By Ray Acheson
For the United States, war is more than something it engages in regularly. It is its key industry, its culture, its constant state of being. The pursuit by successive US governments of “full spectrum dominance”—the ability to monitor, control, and deploy weapons at a moment’s notice to anywhere the world—has ravaged our world. We are all forced to live with the implications of this constant of war, trying to survive under the threat of nuclear annihilation, drone strike, disappearance, detention; the threat of our cities being vaporised, incinerated, exploded; of bullets or bombs tearing apart everything and everyone we love.
War, like all the other structures of violence explored in this series, is by no means exclusive to the United States. This piece focuses on the USA because of the ways in which its wars abroad and at home have shaped the world. Its acts of violence have shaped our world order, tarnishing and imprinting irreparably upon history and lives; spreading the culture, technologies, and techniques of killing, coercion, and control across the globe. US wars inspire the world toward violence, fear, and hate. The idea that “security” can be achieved by weaponising and militarising as many aspects of life as possible is perpetuated by US wars and its colossal levels of military spending. This has led, among other things, to horrifying levels of internal gun violence, police brutality, mass incarceration, and abuses at the border; has led to endless war, invasion, and occupation abroad; and has led countless allies and enemies alike to spend more on bombs and guns than on the wellbeing of people or preservation of our planet.
This article does not engage with questions about whether or not armed conflict is ever justifiable, i.e. in terms of resistance or liberation, or within the context of “responsibility to protect”. It takes as a starting point the observation of Hannah Arendt that “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.” From this perspective, this essay focuses on war as a structure and the material realities that come with the creation and maintenance of a state that is based on war—that relies on war at home and abroad to preserve the “law and order” that benefit its political and economic elite.
To this end, this article explores the institutions that make war in all its aspects possible, and the ways in which these institutions derive power from and perpetuate patriarchy and racism. It also looks at the connections between the use of violence for control and coercion abroad and within the United States, and the structural fascism built into the policies and practices of war. It highlights activism confronting war in all its aspects, with a view to defunding, dismantling, and abolishing these structures of violence.
War is a declaration of power through death; of violence over peace; conflict over cooperation. It has marred generations, begetting only war and more war. But it is possible to buck this trend, to break the cycle of violence, to divest from weapons and war-making and invest instead in people and the preservation of our planet. With all the converging crises beset upon us, from COVID-19 to climate change, we must look not just to solving or mitigating these emergencies, but to ending the crisis underlying them all: the dominance of war and the war mentality.
From before it was country, the United States has been at war. The settlers warred with the Indigenous nations, warred with the state of Mexico. Land owners warred against enslaved Africans. Since then, political and economic elite of the United States have waged wars abroad—fighting wars of economic and political imperialism meant to secure resources and geopolitical influence; supporting coups and dictatorships that benefited US interests; training militaries and shipping weapons to conflict zones.
Currently the United States is “officially” involved to some degree in seven wars—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Somalia, and Yemen. Unofficially, it is involved in conflict in other countries. It launches strikes or conducts military training and exercises, stations weapons, and accompanies forces in conflict zones across Africa; has at least 800 military bases around the world; participates in joint military exercises with various allies; and rotates special forces as “advisors” around the world. In fact, US special forces are deployed in up to 134 countries at any one time.
Simultaneously, the US state and its apparatus has waged war at home—against women, against Black, brown, and Indigenous people, against Asian-Americans, against Muslims, against migrants and asylum seekers, and now, in an increasingly visible way, against anyone who demonstrates against state violence. The wars “at home” and “abroad” are increasingly entangled, in terms of tactics, weapons, and even at times troops.
War abroad ⇒ War at home ⇒ War abroad ⇒ War at home …
In the days since the US president first threatened to deploy the US military against protestors in US cities to his actual deployment of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Portland, many politicians, journalists, and citizens have expressed outrage about this, as well as against the levels of violence from police and other state agents.
But in many reactions, there seemed a sense of indifference of the fact that for decades, so many people in so many countries have been experiencing this violence from the United States. Setting ICE and CBP agents loose on Portland to pull protestors off the streets into unmarked vehicles, for example, reeks of the same playbook of “low-intensity warfare, death squads, forced disappearances, and massacres” the US military has been exporting for decades.
For many peace groups, the similarities have been clear. About Face, a group for antiwar veterans of the post-9/11 era, tweeted, “People are so stressed about some smashed windows. How much ‘private property damage’ would you estimate is caused by 7,423 bombs? That’s how many the U.S. dropped on Afghans last year…” Los Angeles Chargers football player Justin Jackson quipped, “Now that we’ve all come to the agreement that we don’t like an occupying force on our streets, can we normalize being against that for foreign people we don’t know in other countries?”
While the outrage against police brutality in the United States is absolutely justified, some of the commentary has served to signal that the use of this type of violence abroad by the military is acceptable. As activist Zoé Samudzi notes, it is perverse that “there is this acceptance of this violence overseas whereas ‘Americans’ shouldn’t be subjected to that kind of violence—and I say Americans with caveats because there are so many people that are subjected to that violence.”
Yet many of the reactions also appeared indifferent of the fact that many Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour in the United States consistently experience this kind of violence from the US government, too. Comments that US war has “come home” overlook the fact that it never left.
The recent situation in Portland is reminiscent of the “small army” that occupied Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests over the police murder of Michael Brown. The tactics used by ICE and CBP in Portland have been used against migrant communities for two decades. There are similarities between tactics and weapons used by the military around the world and those used in US cities against people of colour, queer communities, and those whose poverty has been criminalised.
“The war has always been home,” Indigenous author Nick Estes points out. “It has travelled abroad, but it never quite left our homelands.”
The institutions of war
To oppose war, in this context, cannot just be to oppose this or that war, or to “bring the troops home” from Afghanistan or Iraq. It is not just about ending US material and political support for coups or dictatorships in Latin America or the Middle East or Southeast Asia; nor just about preventing the next war—with Iran, or China, or whomever else is manufactured as the next enemy. Given the embeddedness of war in the politics and economics of the United States, and the lived reality of violence experienced by many around the world and within the US, opposing war must be about opposing the institutions that make war possible, at home and abroad.
These institutions include the various branches of the military and the government agencies that “hunt, capture, or kill” the state’s perceived or constructed “enemies” from the deserts of Afghanistan to the streets of Portland; local police forces and agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, such as CBP and ICE; the weapon manufacturers that profit from blood spilled, mostly from people of colour; the private corporations and public entities running migrant detention centres and prisons; the policies and practices that criminalise Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour, that criminalise migrants and migration and put “border enforcement” above human lives, and that criminalise poverty; and the decisions by Congress and other decision-makers to invest in war instead of well-being, in weapons instead of healthcare, education, or housing.
