The High Cost of Cheap War

David Sirota

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It seems only fitting that in the very month the Terminator” sci-fi franchise predicted the rise of militarized artificial intelligence, The Guardian reported on a British Ministry of Defence analysis warning that drone warfare may be creating an incremental and involuntary journey towards a Terminator-like reality.”

As most Americans have become more insulated from the costs, we've happily waged more frequent wars.

The report’s life-imitating-Skynet idea of robots ultimately making combat decisions is certainly scary — but still a bit fantastical. The more frightening part of the analysis was its look at how roboticized war may already be prompting governments to resort to war as a policy option far sooner than previously.”

The dynamic is not surprising — nations will inevitably be more willing to use warfare as a foreign policy tool if they possess instruments limiting the cost of waging war. By letting kids in Las Vegas drop remote-controlled bombs on kids in Pakistan, Yemen and now Libya, drones are one of those instruments. But they are only one of many. Indeed, while President Obama preposterously claimed this week that most Americans know well the costs of war,” it’s quite the opposite: Most Americans have been insulated from those costs — and it’s no coincidence that as we’ve become more insulated, we’ve happily waged more frequent wars.

This process of insulation was a gradual one. The first step was the mastering of aerial attacks, which allowed us to safely commit mass murder at 40,000 feet.

Next came the end of conscription during the Vietnam conflict — a move that calculatedly defused antiwar sentiment by disconnecting most of the population from the blood-and-guts consequences of war. Then it was on to George W. Bush, who coupled long-term military occupations with massive tax cuts. The twin policies, which defied World War II’s ethos of domestic sacrifice, suggested to Americans that there is no longer any personal financial hardship associated with war.

Now it’s drones and private military contractors — the latter of which make war easier in two distinct ways.

Money-wise, government data show that hired guns cost less to employ than regular American troops. Contractors also let Americans circumvent the psychological remorse of casualties. Instead of having to lament the innocent Army serviceman killed in action, we can write off contractor deaths by telling ourselves that death is an occupational hazard the contractors choose to face — and are paid handsomely to confront.

Considering all this, America’s bloated defense budget now stands as the last deterrent to truly permanent war — as it inflates the deficit, it reminds us that there is some cost for our militarism. This is likely why traditionally hawkish politicians are now talking about cutting Pentagon spending. With every other domestic cost of bloodshed neatly mitigated, these lawmakers know that if war is seen by America as a purely budgetary matter, and if that war budget can be reduced, then America will probably support any war with euphoric cheers of USA! USA!” — regardless of a war’s motive or ramifications.

Of course, the push to reduce the defense budget is worthy for other reasons. And obviously, the end of conscription and new technologies have come with tangible benefits — namely, no American is forced to go to war and fewer American soldiers are killed in battle. But those developments all have a downside — namely, they’ve eliminated deterrents to institutional violence, as evidenced by our multiple wars and never-ending occupations. Americans may be paying less of a price right now for that violence, but the world is paying in blood — and both blowback and debt all but guarantee that we will be paying dearly in the future.

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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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