In the early weeks of the pandemic, the coronavirus was described as an invisible enemy and the response was often likened to being at war. Essential workers were lifted up as heroes on the frontlines of this threat. Military medical personnel, stockpiles of masks and ventilators and other resources were actually deployed to hot spots to serve public health needs. By April, nearly 30,000 National Guard troops were sent to more than 20 states to support testing sites, deliver medical supplies, expand medical capacity, set up alternate care sites, assist nursing home staff, help with food distribution, attend to mortuary needs, provide transportation and other logistical coordination and much more.

Rather than celebrate this response, we must question why our military is better equipped to respond to a public health crisis than our health care system or, for that matter, any other institution in our society, and what that reveals about our national priorities.

We must question why our military is better equipped to respond to a public health crisis than our health care system.

The U.S. military has long been the biggest and best-funded institution of our government. Its current budget, not counting spending on veterans’ care, homeland security, or war-related interest on the debt, is $716 billion. When those other areas are added, military spending closes in on $1 trillion. This unparalleled war chest funds a network of 800 military bases in more than 90 countries and the most advanced weaponry and surveillance systems in the world.

Accompanying this massive military presence is the militarization of American life. In policing, incarceration, immigration, and even in our schools and other social institutions, our society is increasingly devoted to and shaped by military power. This includes the increased reliance on the use of force and violence in those institutions, which is reinforced by billions of dollars of excess military equipment and property that have been sent to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the country. Through the 1033 program, local and state law enforcement agencies have received over 450,000 surplus military items like rifles, tanks, military aircraft and more from the Department of Defense. These weapons of war are at the disposal of law enforcement agencies everywhere.

Images of these weapons being used against peaceful protesters, who are rightfully outraged over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others, have proliferated through social media and news channels. This militarized response to protesters has not, however, broken their resolve. Hundreds of thousands of people remain in the streets, disrupting a system that is killing our people, smothering our communities and disregarding our basic needs in a global pandemic. In the face of this violence, they are demanding that we redirect the abundant resources of our society to sustain life, rather than take it.

The War on the Poor

The 1033 program was established more than 20 years ago through the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997. Since that time, the Department of Defense has been passing off its extra equipment to local law enforcement, for just the cost of shipping. This is in addition to the Department of Homeland Security’s Grant Program, which allows for purchases of similar equipment  through the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative.

At a strategic convening on militarism and the war economy organized by the Kairos Center in December 2019, Reverend Amiri Hooker remarked how his small, rural community in South Carolina has a population of 11,000 people, but their law enforcement has tear gas, drones,  rovers and, not one, but five tanks. He questioned why there was so much military surplus in his small town and what happens when that kind of weaponry is placed in our communities, to be used against our communities. Another participant, Dedan Waicuri from North Carolina responded, “They come into our communities like it’s a war zone and they treat it like it’s a war zone.”

The other participants of the convening, including grassroots organizers, cultural artists, media makers, clergy, scholars and policy experts from over 20 states, made similar connections between the wars this country has been fighting abroad and the violence they are confronting at home. Whether it is organizing around war and peace or organizing around police violence, incarceration, immigration, housing or health care, an economy and culture of militarism is present throughout their political work and personal lives.

The veterans who were present shared how being in the military was what compelled them to organize against militarism and war when they returned home. Others noticed how hard it is to find a good job and affordable housing, but how easy it is to be arrested. Participants from the southern states added how military contractors are the biggest polluters in their state economies, creating health risks that are not being addressed by their local, state or federal governments. At the same time, these contractors are often the biggest employers in these states.

In fact, members of Congress often justify military spending and activity by the military jobs in their districts. The co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Marc Pocan, has said that military spending flows to virtually every House district in the country, making it very difficult to cut. The Department of Defense has even called itself America’s largest employer: there are over 1,300,000 people on active military duty, another 800,000 in the military reserves and 1,600,000 who work for military contractors.

The majority of the military budget, however, does not go to “support the troops.” Nearly half of all military spending goes to contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. In the days following the 2020 provocation against Iran, the CEOs of these five companies saw their stock holdings increase by over $7 million, while entry level pay for soldiers remained at $20,172. It is military executives and their friends on Wall Street who gain from war – not our troops, their families or the country at large.

They come into our communities like it’s a war zone and they treat it like it’s a war zone.

