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Barack Obama's presidency

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The Budget Battle's Moral Dimension

By the Rev. Howard Bess
March 12, 2011

Editor’s Note: Even as U.S. opinion polls show Americans favoring higher taxes on the rich and less military spending as the preferred ways to reduce the national debt, the political/media establishment continues to keep those options off the table, in favor of budget cuts from social programs and infrastructure spending.

Beyond the harm such strategies inflict on the nation’s quality of life and hope for the future, the Rev. Howard Bess in this guest essay sees a moral dimension in the budgetary choices being made:

Government budgets are as much moral statements as the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. The language is different, but the essence is the same. Budgets reveal the values of the nation.

When I made Dwight Eisenhower the first candidate for U.S. President for whom I voted, I believed he was not just a war hero but also a man of high moral integrity. While history has shown him to have had his flaws, I remember him fondly for two things:

He proposed and initiated the building of the interstate highway system, a network of roadways that I have driven from California to Maine and from Florida to Washington State. Whenever I’m on these roads, I recall Eisenhower and his grand dream.
The second thing for which I remember Eisenhower is his criticism of excess spending on weapons of war and his prophetic warning to the American people that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

As it turned out, America built the highway system but mostly ignored his warning about the dangerous partnership between the U.S. arms industry and the U.S. military.
Eisenhower’s additional critique regarding the consequences of overspending on weaponry is less remembered but possibly even more important. He said:

“Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired, in the final sense, is a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

I had respect for General Eisenhower as a war leader in World War II, but that was an exercise in destruction. Dead Americans on the beaches of Normandy were his enduring nightmare. Creating something constructive was his dream.

The building of the interstate highway system was such an exercise, and Eisenhower must have found great satisfaction in it.

However, before his death on March 28, 1969, Eisenhower must have experienced great sadness that America had not accepted his warnings about how the military-industrial complex was robbing from America’s future and from its most vulnerable citizens.
Today, the federal budget, which continues to feed an American military behemoth roughly equal in size to all other nations’ military spending combined, represents a form of “moral” document, one that fails the test of human decency and common sense.

In the heated discussions now underway about the U.S. government’s budget, few people are willing to go after the military spending. Yet, with attitudes that would warm the cold hearts of laissez-faire capitalists, legislators are willing to cut appropriations for health care, education, the arts and public television.

Over the decades, many Americans have become obsessed with the nation’s military strength. And, just as the alcoholic is addicted to alcohol and the drug addict is addicted to his drug of choice, these Americans (and the weapons industries) are addicted to military spending.

In Alaska, where I live, we cannot imagine life without Elmendorf Air Force Base, Fort Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base. They are billed as essential to America’s defense. In truth, however, Alaskans also love the military bases because they benefit the Alaskan economy. Second only to oil, military spending is a key economic driving force.  
On the other hand, slated for elimination from the federal budget is funding for Alaska’s Denali Commission, which builds water and waste systems for the native villages that dot our vast state. It also builds health clinics and provides basic dental care for the benefit of the residents of those villages.

When I think of these budget choices, the words of Eisenhower ring in my ears.

Yet, an even greater folly than massive military spending is war itself, the slaughter of human beings. As obscene as America’s military budget might be, it is nothing compared to the loss of life that accompanies every war. 

The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of nearly 6,000 Americans, with an additional 40,000 wounded. The surviving veterans of these wars will suffer psychological problems for the remainder of their lives.

The casualties of Iraqis and Afghans far exceed the losses suffered by Americans. While President Obama is pressing ahead with U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and is promising a phased drawdown from Afghanistan beginning this summer, the killing and the maiming will continue for years to come.
One might ask what would happen if Congress voted on the military budgets in terms of lives to be lost, rather than dollars spent. Would the yes votes be altered? Voting hundreds of billions of additional dollars for the Afghan War may be acceptable to some, but what about voting another 3,000 dead Americans and another 10,000 wounded Americans?

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, suggests that it wouldn’t change much. He recently pointed out that the human cost of war doesn’t move the powerbrokers of America, either. Since the draft was dropped in favor of an all volunteer military, middle- and upper-class Americans have largely disappeared from the enlisted ranks of the U.S. military.

Americans who are doing the dying come disproportionately from the ranks of America’s minorities and poor.

So, as we examine the human and fiscal costs of these wars and the ongoing massive investments in the military-industrial complex, the moral dimensions of the budget become even more dramatic. We delude ourselves if we think budgets are not moral statements.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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