Let’s Defund the Pentagon, Too

We must begin moving beyond militarism, as Martin Luther King urged more
than 50 years ago

   - By John Horgan on July 8, 202

[image: Let's Defund the Pentagon, Too]
Credit: Tom Weber *Getty Images*

Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., after agonizing about
the Vietnam War in private, began denouncing it in public. Liberal
politicians and media, including *The New York Times,* castigated him
telling him to stick to civil rights. In a 1967 speech at New York City’s
Riverside Church
King rejected this criticism and explained how he arrived at his antiwar

He had realized, he said, that the U.S. “would never invest the necessary
funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like
Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic
destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war
as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

King’s message could not be more relevant to this moment. Activists
protesting police violence against African Americans have called for
“defunding” law-enforcement agencies, which entails deep budget cuts, among
other reforms. “Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in
half,” criminal-justice activist Mariame Kaba urges in *The New York Times*
“We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward
providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this,
there would be less need for the police in the first place.”

Research bears out the need for change. An article in *Nature*
<> noted growing evidence
of racial bias in law enforcement, such as California data showing that
police there “stopped and used force against Black people
disproportionately, compared with other racial groups” in 2018. Police kill
about 1,000 Americans a year, and Black men are 2.5 times more likely than
white men <> to be killed and more
than twice as likely as white men
<> to be
unarmed when killed. “We have enough evidence that tells us that action
needs to be taken,” criminologist Justin Nix told *Nature*. Police
reactions to protests provide still more evidence. See, for example, this
horrifying *New York Times* video report
 on a recent demonstration in Philadelphia.

If King were alive today, he would surely call for defunding the U.S.
military, too, because we are still funneling immense resources into our
armed forces. In 2019 the U.S. spent $732 billion on “defense,” accounting
for 38 percent of global military spending, according to the Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute
If the U.S. cut its current defense budget in half, it would still exceed
the combined budgets of China ($261 billion) and Russia ($65 billion).

The U.S. is also by far the biggest weapons dealer, selling arms to 96
countries over the past decade
and it relentlessly invents new means of destruction. The Pentagon spent
$55.9 billion on research and development last year, according to the American
Association for the Advancement of Science
Compare that figure to spending on research on health ($38.9 billion),
energy ($4.4 billion) and the environment ($2.8 billion). What do these
numbers say about our priorities?

Here is an example of what military R&D has produced: a drone-launched
missile that, instead of blowing up people, slices them to ribbons. First
deployed during the Obama regime, the weapon was designed to kill fewer
innocent bystanders than explosives. But as the *New York Times* points out
“even the use of smaller, more precise munitions has left hundreds, if not
thousands, of civilians killed by American weapons during the six-year war
against the Islamic State and the continuing air campaign in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. is carrying out a massive program to rebuild its
nuclear arsenal. Costs are expected to approach $500 billion by the end of
this decade and $2 trillion within 30 years, according to the Arms Control
which warns that the nuclear “modernization” program could trigger an arms
race with Russia. Yes, that’s what the world needs, thousands of
new-and-improved nuclear weapons.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the insanity of our spending priorities.
“For the majority of the past two decades, the U.S. government has equated
Americans’ national security with military supremacy,” political scientists
Neta Crawford of Boston University and Catherine Lutz of Brown write
in the* Boston
“Instead of investing in programs and supplies that would have saved
thousands of lives, our leaders were investing trillions in new weapons and
continuing old wars.”

Crawford and Lutz co-direct the Costs of War project
<>, which tallies the economic and
human consequences of U.S. military operations. Since 9/11, the U.S. has
spent more than $6.4 trillion
 on its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries. These conflicts have
killed over 800,000 people, including more than 335,000 civilians, and have
displaced 21 million people from their homes. Far from winding down its
wars, the U.S. is now carrying out counterterror operations in 80
countries. These actions, which supposedly protect us, have led to
“encroachments on basic social and political rights in the U.S. and the war
zones,” Costs of War states

Given what police do in the U.S. with cameras on them, imagine what
American forces do in faraway places where they are rarely held
accountable. “While the U.S. war on the Black population at home is now
exposed for all of America—and the world—to see, the victims of U.S. wars
abroad continue to be hidden,” antiwar activists Medea Benjamin and Nicolas
Davies point out in *The Progressive*
Americans “don’t see the dead and maimed bodies and rubble the bombs leave
in their wake.”

In a podcast for *The Intercept,* political journalist Mehdi Hasan points
out that U.S. wars often have a racist subtext. “If you want to bomb or
invade a foreign country … you have to first demonize those people,
dehumanize them, suggest they’re backward people in need of saving or
savage people in need of killing,” Hasan says. “If you support defunding
the police, as I do, you should also support defunding the Pentagon.”

I’m not advocating the total abolition of armed forces. We will always need
some police and soldiers to protect us against violent individuals and
groups at home and abroad. But in their present form, our armed forces
resemble a chemotherapy that kills more people than it saves. They must be
radically reformed and reduced to minimize their adverse effects.

Bernie Sanders has called for trimming the Pentagon budget by 10 percent
and diverting that money to “high-poverty areas,” according to *The
Sanders’ proposal is far too modest. I prefer the plan of the Poor People’s
Campaign <>, inspired by a movement led
by Martin Luther King. The campaign advocates reducing the U.S. defense
budget by $350 billion
<> as
part of a broader plan to counter the “systemic racism, poverty, ecological
devastation, militarism, and war economy plaguing our country today.”

Even many progressives will think this defunding plan is too ambitious, but
why? Reduced by $350 billion, the U.S. military budget would still be by
far the biggest in the world. The U.S. could shrink its military in
coordination with other nations in ways that ensure mutual security,
leading to a global demilitarization movement. The money now wasted on our
bloated armed forces could be spent instead on programs that boost
prosperity and reduce potential sources of crime and conflict. As the Poor
Peoples’ Campaign notes, its plan “would make the nation and the world more

We are now in a period of rare moral clarity, in which many people can
glimpse the truth of what King said more than 50 years ago. To end racial
injustice and poverty, we must end war. Defunding the “demonic destructive
suction tube” of the military isn’t a utopian pipe dream. It is a practical
as well as moral necessity, which should be embraced by everyone,
conservatives and liberals, people of faith and secularists. Defund the
Pentagon now.