One Question: What Is the True Cost of U.S. Militarism?

Each issue, The Progressive poses just one question to a panel of expert voices—writers, thinkers, politicians, artists, and others who help shape the national conversation. For our April/May 2023 issue, contemplating the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the first anniversary of Russian invasion of Ukraine, we asked: what is the true cost of the U.S. militarism? 

Allen Hester 

Legislative representative at the Friends Committee on National Legislation

The costs of American militarism are far-reaching, in terms of both financial and human impact. The United States spends more on its military per year than any other country in the world ($858 billion). Imagine what else we could be doing with just a fraction of that money?

Militarism perpetuates a cycle of violence that harms countless individuals and communities both domestically and abroad. Military operations often result in civilian casualties, displacement, and environmental destruction. The trauma inflicted on soldiers, both physical and psychological, can have lifelong consequences.

The resources devoted to military operations could instead be used to address urgent social and environmental challenges, such as poverty, health care, education, and climate change.

We must prioritize peace and diplomacy as alternatives to the never-ending cycle of war and violence.

Mark Pocan

Democratic U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s Second Congressional District

The United States spends more on defense than the next nine countries combined. It’s almost the same amount of funding that the Environmental Protection Agency, Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, Health and Human Services, State, Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture all receive.

Congress continues to authorize too much defense spending with too little accountability. The Department of Defense still can’t pass an audit of the funding it receives, which is a requirement of virtually every other agency.

We need to stop rewarding the building of amphibious vehicles that sink unready projects like the F-35 fighter jet, which still has hundreds of deficiencies that have not been addressed, and Ford-class aircraft carriers with toilets that cost $400,000 in chemicals to flush when clogged. Yes, we flush defense dollars down the toilet.

At some point, more spending doesn’t make you safer; it’s security theater and contractor profiteering. We need a more modern definition of defense—one that recognizes real national security threats like COVID-19, cyberattacks, and climate change. But the current defense budget doesn’t do that.

Mike Brand

Adjunct professor of genocide studies and human rights, University of Connecticut

Imagine how you would improve our country. Universal health care, free college tuition, and public schools that had enough resources with teachers that were paid a good wage—or better infrastructure and a high-speed rail system? Maybe you’d prioritize paid parental leave, free child care, and effective poverty reduction programs?

What about the rest of the world? Promoting democracy, improving health care, supporting women’s and girls’ empowerment programs, combating corruption, and investing in sustainable development are all good options.

Now imagine what we could have achieved if instead of spending $8 trillion on the global war on terror, we made some of those goals a reality. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of lives lost and the untold cost of destruction by our military, the cost of U.S. militarism is our inability to achieve any of those other goals. It’s all about priorities, and for far too long our priorities have been out of whack.