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Civilizing the Military: What the Service Could Be Without War

By Ellen Brown

In a June 15 article in the New York Times titled “Our Lefty Military,” Nicholas Kristof says  that we don’t need to turn to Sweden to find a business model that provides universal health care, educational opportunity, and relative income equality.  We have one right here at home, in the United States military.  He writes: 

This is a rare enclave of single-payer universal health care, and it continues with a veterans’ health care system that has much lower costs than the American system as a whole.  Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the American military is . . . the military day care system for working parents.

. . . Its universities — the military academies — are excellent, and it has R.O.T.C. programs at other campuses around the country. Many soldiers get medical training, law degrees, or Ph.D.’s while in service, sometimes at the country’s finest universities.

Granted, it may seem odd to seek a model of compassion in an organization whose mission involves killing people. . . . But as we as a country grope for new directions in a difficult economic environment, the tendency has been to move toward a corporatist model that sees investments in people as woolly-minded sentimentalism or as unaffordable luxuries. That’s not the only model out there.

Kristof quotes retired four-star general Wesley Clark, who called the U.S. military “the purest application of socialism there is.”

The late Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, wrote in 1989 that the military/industrial complex was the closest thing in the United States to the state-guided market system of Japan.  The government determines the programs and hires private companies to implement them.  He called the U.S. military/industrial complex is a form of state-sponsored capitalism that has produced one of the most lucrative and successful industries in the country. 

The Japanese model differs, however, in that it achieves this result without the pretext of war.  The Japanese government caps military spending at a mere 1% of the national budget. 

The Japanese Model

The Japanese state-guided system actually had military roots.  In its feudal period, the country was run by a military government headed by the shogun and administered by local lords and their samurai, who were living essentially as drones without wars to keep them busy.  This shogunate system owned the land.  When it was overthrown in the late 19th century, the new Meiji government abolished feudal land ownership and paid the local lords and samurai sums of money in compensation.

The government got the money simply by issuing it.  Japan had become the first nation in Asia to found its own independent state bank. The bank issued new fiat money which was used to pay the nobles, and the nobles were then encouraged to deposit their money in the state bank and to put it to work creating new industries.  Additional money was created by the government to aid the new industries.  No expense was spared in the process of industrialization. 

In this way, the Japanese managed to transform their warrior class into the country’s industrialists, successfully shifting their focus to the peaceful business of building the country and developing industry. The old feudal Japanese dynasties became the multinational Japanese corporations we know today – Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo, and so forth. 

The Japanese economic model that evolved in the twentieth century is what Chalmers Johnson called a “state-guided market system.” The state determines the priorities and commissions the work, then enlists private enterprise to carry it out. The model overcame the defects of the communist system, which put ownership and control in the hands of the state.

Japan, China, and other economic competitors get ahead by not wasting money on the military.  They invest instead in infrastructure and productive industry.  Seymour Melman, writing in the 1990s, noted that while the U.S. was busy investing in war, Japan was investing in its infrastructure and productive capital.  As a result, Japan had achieved six times the rate of growth in productivity of the U.S. economy. 

A similar model was followed during Roosevelt’s New Deal with the Works Progress Administration (renamed the Work Projects Administration or WPA).  The largest and most ambitious federal agency of the New Deal, the WPA employed millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads.  It also operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects; fed children; and redistributed food, clothing, and housing. Almost every community in the United States had a park, bridge or school constructed by the WPA. 

A Model of Sustainability and Self-sufficiency

The Japanese economy has been called “stagnant,” but the Japanese are not aiming for growth.  They are aiming for sustainability and quality of life; and at least until this latest nuclear disaster, they were achieving it.  The money our government is pouring into the military, the Japanese are pouring into health care, education, and pensions for the elderly. 

Like the Meiji government – and like our government when it comes to military spending – they get the money essentially just by printing it.  The government advances the funds, then balances the books by issuing bonds, creating a federal debt that is never paid down but is just rolled over from year to year. 

This is what governments actually should do.  In today’s world of banking and finance, money is debt, and the national debt sustains the national money supply

But the U.S. is allowed to draw without objection on the largesse of the national credit card only for the military budget, so that is where the government’s money goes.  We could, like the Japanese, be spending it on health care and other human goods instead.  The money would come from the same place the military gets it.  As Representative Barney Frank wrote in The Nation in February 2009:

When I am challenged by people--not all of them conservative--who tell me that they agree, for example, that we should enact comprehensive universal healthcare but wonder how to pay for it, my answer is that I do not know immediately where to get the funding but I know whom I should ask. I was in Congress on September 10, 2001, and I know there was no money in the budget at that time for a war in Iraq. So my answer is that I will go to the people who found the money for that war and ask them if they could find some for healthcare.  

Prepared for “The Military Industrial Complex at 50”, a conference in Charlottesville, VA, September 16-18, 2011.

Ellen Brown is an attorney and president of the Public Banking Institute,  In Web of Debt, her latest of eleven books, she shows how the power to create money has been usurped from the people, and how we can get it back.  Her websites are http://webofdebt.comand


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