These institutions, or rather, the choices that those that established and operate and fund these institutions make, are to invest in violence rather than peace, in weapons rather than houses or hospitals or books. This has costs: humanitarian costs, environmental costs, and economic costs. These costs, in turn, set up the world we live within. Understanding the costs is necessary to challenge the institutions and their choices.
Humanitarian and environmental impacts of war
The cost of war can, should, be measured in blood or bodies. The human cost of US wars has been unconscionable. Millions killed; millions more injured, tortured, disappeared; millions more displaced, driven from their homes made unlivable by raging conflict, environmental devastation, destruction of civilian infrastructure, or all of the above.
Since 11 September 2001, US-led wars in the Middle East and Asia has directly killed over 800,000 people; another 21 million have been displaced and hundreds of thousands have been detained and tortured. Millions were killed in the US wars in Viet Nam and Korea; hundreds of thousands killed, detained, or disappeared at the hands of US-trained soldiers and paramilitaries across Latin America. US drone strikes, special forces operations, and other extrajudicial, “unofficial” acts of war have killed thousands more.
These are just a few examples, and the numbers alone do not capture the horrors that these wars have inflicted upon human bodies and lives, or on the natural world. The following is an extremely brief overview of but a few of the humanitarian and environmental consequences of war and armed conflict.
War devastates. Whether fought with guns, bombs, or drones, armed conflict leads to death and destruction. Examining all of the humanitarian impacts of war is not possible for an article of this nature or length, but even a cursory look at impacts on human life and dignity provides a horrifying snapshot.
The use of everything from guns, cluster bombs, landmines, armed drones, depleted uranium weapons, and nuclear weapons have all had catastrophic impacts on human life and health. From loss of limbs to radiation poisoning, the direct impacts of these weapons as well as their remnants has caused intergenerational harm across the world.
Explosive violence can be particularly egregious. In many US-led or -supported wars, bombing and shelling of villages, towns, and cities has become increasingly commonplace. While the practice of firebombing or carpet-bombing cities seen in World War II or the so-called Vietnam War has waned, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has continued. When mortars, rockets, artillery shells, aircraft bombs, and improvised explosive devices are used in towns and cities, civilians account for 90 per cent of the casualties. Reverberating effects, caused by damage to housing, places of work, health and sanitation facilities, and more, impact people’s access to food, water, housing, and healthcare long after the conflict has ended.
Examples of these tragedies abound. Since a Saudi-led coalition, armed primarily by the United States and other western governments, began bombing Yemen in March 2015, the country has spiralled into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The relentless bombing has destroyed homes, hospitals, school, markets, and other vital civilian infrastructure, displacing over 3.65 million people. More than ten million people face food shortages and millions of children are suffering from acute malnutrition. In Mosul, Iraq, where US-led forces mounted a military operation against Daesh in 2016–2017, thousands of civilians were killed and 1.8 million displaced. The western part of the city was largely destroyed, mostly because of US airstrikes, which increased from 400 a month at the beginning of the operation to about 800 a month towards the end.
In addition to the destruction of infrastructure, death, injury, and displacement, the psychological harm caused by armed conflict is devastating. High proportions of those who have experienced armed conflict, particularly the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, report anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many children growing up in Gaza, Syria, Yemen, and other places where bombing of homes, schools, and hospitals are part of daily life have been experiencing extreme and chronic trauma from a young age—some their entire lives.
Likewise, war has a devastating and lasting impact on the environment. Direct environmental impacts of armed conflict can include damage to industrial sites, deforestation, toxic and hazardous war remnants, and the destruction of water, sanitation, and health infrastructure. Explosive weapons that destroy buildings can result in the fragmentation and projection into the air of toxic building materials; certain weapons made with heavy metals can cause toxicity; the targeting of oil refineries, chemical facilities, or other industrial sites can cause toxic substances to leak into soil and water. Even guns have environmental and health impacts: residual lead from bullets can cause lead poisoning in those who have been shot and can contaminate soil and water.
Arms production, testing, and storage can also lead to environmental destruction. The manufacturing of depleted uranium munitions, comprised of radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metals, has contaminated nearby communities. Uranium mining and milling for nuclear weapons have contaminated land and water around the world from Canada to the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo. The thousands of atmospheric nuclear weapon tests conducted by a handful of states around the world—mostly on the lands of Indigenous nations within their own countries or abroad—have had grave and lasting environmental impacts. The US government exploded about a thousand nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site with predictable and preventable costs to people and the planet: radioactive soil, increased rates of cancers in the downwind areas, early death for uranium miners, and the destruction of sacred Native lands. Its nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands and other Pacific countries were likewise based on white supremacy resulting radioactive racism against Pacific Islanders.
As a whole, through military operations, construction of bases, destruction of infrastructure, land, and water, and the production, use, testing, transportation, and storage of weapons, militarism is devastating the to the environment. On top of this, the consumption of fossil fuels by militaries is astronomical. The US military is one of the world’s biggest polluters. It consumes more hydrocarbons than most countries—if it were a country, it would be the world’s 55th largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Since it began the “Global War on Terror” in 2001, it has produced at least 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas. The Intercept has highlighted the “grim irony” that the heavy US military footprint in the Middle East has largely been about preserving accession to the region’s oil—the industrial extraction of which has been one of the major drivers of global carbon dioxide emissions—whilst consuming enormous levels of fossil fuels itself. “In other words,” writes Murtaza Hussein,“we have been killing, dying, and polluting to ensure our access to the same toxic resource most responsible for our climate disruption.”
Economics of war
In addition to these direct humanitarian and environmental costs of war, there is also the economic cost: the trillions of dollars that have been spent on violence over decades; the billions that are spent on violence every single year.
Last year, US military spending amounted to $732 billion. That’s $1,392,694 spent on militarism per minuteduring 2019. This accounts for 38 per cent of the global total. It is more than the next ten largest military spenders combined—and it doesn’t even include the nearly $200 billion for veteran’s affairs. Yet, the US military budget is on the rise—it spent 5.3 per cent more in 2019 than in 2018. As the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted, “The increase in US spending in 2019 alone was equivalent to the entirety of Germany’s military expenditure for that year.”
Since 2001, the US government has spent about $6.4 trillion on war in the Middle East and Asia. The US maintains about 800 foreign military bases around the world, to the tune of $25 billion to $150 billion per year, depending on what is being included in the calculation. It spends billions on weapons research and development; on purchasing bullets and bombs from corporations; and, increasingly, on contracting out work to private military and security companies.
Nuclear weapon spending
Also, in case you forgot—the United States has nuclear weapons. The budget for nuclear bombs is held by the US Department of Energy rather than the Department of Defense. It currently has an arsenal of about 3800 nuclear warheads as well an extensive fleet of nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines, and an extensive network of nuclear weapon production facilities across the country.
