When it comes to the federal government, there are many topics that the average American has strong opinions on. Our national budget is often one of these topics. What is not frequently a source of great controversy, however, is the unusually high level of spending that is devoted to the military. The United States leads the world in defense spending, but “why?” and “just how much?” are not questions that we tend to ask.
The defense budget has been sacrosanct for decades. Calls to reduce defense spending or questions about its effectiveness have always been met with the most powerful of rebukes: why would you want to reduce the cash flow to the part of our government that keeps us safe? This mindset has been so ingrained into Americans politics that there are few, if any, serious proposals to reign in military spending. Democrats and Republicans alike have continually fed the furnace of defense spending, and it is important to know why and how much.
Just how expansive is defense spending in this country? Military spending is projected to come close to $600 billion in the 2015 fiscal year, which is by far the most of any country in the world. The United States spends almost three times more than China, the second-highest military spender, does, and more than the next nine countries combined when ranking military spending in the world. Is this level of spending necessary? Has it achieved what those in power have said it will? Or could this money be better spent elsewhere?
One of the most concerning aspects of the defense budget is not only its largesse, but the amount of money that has gone unaccounted for. Since 1996, the Department of Defense has been unable to account for a staggering $8.5 trillion dollars (1996 was the first year Congress required the Department of Defense to be audited). Were this to happen in any other part of the federal government, Congress would be outraged.
The Department of Defense is under no serious threat to account for that $8.5 trillion because of the lack of political courage on the part of most politicians. Generations of Americans have learned not to question the military, and to regard the DoD as the most sacred part of the U.S. government. Politicians have learned this too, and have frequently reaped the political benefits. Congressmen and women on both sides of the aisle have worked to bring military bases or contractors to their districts, thereby earning the approval of their constituents due to new, reliable jobs. However, this is only possible because of the massive amount of defense spending that the federal government signs off on, year after year.
Some of the Pentagon’s most heralded projects, such as the F-35 (estimated to ultimately cost one trillion dollars), have been roundly criticized, only to see more money poured into them. The design and construction does, after all, provide jobs and huge profits for it manufacturer. These have become the most important factors in military spending, not effectiveness or the best logic.
Given all of this, perhaps it is easier to understand why questioning military spending does not mean being unsupportive of the difficulties that people in the armed services face, a critique that is often levelled when this issue is raised. In fact, one of the saddest aspects of the Department of Defense’s spending is the backlogged Veterans Affairs, which numerous investigations have shown to be ineffective in serving former American military personnel in a variety of ways.
Why should Christians care about this? How does military spending relate to Christianity? Are we as Christians called to be auditors at large? Not exactly.
Christians should be concerned with what their government prioritizes regardless of what country they live in. In the United States, our government has repeatedly demonstrated a commitment to massive military spending with limited accountability. At a time where decades of direct and indirect military involvement by the U.S. military have still not brought peace to the Middle East, perhaps the effectiveness of using expensive, brute force should be questioned.
At a time where the infrastructure in the United States has been found to be at unprecedented levels of danger, perhaps what is defined as truly urgent should be reconsidered.
At a time when poor Americans are frequently provided with overburdened legal representation due to funding levels in a country that incarcerates more people than any in the world, perhaps a different federal budget could bring about some alleviation.
At a time where public universities and scholarships for needy students are being cut or threatened with cuts across the country, perhaps a re-allocation of assets is a wise discussion to have.
At a time when an estimated 45 million Americans live below the poverty line, perhaps spending priorities should be prioritized.
This is not to suggest that increased federal spending in other programs or departments is necessarily the answer to some of the problems mentioned here. Rather, as Christians, we should seek a more just and peaceful world, and examine many different ways to accomplish this. Where our tax dollars go and what they accomplish is certainly a conversation that should be had, as it has serious, far-reaching implications in our communities, both now and in the future. Christians in the U.S. should not be deterred by long-standing trends in their government or in popular rhetoric when seeking the best possible results from their government.
-Joshua Russell is a graduate of Furman University and lives in Washington, DC.