Small Wars Journal

defense spending

Empire at War: The Effects of the War on Terrorism on the American Middle Class

Mon, 04/23/2012 - 1:04pm

Editor's Note: While soldiers sometimes believe that military programs and military operations should be held in some rarefied atmosphere protected from domestic politics, there is no such world. Hard choices always have to be made and it is worth considering how different people view these choices.

As the United States prepares to wind down operations in Afghanistan, the last high profile conflict in the War on Terrorism, and seeks a so-called strategic pivot towards Asia, it is important to assess the impacts of the war at home and the prospects for engaging future national security issues. While the War on Terrorism (hereafter referred to as GWoT) did not produce the 2008 recession in the United States, it greatly exasperated the severe economic crisis already faced by the American middle class that has been brewing since the middle of the 20th century. This has led to the current financial emergency in government where radicalized ideologies harden political positions and make progress difficult on economic and national security reform.

Estimates vary about the financial costs of the War on Terrorism. One assessment suggests approximately three trillion dollars. However, if one includes the annual defense budgets, homeland security expenditures since 2001, veteran programs, and the interest on the principal borrowed for military spending, the cost balloons to an astronomical eight trillion dollars. Using 2010 census figures about the number of households in the United States, this equates to about $70,000 owed by every American family.  This is nearly double the size of the national average income. Combined with the stagnation of middle class incomes, the inflation of health, education, food, and fuel prices, and record low tax revenue from upper income families and corporations, the middle class now bears the heaviest burden of financing the war and its consequences. It is no wonder that American families are buried in debt.

Compounding the problem is the increasingly expensive and incapable military establishment. As the defense budget continues to grow, the military is less able to deliver desirable political outcomes in America’s conflicts. The high spending of the GWoT did not produce a correlating increase in American security; instead, it hastened the coming crisis facing the military. Increasingly expensive and complex weapon systems reduce the availability of military forces, and restrict their flexibility by requiring them to operate equipment and execute doctrines ill-suited for the demands of war. Last year, the Department of Defense announced that the Army alone will lose 50,000 personnel in an effort to reduce costs. Predictably, just last week, it was announced that the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will increase by 20 billion dollars and that it’s lifetime cost is expected to be at least 1.45 trillion dollars. As the military continues to break its own suicide records and maintain higher-than-average domestic violence, divorce, and sexual assault rates, it decides to decrease the number of personnel available for worldwide military operations in favor of over-priced military platforms incapable of performing basic military tasks like surviving contact with the enemy.

But this problem is disingenuously framed as class warfare and therefore receives little attention. Instead, the political leadership focuses on diminishing, eliminating, or privatizing key middle class programs in order to preserve the regressive tax code and the inefficient defense budget. The high costs of the GWoT are to be paid by sacrificing middle class benefits instead of balancing the obligations of all American taxpayers. Just last week, the Republican-controlled House passed in a partisan vote Paul Ryan’s budget that effectively privatizes Medicaid, and reduces federal retirement programs, food stamps, and college tuition aid, among other programs, while increasing defense spending and expanding tax cuts for upper income-earners. At the same time, the House also rejected a two-year Senate proposal to fund transportation spending, and instead passed, in another partisan vote, a 90-day extension of current spending. This was done despite America’s failing infrastructure, which has had notable failures in New Orleans and Minnesota. The classic debate about guns vs. butter rages on, and currently the guns are winning at the expense of the American Dream.

The cost of the War on Terrorism, or even the annual defense budget, could provide all of the funding necessary for repairing America’s infrastructure, reforming its failing education system, or even providing health-care to every American citizen. Instead, the costs of the war has forced America into political deadlock, where popular and essential public programs alike are being discarded in favor of retaining decaying institutions. Now, Americans are being asked once again to pay up for expensive military programs in pursuit of confrontational policies in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. We have already toppled the regime in Libya, Syria and Iran may be next, and we are posturing for a future conflict with China. The American public should be informed by its experiences in the GWoT. War is expensive, and it has long-term consequences beyond its immediate outcomes. One of those consequences should be the realization that nation-building at home must precede nation-building or -destroying abroad.