From Aug. 7, 1789 when it was created, to September 18, 1947, the American people knew that their government had a Department of War, and that it had an Army and a Navy for that purpose, both to defend the country against attack, as it did in 1812, and to make war, as it did in the Barbary War of 1801-1805. Since then the US military has engaged in wars overe 80 times including in the Civil War. Most of those wars, whether against Native peoples as the expanding US sought their lands, or against Middleastern or Asian countries to gain access to their resources.
But all that time, the American people knew that their government was at war and that their tax money, whether they liked it or not, was being spent on efforts to kill or be killed, for defense and for offense.
That changed in 1947, when a nation, exhausted by a brutal world war that cost the US the lives of over 400,000 military personnel and left over 600.000 seriously injured, wanted peace. The problem was the Truman administration, which had a monopoly on the atomic bomb, wanted to use it to enhance the US’s pre-eminent power coming out of that global conflict that had battered and weakened all the other world powers. So even as the US began in 1946 cranking out more atomic bombs as rapidly as it could, creating close to 400 Nagasaki-sized bombs by 1950, and with the intent to use them, in 1947 President Truman had the Department of War name-changed to the Department of Defense.
Housed in the world’s largest building, the Pentagon, constructed during World War II to house the giant bureaucracy of war that was contemplated even as the war was being fought, the Department of Defense, from the time its foundation was being dug, was never about “defense.” We knowthis is the reality because since the surrender of Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, no nation has had the capacity to attack the US with any chance of surviving such an action.
The US in fact, with the end of World War II, became an empire supported by the most powerful military the world had ever known, and it remains so. To hide that reality from the American people, who of course have to pay for that empire, the name of the military entity runniing the war machine had to be disguised as the Department of Defense.
It’s not easy to comprehend how enormous the US military is, whether simply as the war-making force that it is, or as the largest government organization in this country, or compared to the military forces of the rest of the world’s nations.
But the latest budget proposal by President Biden for the 2024 fiscal year budget that, once passed by Congress next fall, will in some form take effect this coming October 1, offers a good opportunity to try and do that.
President Biden’s proposed federal budget, which covers all federal spending for the coming fiscal year will be debated in House and Senate and eventually passed, with cuts here and increases there. But if history offers any perspective, after all the posturing and the sturm-und-drang rhetoric and media tut-tutting about its size, the final approved budget will be pretty similar to what the White House proposes. This is because so much of the total US budget is deemed mandated or untouchable. The three big “untouchable” portions, accounting for over seven-eighths or 87.5% of the total budget, consists of mandated outlays for Social Security benefits and Medicare, interest payments on the national debt, and military spending.
That last category of spending, while not mandated, in fact rarely has gotten cut but instead typically gets raised by Congress — especially by Republicans backed by Democrats afraid to be accused of being “soft on defense” or of “not supporting our troops.” That makes significantly reducing the overall federal budget almost impossible since most of the non-military part of it goes for things that most of the public in both parties actually wants fully funded, like educational funding, police funding, infrastructure funding, national parks and environmental protection, health and human services like food stamps and rental assistance for low-income families, etc.
Now for some numbers.
The FY 2024 budget proposed by the White House is for a record $6.9 trillion in federal spending. $1.8 trillion of that spending to be funded by new borrowing by the federal government because government revenues over the period are estimated to only be $5.1 trillion.
Of that total proposed spending, $4.2 trillion would be for mandated spending, much of which is funded by dedicated payroll taxes levied on workers and their employers to pay for Social Security and Medicare. Interest on the debt, which is costing the federal government $261 billion this year but will be significantly higher in 2024 next year because of stunningly higher interest rates. (For those who wonder why only the interest payments are counted, not the repayment of principal, that’s because the government doesn’t repay its mounting debt but just rolls it over using new borrowing — in this case at a higher borrowing rate.)
That brings us to the so-called “discretionary” portion of the federal budget — the part that has to be approved each year by Congress, and each budget line of which which at least in theory can be raised or cut by a majority vote, either approved by the president, or vetoed in its entirety (no line item vetoes allowed), or if vetoed, passed by a two-thirds majority over-ride vote in both houses.
The total so-called “discretionary “ total in Biden’s proposed 2024 budget is $1.7 trillion. Of that, a staggering $888 billion is for the military. That, for the record, is the first time since World War II (when the US was fully mobilized for a few years funding its role in a global hot war), that the Pentagon’s share of “discretionary” spending — 52% — has exceeded the budget for all other discretionary budget lines combined.
And actually, broadly speaking, the US is spending a lot more on its military and its militarist foreign policy. Included in the real total but currently falsely classified as “other discretionary spending,” are the CIA, NSA, Veterans Affairs and parts of the State Department as well as other agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. And to make matters worse, of all the items in the federal budget, the military portion is the only one that in recent years has been raised beyond what the Pentagon and White House have requested. Last year, for example, Republicans with some Democratic support, pushed successfully for an extra $45 billion to the. Pentagon, much of it for weapons systems the Pentagon no longer wanted. This year, Republicans who control the House are talking about pushing for an across-the-board 8% increase in the Pentagon budget instead of the 3.2% increase proposed by Biden. That would push the US military spending well over the $1-trillion mark, meaning it would dwarf spending on the needs of Americans for better roads and bridges, education funding for schools in low-income states and communities, action on climate change and the damage caused by, a Postal Service that actually works like it used to (remember when a first-class stamp got domestic mail delivered anywhere within two days?), more funding for medical research, food and housing assistance for the nation’s unconscionably huge population living on the edge, etc.
