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We Can Pay For Free College The Same Way We Paid For A Pointless $5.6 Trillion War

Ideas like Medicare for All are written off as fantasy thinking by the same people who support virtually unlimited military spending.

Posted on July 17, 2018, at 3:41 p.m. ET

A US Marine Corps F-35B drops a laser-guided bomb during a test at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
US Navy / Reuters

A US Marine Corps F-35B drops a laser-guided bomb during a test at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Ever since the word “socialism” made its way into the US political mainstream two years ago in the guise of a wispy-haired gentleman from Vermont, progressives have been learning to expand their vision of what’s possible, from the swift adoption of “Medicare for All” to the even swifter mainstreaming of “Abolish ICE.” But for those wanting to really swing for the fences, it’s time to consider another issue sitting alongside these on the platform of rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It’s not an issue you’ll see on the nation’s front pages, and it’s one that promises an even deeper departure from today’s political orthodoxy in both parties: She calls it a “peace economy.”

“In times when we’re told that there’s not enough money, Republicans and corporate Democrats seem to find the cash to fund a $1.1 trillion fighter jet program or a $1.7 trillion nuclear weapon ‘modernization’ program,” she says.

She’s right — and while her opponents constantly dismiss calls for universal health care or free college as pie-in-the-sky demands disconnected from economic reality, they are strangely quiet on the most extreme form of wasteful spending embraced by both Democrats and Republicans.

American taxpayers have so far sunk $5.6 trillion into the war on terror with almost nothing to show for it — and no end in sight. Current military spending is still higher than at any time since World War II. Majorities in both parties have been guilty of starving domestic needs to fund battles we never should have begun.

When Donald Trump lashed out at our NATO allies for not spending enough money on defense, he unintentionally highlighted just how expensive the US’s military spending addiction really is. If we trimmed our defense budget down to the 2% of GDP that Trump demanded of the NATO countries, it would free up about $3 trillion over the next decade, as the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein noted.

What Ocasio-Cortez understands is that never-ending war, in her words, “damages America’s legitimacy as a force for good, creates new generations of potential terrorists, and erodes American prosperity.” There is a direct connection between claims that we cannot afford something like Medicare for All — despite similar systems existing across virtually all of the developed world — and our dangerous addiction to military intervention across the globe.

Most Americans are aware that peace hasn't yet prevailed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but probably have no idea that today we have combat troops deployed in 15 countries, or that our military conducts counterterrorism training in 58 countries — roughly a third of the world’s nations. And those are just the “counterterrorism” troops, to say nothing of the conventional forces that have been stationed around Europe, the Koreas, and elsewhere for decades.

We may occasionally remember that we still have thousands of troops in Afghanistan, where we've been for nearly 17 years now. Seventeen years! But our larger global footprint has us fighting battles almost nobody knows about — as was the case when four Americans died fighting in Niger last fall, to the surprise even of US senators who were unaware of our presence there.

The human costs go beyond anything that can be expressed in dollars. More than 6,800 Americans have died in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or nearby countries. One in ten American adults is a veteran and, as of 2011, roughly 3 out of 4 of them — or 16 million adults — had served active duty during wartime. Those veterans are twice as likely as nonveterans to die of an accidental opioid overdose and are more likely to experience homelessness.

But this isn’t new: War is a way of life for America. Even if you look only at major deployments, we have been involved in one war or another for 37 of the last 78 years. We’re at war just as much as we’re at peace — and that’s only if you count the frenzied nuclear buildup of the Cold War as “peace.”

So is all this worth it? And if it’s not, what can we do about it?

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. had an idea of what to do. He backed a Poor People’s Campaign, taking aim at what he called the “evil triplets” of racism, poverty, and militarism and called on poor people across the country to make a second march on Washington in the name of economic justice. Today, I and many others are working on the new Poor People’s Campaign, recognizing that endless war diverts both our troops’ lives and our nation’s resources into a tragic pursuit.

Our campaign is about the serious moral choices America must make. We spend about $70 billion of our federal discretionary budget on veterans’ services, but that pales in comparison to the military budget, which is 10 times higher. We choose war at the expense of everything else we claim to hold dear. So it’s no surprise that veterans have joined the campaign, lending their irreplaceable firsthand experiences to the movement.

Those veterans know that the $5.6 trillion funneled into a war that has only created chaos could have instead covered the $2 trillion in unfunded infrastructure needs, putting some or all of our veterans to work building our country up instead tearing other countries apart. It could have funded full college scholarships for all of our veterans — and their children.

Instead, we doubled down on endless militarism.

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of foreign policy decisions made years ago by the most powerful people in the world. The Poor People’s Campaign and new voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez urge us to reject these choices and put the power over our federal dollars back where it belongs — with the people.


Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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