Dedan Waicuri

Providing for the Common Defense

The U.S. Constitution states five principles around which this country was envisioned: to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and future generations. These principles are inseparable and interdependent. Liberty is rooted in community. Peace and security are founded on justice. The general welfare of the nation is secured by shared prosperity and a principled concern for the well-being of future generations.

For the majority of this country, and for most our history, these principles have not been fulfilled. Instead, our government has consistently prioritized the interests of a wealthy and powerful few, relying on military domination and control to maintain an increasingly unequal society. The expanded use of force is justified by claiming that a militarized society is necessary for our common defense. Consequently, our military budget has continued to increase year after year for more than two decades. Since 2001, we have spent $6.4 trillion on endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, which have caused more than 800,000 deaths directly from war and several times as many indirectly. They have also displaced at least 21 million people.((According to the Costs of War Project, U.S. military bases alone have displaced at least 20 local or indigenous peoples around the world since 1898.))

These wars are poisoning the air and pillaging natural resources. Over the past 50 years, most of the Pentagon’s activity has been marshalled to secure oil and the resources of sovereign nations and it is the largest institutional user of oil in the world. Just one B-52 jet consumes as much fuel in one hour as the average car uses in 7 years. Whether waging war for oil or releasing toxins from burning oil, U.S. military activity is literally suffocating our planet. Meanwhile, crippling economic sanctions have restricted access to food and medicine to millions of people in Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, even during this global pandemic.

While the dominant public narrative has long held that military spending and increased policing will keep us safe — protecting jobs, our national security, and “law and order” — this is simply untrue. For too long, we have prioritized funding for war, prisons, policing and surveillance, while defunding vital social programs for education, housing, water and more. Although President Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex nearly 60 years ago, today we spend fifty-three cents out of every federal discretionary on military spending and only 15 cents on anti-poverty programs. Because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, any increases in non-military spending must be matched by increases in military spending. Today, spending on programs that sustain life is conditioned by spending on programs that take life.

This false equivalence has severely compromised our ability to respond to real threats to our national security, including the current pandemic and unfolding economic crisis. The U.S. accounts for more than one quarter of global deaths from COVID-19. There are over 45 million people who have lost work in the past few months and this historic job loss is compounding the preexisting crises of housing, hunger, and health care. Both the pandemic and its economic impacts have fallen disproportionately on the poor and communities of color. What we really need for our security is health care, housing and water. With the economy still unraveling, we need steady, guaranteed incomes and debt relief. Essential workers need guaranteed paid family leave, paid sick leave and life-saving protective personal equipment, but none of this has been provided for. Our grotesque spending on death has constrained the political will to save life.

Militarism and the Cruel Manipulation of the Poor

When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his 1967 Beyond Vietnam sermon, he cautioned,  “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He was not only concerned with the policy and budget priorities of the nation. He also saw that war, in its most essential sense, devalues human life. He continued, “If you treat human beings as a means to end, you thingify those human beings. And if you will thingify persons, you will exploit them economically. And if you will exploit persons economically, you will abuse your military power to protect your economic investments.”

The process of “thingification” or dehumanization has deep roots in this country’s history, tracing back to the genocide and devastation of indigenous people. In 1452, forty years before Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, Pope Nicholas V authorized the King of Portugal to enslave any non-Christian people he and his rule confronted in foreign lands. The edict of the Doctrine of Discovery was clear: “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions…and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery…” By declaring these people enemies of God, the Doctrine of Discovery denied their humanity and gave European kings the authority to destroy their societies and steal their wealth.

The Doctrine of Discovery was later codified in the 1823 Supreme Court Case, Johnson v. McIntosh, which ruled that European nations (including the U.S. government) had an absolute right over new worlds and new lands. This absolute right meant that indigenous people had no rights that the nation was bound to respect. Between 1778-1871, the U.S. government signed 370 treaties with numerous indigenous nations, but their provisions for peace, territorial boundaries, hunting and fishing rights and protection against domestic and foreign enemies were largely broken — and remain broken to this day. As their lands and resources were taken over and destroyed, indigenous cultures, political systems, religious practices, systems of education and economic life were all shattered.((This has happened over and over to the First Nations of this country. Indian Health Services, which is one of the oldest federal health care systems predating Medicare and Medicaid, grew out of a treaty obligation. In exchange for billions of acres of tribal land, the U.S. government promised health care to their people. However, IHS has never been adequately funded and currently receives only 16 cents on the dollar for what tribal leaders say it needs. Today, indigenous people have a life span that is five and a half years less than the national average.))

