Trillions Flushed Down a War-Spending Drain: The Crime, Contamination, and Immorality Being Funded by Your Tax Dollars

As Congress continues to struggle to agree on a federal budget, we examine the single biggest source of discretionary spending: ‘defense.’

Content warning: mention of rape/sexual assault.

By Stephanie Frescas

In its founding documents, the United States was established as a country that would seek to be a positive presence in the world — “[to] establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Preamble of the Constitution reads. This is the standard to which Repairers of the Breach and the Moral Movement hold every U.S. policy; but Congressional budget decisions make clear that America is failing to keep this promise.

In its budgeting powers, Congress sets an amount for discretionary spending (divided into defense and nondefense), and eligibility for mandatory spending (i.e. they have to fund Medicaid, but they can change requirements so less people qualify and less money is spent). For decades, discretionary spending has overwhelmingly skewed toward what is portrayed as “common defense,” while leaving “general Welfare” as an afterthought. Earlier this week, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan argued that it was critical for Congress to pass a budget quickly, since “Our men and women in uniform, they depend upon these resources to keep themselves safe and to keep us safe.” But that’s not what all the billions and billions of war spending dollars do. As we examine, this fortune funds pain, it funds monstrous crimes; and as it does, it leaves the poor of our country with scraps.

According to the preliminary report for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival — “The Souls of Poor Folk” — discretionary spending in 2016 allotted almost four times more for the military than for people’s lives at home — with $630 billion for the military versus $183 billion for education, jobs, housing and other basic human needs. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned in 1967, “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 signs of spiritual decay are showing. According to Airwars, a journalist-led transparency project, there have been 6,047 “minimum civilians estimated killed” by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS since its formation in October of 2014. Alarmingly, there were more civilian casualties under the first seven months of the current administration than during the three years of its existence under President Obama. Under the guise of defending the “common defense”, we have become murderers. These thousands of victims (from only one of the conflicts which we are currently involved) were of no threat to us.

But U.S. militarism has also contributed to killings that aren’t even within our conflict zones. House Resolution 81 was introduced into Congress last year to direct the President “to remove U.S. Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen,” as our country has aided Saudi Arabia, in multiple ways, within a war that Congress never authorized. According to the U.N., the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen has left 8.4 million people on the verge of starvation, with the world’s largest man-made food security crisis. People of all nations must denounce war-mongering as a leading cause of poverty, conflict and division within and between nations.

Even in cases where we send our military abroad to defend allies, we send violence. Miles Thomas, living in Kansas and part of the Kansas City, Missouri chapter of Veterans for Peace, was in the Marine Corps from 1992 to 1996, when he was given an “Other than Honorable Discharge” for marijuana use — a devastating expulsion that particularly stung because he said he knew there was rampant drug use amongst his platoon — and much worse. He says that most of the men around him spent much of their free time getting excessively drunk and going off base to strip clubs and brothels; driving drunk; fighting each other and locals; and sexually assaulting and raping local women. “We don’t go overseas and represent the best that America can be,” he states. “We cause mayhem.”

Thomas was stationed in Okinawa, Japan in 1995 at the same time as Rodrico Harp and Kendrick M. Ledet, who were indicted for raping a 12-year-old local girl. According to a New York Times article from the time, the indictment detailed that the two Marines, along with a Navy Seaman, accosted the girl on a street, beat her, taped her mouth and eyes, and raped her on the back seat of a car. All three men were found guilty by a Japanese court.

This is not an isolated incident by any means. It wasn’t even the first time a child in Okinawa was raped by a member of the American military. The incident in 1995 took place 40 years after a six-year-old girl was raped, and killed, by another member of the American military. The same New York Times article reporting on the 1995 assault also reported that “Americans in Okinawa accounted for 4.2 percent of the population [in Okinawa] but 11.5 percent of felonies like murder, rape and robbery.” A report from PBS last September showed that since 1972, 6,000 crimes have been committed by military personnel in Okinawa. Just this past December, a military contractor and former Marine was found guilty of raping and killing an Okinawa woman.

And this is part of what the billions of ‘defense’ dollars fund. The cost of stationing troops abroad, excluding war zones, is $100 billion a year — the U.S. has almost 800 overseas military bases, more than any other nation. Safety as an abstract concept sounds invaluable, but that is not where the country’s money is going.

“The military breeds violence,” Miles stresses. “It teaches violence. I was a trained killer for the Marine Corps. It’s fortunate that I never had to kill anybody, but that’s what it trains. Even the support jobs, even the jobs that aren’t infantry, they go to the same boot camps and they’re taught how to kill as well. So killers who have nobody to kill end up acting out the hatred in other ways. And they do it on the civilian population surrounding the bases. These are things that I saw. The amount of assault, the amount of fighting that happens in other countries within the military is staggering…men raping men in the military, men raping women in the military, and the civilians around the station.”

Again, what Miles recounts from his time at the Marines fits larger, observed patterns. The violent culture of the military hasn’t just hurt innocent civilians; it hurts its own members. “The Souls of Poor Folk” cites a 2012 survey by the Department of Veterans Affairs which indicated that, “nearly half of female military personnel sent to Iraq or Afghanistan had reported being sexually harassed, and nearly 25% said they had been sexually assaulted.”

