Remarks at Physicians for Social Responsibility annual event in Baltimore, Md., April 18, 2015.
It is an honor to be asked to speak to a group of people doing as much strategic and principled good as you, not to mention the good that those of you who are doctors do as doctors and health advocates in your day jobs. The closest I ever came to a respectable profession was when I studied architecture prior to dropping out. I later got a master's degree in philosophy which, combined with a couple of dollars, will get you a bus ride. Anyway, architecture students always read this novel by Ayn Rand called The Fountainhead because the protagonist is an architect. But architecture doesn't really come into it, as the book focuses more on the fact that the guy is also something of a sociopath. But around the time I read that book I also read The Plague by Albert Camus in which the protagonist dedicated himself to cheerfully making the world a better place against overwhelming odds, without any real concern for the likelihood of success, and without any particular mythologizing of the good supposedly accomplished by being a superior bastard. Camus' protagonist has stuck with me, though I haven't reread the book. He's always somewhere in the back of my head. And of course he was a doctor.
I've rather given up on every other profession in our society. NYU has hired Harold Koh, legal architect of the drone wars and legal defender of the 2011 war on Libya and of presidential war powers, to teach human rights law. After students circulated a petition protesting, liberal law professors this week created a counter petition defending Koh's record. Our hope right now does not seem to lie with lawyers. I know there are exceptions, thank goodness.
Teaching in U.S. academia now are John Yoo, David Petraeus, and all variety of killers and torturers. Erik Prince, the creator of the mercenary company Blackwater came on a book tour to the University of Virginia this week and was treated like any good academic. After all, the people his company kills aren't usually Americans or Christians or English speakers. A couple of years back professors at the University of Virginia organized a teach-in in favor of war on Syria. The students have not organized an event for, against, or indifferent to war. I don't turn to academia for inspiration at the moment. I know there are rare exceptions.
Do I even have to mention the shortcomings of the hacks we used to call statesmen and women? The Congressional Progressive Caucus produced its progressive budget this month. It stood no chance of passing. It was a rhetorical statement. Yet it made no mention of an item that takes up a majority of the budget, namely militarism. If you hunted through the numbers you could find that they were proposing to cut military spending, which has doubled during the so-called war on terror -- they were proposing to cut it by 1%. I don't look to politicians for salvation. I would say, in this case as well, that I know there are rare exceptions, except that there really aren't, not in the federal government. There are, at best, people who try to mitigate the damage a bit or who plagiarize that parental (or is it medical?) attitude of "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you" as they sorrowfully destroy the planet.
So I don't really mean to put the weight of humanity on your shoulders, but maybe physicians, or at least some significant number of physicians are a group we can look to with respect and appreciation rather than contempt or sadness.
When I was in philosophy school at the University of Virginia near the home of the guy who wrote that we were endowed by a creator with certain inalienable rights, I came across the idea of how ludicrous that might sound to a doctor. You have to picture the scene of a doctor cutting open a human body and trying to locate the right to free speech, for example. Do people really believe political rights are somehow inherent in us anymore, as opposed to being things we create and struggle to defend? I don't know. But I'll tell you what a lot of people believe. They believe that war is inherent in the human body. Now I ask you, as doctors, have you ever looked into a human brain or any other organ and discovered there a massive cultural institution that requires huge organization, planning, preparations, and investment, and has been completely unknown to most humans who have ever lived? Of course you haven't. If there's anything meant by calling a behavior "natural," war is the furthest thing from it. Raise your hand if you've encountered any epidemics of post traumatic stress from war deprivation. The United States would have to cut its military spending by 95% to match the average of the other 95% of humanity, if the spending is taken per-capita, 99.5% if taken per nation. So if you could find war in a human body, would you find it prominent in U.S. bodies? And in U.S. infants? Of course not. That seems pretty easy to figure out even without medical school, but I'm not sure most Americans would go along with it. War, they believe, is built into us somehow.
