"I'm going to perform a magic trick by reading your mind," I tell a class of students or an auditorium or video call full of people. I write something down. "Name a war that was justified," I say. Someone says "World War Two." I show them what I wrote: "WWII." Magic![i]
If I insist on additional answers, they're almost always wars even further in the past than WWII. [ii] If I ask why WWII is the answer, the response is virtually always "Hitler" or "Holocaust" or words to that effect.
This predictable exchange, in which I get to pretend to have magical powers, is part of a lecture or workshop that I typically begin by asking for a show of hands in response to a pair of questions:
"Who thinks war is never justified?"
"Who thinks some sides of some wars are sometimes justified, that engaging in a war is sometimes the right thing to do?"
Typically, that second question gets the majority of the hands.
Then we talk for an hour or so.
Then I ask the same questions again at the end. At that point, the first question ("Who thinks war is never justified?") gets the vast majority of the hands. [iii]
Whether that shift in position by certain participants lasts through the next day or year or lifetime I do not know.
I have to perform my WWII magic trick fairly early in the lecture, because if I don't, if I talk too long about defunding militarism and investing in peace, then too many people will have already interrupted me with questions like "What about Hitler?" or "What about WWII?" It never fails. I talk about the unjustifiability of war, or the desirability of ridding the world of wars and war budgets, and somebody brings up WWII as a counter-argument.
What does WWII have to do with military spending? In the minds of many it demonstrates the past and potential need for military spending to pay for wars that are as justified and necessary as WWII.
I'll discuss this question in a new book, but let me sketch it out briefly here. Over half of the U.S. federal discretionary budget the money the Congress decides what to do with each year, which excludes some major dedicated funds for retirement and healthcare, goes to war and war preparations. [iv] Polls show that most people are unaware of this. [v]
The U.S. government spends vastly more than any other country on militarism, as much as most other major militaries combined [vi], and most of those are pressured by the U.S. government to buy more U.S. weapons [vii]. While most people do not know this, a majority does think that at least some money should be moved from militarism to things like healthcare, education, and environmental protection.
In July 2020, a public opinion poll found a strong majority of U.S. voters in favor of moving 10% of the Pentagon's budget to urgent human needs. [viii] Then both houses of the U.S. Congress voted down just that proposal by strong majorities. [ix]
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