The money going toward nuclear weapon maintenance and modernisation is also on the rise. In 2019, it spent $41.4 billion on nuclear weapons—which, by the way, is on its own larger than the total military spending in all but nine other countries. In 2021, the US government is planning to spend about $51.2 billion on nuclear weapons, which would be an almost 24 per cent increase.
The US government also devotes billions to 16 “intelligence agencies,” many of which engage war activities abroad or surveillance at home. In 2019, $21.5 billion went to agencies that are part of the Military Intelligence Program—which includes the intelligence arm of each of the armed forces branches, as well as Special Operations Command. Another $60.2 billion went to the National Intelligence Program, which includes the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and others. Some agencies, such as the National Security Agency, are cross-appointed.
This money doesn’t go through the Pentagon and isn’t calculated as being part of US military spending. It’s a black budget, and it grows every year. Many of the agencies receiving this money are infamous for their roles in spying on US citizens and the leaders of foreign countries, establishing and operating “black sites” where suspected “terrorists” are tortured and indefinitely detained, launching covert operations in countries with which the United States is not officially at war, and carrying out extrajudicial killing with armed drones.
About $50 billion a year goes to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created in 2003. Among other things, DHS houses the agencies that police the border—and more recently, the streets of Portland. US Customs and Border Protection currently receives $18.2 billion and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement gets $8.8 billion. Both are seeing their budgets and mandates rise, despite the well-document accounts of horrific abuses committed by their officers.
Which brings us to the police. With many police forces taking up between 30–60 per cent of each city’s budget, the United States as a whole spends about $100 billion annually on policing. Incidentally, the New York Police Department’s current budget of nearly $6 billion—the largest in the United States—would make it the 33rd largest military spender on the planet.
Meanwhile, the official budget for incarceration in the United States today is $81 billion. But there are other hidden costs, leading the Prison Policy Initiative to calculate that the annual total cost of incarceration is about $182 billion.
War profiteering and the merchants of death
Together, all of this means that the United States spent somewhere around $1.4 trillion on war in all its aspects last year. War is, simply put, big business. And that means, certain people are profiting from it.
Private military and security companies (PMSCs) are making a (financial and literal) killing from war. In 2019, there were 53,000 US contractors operating in the Middle East, compared to 35,000 US soldiers. A recent study by Brown University shows that much of the growth in US military budgets since 2001 is due to payments to military contractors. Some contractors are infamous for their commission of human rights abuses, from DynCorp in Bosnia to Blackwater in Iraq. Others handle laundry, food services, transportation, and construction, employing foreign nationals and paying them less than US employees.
But an even bigger piece of the war industry is the weapon manufacturers.
105 years ago, WILPF’s founders saw that those who made weapons were at the heart of a grave, deeply gendered racket, in which myths such as “security through violence” and “peace through war” are peddled in order to justify ever-increasing extravagant military budgets and profits. In the midst of World War One, WILPF found “in the private profits accruing from the great armament factories a powerful hindrance to the abolition of war.” Writing years later during World War Two, British activists Fenner Brockway and Frederic Mullally similarly warned that the interests of the military-industrial complex cannot “coincide with the interest of the nation and the world, which is security.” Investment in weapons and war “must of necessity continue just so long as the interest of profit is allowed to run counter to the best interests of the community at large.”
Today, the production of war remains big business. The major top five US weapon manufacturers—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman, Raytheon each made between $21 and $48 billion in revenue in 2018. Their executives and board members receive millions of dollars a year, at the taxpayer’s expense. US corporations also continue to dominate the international arms market, accounting for 36 per cent of global arms exports of the past five years. During this period, the United States sold weapons to at least 96 countries, far more than any other supplier. This year alone it has so far made at least $52 billion in sales.
Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the military-industrial complex has done well for itself. In many countries, arms producers were deemed essential services. Boeing, a major US military contractor, successfully pushed for billions in aid to the arms industry in the $2 trillion US stimulus bill. Despite risks to workers and despite the urgent need for medical equipment and protective gear, war profiteers continued to pump out bombs and bullets. Some gun manufacturers in the United States had to pause production because of state-issued orders, but others continued to operate unabated. US officials in charge of military acquisition even announced plans to accelerate contract awards during the COVID-19 crisis in order to protect the profit margins of weapons companies.
Meanwhile, despite the UN Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire during the pandemic, the international arms trade also continued. Some countries even used the chaos of the moment to conduct controversial arms sales that would otherwise face public opposition, in a classic demonstration of disaster capitalism. The profits to be made from the destruction of countries where war is fought is a key part of war profiteering. Naomi Klein has well documented how neoliberal ideologues work with big corporations and other segments of the capitalist elite to use moments of crisis to ram through political and economic changes that benefit their accumulation of capital. In the midst and aftermath of war, often working hand in hand with so-called peace facilitators, they encourage legal reforms to enable privatisation of national industries, “flexibilisation” of labour laws, and other structural reforms that will allow them easy access to markets and cheap labour. They also “rebuild” destroyed infrastructure in ways that suit the interests of capital and private profit at the expense of those who lived there before the conflict.
All of the billions of dollars that go toward war, violence, and “security” ultimately go to the pockets of those who benefit from the destruction and chaos, at the expense of everything and everyone else. The war machine sucks up public funds, leaving mere breadcrumbs and table scraps for social safety nets, education and housing, and environmental preservation.
While military spending, the intelligence “black budgets,” and Homeland Security investments continue to rise, all other US budget lines are being cut. The US government’s budget for 2020 saw a 31 per cent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a 16 per cent cut for housing, and 12 per cent cuts to each health and education, among others. Its budget request for 2021 is further cutting these departments, proposing, for example, another 26 per cent cut from the EPA. The request cuts Medicare by about $500 billion, Medicaid by nearly $1 trillion. It also seeks to cut $182 billion from the food stamp programme and $2.5 billion from the nutrition programme.
In 2019, the Pentagon spent $55.9 billion on weapon research and development. This includes research and design of high-tech armaments such as autonomous and artificial intelligence weapon systems, drone swarms, and hypersonic missiles capable of reaching anywhere in the world at five times the speed of sound. Scientific American compares this amount of money to spending on research on health ($38.9 billion), energy ($4.4 billion), and the environment ($2.8 billion). “For the majority of the past two decades, the U.S. government has equated Americans’ national security with military supremacy,” write political scientists Neta Crawford and Catherine Lutz, co-directors of the Costs of War project. “Instead of investing in programs and supplies that would have saved thousands of lives, our leaders were investing trillions in new weapons and continuing old wars.”
