It’s terrifying to be riding a runaway horse. Some years ago in my thirties I visited my high school friend who had been diagnosed with MS. After we visited he asked me if I would be willing to take his horse for a run because he wasn’t able to ride very often any more. Excited by the prospects of riding through the backfields of my childhood, I foolishly agreed. Instead of a controlled, pleasant trot over hill and dale, however, my exuberant horse raced off certain he was in control and beyond my pleas for accountability and caution. After giving up on repeatedly pulling on the reins and yelling “Whoa!” I had to just basically let him run until he finally tired and I could get off.
My SEP, however, isn’t actually about equitation* (my new vocabulary word for this evening), but rather the horse story is my lead-in to say “Whoa!” to the runaway Pentagon budget. (And, no, I haven’t had that much success in reining in the Pentagon budget either, but I want to share how I have at least tried, and I want to ask you to join me. For me the out of control and dangerous Pentagon budget is a deeply moral issue.)
Since the end of the Eisenhower years when he warned the nation about the dangers of the “military industrial complex,” the Pentagon budget has seamlessly been elevated to the head of the national economy as a commanding, unchallenged power, and it is consistently able to call for increases without any serious consideration of cuts. Most recently, for example, the Biden administration suggested a Pentagon line item of $753 billion, which, somewhat surprisingly, is even an increase from President Trump’s final enacted budget! Two basic facts drive my moral concern: 1) the Pentagon budget receives an extremely disproportionate portion (at least 50%) of the federal discretionary budget (the part Congress needs to pass) while the human and structural needs are considered “too expensive," and 2) the total Pentagon budget is pegged at roughly twice as much as the rest of the world’s military budgets combined. "Whoa!”
I learned first hand about the near invincibility of the Pentagon budget some ten years ago when I regularly traveled to DC for FCNL board meetings. One day when my congressman was back in district campaigning, his capable and concerned military staff person that I had gotten to know invited me into a private space, and to my amazement spent over an hour and a half explaining to me and my accompanying FCNL intern how neither the Congress nor the Administration had little or no real control over the Pentagon budget. “Whoa!” And, perhaps even more disturbing, he shared in impressive detail about the millions and millions of dollars of waste and graft in the Pentagon budget for which he was personally aware. (“Whoa!” again.) I asked him why he was sharing all this with me, and he said the peace community was especially needed to lead in challenging the Pentagon budget. I took that comment personally and the Pentagon budget has been a special concern of mine ever since.
The Pentagon now may finally be facing competition, however, with the equally ginormous budget line items proposed under the Biden administration's Corvid and infrastructure spending spree. Obviously money to pay for these huge expenses needs to be raised, reallocated or borrowed to pay for it all. So this week I am encouraged to learn that, indeed, 36 national, progressive, grassroots faith, social justice, immigration, peace and climate groups released a letter to Biden challenging the proposed increase in his Pentagon budget and recommending instead investing money in our community needs.*** As has been shown in numbers of past documentation, significant cuts to the Pentagon budget would not compromise national security and, in fact, would increase it if that money were used to support peacemaking efforts and worldwide human needs. Additional support for reining in the Pentagon also came recently from 50 Congressional Democrats who wrote to challenge Biden’s proposed Pentagon increase. I am encouraged.
All of us need to find ways to add our voices to challenging the Pentagon budget. Several years ago, I offered one way to address the military budget, and I am inclined to try it again this year. For two summers in 2010 and 2011 I set up a booth at our local county fair that featured a “Bean Poll” in which a person was given 10 beans to distribute in eight different plastic tubes representing the primary categories of the federal budget: health care, education, foreign aid, human services and the military, etc, thus prioritizing how they would spend their federal “beans.” ** Each time I did the experiment the percentages were roughly the same: education and health care were by far the most heavily supported, with the military coming in a modest third. After they voted I showed them the actual dollar distributions of the federal discretionary budget, and most people were surprised to see that a huge disproportionate amount that went to the military while their priorities went neglected. Let me know if you would also like to try to replicate this means of public engagement on the Pentagon budget at your farmer’s market, county fair, or other public gatherings.
Maybe the huge Biden expense proposals also will resist the “Whoa!” factor and run ahead of accountability and control, but support for critical infrastructure, health, and education needs sounds like an obviously better investment than more weapon systems, lucrative no-bid corporate contacts, and propping up an endless war.
As the American people reckon with our imposing list of largely unchecked harm done under the cloud of historical complacency and denial, we need to also prioritize reckoning with our tragic willingness to accept the impact of the colossal waste of national finances and resources we have poured into an unaudited Pentagon budget. Like all the other issues of neglect we are now facing, the “truth and reconciliation” process of reining in the Pentagon budget undoubtedly will be a wrench given its “cancer like,” often destructive invasion into the economy of nearly every county in the U.S. (I live in a county surrounded by three or more significant military installations plus Boeing, for example). But we don’t really have a choice if our national economy has a chance of resiliency and sustainability.
For me the Pentagon budget is a personal matter, and we all need to be informed about how our tax dollars and our tacit support continues to make us co-dependent to it. Please read the letter I have included below, and join in demanding that it is imperative to try to rein in the Pentagon budget even though our current cries of “Whoa!” may seem futile. Like so many of our reckonings these days, the military budget is nonetheless a critical and (past) timely issue.
* Equitation: “the art and practice of horsemanship and horse riding.”
** “Bean Poll”
For Immediate ReleaseFriday, April 16, 2021
Contact: Phone: 202-588-1000
36 Groups to Biden and Congress: Reduce Oversized Pentagon RequestWASHINGTON - Public Citizen and three dozen faith, social justice, immigration, peace and climate groups in a statement called on the Biden administration to reverse course on its proposed $753 billion Pentagon—a notable increase from President Trump’s final enacted budget—and instead propose to reduce overall Pentagon spending.
“We must change course and invest in the needs of people rather than the greed of the military-industrial complex,” the letter states.
“There are numerous proposals on how to rein in the gargantuan Pentagon budget while increasing national and global security,” the groups contend in their letter. “The American people know that producing more weapons, greenlighting corporate contracts, and propping up endless war slush funds will not make us safer.”
The groups urge that President Biden significantly lower the Pentagon budget in his formal budget request to Congress and that Congress allocate less for the Pentagon in its forthcoming fiscal year 2022 spending bills than it did in fiscal year 2021.
Read the statement and see the full list of signers here.