by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach
A short video released by the House Armed Services Committee begins with this 1940 quote from Franklin Roosevelt: “No…defense is so strong that it requires no further strengthening, and no attack is so unlikely or impossible that it may be ignored.” The video, complete with haunting violin music, makes a dramatic case that the U.S. military will be decimated by spending cuts.
Many people across the political spectrum now support making at least some cuts to the Pentagon, as a way of addressing the federal deficit. Some in Congress, along with the defense industry and the Pentagon, are working hard to ensure that the cuts will be as minimal as possible.
In January the Pentagon announced its plan to spend $260 billion less than originally projected over the next five years. This would mean a slight cut next year and then letting military funding increase slightly each year, roughly at the pace of inflation.
Military spending already consumes more than half of the discretionary budget and that percentage will surely increase, as other programs receive more significant cuts.
What can we as Anabaptists contribute to the conversation?
The way of peace
“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). We have often seen this as an individual call, or perhaps to be modeled by the church as a whole. But what does it mean for nation-states?
If Jesus is indeed Lord of the cosmos, he is Lord of nation-states too. Interestingly, nearly every Old Testament prophet addressed not only Israel, but also neighboring nations who did not claim allegiance to Yahweh. The prophets made clear that God will hold them to account for their actions.
Christians in the first several centuries of the church provided a strong witness to Christ’s way of peace. Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), an early Christian leader, wrote:
We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…
But in the centuries since the early church, the church has too often blessed or stayed silent regarding military build-up and war. Here in the United States, we are complicit in our nation’s priorities in several ways.
As residents of a democracy, we can freely express our perspectives to our elected officials. To not do so implies that we accept the status quo. Secondly, our tax dollars support the military in a way that we would not as individuals. For this reason some Mennonites participate in war tax resistance, often giving a symbolic amount to an organization that works for peace and indicating to the Internal Revenue Service that they are doing so as an act of conscience.
Good stewards of resources
In 1 Samuel 8, the people of Israel ask Samuel for “a king to govern us, like other nations” (8:5). The Lord tells Samuel to honor their request, but included a warning: “the king…will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots” (8:11).
The United States spends more than half a trillion dollars each year on the Pentagon. A Brown University study estimated that the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will end up somewhere between $3.5 trillion and $4 trillion, added to the tremendous human cost of more than 200,000 lives lost.
This spending has increased the debt significantly. It also means less money is available for other priorities that help to build true security, such as assistance to those struggling to overcome poverty in this country and overseas, as well as programs that help keep our air and water clean. While the Pentagon has yet to see any actual cuts, in the last year these programs saw significant cuts.
These programs are also a more effective use of our tax dollars. A University of Massachusetts study shows that $1 billion invested in clean energy, health care, education or even tax cuts for personal consumption all create significantly more jobs than does $1 billion invested in the military.
Bipartisan deficit commissions and others have recommended that as much as $1 trillion be cut from the military over the next decade. Several of the suggestions, for example, from the Sustainable Defense Task Force are:
- reducing overall troop numbers from 1.5 million to 1.3 million
- reducing the nuclear arsenal to 1000 warheads, and
- cancelling a number of military systems that have gone way over budget, such as the F-35 fighter jet and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.
These cuts alone would allow the U.S. to double the amount of food and nutrition assistance it provides, employ nearly one million more elementary school teachers and provide wind power to more than 200 million households for one year.
Cutting the massive military budget does not mean demonizing people in the military. Many sign up because there are few other employment opportunities. Entry-level military personnel struggle to make ends meet on low salaries. As Mennonites, we can find ways to support veterans and those in the military, even as we work to move our country away from its reliance on militarism.
Salvation and security
In 2 Kings 6:8-23, the king of Syria sends “horses and chariots and a great army” to surround the city where the prophet Elisha is. Elisha’s servant is dismayed by the military might. Elisha tells him, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Elisha prays that God will open the servant’s eyes, and he sees “the chariots of fire all around Elisha.”
As Christians we must never allow ourselves to see displays of military might as the world’s “real” power. We must remember that God is the one who saves us.
When we forget this, it is impossible to ever spend enough. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Pentagon’s base budget has nearly doubled. (That number excludes spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) The United States spends more on its military than nearly all other nations in the world combined, and many of those other nations are U.S. allies.
If we think that security comes through cement flowerpots (to prevent truck bombs) and military hardware (to fight “enemy” nations), then we will find ourselves poorer financially and perhaps even less safe. The U.S. invasions of two sovereign nations–Afghanistan and Iraq–provoked anti-American resentment and deepened suspicion of U.S. motives.
U.S. officials usually portray those motives as promoting democracy and freedom, but in reality have much more to do with extending our political and economic interests, including resources such as oil.
“If we go to war,” said General James Amos, the top Marine, as he described the potential impact of budget cuts, “the Marines are going to go and they’re going to come home when it’s over. There will be no ‘dwell.’” One has to ask why U.S. troops would need to dwell long after a war ends if there are not other interests at stake.
Economic and political relationships that are equitable and just, rather than unequal and domineering, lay the groundwork for security and peace.
The House Armed Services Committee video concludes with Ronald Reagan reading the following quote: “On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
As Washington policymakers debate cutting the military, let’s not be the quiet in the land. Mennonites have much to say from our experience and theology about “the important question” of where true security lies.