This relationship between economic exploitation and the use of force was also established in the Constitution. Slaves were already dehumanized as property before 1787, but the Second Amendment’s reference to “state militias” gave legal sanction to slave masters to put down slave revolts with violence.((This is just one example of how the Constitution codified the use of force.)) They were guaranteed the right to protect their property — measured in human beings — by killing anyone who tried to run free.

Indeed, any attempts by oppressed and exploited people to change the conditions of their exploitation have been met with brutal state-sanctioned violence. After the Civil War, newly emancipated people helped establish state governments that began to extend the rights to vote, hold property, access health care and education to themselves as well as poor whites. The Reconstruction Constitutions of the 1860s and 1870s seemed poised to find a lasting and common basis of equality among people who had been long dispossessed and divided, but they were soon undone by political manipulation, military force and white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

The triple threats of racist politics, state violence and vigilantism continued to terrorize black and poor people throughout the 20th century. From the lynchings and racial terror of the early 1900s through the 1960s, to the assassinations of Malcom X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton and countless others, to the 1979 Greensboro massacre, there has been an ongoing complicity between formal and informal violence against people who have dared push back against a system that was killing them. Today, President Trump’s lightly veiled threat, “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” is also an appeal to the white nationalists who have been emboldened during his administration.

The only people who benefit from this violence — whether from the police or vigilantes — are those who this economy is designed to benefit. Rev. Dr. King described this as the “cruel manipulation of the poor.” In his time, he was referring to U.S. soldiers who were fighting and dying in Vietnam “on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.” This hell was ravaging Vietnam and bringing black, brown and white Americans into brutal solidarity against the poor in that country. While they could destroy foreign people and foreign lands side by side in Vietnam, they could not sit in the same schools, churches or workplaces back home. Brought together in war, they remained divided by race, and that division was used to obscure their common condition of economic exploitation and poverty.

In February 2020, Huggy Bear, a poet and veteran of the U.S. Navy described these conditions in our time: “The rich just keep getting richer and the poor just keep getting poorer. Trust me that’s more than just a cliche’… / The Police and Military are there to protect the whole operation / You see before they give up all their Power and their profits they’d rather see us all Dead / They’ll shoot you a hundred times and then say you was accidentally poisoned by some lead…”

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Strategy as Counter Strategy

Amid the horrors of war and militarized violence, the potential always exists for the poor and dispossessed to reclaim our humanity, push back against the forces of dehumanization and exploitation and demand a revolution of values. During a call with participants from the Kairos Center’s militarism convening, Jose Vasquez, who has been organizing with veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for more than a decade, shared: “The little interactions [vets] were having overseas — with children, with interpreters, having tea with people in the towns and villages they were patrolling — all of these interactions raised deep questions about what it is they were doing and why. Jacob George got to fly a kite in Afghanistan, and it sparked something about his childhood. Another friend who was a sniper in Iraq came to terms with his role in the war after his first confirmed kill. He was horrified by the experience of actually killing somebody. We can’t forget that people are in the barracks, talking with each other and breaking down what they were trained to believe…the military puts you in these situations that shatter your worldview. You’re broken for a while. The only way to move past that powerlessness is to build a community and use those experiences to cry out against the injustices of war and militarism.”

We can see this, too, as the protests and uprisings persevere under enormous pressure from the state to return to “normal.” Instead of accepting the normalized violence of more than 1,000 police killings and 250,000 deaths from poverty and inequality every year, people are coming together across race, ethnicity, age and other differences. While the media has been saturated with scenes of billowing smoke and so-called rioting, the story of overwhelming solidarity and care that has defined these uprisings must be told. People are running back into tear gas and firebombs to carry each other out; strangers have lifted each other up and formed shields to protect themselves from batons and rubber bullets; they have developed medic teams to tend to wounds and injuries; and online and offline, they are sharing organizing strategies and tactics from Ferguson, Watts and other moments in U.S. and world history where poor and oppressed people have found their power by taking action together.

In response to a war economy that defends wealth and property, these multitudes are defending life and demanding “care, not cops.” This is what makes these uprisings so incendiary and dangerous to the status quo. Those who are taking action together know that they cannot count on our government or economy to take care of them. They know that in a war economy we are all expendable, and they are still standing, because they also know that everybody has the right to live.