Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution, entitled “Why we Love War.” Aside from possessing a flashy title, Loy’s book is a social commentary from a Buddhist perspective of why western political and socioeconomic institutions are failing. In this chapter on war, Loy argues that not only would the U.S. economy collapse if defense spending was seriously slashed (thus offering a sobering economic explanation) but also that our individual and collective obsession with good/evil duality fuels our thirst for military conflict. From a psychological or spiritual perspective, Loy argues that war feeds our need to define ourselves as “good” by fighting the “evil” elsewhere in the world. He not only comments on the irony that fuzzy, ill-defined, ideological wars such as the Cold War and the War on Terror, Drugs, etc., conveniently piggyback on each other, but also that through mass media, war gives us a collective sense of purpose and relief from “mundane, everyday life.” At his best, Loy argues,“War can give us the meaning we crave, because it provides a reassuring way to understand what is wrong with our lives. War offers a simple way to bind together our individual lacks and project them outside, onto an enemy. They (Loy’s emphasis) are evil because they want to hurt us. Since we are merely defending ourselves, we can feel good about what we do to them….If war is a collective response to our collective problem with lack, we cannot expect war to cease until we find better ways to address that basic spiritual problem.” Sage advice, but the problem with many eastern insights is that they seem abstract and focused on the individual, thus I wonder how accurate and relevant they are in our current political atmosphere.
After doing a little research it became clear to me that our current defense budget is grossly inflated, unnecessary, and in all likelihood perpetuates the very problems it purports to solve. I began by simply assuming that spending $600 billion a year (yes, $600 billion a year is what we spend on defense, our single largest government sector expenditure but a wide margin) would be able to buy us an enormous amount of physical and psychological peace of mind that we live in the safest country in the world. However, Trump’s recent announcement that we need to increase this budget by ten percent seems to signal that we are not safe enough, somehow. If we cannot feel safe expending this amount of money on defense, perhaps our problem is not military or national security at all, as Loy points out. In fact, the U.S. spends more on defense annually then the next seven closest spenders combined.
Again, there are those who argue no price is too steep to pay. However, if we put it another way it becomes clear how insane it is to expend such an amount. For example, let’s say you took the eight people you know who smoked the most (or gambled, or drank, or overate, insert any other harmful behavior that tickles your fancy or makes the point stick), if one of them smoked more than the other seven combined I would hope there would be an intervention of some sort forthcoming shortly. Is it any wonder that the rest of the world consistently considers America the number one threat to worldwide security when asked!? But aren’t we the good guys?
If we look at how much is spent on defense annually as compared with other domestic sectors, I believe the picture becomes even less justifiable.
Sixty percent of our budget in 2015 went to defense and veterans’ benefits (a ballooning offshoot created by defense). By comparison, we spend about 4.5 times as much annually on defense as we do on education and healthcare combined. Again, shouldn’t we feel extraordinarily safe with this type of expenditure? It seems we do not. Perhaps there is some historical precedent for our collective desire to bulk up militarily?
Current statistics evidence a seriously lop-sided expenditure on defense that historical inquiry cannot justify or remedy. In our entire history as a nation (since 1787) we have been actively invaded once by a foreign nation, in the War of 1812 by Great Britain. We have been attacked by Japan during WWII, by Mexican revolutionary Poncho Villa, and by various foreign and domestic terror organizations at times, most notable al-Qaeda in 2001, but the U.S. has never been occupied or significantly invaded by a foreign nation, mostly due to is fortuitous geographic isolation. If we compare this limited history with that of Germany, France, Poland, Russia, or China during the same era (1787-present) one would think that the U.S. would be spending much less than all these nations based on historical precedent or fear of invasion. The flip side of this historical coin is that the U.S. has been actively involved in formal war or military conflict for 93% of its years in existence!!!! Much of this early conflict had to do with ethnically cleansing Natives from our Manifest Destiny but even since the end of many of the “Indian Wars” the only lengthy period of “peace” was during the Great Depression. The last two years without a military conflict were 1997 and 2000. So, it seems that despite the lack of a major, organized threat to our national security, historically speaking we have been all too willing to find an enemy, or something to fight. Preemptive war is the modern term I believe; aka believing someone is going to attack you so you attack them first. In a civilian setting this is not self-defense, is it assault and battery. Score another point for Loy!
Are the threats we face now more serious or immediate than in the historical past? I do not see how a reasonable argument could be made that the “War on Terror” is a more serious conflict than say WWII and definitely not as much so as the American Civil War or the War of 1812, yet we seem to be acting less and less secure even with our gargantuan military budget. Perhaps the media has something to do with it (high degree of sarcasm intended). When I was subjected to watching the news on television at the gym the other day (much to my dismay) I decided to make a note of the sequencing of the stories they were presenting rather than pay attention to their content. Trump’s pseudo-State of the Union Address and his use of the death of a navy seal and his family’s visible grief, applauded nearly universally by all media pundits as the “moment he became presidential,” led the way, followed by a story about fighting Islamic terrorists in the Middle East…shocking. This story was followed by a local investigation of alleged abuse of veterans at a Veteran’s home in western Massachusetts depicted in photos of some veterans lying on the floor. Following that was a story about the death of a local man in the military and how his casket was given a police escort and convoy back to his hometown, complete with images of citizens standing roadside and saluting the passing procession. Also of note, because it dealt with violence and the growing Black/Blue lives matter controversy that we all seem to be lining up on one side or the other of, was a story about alleged civil rights violations of African American workers by Nissan manufacturing. This story was immediately followed by coverage of a slain police officer’s funeral service in California. Are we really this gullible that we allow the media to blatantly play on our emotions no matter what our ideological persuasions to perpetuate this feeling of insecurity which seemingly justifies our spending on defense, security, or “fighting evil?” Not coincidentally, I imagine, my ipod shuffled to that old Daft Punk song from the 1990s, “Television Rules the Nation” as I was finishing up my workout.