The investments in weapons and war have not just spent trillions on death and violence, but have actively plundered from the institutions, programmes, and mechanisms designed to save life, protect the environment, and provide for human well-being. This has resulted in catastrophic levels of hunger, houselessness, and poverty within the United States and around the world.
In 2019 about 12 per cent of the US population—around 43.5 million people—lived below the poverty line. This number is expected to increase dramatically due to the extraordinary rates of job loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When it comes to jobs, the military industry portrays itself as a great employer, from soldiering to weapons manufacturing to base building—even though as veterans and economists have pointed out, this is not the case. In fact, federal spending on health care, education, clean energy, and infrastructure creates more jobs than military spending by 21–28 per cent. Investments in elementary and secondary education create nearly three times as many jobs as military spending.
Yet, military investments continue to be prioritised, lining the pockets of the privileged and producing more weapons and more war for the entire world. The result is not just unemployment, but a culture that invests in militarism while its population staggers under the crushing weight of economic crisis.
After his official visit to the United States in 2017, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston noted that the concept of “American exceptionalism” was a steady theme in his conversations, while in reality, “Today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.”
Alston found levels of inequality, incarceration, and houselessness disproportionate to the country’s wealth; compared to other wealthy countries, the US has less doctors and hospital beds, less access to water and sanitation, higher rates of disease and infections, and much lower economic mobility. His report also described how poverty in the United States is racialised and gendered, with Indigenous communities, people of colour, and women facing the brunt of poverty’s impacts, and how economic hardship is criminalised as a deliberate effort to conceal the problem. “At the end of the day,” Alston wrote, “particularly in a rich country like the USA, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power.”
It is also a choice that results in extreme poverty abroad. The armed conflict that the United States perpetuates or facilitates abroad have spun the economies of countries and entire regions into disastrous disarray. In Iraq, for example, one in five people live in poverty and one in four youth are unemployed. In Afghanistan, about 55 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and food insecurity is on the rise. These are just a few examples.
Rising militarism, rising violence
US militarism doesn’t just affect the countries it bombs. It also impacts the spending choices of its allies and it’s perceived “enemies”. In 2019, China increased its military spending by 5.1 per cent; India by 6.8 per cent; Germany by 10 per cent. The US government’s badgering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to pay more is leading to increased military investments among members.
Another factor leading to rising military expenditure in Europe is the increasing militarisation of borders, also encouraged by the United States. As noted in another article in this series, the European Union (EU), which has already spent billions on “border security,” plans to spend another $38.4 billion over the next six years. Frontex, the EU’s border and coastguard agency, “is turning into a €10bn super-agency” with a 10,000-person standing corps. Recently, the EU signed a contract for a massive biometric database, while police forces across the EU are looking to establish a facial recognition database network. Thales, Airbus, and Leonardo are among the companies benefitting most from militarised “border security” spending in Europe.
All of this has resulted in social destruction of migrant and immigrant lives. Violence against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants is as extreme in Europe as it is in the United States. Along the Balkan Route in Europe, for example, there is rampant violence by border guards, police, and private security, and terrible conditions at camps run by the UN International Organization for Migration and funded by the EU. The militarisation of borders, through investments in weapons, surveillance apparatus, and military personnel, is steadily reinforcing a fortress against those who are fleeing war and violence—much of it caused or facilitated by the very governments now denying these populations entry.
The militarism of “development assistance” and “international economic cooperation”
Meanwhile, countries grappling with “development” agendas in order to ostensibly improve living conditions for people face increasing militarism there, too. The role that bilateral and multilateral development assistance, as well as international financial institutions (IFIs), often incentivises or directly contributes to increases in military spending. The US government stipulates that recipients of its “foreign aid” must use part of the funds to purchase military equipment or training. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of the funding made available by the EU for the country’s response to the increase in migration flows have gone into purchasing surveillance and other equipment for the police forces.
Indirectly, conditionalities attached to IFI loans and grants that inter alia require privatisation of public works, weakening of labour laws, and cuts in social spending, lead to increasing inequality and poverty. This often prompts governments to spend more on militarism, including by equipping police forces with army-grade weapons to protect private interests and resist opposition.
Disappearance and destruction
All of this investment into militarism instead of social well-being results in more violence and more harm. The investment in war does not bring security. Weapons do not prevent or deter conflict. Police do not deter “crime”. Prisons do not disappear problems. Instead, each of these structures of violence disappear human beings.
“The practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business” in the United States, wrote Angela Davis in 1998 in relation to the prison-industrial complex. This practice of disappearing people, whether at home through policing and prisons and abroad through war and occupation, amount to what Davis describes as social destruction. The structures of violence devour social wealth, decimating the public sector and breeding even more violence and harm.
As much as some US citizens might like to believe that the US war machine is there to “protect them,” the reality is that the war machine protects no one but those directly profiting from it. It turns public funds into private prosperity; it profits from social destruction. And that social destruction feeds both machines with bodies, particularly those of Black and brown people. It creates more targets for drone strikes abroad, more targets for incarceration at home.
The economic investments that the wars abroad help to protect for the capitalist elite—the extraction of oil, gas, minerals; the ability to build McDonalds in Baghdad or pay workers in Bangladesh $1 a day for sewing clothing sold for $100 per item in the United States—all ensure poverty and violence abroad, as well as the bleeding of jobs from the United States, leading to increasing unemployment, precarity, and poverty at home, and dominance of the capitalist class.
All of this—mass incarceration, war and occupations, arms exports to conflict zones, social and economic devastation of so many people—requires a process of dehumanisation and “othering”. It requires the idea that some human beings are worth less, that, by the nature of the colour of their skin, their sex, gender, or sexuality, their dis/ability or religion or place of birth, they are inherently more dangerous, less deserving of care and love and protection.
Power relations, as Michel Foucault explains, are embedded in processes of categorisation and differentiation. These processes produce hegemonic norms and hierarchies between identities, categorising people based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ability, religion, and any other “marker of difference” between people. This categorisation and hierarchisation among people enables—and even requires—violence against certain groups in order to maintain the established “order”. Patriarchy and racism are two such systems of ordering that simultaneous demand and reinforce power relations.
Patriarchy celebrates a certain form of masculinity, namely, a “particular idealized image of masculinity in relation to which images of femininity and other masculinities are marginalized and subordinated.” In most cultures today, this “hegemonic masculinity” is represented by a heterosexual cisgender man who makes claims to being independent, risk-taking, aggressive, rational, physically tough, courageous, and unemotional.
The military plays a primary role in shaping images of masculinity in the larger society, to the point where “the dominant adult male role model could largely be the product of the military.” Primacy in the military was, and still is, awarded to “toughness, skilled use of violence, presumption of an enemy, male camaraderie, submerging one’s emotions, and discipline (being disciplined and demanding it of others),” writes feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe.
