The annual defense budget, passed recently by both the House (377-48) and Senate (82-8), came in at $738 billion for 2020, up from last year, a sweet $22 billion. War hits the mother lode every year.
For virtually anything that matters — you know, health care for all, free college tuition, clean water, eco-sustainable energy production — the constant refrain is that the money just isn’t there. But we’ve sold the national soul to the war god so long ago that the perfunctory, bipartisan passage of the National Defense Authorization Act comes and goes every year with, at most, a few marginal cries of outrage and a big shrug from the media.
This year the budget came with a few extra stocking stuffers for the warmongers and profiteers. It bequeathed the world an upgraded possibility of nuclear war and guaranteed the universe a future of bellicosity beyond the confines of Earth.
Consider these words of Charles Edward Jefferson, published in the March 1909 issue of The Atlantic — at the dawn of the 20th century, before World War I set the world on fire:
“Militarism has foisted upon the world a policy which handicaps the work of the church, cripples the hand of philanthropy, blocks the wheels of constructive legislation, cuts the nerve of reform, blinds statesmen to dangers which are imminent and portentous, such as poverty and all the horde of evils which come from insufficient nutrition, and fixes the eyes upon perils which are fanciful and far away. It multiplies the seeds of discord, debilitates the mind by filling it with vain imaginations, corrodes the heart by feelings of suspicion and ill-will. It is starving and stunting the lives of millions, and subjecting the very frame of society to a strain which it cannot indefinitely endure.”
More than a century later, the truth in his essay has merely intensified. Our militarized political focus remains fixed “upon perils which are fanciful and far away.”
Thus the National Defense Authorization Act officially created a sixth branch of the American military, the Space Force, establishing, in the words of Donald Trump, “space as a warfighting domain” and guaranteeing that “the United States will dominate in that environment just like all others.”
The Hill explains it further: American corporations will eventually start building factories in outer space and mining “the moon and the asteroids for their mineral wealth.” But have no fears: “The United States Space Force will ensure that no unfriendly power can impede these activities through military attack. The new service branch will have to be so strong and capable that no other country would think of trying to bring fire and destruction to American and allied space infrastructure.”
So, apparently, expanding the human enterprise into the great beyond will not in any way unify the planet or free political minds from the nationalism and hubris that encages them — not if Trump has anything to say about it (and he does).
Jefferson, discussing The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 — where “everybody conceded that it was better to settle international disputes by reason rather than by force” — points out that “as soon as the legal machinery was created, by means of which the sword could be dispensed with, there was a fresh fury to perfect at once all the instruments of destruction. After each new peace conference there was a fresh cry for more guns.”
But he saw hope on the horizon: “The old policy is wrong. The old leaders are discredited. The old programme is obsolete. Those who wish for peace must prepare for it. Our supreme business is not the scaring of rivals, but the making of friends.
“Will America become a leader? … Will she, by setting a daring example, arrest the growth of armaments throughout the world?”
Is Jefferson’s irony-saturated question dead and buried, beyond any possibility of exhumation? It certainly seems that way. Militarism — American militarism in particular — keeps claiming the future and seems intent on doing so until there’s no future left to claim. One of the provisions of the newly passed defense budget, for instance, allows the deployment, on U.S. Trident submarines, of the W76-2 tactical nuclear warhead, a low-yield nuclear warhead that puts it in the realm of being a “usable” nuke: possibly the most insane concept in the history of warfare.
Oh, Mother Earth! As soon as we move incrementally toward peace, our soul snaps and all we can envision is war. Nuclear weapons once sat smugly as agents of deterrence. But the W76-2, which is slightly smaller than the bombs actually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is a weapon to be used — to murder and contaminate, not simply to intimidate. It is not surprising that such a weapon would find its way into the global arsenal.