The President’s appointment of John Bolton as his National Security Adviser has rightly drawn attention to Bolton’s long career of advocating aggressive and unilateral actions against states he considers enemies: Iran, North Korea, Russia are his most current targets. He was a strong advocate of invading Iraq in 2003—and remains unapologetic even though it was found that Saddam Hussein did not in fact have the weapons of mass destruction which formed the basic justification for the invasion.
In Bolton, Trump has a senior defense and foreign policy adviser who seems likely to push for warlike threats and actions in a wide range of world trouble spots.
But our problem is much deeper than John Bolton. We are, as a country, addicted to war.
We are budgeted to spend about $900 billion on defense and national security in FY2019. That’s the largest single item in the federal budget, except for Social Security. We spend more on defense than the next nine countries combined.
Imagine what would happen if the Pentagon budget were slashed. How many millions of workers, from uniformed service members to civilian employees, to contractor employees, would lose their jobs?
Moreover, our defense budget is deeply imbedded in all parts of the country. Think of Boeing and Microsoft in Seattle, with suppliers around the country. Think of the massive naval bases at Norfolk or San Diego, the major air bases scattered around the country, the dozens of army and marine bases. Think of the nuclear weapons plants in Hanford and Los Alamos. Each of these bases, each of these suppliers employs hundreds or thousands of workers, often very well paid.
Now imagine what would happen if the Pentagon budget were slashed. How many millions of workers, from uniformed service members to civilian employees, to contractor employees, would lose their jobs? How many companies are so heavily dependent on defense contracts that they could not survive without them? This is why defense-related companies pay lobbyists big bucks to make their case, both to the Pentagon and to Congress.
In fact, we tried once to kick the war addiction, in 1945. With the defeat of Germany and Japan, it seemed obvious at the time that the massive wartime military budget should be slashed. It caused a massive recession. That’s why we had to have the Cold War. Stalin was very cooperative in helping to establish the idea that we had to fight Communism across the globe. The Cold War arms race kept our economy going right up to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Then there was a brief moment when, again, a few dreamers thought we could turn guns into butter. But Saddam Hussein was baited into invading Kuwait, and the United States, now as the only great power, had a new mission as the world’s policeman. Under Boris Yeltsin, we might have come to an understanding with Russia in the 1990s, but by the time Vladimir Putin came to power at the end of that decade, the aggressive expansion of NATO right to Russia’s doorstep had guaranteed a continuing military rivalry.
The 9/11/2001 attacks were another godsend to the military-industrial complex, leading directly to major deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the ongoing threat of terrorism is the gift that keeps on giving.
Those who remember when the United States was not on a wartime footing are now in their 80s and 90s. We no longer know how to be such a society. In our early decades, Americans often compared our country to Rome, and like Rome, we do not know how to be at peace.