The shaping of this dominant expression of masculinity requires the gender binary to thrive: the idea of a masculine “warrior hero,” the infusion of honour into violence, needs to be positioned or contrasted with an opposite—with women needing and wanting protection. It requires a complicit “other”—women—and no option for alternative realities: of gender non-conforming, non-binary, genderqueer, or trans people; or of cisgender men and women refusing to buy into the prescribed gender roles and norms.
The culture of violence inherent to the binary norm of militarised masculinity and protected femininity also has implications for weapons culture and possession. Weapons—from small arms to nuclear bombs—are seen from this perspective as being essential to power. Whether the concern is having the biggest stockpile or the most high-tech capabilities, weapon possession and proliferation is treated as indicative of status: of being ready to “defend,” of being able to oppress and control.
Militarised masculinities, and the preference for weaponised violence over dialogue and cooperation, are embedded within institutions of violence like the military, and also perpetuate that culture beyond these institutions. From police to prison guards to border patrol agents, those trained in the tradition of militarised masculinities reproduce the processes of differentiating and “othering” that reinforces the ideal of gendered and racialised hierarchies.
Turning people into warfighters or border guards requires breaking down their sense of ethics and morals and building up a violent masculinity that is lacking in empathy and glorifies strength as violence and physical domination over others portrayed as weaker. Hierarchy is fundamental to this training. Teaching human beings to kill, incarcerate, or repress other human beings “requires dehumanizing others by promoting the belief that another human is somehow a ‘lesser’ creature,” Cynthia Enloe explains. “One of the central forms of dehumanization promoted by military training and the culture of daily life in the military has been the supposed inferiority of women—that women are less than men.”
These norms and power dynamics are what lead to a culture of sexual violence and to impunity for perpetrators. Violence toward and degradation of women, or others considered to not fit with dominant gender norms, are part of the military’s purposeful development of violent masculinities. One immediate consequence of this culture is that women in the military are often subject to sexual assault and that LGBTQ+ servicemembers experience discrimination, threats and intimidation, sexual harassment, and physical and sexual assault, even after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the policy that barred asking military personnel whether they were LGBTQ+, but prohibited “openly gay” personnel. Migrants are also subjected to gender-based violence and sexual assault, by traffickers, “coyotes,” and US border officials alike.
The process of othering and dehumanisation is not just gendered. As explored in other pieces in this series on US police, prisons, and borders, white supremacy manifests in structural racism that targets Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Arab, and other communities for violence, oppression, and exclusion. From the origins of policing to mass incarceration and migrant detention to criminalisation of queer, poor, and people of colour, racism is endemic to institutions of the US war at home.
As it is with US war abroad. The US government used nuclear weapons against two Japanese cities and tested its bombs on Indigenous nations at home and Pacific Islanders abroad. US military bases from Japan to Djibouti have resulted in extensive sexual and gender-based violence against local populations, including by establishing and entrenching racialised structures of forced prostitution and trafficking. The US military’s use of napalm in Viet Nam, depleted uranium in Iraq, cluster bombs in Laos, drone strikes in Afghanistan, as well as all of the bullets and bombs it has deployed across the world, have left a long trail of lasting, grave, and incredibly discriminatory suffering and environmental degradation that will scar the planet in perpetuity.
War at home and abroad both require the generation of fear of “the other”—fear of categories of people based on race, religion, immigration status, or another marker. Racist fearmongering is necessary to normalise violence against people, to foment support for military action or immigration raids or police crackdowns. “Once a people become a ‘calamity,’” notes Ta-Nehisi Coates, “all means of dealing with them are acceptable.”
The fates of these “calamities” at home and abroad are intimately linked. Violence against people in other countries helps embolden discriminatory violence and human rights violations of non-US citizens at home. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies responsible for abuses at migrant detention centres, for example—including Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—have been not just been allowed, but encouraged, to oppress and even kill.
The DHS was created in the wake of 9/11—though plans for it were drawn up earlier. As a whole, DHS comprises “the largest law-enforcement body in the country, with the biggest budget and the fewest mechanisms of public oversight and accountability.” This has led to unconstitutional raids, in-custody deaths, and widespread abuse. Journalist John Washington describes the culture of abuse inherent to these agencies through accounts of whistleblowers and those who have suffered their wrath. In addition to humiliating, degrading, and enacting violence upon the bodies of migrants directly, these officials also have a habit of destroying any life-saving mechanisms deployed by humanitarian activists. Documentarians embedded with ICE even found that the agency “evaluated the success of its border policies based not only on the number of migrants apprehended, but on the number who died while crossing.”
The agencies of the DHS have always been used to exert fascist power—the Department has been a “Trojan Horse for state-sponsored violence since the day it was written into existence,” argues Elie Mystal. “It’s just that, up until now, brown people have borne the brunt of the violence.” Under the current government, these agencies are now being weaponised against everyone. But the potential for abuse at the scale we have seen so far in 2020 was there from the beginning, “baked into these federal agencies and the systems that allow them to operate with impunity,” notes journalist Tina Vasquez.
Not surprisingly, the DHS has also targeted activists working to protect human rights. A 2019 report from Amnesty International documented how DHS engaged in a sweeping, multi-year campaign targeting human rights defenders, attorneys, and journalists working on the border. In early August 2020, US Border Patrol raided No More Deaths’ humanitarian aid station, detaining over thirty people who were receiving medical care, food, water, and shelter from the scorching heat.
Resistance, like communities of colour, is increasingly being criminalised: resistance to US occupation and invasion abroad; resistance to white supremacy and institutionalised violence at home. From Water Protectors to the Movement for Black Lives to Abolish ICE and Free Them All campaigners, those opposing state power have been monitored, surveilled, shot at, and now, disappeared into unmarked vans by unidentified “law enforcement officers”.
The increasingly visible violence against protestors, activists, and journalists feels like a warning, perhaps even a foreshadow of things to come. It is not difficult for one’s mind to wander to the US “black sites” and military bases used as detention centres around the world, where those who challenge US violence are disappeared, detained, tortured, murdered.
The local and the global of racialised war
Indeed, the policies and practices of criminalising, surveilling, incarcerating, and in many instances killing people based on the colour of their skin, religion, or sexual orientation, is similar to that practiced in US wars abroad. There are also direct connections between the wars “at home” and “abroad,” making many military and police actions inseparable. The “war on drugs,” the “war on migration,” and the “war on terror” each have domestic and international aspects.
