Friday, July 9, 2010
Nonviolence: Lesson 2
After beginning my exploration of Mark Kurlansky's 25 lessons about nonviolence laid out in his "Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea," I've gotten off track and, well, lazy about continuing my posts. It always seems there's something that "needs" or "should" be done rather than blathering away on the blog, but I'm trying to make this a priority now.
Anyhow, last time, we looked at the first lesson: there is no positive word for "nonviolence." Today, we look at the second lesson.
Kurlansky's second lesson about nonviolence is this: nations that build military forces as deterrents will eventually use them. The idea of having a "robust" military merely to dissuade others from attacking is not nonviolence at all. Such a military will always end up being used actively (even if, as was the case in the invasion of Iraq, its use was disingenuously couched in the rhetoric of "deterrence" and "prevention").
The Russian dramatist, Anton Chekov, famously said that if you have a gun hanging on the wall of the set of a play in the first act, it must necessarily be used in the second. It would seem ludicrous to have such an attention-grabbing prop be there and remain unused.
The gun hanging on the set of the set of the ongoing production that is "The United States of America (Now More than Ever)" is our military.
There have only been a handful of years in its history when the United States didn't have its military in the field somewhere in the world participating in a conflict of some sort. It is a tragic example of the maxim, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." We've spent so much money on our military and made it so central to our national ethos that we find reasons to use it even when it is the last tool that should be used. The current "wars" (which, it hardly needs saying, haven't been wars for years, but long ago morphed into clumsy and violent occupations) in response to the actions of 19 men with boxcutters is only the latest example of this attitude.
Having invested so heavily (both financially and philosophically) in the military as the instrument of our national will, we will always find reasons to use it. The politico-military-industrial complex can have it no other way. There will be regimes that need toppling, strongmen in need of apprehending, and people to be "freed" even if it means killing them by the hundreds of thousands and occupying their country despite their wishes. If war doesn't find us, we'll find it.
The numbers are sobering. For FY 2008, over just over 20% of all the money spent by the government was spent on defense. That's more than was spent on Social Security or Medicare. In 2008, the United States was responsible for 48% of all the money spent on the entire planet on national defense. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has spent $7 trillion on things that kill people and destroy things, as well as training people to use these items. In the same span of time, the U.S. has spent $360 billion on science and $52 billion on energy (i.e., 6% of the amount spent on defense). Heck, when you look at the federal budget numbers, defense spending is often cordoned off; "non-defense-related discretionary spending" is how we usually refer to the stuff besides entitlement spending and what's spent by the Pentagon. It's as if we're afraid to acknowledge that we make an active choice to spend as much as we do on defense. Why should defense spending not be acknowledged as every bit as "discretionary" as money for roads, schools, and research?
Despite the warnings of many (including several military men, such as Dwight Eisenhower), we have become so besotted with the military that we've allowed it to metastasize into our national being, infiltrating our economic, social, and diplomatic decision-making. As with Chekov's gun, we can't have a military of the size we do and not use it.
The only solution is the obvious one: reduce our military spending dramatically. Only when we don't have a bloated military will we find the wisdom to not see killing and destroying as the sine qua non of American leadership and influence in the world.
Against all odds, there is bipartisan support for this step. Barney Frank and Ron Paul, coming at the issue from opposite ends of the political spectrum, have joined to call for significant cuts to the Pentagon's budget. They couch their argument largely in purely economic terms—military spending at current levels is wasteful and does damage to the country. While that's certainly true, and might make for a more pragmatic argument in the bellicose Washington the two men inhabit, we should add to their argument about the fiscal wisdom of reducing defense spending the moral imperative to not engage in violence when at all avoidable. That is an imperative that, as our own national history and the history of the world shows all too starkly, we will never follow as long as we have a grotesquely large gun hanging on our wall.