OK. Here's an even easier question. War has been evolving technologically and in other ways. Who can tell me the number one way in which war kills people today? Just shout it out.
You know, war used to kill more people than it injured, and it used to kill them first and foremost by spreading deadly diseases. Deadly diseases remain the top cause of death in the poor countries of the earth, but the way war contributes to them is primarily through the diversion of resources into war. While tens of billions of dollars per year could provide the earth with clean drinking water and all sorts of hygienic and medical aid, not to mention ending starvation, two TRILLION dollars every year, half of it from the United States alone, is dumped into war. If military spending were redirected into a global marshall plan and a domestic marshall plan and a massive crash investment in green energy aimed at protecting the planet's climate, imagine the lives that could be saved. As already noted, this very idea is basically absent from discussions of the U.S. government's budget.
Of course, war advances disease and starvation through its active destruction, its generation of refugee crises, and the injuries and trauma it inflicts, so drawing a line between deaths caused by war and those caused by other sicknesses seems difficult. Wars have rendered large areas of the earth uninhabitable and generated tens of millions of refugees. War has slowed the eradication of polio, and may have spread HIV/AIDS. Land mines make farmland unusable. Et cetera. War "rivals infectious disease as a global cause of morbidity and mortality," according to Jennifer Leaning of Harvard Medical School. Leaning divides war's environmental impact into four areas: "production and testing of nuclear weapons, aerial and naval bombardment of terrain, dispersal and persistence of land mines and buried ordnance, and use or storage of military despoliants, toxins, and waste."
According to the World Health Organization, "between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress." Of course that prediction could be wildly off in either direction, possibly depending on what we do in the next 15 years. War is not only our top producer of superfund sites and destroyer of islands used as bombing ranges, but it's our top consumer of petroleum. The U.S. military burns more oil and gas than does each of the majority of nations on earth. The military obsession with oil began as a way to fuel the British Navy. The British Navy wasn't created to fight over the oil. The idea that keeping the wars far away, where they only kill people who don't look like us, the idea that that will keep us safe -- well that idea falls apart if you even glance at it from all different angles, but one story that might stick with people and make the point is the story of John Wayne's death. Raise your hand if you know how John Wayne died.
He died filming pro-war movies and avoiding war himself. He filmed a movie down-wind from a nuclear test site, and an unusually high percentage of the cast and crew died of cancer, including him. You can run but you cannot hide. The Koch brothers' beach houses will go underwater. There's only one little planet and no planet B.
Here's another question. Does the United States spend more money fighting wars or preparing to fight wars?
That's right. We hear loud lamentations over war spending. We read comparisons of war spending and what we could have purchased instead. But war preparations spending, normalized routine "base" military spending is ten times greater. It would stun President Eisenhower in its size, in its profitability, in its privatized nature, and in the degree to which chunks of it are recycled back into the system through bribes we call campaign contributions, just as the people involved spin through a revolving door between public and private sector employment. Opposing a war in order to save money and keep the military prepared for supposedly better wars is a self-defeating argument. It is the preparation for wars that spends most of the money, and that generates the wars.
So, militarism by the greatest purveyor of violence kills first by sucking up all the money, and most of it is for maintaining the military. Actually using the military becomes an excuse for extra funding. But there's another major problem with militarism before even arriving at actual U.S. wars, and that is weapons sales. The United States is far and away the leading seller and donor of military weaponry to the rest of the earth. A good patriotic weapons factory job is a job producing weapons for dictatorships and so-called democracies around the globe. We're trained to think of Western Asia, the Middle East, as inherently violent. But the vast majority of the weapons are from the United States. The U.S. backed dictatorship in Saudi Arabia uses U.S. weapons to support the U.S. backed dictatorships in Bahrain and Yemen, and is currently bombing U.S. weapons in Yemen using other U.S. weapons, which the U.S. is rushing to replenish.