Military interventions in Latin America to ostensibly “stop the supply of cocaine” (or, in some cases, facilitate it) are directly related to the policing and incarceration of communities of colour for drug related offences in the United States. The Global War on Terror meant to bring hellfire to the Middle East also brings brutality to the United States’ Arab and Muslim populations—and many others whose skin colour is such that they get caught up in the backlash. As for the war on migration: US wars and sales of weapons, the US military’s disproportionate contributions to climate chaos, and the US neoliberal economic agenda violently imposed abroad have all contributed to unprecedented levels of displacement around the world. And if those migrants attempt to reach US shores, surviving deserts, jungles, sexual violence, and kidnapping, they are most likely imprisoned, degraded, and deported by the US government.
Predators, the panopticon, and the processing of human beings
All of this violence is about more than creating carnage and chaos from which its corporate investors and political backers profit. It is also about control. Through its investments in the culture and materiel of militarism, the US government has been actively building what Ian G. R. Shaw describes as a “Predator Empire”—a state that unabashedly pursues “full spectrum dominance” over the entire world through war making, economic coercion, and persistent surveillance.
The patriarchal propensity for total control of others, especially those it deems inferior, is brilliantly manifested in the concept of full spectrum dominance. Patriarchy and racism underwrite the mainstream US conception of “national security,” which is executed through transnational monitoring, policing, incarceration, sanction, and execution, asserting its authority regardless of geography or legality.
In this way, the United States—and other governments of military and economic power—are creating a world in which the majority of people are being seen and treated as objects to be categorised, controlled, confined, and, when deemed necessary, killed as disposable objects that are in the way of the profit-making of the elite, wealthy few. As this world further develops, more and more people will be pushed into this category of “surplus population,” marked for incarceration or death.
Objectifying and processing the “surplus population”
This processing of people doesn’t just segregate and hierarchise people, it also suggests that some people inherently pose a “threat” to state security because of their race, location, or other identifying factor. As activist Harsha Walia writes, “The social control and criminalization that delineates the carceral network and disappears undesirables is the frequently invisible yet entrenched racist colonial belief that incarceration is a legitimate response to communities that are constructed and characterized innately as being illegals, deviants, criminals, terrorists, or threats.”
Marking certain populations as threats simply because they exhibit certain characteristics or behaviour, or on the basis of sex, race, or other factors, has implications for the normalisation and abstraction of violencebeyond that to which our world is already subjected. As Thomas Gregory explains, this kind of violence completely ignores the people that are harmed—both their bodies and their embodied experiences.
This concept of “inherent criminality”—that risk resides within people—is problematic and damaging. Criminality, risk, or threat is not a state of being. Categorising people as such is done by the most privileged in our societies, by those who have something to lose materially from equality and peace. Yet it is used as a justification for both mass incarceration and extrajudicial killing. It has led the US military to develop policies and practices for “hunting” individual people designated “terrorists,” with the entire global as its hunting ground. Shaw describes how many domestic policing strategies are used by the United States in what has become “preemptive planetary policing,” through which individuals are targeted on the basis of what they could potentially become. In this way, the US state seeks to “protect” or “immunise” itself “against not only actualized forms of danger, then, but also potential threats, those patterns of life that may become threats in the future.”
Weaponising against “inherent criminality”
Through this process, state-sanctioned violence becomes infused with moral language. Think of the language used by nuclear-armed states or within mainstream “national security” discourses, which bear the mark of moral righteousness when it comes to justifying violence, militarism, and weaponisation to “protect the homeland” or ensure “strategic stability”. As Elke Schwarz describes, this is about establishing a notion of “productive violence”—of violence that is “necessary” to secure life or liberty.
This framing of acts of political violence as “necessary technical acts” for security and survival perpetuates and normalises the idea that security must be achieved through violence, and that this violence is facilitated best by weapons that are “rendered as inherently ethical.” In reality, intersectional oppressions of people are amplified by the weaponisation of technologies that are designed to process people as objects, to categorise and compartmentalise human beings and mark them for surveillance, incarceration, or death.
The technologies deployed by this system include weapons and apparatus used by police, border patrols, and the military, as well as the equipment needed to cage and incarcerate. They also include the rising “panopticon” provided by technologies of surveillance, biometrics, facial recognition, predictive policing, precrime reporting, and drones. Doorbell cameras, video surveillance systems, and crime-reporting platforms “are playing a role in people of color being reported as ‘suspicious’ while they are simply going about their daily lives.” The algorithms used in facial recognition software have consistently been shown to be racist, resulting in must higher rates of false positives for Black, Asian, and Indigenous faces than for whites.
As organisers against carceral technologies explain, arguments about being able to “de-bias” such technologies are flawed. “Carceral technologies are racist because the institutions that develop and use them are intended to manage populations in a country that has a white supremacist inheritance,” notes Sarah T. Hamid. “These technologies are not incidentally racist. They are racist because they’re doing the work of policing—which, in this country, is a racist job.” Similarly, the use of these technologies in war abroad is inherently racist. Algorithms have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan to “predict enemies,” for example, and much of the “counterinsurgency” work is based on assumptions about the “inherent risk” of certain categories of people.
There are also connections between the military and police’s use of drones for surveillance. The expanding use of surveillance planes and drones over US cities during Black Lives Matter protests also show another tactic for police to monitor and enact violence against anyone they consider a threat. The city of Baltimore has approved the use of surveillance planes to conduct persistent monitoring of the city under the guise of aiding investigations of “violent crimes”. The LA County Sheriff’s Department has tested an airplane-mounted surveillance kit to monitor the entire city of Compton, with equipment similar to the US military’s Gorgon Stare technology.
The introduction of “predictive policing” also has grave implications for criminalised communities. The technology relies on data sets of past “crime” to determine where and when future crime will occur. Police are given maps of neighbourhoods to patrol in order to deter or stumble upon criminal acts. As Jackie Wang argues, “Even when it does not use race to make predictions,” predictive policing technologies “can facilitate racial profiling by calculating proxies for race, such as neighbourhood and location.” This type of technology does not benignly “interpret data,” it actively constructs reality. It constructs the future “through the present management of subjects categorized as threats or risks.”
Already, much of the techniques of control, coercion and killing learned at home process human beings as objects. For example, the policies and practices of “signature strikes” used in armed drone operations determine “threats” from various signifiers and patterns. People are attacked on the basis of observed characteristics with no substantial intelligence regarding actual identity or affiliations. In this way, “packages of information … become icons for killable bodies on the basis of behavior analysis and a logic of preemption.”
This practice resembles racial profiling by US police forces, as activists have noted. “Much like the Obama administration’s policy of signature strikes—lethal drone attacks on young men who might be terrorists or may one day commit acts of terrorism—the presumption of guilt based on racial profiling is an essential component of broken windows policing,” writes Robin D. G. Kelley. The concept of “inherent criminality” and the idea that risk resides within people is as necessary to predictive policing at home as it is to signature strikes abroad.
