Say: Cut Military "Corporations" Instead
By Susan C. Strong
Right now all eyes are on the "fiscal cliff" debate. So far, the focus seems limited to domestic spending cuts and taxes. Many Americans feel that military spending ought to be cut instead. Unfortunately, the way we shape our demand for that shift often fails to be heard. Why? There are many reasons for our failure to speak American about military spending cuts. The most important ones are: 1. the "perceived enemy" glitch, 2. the "perceived solution" glitch, and 3. the insider language glitch. Let's take the "perceived enemy" glitch first. As of September 11, 2001, the public's perception is that we have very dangerous terrorist enemies. Yet all too often our pitch about cutting military spending is that we should be spending that money at home instead.
Instead? Instead of what? Yes, we should be spending any military savings we can find at home. But that isn't the answer to the public's worry about what to do about our perceived enemies. It isn't even an answer to the question of what we should have done in the past to prevent our having enemies. The issue is what we should do about them now. That question must be answered first. If you can show that your alternative proposal for dealing with terrorists works better and saves money, then you can talk credibly about where to spend those savings at home. I'll say more about this point below.
Now let's take up the "perceived solution" glitch for a minute. If you can show that a lot of the "military money" we are spending isn't really dealing with "enemies" at all, but is going into waste, fraud, and abuse, then you can make an airtight case that savings from those military cuts should be spent at home. The reason? Yes, there still has to be a reason that matches the locus of the "security" argument, as we rhetoricians say. And the reason is that growing inequality and social breakdown at home are very serious national security problems too. (Make clear that no amount of domestic militarization will ever succeed long term, if our people are deeply miserable and furious.) The 2012 election is just the first sign of that home truth.
But to make the "waste, fraud, and abuse" approach really stick, we must face up to our other big framing problem with military spending: insider jargon/choir speak. Phrases like "military contractor" or the "military industrial complex" roll off our tongues all too easily. Does the public get what those phrases mean? Do they believe anything can be done about such mysterious monoliths? Probably not. What if we spoke of "military corporations" instead?
There we have a frame already strong in the public mind right now: excessive, selfish lobbying for stuff that doesn't serve the public interest, outrageous CEO salaries, abusive worker practices, all at public expense. All we have to add is that, dollar for dollar, "military corporations" generate fewer jobs than any other kind of business, including green energy businesses, which could actually help to reduce the threat of future climate conflict.(1) It's the standard waste, fraud, and abuse story--a classic element of the American Nightmare story.
Now that we're talking about actual language, let's get back to the "perceived enemy" glitch for a minute. What about the idea that there are better ways to deal with perceived enemies than just throwing money and weapons at them? We can point out that civilian-led "peacebuilding" moves work much better than military ones. (2) This tack also has the advantage of putting a positive idea out there first, something I always advocate. (In fact, I think we need a lot more emphasis on educating the public about what peacebuilding is, how it works, when it's worked in the past, and the need to fund and practice it more.) So some phrases like "peacebuilding works best," or "peacebuilding stops war" would be a good way to start. In this case, the "hunh?" factor coming from public ignorance about "peacebuilding" could provide an opening to say more about it. (It also could produce some nice graphics.)
Second, only after putting a positive image out there should we go on to trash war as a tactic: "war fails," "war doesn't work," "war is obsolete," etc. Notice I left out the old perennial favorites, "no war," "stop the war," or "war is not x or not y." Pure negatives lack suggestions about exactly what the problem with war is. Moreover, modern cognitive science has shown that people fail to process "not" in a statement on the first go round, especially if they already think war might be a good idea.