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Defense Department or Department of War: Breaking our hegemonic thinking

Throughout the month of January, while millions of children’s health care under the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) teetered on the brink and millions more undocumented immigrants (Dreamers) awaited threatened deportation, Congress dithered, shut down the government for three days and still remained split on government spending for 2018. Republicans and Democrats framed the debate differently but as a mirror image: for Republicans the argument centered on “defense and non-defense spending;” for Democrats the argument centered on “non-defense and defense spending.” Then, at the end of the month, the Trump administration announced that it would seek $716 billion in “defense spending” in its 2019 budget.

The proposed Department of Defense budget, The Washington Post reported on 26 January, “would be a 13 percent increase over 2017 when the United States spent about $634 billion on ‘defense’.” Those figures do not include the cost of nuclear weapons in the Energy Department ($1 trillion over the next ten years proposed by Obama), the military portion of NASA, foreign military aid, veterans’ benefits, interest payments on debt incurred by past “defense” spending and other military-related expenses which would add, if included, hundreds-of-billions to the “defense” budget. “Defense hawks,” the Post said, were disappointed with the 2017 budget which led to a bipartisan “defense authorization bill” that added $31 billion to the Trump $668 billion proposal. There must be one hell of a lot of threats directed at the United States for this country to need so much “defense.” Or might something else be going on?

Part of the problem resides with the term “defense” itself, which we accept and use without examining the consequences. Our acquiescence is an example of the insidious functioning of ideological hegemony, the Gramscian concept that Enrique Quintero wrote about in the January issue of Works In Progress: “ . . . the different ways that dominant classes are able to impose their world views, interests, values, morals, explanations of events, perceptions, and ideas in general so they can become universally accepted and unquestioned by most of society.”

The United States didn’t always have a Department of Defense or a cabinet-level Secretary of Defense. Essentially, from 1790 until the end of World War II, the U. S. military functioned under the War Department overseen by the secretary of war. Then, at the end of World War II, the men (and they were always men—President Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Allen and John Foster Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, George Kennan) who ran the American imperial system faced a conundrum: they were ready to deploy violence such as the world had never before seen while simultaneously professing universalizing and democratic ideals.

George Kennan supplied the ideological foundation for U. S. imperial actions, at home and abroad, in a State Department Policy Planning staff memorandum (1948). The United States had about six percent of the world’s population, Kennan noted, but possessed something more than fifty percent of the world’s wealth—approximately eight times what the United States should have if all people were considered equal. What should the United States do in that situation, knowing that the disparity would breed envy and resentment? “Our real task in the coming period,” Kennan wrote, “ is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so . . . we need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. . . . We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. . . . The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

For Kennan, any real commitment to human rights, raising living standards and democratization were hindrances to maintaining the proper distribution of world wealth. But the men who ran the American empire flipped Kennan: they recognized that human rights, rising living standards and democratization were indeed strategically useful, both at home and abroad, as ideological slogans, for purposes of propaganda to conduct their global imperialist policy. The strategy came clear in the 1947 Truman Doctrine: “. . . it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.”

The Truman Doctrine, containment, made the whole world a United States protectorate against godless Communism. The United States no longer needed a War Department: the United States would be the world’s defender against evil and needed a Defense Department instead. At least when a member of congress demanded more military spending he or she would not have to be shouting for money for the war department: nothing so crass—we need money for “defense.” Which is more pleasing to the ear: we need to fund defense or we need to fund war?

Having laid the ideological foundation for empire, the leaders of the empire needed to convince the people of the United States to fund the endeavor. President Truman recognized that citizens were in no mood for war by another name and lamented that fact to Senator Arthur Vandenberg. Vandenberg told Truman that the only way Congress could massively increase funding for the “Defense Department” was if Truman scared the hell out of the American people. Truman complied. While demonizing the Soviet Union, Truman also began an internal Red Scare that spawned McCarthyism: the hunt for Reds was on and Americans were scared to death of the enemy without and the enemy within. As Congress increased the military budget, members of what President Eisenhower would later dub the military-industrial-[congressional] complex, what we now call defense contractors, devised a strategy to make sure military budgets, Defense Department budgets, would continue increasing. 

They reasoned that the surest way to maintain their profits through bloated military budgets would be to have some component of military spending in every one, or as many as possible, of the 435 congressional districts and at least some significant military spending in every state. The results were spectacular for the military-industrial complex, what might be termed military–socialism, or Defense Department socialism if you like. As of 2009, at least one percent of every state›s gross domestic product (GDP) came from military spending. Many states received much more: the top five states by percentage of GDP in 2009: Virginia, 13.9%, Hawaii, 13.5%, Alaska, 10.7%, Kentucky, 7.9%, Maryland, 7.0%. Military spending keeps a lid on unemployment—in 2010, military spending accounted for 2% of the U.S. workforce. That adds up to a lot of “defense» spending. With funding for the military-industrial complex spread throughout the country, the most important job of our U. S. senators and representatives is to keep “defense spending» as high as possible. Imagine a member of congress calling for cuts in “defense spending.” Fine, say defense contractors, we’ll cut your district/state first. How long will that member of congress maintain his or her seat?

The United States is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. We have been at war since 1941: we’re besotted with war. Perhaps we could begin to break the hegemonic militarism in our society by calling our military spending what it is, war spending, and bring back the War Department. At least then, when Congress or presidents call for money for the War Department they will be forced to say what they mean and we will have to decide if we want war spending.

Gary Murrell is a history professor at Grays Harbor College, Aberdeen, Washington.


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