The reason the House and Senate Armed Services Committees opt for an across-the-board increase instead of focused identifying specific lines in the Pentagon budget that they think need to be raised is that nobody knows what the Pentagon spends. This is because the military budget is by design so deliberately obscure and indecipherable that it has not been audited successfully in decades. Aa I wrote in a Nation cover story in 2019, it is the only federal government agency operating without an annual audit, making every budget submitted to Congress each year with its accompanying financial statement on the prior year’s spending gigantic frauds.
How big is the US military and the military budget? Well, with 1.3 million active duty troops in the US (171,000 or 12% of them based overseas), and over two million reservists and National Guard troops, this country has one of the largest and the best equipped military forces in the world. That massive force doesn’t have a great record at defeating vastly smaller and dramatically less well-equipped fighting forces, whether in Korea in the early ‘50s, Vietnam in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Iraq in the ‘90s and Afghanistan’s Taliban in this new century. Meanwhile, the country doesn’t seem to be any more secure for all that spending, given that we’re now being told military spending has to be boosted because of supposed threats from China, Russia and Iran among others. For decades, the Pentagon and its cheerleaders in Congress and the media have always called for more funding anyhow, in times of war and times of peace, warning always about new and greater “threats.”
The truth is that US military spending is greater today, and has been for some time, than the spending of all other nations in the world combined. Meanwhile the US is not facing any existential threat requiring such a huge military.
Consider all the issues facing the American people today: We have rising seas and ever more powerful climate disasters from record hurricanes striking in much longer hurricane seasons; epic storms on the west coast; tornados where they have never appeared in historical memory (like one two years ago that hit our town in southeastern Philadelphia , a disaster which we’re still recovering from two years later), record inland flooding, schools that are falling apart and overcrowded, public colleges so starved for funds that they are charging what private colleges used to charge, a population where one-in-ten live in poverty according to the last census; roads, highways and bridges that are worse than in any so-called “developed” country I have lived in or traveled to, and a health care system where over 8 percent of the population has no health insurance or access to a doctor, and an average life expectancy that has dropped by 2.7 years over the last two years to 76.1 (the first time since 1920-21 that the country has experienced such a back-to-back annual decline).
And people think the country needs more spending on war and preparing for war?
Personal income taxes collected by the IRS in 2021, the last year for which complete data is currently available, came to $1.7 trillion. In other words all of our tax payments were just enough to fund the entire “discretionary” budget of the federal government. That means that 52 cents of every tax dollar each of us paid to the IRS went straight to coffers of the US military and national “defense” establishment. Think about that next time you fill out that 1040 form and get to the line telling what you owe or already had deducted from your paychecks.
But here’s the worst part. Congress, which has committees that look with a fine-tooth comb at how taxpayer money is spent by the EPA, OSHA, the FDA and FTC, the Education Department, the Labor Department, Health and Welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, NOAA, etc., (all of which agencies and departments have to submit full audits of their expenditures before getting their next year’s appropriations), has no idea, and for decades has had no idea how the Pentagon has spent already allocated funds, and thus no idea why it needs what it is asking for!
Here’s a quote from an article published by the quasi-governmental Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), hardly a critic of US militarism and empire. In a paper titled: “America’s Military Spending and the Uncertain Costs of its Wars: The Need for Transparent Reporting,” Anthony Cordesman, a veteran of the Defense Department, National Security Council, and former advisor to the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), wrote in 2019:
“The United States has now been continuously at war for more than seventeen years. It is still fighting an active war in Afghanistan, has yet to fully defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq – much less establish a state of lasting security in either country – and is playing a role in low level conflicts against extremists and terrorists in many other parts of the world.
“The U.S. government, however, has never developed a convincing method of reporting on the cost of the wars, and its estimates are a confusing morass of different and conflicting Departmental, Agency, and other government reporting that leave major gaps in key areas during FY2001-FY2019.
“It has never provided useful forecasts of future cost, instead providing empty “placeholder” numbers or none. It has failed to find any useful way to tie the cost estimates it does release to its level of military and civil activity in each conflict or found any way to measure the effectiveness of its expenditures or tie them to a credible strategy to achieve some form of victory.
“The result is a national embarrassment and a fundamental failure by the Executive Branch and Congress to produce the transparency and public debate and review that are key elements of a responsible government and democracy.”
He concludes his article by writing:
“In short, these costs need to be fully audited and assessed, and the inclusion of such costs in estimating war costs should be a critical and important subject of public and Congressional debate.”
Funding for war, the hugest single part of the Federal budget financed from general tax revenues and has been allowed to escape any government oversight and any serious media, much less public scrutiny. That the American public has allowed this to happen without any significant public protest speaks to the lack of any true democracy in the United States and to the failure of the public to act as citizens in a democracy.