But as abhorrent as that is, it’s not the only way the U.S. military has harmed its own citizens. One of the most direct has been through the contamination of more than 40,000 sites in the country. An investigation conducted by ProPublica and Vox in 2017 found that “the testing and disposal of the nation’s weapons here in the U.S. have poisoned drinking water supplies, rendered millions of acres of land unsafe or unusable, and jeopardized the health of often unwitting Americans.”

A powerful example is RDX, a powerful explosive. Multiple towns across the country, with RDX contamination, have suffered from above-normal cases of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. There are currently 150 sites across the U.S. with RDX contamination. Yet according to ProPublica, “the Pentagon has resisted scientific evidence that it causes cancer, interfered with federal and state efforts to clean up RDX-contaminated lands, and even pressed Congress to rewrite American environmental laws so as to not apply to RDX contamination.” As it stands, the EPA has not yet decided whether to label RDX as a carcinogen, although it is set to decide this year.

With the long list of negative impacts of the U.S. war spending in mind, it’s particularly distressing to consider the disproportionately large sum it makes up. It’s disproportionate when compared to other countries: according to information gathered by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2016, the U.S. spent $611 billion on defense, more than the next eight countries combined. China spent the second highest amount on defense, with $215 billion.

“How many nuclear weapons do we need North Korea from attacking us? Or Russia, or the Chinese? Only a fraction of what we have in place,” John Exdell, a member of the Kansas People’s Agenda, and chair of the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice, argues. “I think a motivation here is that the United States really would like to have the most dominant military power in the world, that can threaten other countries with strike capacity that would be so overwhelming that it would be successful.”

Even the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, confirms that the government is overspending on defense. In October, the Pentagon reported “an excess infrastructure capacity of 19 percent”, and Secretary Mattis asked Congress to authorize a round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). The Pentagon has actually made this request for years — the last BRAC round took place in 2005 — but since then, Congress has ignored these requests. Sec. Mattis has estimated that closing excess bases would save more than $2 billion.

The immorality of overspending to emphasize dominance is compounded when there are people in the United States dying from lack of healthcare. Still, at the State of the Union, the President spoke triumphantly of his efforts to weaken the Affordable Care Act, and asked Congress to “fully fund” the military, arguing that “weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense” against threats like terrorist groups and China. This is not only ridiculous when we consider the reality of U.S. military spending compared to the rest of the world makes this fear-mongering, it is immoral and hypocritical. It is hypocritical for a government to push for an image of indestructible military power to protect people we will not take care of, whose widespread needs go overlooked.

One quarter of discretionary defense spending would double current poverty relief efforts, including programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Ironically, even military members are affected by the overemphasis on defense spending as opposed to domestic spending. According to the Center for American Progress “$31 million of SNAP/food stamps funding in 2008 was spent at military commissaries to help feed military members and their families who struggle against hunger,” and one in five of the households benefiting from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program includes a veteran.

Congress hasn’t set the budget for the 2018 fiscal year yet, but proposals by the President have been alarming. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities studied the budget proposal he released in May — which included $639 billion for the Department of Defense — and found that two-thirds of the cuts made to offset the increase in defense spending came from programs for “low and moderate-income people”. This included $1.9 billion in healthcare cuts, $138 billion in SNAP cuts, and a total end to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, has spoken out against politicians who direct their priorities in this way. At a Special Watch Night Gathering on New Year’s Eve, he made clear that this was a sign of skewed morals: “According to Scripture,” Rev. Barber affirmed, “politicians are like wolves when they would rather fund the war and the military industrial complex, than to support the peace and stand up and support their poor… they have lost something in their humanity.”

After the military, Miles Thomas had to work to undo the harm from the experience of working for wolves. Raising a son helped, teaching him compassion and patience, and he was eventually even able to write cathartic music about his experience. Jason Wright, a current member of the Army, however, recounts a completely different experience. Like Miles, Jason Wright joined the military at 17, after graduating high school without a clear plan for his future. He was pleasantly surprised by his experience. He worked within Transportation, focused on logistics, and says he took part in humanitarian work whenever he had time off from training. These kinds of interactions deeply affected him.

“It really changed my whole perspective on people as a whole, and different cultures, as well as how I saw the Army,” he recounts. “It made me appreciate being a soldier a lot more because now, at that point, I felt I had a purpose.”

Wright’s experience is notable because it demonstrates the potential a superpower like the United States has to do good. A young man without a clear path forward was given the opportunity to represent his country abroad and carry out peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. Wright, now stationed in Topeka, Kansas, rose through the ranks to a senior position in Transportation, and tries to do volunteer work whenever he can. Jason Wright has experienced a military that works to help people. Maybe, if politicians stopped allowing their “wolf” nature to set their priorities, that could be what everyone experiences.


Repairers of the Breach is a nonpartisan not-for-profit organization that works with diverse religious leaders from every U.S. State and the District of Columbia to develop a prophetic social justice vision rooted in moral analysis, moral articulation, and moral action. We publish regular dispatch blogs that examine the impacts of policy violence on the states and people across our country. To receive dispatch blogs by email you can signup or update your subscription preferences by clicking here. To learn more about Repairers of the Breach and the #MoralMovement, or to donate click here.

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