Right now, many of the weapons of the predator empire are mostly used at home; some mostly abroad. But their development and use is increasingly entangled. Many military weapons and equipment end up in US police forces, transferred through a federal programme. Some technology designed for use at the US-Mexico border comes from Israel, where it has been tested against Palestinians. Some technologies deployed at the border are now being deployed by police forces in US cities, including drones.
We can also imagine in a not-too-distant future, that if we fail to prevent the development of autonomous weapon systems, they too will be deployed in battlefields abroad and at home. Such weapons are already in the research and development stage in several countries. Unlike armed drones, which are piloted remotely, a fully autonomous weapon would be programmed so that once it is deployed, it operates on its own. It would be able to select and fire upon targets all on its own, based upon its algorithms and data analysis programming.
An autonomous weapon, using sensors to determine and engage targets without human analysis or control, goes further in dehumanising human beings than any previous weapon technology. Operating without meaningful human control, such weapons will rely on “target profiles” to establish “the set of conditions under which such a system will apply force.” A target profile could include infrared emissions, shape, or biometric information. It will actively reduce human beings to objects—into ones and zeroes—marked by sensors and software for death or detainment on the basis of their sex, race, age, or other physiological or sociological characteristics.
International discussions on these weapons have predominantly focused on the challenges they will pose in international armed conflict. But, especially in countries that have a military-to-police pipeline for equipmentlike the United States, such weapons are likely to also be deployed in domestic policing situations. As ethicist Peter Asaro notes, “it would be easy to intentionally design a robocop to be racist, and quite difficult to design one that is not, given the existing standards, norms, and policing strategies.”
Autonomous weapons thus pose a particularly egregious threat to human rights, justice, and peace. Marking certain populations as threats and enabling technology to kill them without any human intervention, simply because they exhibit characteristics or behaviour deemed by algorithms to be suspicious or to fit a target profile, has implications for the normalisation and abstraction of violence beyond that to which our world is already subjected.
This is the path that we are upon, unless we do something to change it.
Abolishing the war machine
The breadth of the project of full spectrum dominance, the deep entanglement of war apparatus across so many US agencies and corporations, and the growth of war profiteering through new, more advanced technologies of violence, requires that opposition to war be more encompassing and inclusive than ever before. As we confront rising authoritarianism across the United States, we must recognise its roots in wars, occupations, and coups abroad, as well as in the carceral and anti-immigration policies and practices at home.
“The purpose of abolition is to expose and defeat all the relationships and policies that make the United States the world’s top cop, war monger, and jailer,” writes Ruth Wilson Gilmore. This means that work to disarm, demilitarise, defund, disband, and demolish cannot focus exclusively on the police, or the military, or ICE, but on all of these. Or rather, that while we critique and oppose each of these institutions, it should be part of the bigger project of dismantling the foundations of them all, being attuned to their connections through budgets, weapons, tactics, training, and personnel; and centring opposition to each within the broader critique of racism, patriarchy, fascism, capitalism, and militarism that these institutions require in order to survive and thrive.
Being aware of the relationships among all of the various structures of violence that lead to oppression of particular groups allows us to understand how most of the world’s population is oppressed by the system of war. It also enables us to mount more effective campaigns amongst each of the individual institutions and as the collective war machine.
People experience oppression based on the intersections of their many identities and experiences. Thus, the opposition to the sources of oppression also needs to be intersectional. This requires transnational activism that links antiwar, antimilitarism, and antinuclear work with the efforts of those campaigning for economic justice, environmental protection, open borders and migrant rights, antiracism and antifascism, equality, and police and prison abolition. When the war system is considered as a whole, the relationship between these different sites of activism becomes clear. “The politics of abolitionism generates a synergy between prison activism and anti-imperialist and anti-globalization projects,” for example, as Julia Sudbury argues. “An engagement between antiwar activists and analyses of mass incarceration would generate a deeper understanding of the need to simultaneously challenge militarism abroad and racialized surveillance and punishment at home.”
This kind of thinking and work is already underway. The Abolitionist Platform Toward Healthy Communities established by groups including Critical Resistance, Black Visions Collective, Survived & Punished, The Red Nation, and others calls for “the intersectional efforts of anti-imprisonment, anti-policing and anti-imperialist struggles to coalesce concretely as a response to the COVID-crisis” and beyond. It’s demands include freedom for all imprisoned and detained people; resistance to surveillance, policing, and militarised responses to COVID-19; access to quality healthcare now and in the future; access to housing, food, and economic security; and international efforts to end US imperialism and militarism.
Many Indigenous activists see intersectional opportunities with environmental activism, pointing out that many of the actions needed to mitigate climate change and protect land, water, and the environment are the same practices of preservation and respect that Indigenous communities have always honoured. In response to the promotion of the Green New Deal by environmental and economic justice activists, The Red Nation has proposed a Red Deal to ensure this kind of work also leads to decolonisation, anti-imperialism, and an end to settler colonialism. Antiwar activists have also noted that the Green New Deal must have antimilitarism at its core, since war and the US military in particular “render impossible the aspirations contained in the Green New Deal.”
Meanwhile, the Poor People’s Campaign’s efforts to secure a $350 billion cut to US military spending calls for an end to systemic racism, poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy. Leaders of this campaign have recognised that “as demands to demilitarize the police and redistribute funds to programs of social uplift gains traction across the country,” the United States needs reimagine its approach to “national security.” In particular, they argue, “To create real security, we must slash the Pentagon budget, dismantle the war economy, and invest instead in meeting everyone’s basic human needs.” Similarly, US peace group CODEPINK has articulated many of the connections between US wars abroad and at home and argued that defunding the police must be accompanied by defunding war.
There are also synergies in the movements to defund the military and police, and those seeking open borders and the right for every person to have the freedom to move or not to move. Just as the Poor People’s Campaign declares that everybody has the right to live, the no borders movement calls for the rights of being a person. In contrast to rights of property, consisting of the right to exclude others from enjoying that which has been privatized, the right of persons consists of the right not be excluded. Joseph Nevins also describes this in his appeal for “the right to the world”—a right to mobility and to share our planet’s resources sustainably.
The recognition of the intersection of these struggles for justice, equity, and well-being of people and planet of course goes back much further. Black and Indigenous activists have since the early days of resistance against settler colonialism, slavery, and segregation connected the violences committed against them and the institutions constructed by the state. They have also articulated and opposed the relationship between this violence at home and the wars of imperialism abroad.
Women and feminists have also long articulated the connections of the violences of patriarchy and racism at home and abroad and have long campaigned against war as the most violent expression of these systems. Since 1915, WILPF has called for the abolition of war and war profiteering. It has demanded declaring war be made illegal, rejecting armed conflict “as a means of settling differences between people” and calling for “the abolition of private manufacture of and traffic in munitions of war … as steps towards total international disarmament.” WILPF has consistently called for outlawing war as an instrument of national policy or for resolving international disputes and it has always connected these demands to using the “money, manpower [sic] and the treasures of the earth released through the lifting of the crushing burden of armaments, to attackthe social and economic problems created by large scale hunger, disease and illiteracy which have been among the prime causes of war.”
