As Martin Luther King told us 45 years ago, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
The record military budget that was rubber-stamped by the U.S. House of Representatives last week surely proves Dr. King's point. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this budget is at least 25% higher than the one he assailed at the height of the Vietnam War. At about 60% of discretionary spending, our military budget outstrips not just programs of social uplift, but the entire non-military federal budget.
"Spiritual death" implies a failure of the human spirit: a death of both humanity and imagination. When President Bush launched a "global war on terror" and a massive military build-up following the crimes of September 11th, few Americans questioned his response. Congressperson Barbara Lee was a lonely voice and the sole vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Last Thursday, Barbara Lee no longer stood alone, as 112 of her colleagues voted for her amendment to immediately and safely withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
The State Department's annual reports on global terrorism document the dramatic failure of this policy. In the ten years since the United States declared war on "terror," and after spending an additional $3 trillion, the scale of terrorism in the world has exploded, from 348 incidents in 2001 to about 10,000 incidents per year . Our government's determination to persist in its failed policy displays exactly the death of imagination that Dr. King implied.
As for the death of humanity, the disproportionate violence of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq haskilled more than 200 people for each person who died on September 11th, and almost none of the dead had anything to do with the original crimes. What kind of society can regard such indiscriminate violence and taking of life as a justifiable form of defense?
But a closer look at how Americans feel about our wars and our record military budget reveals an important discrepancy in this bleak picture. Since the initial shock passed in the years following 2001, large majorities of Americans have opposed our wars and our record military budget. It is our leaders who have willfully ignored a spirit of humanity and imagination that is alive and well, maybe even resurgent, among ordinary Americans.
President Obama is a case in point. In a speech in November 2006, Senator Obama praised the American people as "extraordinary resolved" in its support for the war in Iraq -- even as polls showed public support for the war at only 33%. President Obama said he would "not just end the war", but "end the mind-set that got us into the war in the first place". Yet that is precisely what he has failed to do, with catastrophic and deadly results.
Meanwhile, a week before Congress began debate on the 2013 military budget, the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) at the University of Maryland released the most thorough survey of public opinion on U.S. military spending it had ever conducted. PPC presented Americans with actual budget figures, along with several ways of placing them in comparative and historical context, and then offered them the most commonly cited arguments for why spending should be raised or lowered. It then asked them how they would increase or reduce military spending for 2013.
It should be no surprise that the average American in the survey called for spending $154 billion less on the military than our "representatives" in Congress, reducing the military budget from $642 billion to $488 billion. Republicans called for smaller cuts than Democrats and independents -- cutting $110 billion versus $185 billion. Overall, 76% of Americans would cut the base military budget, while only 10% would increase it.
Martin Luther King certainly recognized the many differences between the views of U.S. leaders and the general public. But he did not say that our government was approaching spiritual death. He said that our nation was approaching spiritual death. Perhaps more than anyone else in American public life, Dr. King understood that it is up to ordinary people to insist that our leaders listen to us, and that we all bear the consequences when we fail to do so.
Dr. King also offered us the antidote to "spiritual death," when he spoke of his dream that "this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." In our nation's political life, we have a creed of equal representation, and its true meaning is that our representatives in Congress must actually represent us, not just their wealthy cronies and campaign contributors. The same creed of equality also means that an Iraqi or Afghan life must be valued just as much as an American one.
Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He writes on war, militarism and international law for Z Magazine and at Warisacrime.org. He wrote the chapter on "Obama At War" for the just released book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama's First Term as a Progressive Leader.