According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world spent $2.113 trillion on armaments in 2021. Of that almost unbelievable sum, the United States spent nearly half of the total $801 billion.
Perhaps one reason for disproportionate US defense spending is that the United States has privatized the defense industry, which is not the case in China or Russia. In the US, selling guns and killing is a business. It’s a business that allows capitalist investors to make huge profits by selling arms and selling war.
Arms sales and war abroad
The United States is by far the largest arms exporter in the world. The US sells weapons through NATO. It also sells arms to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, and the same arms have fueled humanitarian disasters like starvation in Yemen. Small arms exported to Africa deepen and prolong local conflicts.
The aggressive foreign policy of the United States is closely related to the profits of the arms manufacturers.
The hostages of militarism
Are our “defense departments” really defending us? Absolutely not! Even her title is a lie. The military-industrial complex sells itself by claiming to defend civilians. With this claim, it justifies huge and crippling budgets; but it is a scam. For the military-industrial complex, it’s all about money and power. Civilians like us are just hostages. We are expendable. We are pawns in the power game, in the money game.
Nuclear-armed nations threaten one another with “Mutually Assured Destruction,” which goes by the very appropriate acronym MAD. What does that mean? Does that mean civilians will be protected? Not at all. Instead, they face complete annihilation. Here, civilians play the role of hostages in their leaders’ power games.
A thermonuclear war today would not only be genocidal but also omnicidal. It would kill people of all ages, babies, children, teenagers, mothers, fathers and grandparents without any regard for guilt or innocence. Such a war would be the ultimate ecological catastrophe, destroying not only human civilization but much of the biosphere as well.
There are many concerns today about climate change, but an ecological catastrophe of equal or greater magnitude could be caused by nuclear war. You can get a little idea by thinking about the radioactive contamination that has rendered an area half the size of Italy permanently uninhabitable near Chernobyl. It is too early to know the full impact of the Fukushima disaster, but it appears that it will be comparable to Chernobyl.
The environmental effects of nuclear war would be catastrophic. A war waged with hydrogen bombs would produce radioactive contamination such as we have already seen in the Chernobyl and Fukushima areas and in the Marshall Islands, but on a vastly increased scale. We must remember that the combined explosive power of nuclear weapons in the world today is 500,000 times the power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What threatens today through nuclear war is the complete collapse of human civilization.
In addition to spreading deadly radioactivity around the world, nuclear war would inflict catastrophic damage on global agriculture. Firestorms in burning cities would produce many millions of tons of black, thick, radioactive smoke. The smoke would rise to the stratosphere, where it would spread around the earth and stay there for a decade. Persistent cold, less sunlight and rain, and massive increases in harmful ultraviolet light would shorten or eliminate growing seasons and create nuclear famine. Even a small nuclear war could endanger the lives of a billion people who are now chronically malnourished. A full-fledged hydrogen bomb war would mean most people would die of starvation. Many animal and plant species would also be threatened with extinction.
Again and again there are incidents in which a global catastrophe is avoided by a hair’s breadth. For example, on the night of September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, a young software engineer, was on duty at a surveillance center near Moscow. Suddenly the screen in front of him went bright red. An alarm went off. Its enormous, piercing sound filled the room. A second alarm followed, then a third, fourth, and fifth until the noise was deafening. The computer showed that the Americans had launched a strike against Russia. Petrov’s orders were to pass the information down the chain of command to Secretary General Yuri Andropov. A nuclear counterattack would be launched within minutes. However, due to certain inconsistent features of the alarm, Petrov disobeyed orders and reported it as a computer error, which it actually was. Most of us probably owe our lives to his brave and level-headed decision and knowledge of software systems. The narrowness of this escape is compounded by the fact that Petrov was only on duty because of the illness of another officer with less software knowledge who would have accepted the alarm as genuine.
There is a risk that our world, with all its beauty and value, will be destroyed by this cynical game of power and money, in which civilians are hostage to militarism. Will we allow this?
search for enemies
Since the world spends around two trillion dollars on armaments every year, a great many people make their living from war. This is why it is correct to speak of war as a social, political and economic institution, and also one of the main reasons why war persists despite everyone knowing that it is the cause of much of humanity’s suffering .
We know war is madness, but it persists. We know it threatens the survival of our species, but it persists, ingrained in the attitudes of historians, newspaper editors and television producers, ingrained in the methods politicians use to fund their campaigns, and ingrained in the financial strength of arms manufacturers – firmly anchored also in the cumbersome and expensive war equipment, the fleets of warships, bombers, tanks, nuclear missiles and so on.
In his farewell address, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his nation about the power grab that the military-industrial complex had achieved in World War II.
Eisenhower’s words echoed those of another US President, George Washington, who warned of “overgrown military installations.”
The military-industrial complex needs enemies. Without her it would wither away. Thus, at the end of World War II, this vast power complex faced a crisis but was saved by the discovery of a new enemy, Communism. At the end of the Cold War, however, there was another terrible crisis for the military establishment, the arms manufacturers and their supporters in research, government and the mainstream media. There was talk of the “peace dividend”, that is, the constructive use of the two trillion dollars that the world squanders on armaments every year. But just in time, the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington saved the military-industrial complex from the “peace dividend” nightmare.
Regardless of the fact that the attacks were crimes committed by individuals and not acts of war, they were crimes against which police rather than military action would have been appropriate. The Bush administration (and CNN, Fox, etc.) were quick to announce that a state of war existed and that the rules of war were in effect. The Cold War was replaced by the “War on Terror”.
This overreaction to the events of September 11, 2001 can be interpreted in large part in terms of the needs of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about. Without a state of war and without enemies, this vast conglomerate of organizations and interest groups would have languished.
If the aim of the “War on Terror” had been to rid the world of the threat of terrorism, acts such as illegal drone assassination would have been counterproductive as they create many more terrorists than they destroy. But since the ultimate goal is to create a state of perpetual war and thereby increase the profits of the military-industrial complex, such methods are the best imaginable. Urinating on Afghan corpses or burning the Koran or murderous night raids on civilians also help further the ultimate goal of perpetual war.
For those belonging to the military-industrial complex, perpetual war is a blessing, but for the majority of the world’s people it is a curse. Since we who oppose war are the overwhelming majority, can’t we assert our will?
War has always been madness, always immoral, always the cause of untold suffering, economic waste and widespread destruction, and always a source of poverty, hatred, barbarism and endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge. It has always been a crime for soldiers to kill people, just as it is a crime for murderers in civil society to kill people. No flag has ever been broad enough to cover up the horrors of war.
But today, the development of all-destructive thermonuclear weapons has pushed war completely beyond the bounds of reason and elementary humanity.
Can’t we liberate ourselves both from nuclear weapons and from the institution of war itself? We must act quickly and decisively before our beautiful world is reduced to radioactive ash along with everything we love.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group dividing the year 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND network and Emeritus Associate Professor at HC Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He chairs both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at MIT, the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on both scientific and broader societal issues. His latest books are Information Theory and Evolution and The Crisis of Civilization in the 21st Century (pdf). Website: https://www.johnavery.info/