It's true that, since George Floyd died, the protests have never quite ended, but in all these weeks what's generally been protested might be called the war at home. (After all, according to a recent New York Times report, Floyd was only one of 70 Americans who, in the last decade, said "I can't breathe" before dying in police custody.) Still, it remains striking that America's so-called war on terror -- a series of conflicts that has extended from the Philippines and Afghanistan across the Greater Middle East and ever deeper into Africa -- has remained largely unprotested here at home since it began almost 19 years ago.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but one, recently highlighted in a study by Heidi Peltier at Brown University's invaluable Costs of War Project, is the way so much of American war-making in these years has been fobbed off on private contractors, now responsible for $370 billion (or more than half) of the Pentagon budget, and on those they hire -- in that way "concealing the true financial and human costs of America's post-9-11 wars." It's not just the literal weaponry of war that's been so privatized (with soaring costs) but even the "warriors" or at least those supporting them in the war zones. In 2019, for instance, stationed in the Middle East were 53,000 private contractors hired by U.S. companies and only 35,000 American troops. Similarly, since 2001, 8,000 contractors have died in that region (or 1,000 more than American troop deaths there). Many of them, by the way, were hired foreign nationals, so their deaths went completely unattended to here.
In other words, what Peltier calls the "commercialization" of war has helped make Washington's forever wars so much less noticeable in this country where the American taxpayer has funded them all these years (to the detriment of everything from domestic infrastructure to preparations for possible pandemics).
Today, Pentagon expert and TomDispatch regular William Hartung considers how that increasingly privatized and corrupt military has been coming home and just how well it's meshed with, and supported, both the American system of policing and imprisonment (itself being privatized) on a scale unmatched elsewhere on this planet. It should be a scandal and a half. Tom
Police, Prisons, and the Pentagon
Defunding America's Wars at Home and Abroad
By William D. Hartung
Think of it as a war system that's been coming home for years. The murder of George Floyd has finally shone a spotlight on the need to defund local police departments and find alternatives that provide more genuine safety and security. The same sort of spotlight needs soon to be shone on the American military machine and the wildly well-funded damage it's been doing for almost 19 years across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
Distorted funding priorities aren't the only driving force behind police violence against communities of color, but shifting such resources away from policing and to areas like jobs, education, housing, and restorative justice could be an important part of the solution. And any effort to boost spending on social programs should include massive cuts to the Pentagon's bloated budget. In short, it's time to defund our wars, both at home and abroad.
The High Cost of Police and Prisons
In most states and localities, spending on police and prisons outweighs what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once described as "programs of social uplift." The numbers are staggering. In some jurisdictions, police alone can account for up to 40% of local budgets, leaving little room for other priorities. In New York City, for instance, funding the police department's operations and compensation costs more than $10 billion yearly -- more, that is, than the federal government spends on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, more than $100 billion annually goes into policing.
Now, add to that another figure: what it costs to hold roughly two million (yes 2,000,000!) Americans in prisons and jails -- roughly $120 billion a year. Like policing, in other words, incarceration is big business in this country in 2020. After all, prison populations have grown by nearly 700% since 1972, driven in significant part by the "war on drugs," a so-called war that has disproportionately targeted people of color.
The Elephant in the Room: Pentagon Spending
In addition to the police and prisons, the other major source of American militarized spending is, of course, the Pentagon. That department, along with related activities like nuclear weapons funding at the Department of Energy, now gobbles up at least $750 billion per year. That's more than the military budgets of the next 10 countries combined.
Just as prisons and policing consume a startling proportion of state and local budgets, the Pentagon accounts for more than half of the federal government's discretionary budget and that includes most government functions other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As Ashik Siddique of the National Priorities Project has noted, the Trump administration's latest budget proposal "prioritizes brute force and militarization over diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to pressing societal crises" in a particularly striking way. "Just about every non-militarized department funded by the discretionary budget," he adds, "is on the chopping block, including all those that focus on reducing poverty and meeting human needs like education, housing, labor, health, energy, and transportation."
Spending on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the deportation of immigrants through agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Customs and Border Protection totals another $24 billion annually. That puts U.S. spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon at nearly $1 trillion per year and that doesn't even include the soaring budgets of other parts of the American national security state like the Department of Homeland Security ($92 billion) and the Veterans Administration ($243 billion -- a cost of past wars). Back in May 2019, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight and I had already estimated that the full national security budget, including the Pentagon, was approximately $1.25 trillion a year and that estimate, of course, didn't even include the police and the prison system!
Another way of looking at the problem is to focus on just how much of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and other militarized activities, including federal prisons, immigration enforcement, and veterans benefits. An analysis by the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies puts this figure at $887 billion, or more than 64% of the federal discretionary budget including public health, education, environmental protection, job training, energy development, housing, transportation, scientific research, and more.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).