The U.S. Island

By David Swanson, July 19,2020

Remarks at Peacestock 2020

Imagine you’re stranded on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean, nothing in sight but the endless sea. And you’ve got a basket of apples, nothing else. It’s a huge basket, a thousand apples. There are various things you could do.

You could allow yourself a few apples a day and try to make them last. You could work on creating a patch of soil where apple seeds could be planted. You could work on starting a fire in order to have some cooked apples for a change. You could think of other ideas; you’d have plenty of time.

What if you were to take 600 of your 1,000 apples and throw them as hard as you could into the water, one by one, in hopes of hitting a shark, or scaring all the sharks of the world so that they wouldn’t come near your island? And what if a voice in the back of your head were to whisper to you: “Psst. Hey, buddy, you’re losing your mind. You’re not scaring sharks. You’re more likely to attract some monster than to get a message out to all the monsters in the world. And you’re going to starve soon at this rate.”

And what if you were to shout back at that little voice in your head: “Shut up you naïve idealist socialist Putin-loving traitor! I’m funding the entire island’s Department of Defense, and I’m not sure 600 apples is enough!”

Well, clearly, you would be crazy and self-destructive and likely to starve sooner rather than later. Most people aren’t that crazy. As Nietzsche remarked, insanity is unusual in individuals, but in societies it is the norm.

That includes U.S. society, where the U.S. Congress takes roughly 60% of what it’s got to work with and dumps it into something so loony that no fiction writer would get it past an editor. It builds weapons that, if used, would destroy all of humanity, and then it builds more of them, over and over again, as if humanity will be around to use them after having been destroyed.

It builds lesser weapons that only destroy bits of the earth at a time, but it sells them to dozens of other countries all over the earth, so that when it’s using its own weapons, it’s usually using them against weapons it built and sold.

It even gives them away, to some of the most brutal governments around. It gives training and even just cash to many of the most oppressive regimes there are, and gives more weapons to its own local domestic police forces and trains them to treat its own population as a war enemy.

It builds robot airplanes that can blow people up, uses them to create bloody chaos and bitter resentment, and then makes sure everybody else has them too.

This war madness is based on supposedly defending oneself against enemies no more real than those sharks on that island. But in the process, the U.S. government creates small-scale blowback and some serious arms races, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

These activities take a heavy toll on the planet and its climate, air, and water. They justify secrecy and destroy government transparency, making anything resembling self-governance impossible. They fuel and are fueled by all the worst tendencies in people: hatred, bigotry, violence, vengeance. And they leave little in the way of resources for everything actually needed for survival: conversion to sustainable practices, development of decent systems of governance.

And when you ask, why can’t we have clean energy or healthcare, they shout at you, every time: HOW YA GONNA PAY FOR IT?!

Increasingly, some people are beginning to give the right answer: I’m going to take a few damn apples away from the military!

To be sure, some people follow up that right answer with unhelpful comments like “The military will still have enough to keep us safe,” or “We can get rid of the weapons that don’t work,” or “We can end one of these wars and prepare for a better one.” These are the people who only want to throw 400 apples at the imaginary sharks, and throw them properly, and make sure every demographic group gets a proper share of the throws.

Remarkably, there’s a resolution now in the House of Representatives to move 350 of the apples out of the grasp of the lunatics — a very reasonable proposal. And there are amendments to the big annual military bill in both houses, with votes expected soon, to move just 10% of the Pentagon’s money to human and environmental needs. Surely, if we can recognize that states and localities dumping 10% of their budgets into police and prisons is a disaster, we can recognize that the federal government dumping over half of its money into war is too.  And I know that $6.4 trillion sounds like a lot of money, but don’t believe any of these studies that tell you that some fraction of military spending (plus other resulting costs) is the price of 20 years of wars. Military spending is for nothing but wars and preparations for more wars, and it’s well over $1 trillion a year in the United States, over $700 billion of that in the Pentagon.

If you were to take 10% away from the Pentagon, what would you take it from exactly? Well, simply ending the war on Afghanistan that candidate Donald Trump promised to end four years ago would save most of that $74 billion. Or you could save almost $69 billion by eliminating the off-the-books slush fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account (because the word “wars” didn’t test as well in focus groups).

There’s $150 billion per year in overseas bases — why not cut that in half? Why not eliminate all the bases that no Congress Member can name, just for a start?

Where could the money go? It could have a major impact on the United States or the world. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2016, it would take $69.4 billion per year to lift all U.S. families with children up to the poverty line. According to the United Nations, $30 billion per year could end starvation on earth, and about $11 billion could provide the world, including the United States, with clean drinking water.

Does knowing those figures, even if they’re slightly or wildly off, throw any doubt on the idea that spending $1 trillion on weapons and troops is a security measure? Some 95% of suicide terrorist attacks are directed against foreign military occupations, while 0% are motivated by anger over the provision of food or clean water. Are there perhaps things a country can do to protect itself that don’t involve weapons?

Let me suggest visiting two places. One is where Norman Solomon and I work, and where you can send an email to your Senators and Misrepresentative with one easy click.

The other is where you can study the case for abolishing the entire institution of war, a campaign critical and central to the movement against racism, that for the environment, that for democracy, and all campaigns for useful spending of resources.

I hate to say this, I’d love to be more polite, but when we’re dealing with survival that takes precedence: it’s time to start treating war funders as of questionable sanity and morality. It’s time to recreate shame in war profiteering. It’s time to divest from military contractors, convert military industries, and gently escort anyone who votes against cutting the U.S. military budget by 10 percent out of the halls of Congress and into the nearest padded cell.

Thanks for including me in Peacestock.

I hope to see you in person soon.


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