A big part of our obsession with war is media conditioning and advertising. Think of the graphic deplorable violence which is condoned, even glorified, in the media and movie industry vis-à-vis most people’s sense of offense to nudity or sexual imagery, especially if it offends their subjective moral standards. Another big part of why we love war is for the distraction it provides from issues we, quite frankly, choose not to address. In this sense Loy is correct, but he is pointing to a level of spiritual and egoic depth that I feel very few people are even capable of accessing, never mind confronting. My explanation is a little simpler; we do not want to address the immediate needs of our population in any meaningful sense. For one, this would need acknowledgement of the severe deficiencies in our society, like consumerism, racism, media oversaturation, rampant corporate greed, a failing healthcare system, a lagging education system, a crumbling infrastructure, etc. Isn’t it easier to just agree that we need to fight the evil over there to keep us safe here? But what happens when we run out of enemies? What happens when we realize, assuming we wake up one day, that in the eyes of much of the world, WE ARE THE PROBLEM!? The cycle of escalating violence will always continue if we fail to realize this essential duality. And, until we do, the HANDOUT that elites receive from our collective insecurity played out as overspending on defense will continue.
We hear most politicians say that nobody wants war or likes war. Well, at least most of the time. According to Trump, “everybody wanted him to blow up that Russia spy ship off the coast of Connecticut.” I cannot think of a single person in their right mind that wanted that because I would suspect that war with Russia would immediately follow. Further, I cannot help but think that his militant attitude and further engorging of the military budget is anything but a preparation for more needless violence. Are there those who want to harm America and Americans? Yes. A vast majority who do probably want to do so because they feel immediately threatened by our military involvement in their country either currently or in the recent past. Again, that pesky duality thing. I am not arguing that we do not need a military or to spend money on national security, but at what point is it enough, or is this like a GNP thing, it’s never big enough? We have a growing student loan debt crisis that has now reached $1.3 trillion dollars, would that extra ten percent Trump wants to expend on defense ($60 billion) not be better spent on education? Or healthcare? Or infrastructure? Or anything but perpetuating conflict? I have serious concerns about his foreign policy abilities given his reactionary, overdramatic personal tendencies and his economic motives moving forward.
There is a powerful quote that states, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” I know many people who have been in combat, including two very close family members and while they are/were proud of the service I can’t say that either one of them is/was happy with their wartime experience. Even though war is becoming a little easier for us to swallow in the modern world with remote attacks, drones, and much less loss of life (for us anyway, while ironically much higher, often unreported civilian casualties for our “enemies”), the question remains why do we continue to love it? In my mind, an important corresponding inquiry is what would it mean to be American if we are not fighting “evil” or fighting something, even if it is our own paranoid ideological inventions? After all, America is basically an ideological creation, not an ethnicity and thus we can speak of someone being un-American in a way that does not make sense if you say, for instance, someone is un-French. However, until we can reach a realistic, persuasive answer to this question (individually and collectively), elites will continue to play on our emotions through shameless acts of media glorification of violence (like Trump’s pathetic use of a slain serviceman and his family to justify increasing defense spending) to do what they have always done; siphon funds from the tax base and put them into their own pockets. Loy argues that “if terrorism is the war of the poor, war is the terrorism of the rich.” Let that sink in for a bit before you read on.
The “evil others” over there, in the desert are not the only ones who are terrorized by this elite perpetuation of war. Think about who really benefits from wars, in an economic sense. Does the growing amount spent on defense align with growing income gaps between the elite and the other classes? Do we feel less safe even with our growing defense budget and yearn for something, anything foreign to blame for our insecurity, even if it is completely made up like the Bowling Green Massacre or terror attacks in Sweden? Does it make us an easy target for others’ frustrations and aggressions, not to mention the succumbing to our own mortal fears? Are we fighting the fire by fanning the flames? The answer is yes.
 David R. Loy, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008): 127-138.
 Ibid., 138.
 This and other graph are not the work of the author but that of the organizations listed on such and used strictly for educational purposes.
 A 2013 international Gallup survey found that 24% of respondents feared that the US was the greatest threat to worldwide international security. Second was Pakistan with 8%, followed by China 6%, North Korea, Israel, and Iran with 5%. http://brilliantmaps.com/threat-to-peace/.
 Loy, Money, Sex, War, Karma, 12.