For centuries, those working against the power and profit of war in all its aspects have been called naïve, irrational, or irresponsible. Nevertheless, they persisted. The work of social movements for political and economic change—woman’s suffrage, civil rights, LGBTQ+ equality, antiwar action—while far from perfect in process or achievement have advanced inch by inch. Any progress in our world that we have seen has come from the relentless work of activists and others who stand up for justice and equality.
Now, today, as the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked further havoc on both those suffering from war and armed conflict, as well as those who were already impoverished, incarcerated, and criminalised, the stranglehold that militarism and its material realities have over US economics and politics may be finally shifting.
Even while militarism still currently remains deeply embedded in US culture and expenditure, more and more people are starting to ask, how could our government have been so unprepared for this crisis? Many are looking at where their tax dollars have been going: towards weapons, war, and militarised “security”. They are asking, what else could this money have been spent on?
Activist groups have those numbers. The Global Campaign on Military Spending, for example, has shown that one F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft could pay for 3244 intensive care unit beds, or that one submarine could pay for over 9000 fully-equipped ambulances. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has shown that a years’ worth of current investments in nuclear weapons in each country that has them could pay for hundreds of thousands of medical workers, ventilators, protective gear, and more. These staggering numbers make it clear that we are a world prepared to fight wars, not pandemics—and for many, this has been a turning point in their thinking about our priorities.
A portal to a new world order
In this way, the pandemic has opened what Arundhati Roy described as a portal, a gateway between one world and another. “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us,” she writes. “Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
The time for reimagining—and establishing—a new world order is upon us. With war serving as both cause and consequence of our ugly baggage of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism, undoing our institutions, culture, and economics of war must be at the heart of our efforts.
Earlier this year, Mikhail Gorbachev, former premier of the Soviet Union, called for an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly to revise the “entire global agenda,” including by committing states to cut military spending by 10–15 per cent. Fifteen per cent of the $1.9 trillion spent globally on militarism is $285 billion. While this could be a start, it must not be the end.
Defunding and abolishing war must go beyond partial trimmings or half measures. Our work to spare future generations from the “scourge of war” the way the United Nations promised in 1945 must recognise the ways in which armed violence insidiously infects and destroys all human and planetary potential. It must move away from the traditional discourses of security and stability and the minor reforms that mandates permit.
The harms caused by war are inflicted indifferently and devastatingly upon those who have the least to do with creating this system, including women, Indigenous groups, LGBTQ+ people, ethnic and religious minorities, the poor and disenfranchised. Such populations tend to have no or little role in shaping the discourse on military spending, let alone establishing the limits or creating the budgets. To ensure real rather than cosmetic change, we need to centre in our work those whose lives have been harmed by the weaponisation of our world. This means privileging an intersectional feminist practice and policy that exposes the dominant militaristic narrative as a perspective, not the only credible perspective; and dismantling systems that give advantage to the militarised voices in our midst.
Dismantle, change, build
The connections between military spending, human rights, and the health of people and planet have never been clearer. We are what we spend our money on. Right now, we are armed to our teeth without a face mask to spare. If we are to survive this crisis, and the next one—crises of our own making because of our choices in investment in militarism, fossil fuels, and the capitalist economy—we absolutely must learn and adapt. In this case, adaptation means divestment, demilitarisation, and disarmament. This is entirely possible, if we choose to act. Now.
Some ideas—far from exhaustive—include:
- End participation in current wars, dismantle foreign military bases and black sites, stop the deployment of special forces in hundreds of countries, eliminate nuclear weapons, stop the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, prohibit autonomous weapons, cut the military.
- End policies and practices related to full spectrum dominance, including extrajudicial killing and drone strikes, and ban the development and use of technologies of control, coercion, and violence including carceral technologies like surveillance apparatus, facial recognition, and predictive policing, as well as drones, hypersonic missiles, and autonomous weapons.
- Redirect military spending—and other related spending explored above—toward education, housing, food security, health care, social services, environmental protection, and renewable energy.
- Divest—as individuals, financial institutions, city councils, governments—from weapon producers, companies that develop or produce carceral technologies, and other aspects of the war machine.
- Outlaw the privatisation of military production and the influence of corporate interest over national policies that perpetuate war, undermine disarmament, and preclude a rational analysis of spending priorities.
- Establish an international system that deals directly with the production of weapons, as well as their sale, trade, trafficking, and with war profiteering. While we have an international Arms Trade Treaty, it is not living up to its promise or potential to prevent human suffering. We need an international programme for general and complete disarmament, building on the prohibitions, divestments, and elimination of specific weapon systems that we already have, taking the economic and political incentives out of arms manufacturing and ensuring the reduction of global military spending.
- Disarm police and end the military equipment sharing and training programs. In consultation with local communities, redirect funding from police departments to fund human and environmental needs and transformative justice programmes.
- Defund and dismantle the prison-industrial complex, including by freeing imprisoned and detained people, end detention expansion and for-profit jailing facilities, and replacing a “criminal justice” approach with public health, community care, and transformative justice.
- Pursue a “no borders” politics that recognises the right of people to move or not to move. Start with demilitarising and disarming borders; ending the cruelty at detention centres and ending detention altogether; abolishing agencies like ICE; stopping pushbacks and unlawful refusals of entry; protecting and upholding the rights of refugees and asylum seekers; decriminalising labour migration; facilitating safe and humane border crossings; providing housing, healthcare, and necessities for everyone within their territories regardless of nationality, immigration, or criminal conviction.
- Establish a Truth and Reconciliation process and pay reparations to address slavery and the genocide and dispossession of Indigenous people, and to address the structural racism embedded within US institutions and resulting human rights violations that have occurred throughout the country’s history, including racist police brutality as well as detention and deportation of Asian-Americans, Muslims, Latinx, and others.
- Challenge the culture of militarism and its embeddedness in patriarchy and gendered norms of violent masculinity, including through the entertainment industry such as films, television, and video games.
- Throughout all of these efforts for disarmament, divestment, and demilitarisation, we should pursue and promote promiscuous care, nonviolent and degrowth political economies, decolonisation, and solidarity.
This is not comprehensive, but the beginnings of what we can imagine, together, for a world without war. As one of Critical Resistance’s slogans says, we need to “Dismantle, Change, Build”. Opposing war means embracing peace; to move from one system to another we must invest in ourselves and each other, and in the belief that what we live with now is not our only possible world.