The Bloated Pentagon Budget Isn’t Just Wasteful. It’s Racist

In this era of racial reckoning, national security policy and defense budgets cannot be exempt from the scrutiny of their effects on communities of color.

It should shock no one that President Biden’s first budget request continues a long tradition of protecting the Pentagon from budget cuts. The administration’s “skinny budget” proposes $753 billion for national defense – a $12 billion increase from current levels. Despite sustained pressure from groups across the political spectrumfaith leaders, and members of Congress, Biden has never indicated any enthusiasm for reducing military spending.

But in this era of racial reckoning, it’s absurd that national security policy and defense budgets should be exempt from the scrutiny of their effects on communities of color. Too often we create artificial divisions between domestic and foreign policy and apply a racial-equity lens only to the former.

Pentagon spending is higher now than at the peak of the Vietnam War or the Cold War, adjusted for inflation, and more than the next 10 countries combined. These excessive levels of military spending both reflect and perpetuate white supremacy in four major ways.

First, unrestrained military spending fuels endless wars against Black and brown people. Over the last three years, the United States has conducted military counterterrorism operations in 85 countries – nearly all of them in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. All eight countries where U.S. service members engaged in combat, and seven where the United States conducted air and/or drone strikes, have populations that Americans regard as non-white. Far removed from television cameras, news headlines, and American public consciousness are the human costs of war: 335,000 civilians killed and 37 million displaced due to wars that Congress has never authorized or even voted on.

Second, U.S. weapons and wars extract an economic, environmental, and human toll at home that falls most heavily on communities of color. The Pentagon is one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters, exacerbating problems like warming temperatures, extreme weather events, and poor air quality that hit socially and economically disadvantaged groups hardest. Radiation exposure from uranium mining, milling, and transporting, as well as Cold War-era nuclear testing and a massive radioactive spill, have caused cancers and other serious health effects – the majority of them in indigenous communities. Billions of dollars’ worth of military-grade equipment has been transferred to state, local and tribal police forces under the Defense Department’s 1033 program, feeding police departments’ warrior mentality and encouraging them to treat Black and brown neighborhoods as battlefields.

Third, backers of defense budgets promote anti-Asian, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant sentiment (and vice versa). To justify such exceptional levels of military spending, policymakers and planners demonize China, North Korea, and Iran as aggressive and implacable foes who must be stopped by threats, intimidation, and the use of force. China-bashing by Democrats and Republicans alike has dehumanized Asians and almost certainly contributed to the dramatic surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. It’s a vicious cycle: polls show that Americans with the greatest levels of racial resentment are the most likely to back military action against countries perceived as non-white.

Finally, extravagant Pentagon budgets divert scarce resources from higher priority security needs. People who are Black, Latinx, and Native American are at disproportionate risk of sickness and death from COVID-19, and from the lack of health care more generally. Yet while the United States has poured more than $6 trillion – yes, that’s trillion with a T – into the post-9/11 wars that have killed more than 800,000 people and made Americans less secure, public health has been chronically underfunded and resources for emergency preparedness have been repeatedly slashed. Even the $12.4 billion that the Trump administration spent on Operation Warp Speed pales in comparison to the annual average of $52 billion the United States has spent recently on the senseless and failed war in Afghanistan. As Elisabeth Rosenthal explains in the Los Angeles Times, “as our defenses against international and bioterrorism were hardening, our defenses against infectious disease shrank.”

Americans can no longer pretend that the size of the Pentagon budget is a measure of national security, or that spending more on the military will keep us safer. Instead, we must recognize the Pentagon budget for what it is: a monument to white supremacy. And like Confederate statues, it needs to be removed from its pedestal.

Diana Ohlbaum is director of the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s foreign policy team.