For the first time in most Americans’ lives, calls to defund the police are rapidly growing in popularity. The conversation is making headlines. This conversation is long overdue and deserves all the attention it has been getting, but there is another discussion that needs to be had. One that fits in perfectly with the calls to defund the police. We must defund the military.

The violence of systematic racism in the United States is nightmarish for those subjected to it. What the United States does abroad is Hellish. This year alone is not even halfway over, and already our country has burned wheat crops in Syria, attempted a coup in Venezuela, and systematically mass murdered Iranians by maintaining illegal sanctions during a pandemic. These acts of violence are not the exception. They are the rule.

The United States has established itself as the largest imperial presence in the world, with close to 800 bases occupying 70 different countries. Surveys conducted throughout the world’s population have continually found that America is perceived as one of the greatest, and often the greatest, threat to world peace. In 2017, a Pew survey conducted in 38 countries came out with 39% of respondents naming the United States as the greatest threat, the largest percentage received by any country.

This fear of the United States comes with good reason. America has long been an imperialist nation, but the 21st century has resulted in a particularly brutal and unchecked version of American foreign policy. Even President Obama, who many liberals still view as a progressive champion, was responsible for a drone bombing program in 7 different countries. According to the Pentagon, just over the course of last year, the U.S. military killed 132 civilians. Of course, these numbers do not account for the civilians who are killed by the arguably even more brutal sanctions that America has made a staple of its foreign policy. Sanctions have killed over 40,000 Venezuelans since 2017, and continue to amplify the COVID-19 death toll in Iran. The 132 civilian deaths reported by the Pentagon also do not account for the tens of thousands of civilians killed by America’s allies. Saudi Arabia would not have been able to kill more than 12,000 Yemeni civilians without the arms provided by the U.S., and Israel would not be able to deny millions of Palestinians access to clean water and other vital resources if not for U.S. support.

Still, even as many Americans lose their faith in police in real time due to videos of cops driving cars into crowds or firing tear gas at peaceful protesters, many of us are failing to make the connection that this violence is just as wrong when it is done to people who do not live within our borders. If there was ever a time that we could get Americans to sympathize with countries that we have been occupying and terrorizing for years and even decades, it is now. It is essential that the left ensures that calls to defund state violence include defunding state violence abroad.

We should be defunding the military because it is morally right to stand against imperialism, but it is also beneficial to Americans. In 2015, roughly 54 percent of government spending went to funding the military. The military industrial complex has a stranglehold over our government. The 2020 defense budget of $738 billion received bipartisan support, despite the DNC’s regular labelling of Trump as a lunatic. Still, his administration was trusted to wield that budget and all the violent resources that will come with it. America has also been expanding its nuclear capabilities and is calling to effectively double its spending on nuclear weapons from $35 to $50 billion in 2021. Still many Americans foam at the mouth and question why North Korea or Iran might want to have their own nuclear programs. The militarization of any country is reason for concern, but it is wrong to compare any nation’s military spending to the excessive militarization of the United States, especially while our country still refuses to adequately fund healthcare, education, infrastructure, and just about anything else that could benefit people. Until our government faces a strong, organized opposition to its pro-imperialist priorities, any demand for progressive policies will likely fail. This country needs to clearly demand that the hundreds of billions we put towards terrorizing the most vulnerable nations in the world instead go towards programs that provide opportunity for the most vulnerable Americans.

It is also essential that we demand an end to the military’s predatory exploitation of vulnerable Americans. The economic desperation that young Americans face, particularly in communities of color, has been the backbone of recruitment. For those who have no realistic access to a college education or healthcare, the military is often the only way out of poverty. Poor Americans should not have to choose between the risk of getting sent to a warzone or the risk of spending their lives in economic desperation. It is grotesque for anyone to believe that subjecting a person to literal kill or be killed scenarios is a reasonable requirement for things that should be basic rights.

The predatory recruitment tactics used by the military are especially prominent in America’s public schools. Recruiters can be found regularly in public high schools throughout the country, especially in low income neighborhoods. A report published in Education Week in 2015 provided insight into the resources that U.S. Army recruiters in Connecticut have used to attract students. The report compared two high schools in Hartford, with roughly the same number of students. Recruiters were 10 times more likely to visit a school where half the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch programs, than they were to visit a school where only 5 percent of students qualified for these programs. The article also cited other characteristics of students that recruiters exploit, like the fact that high schoolers are more impulsive than older Americans and are neurologically less capable of thinking through the risks of joining the military.

The military also uses more subtle ways of influencing students. Perhaps the most well known method is JROTC programs, which can be found at about 3.400 schools throughout the country and use military curriculum and promises of enhanced pay to funnel susceptible young Americans to enlisting upon graduating high school. Another resource is JAMRS, a Department of Defense database which uses student data collected from sources like the Department of Motor Vehicles and College Board in order to send targeted recruitment to 30 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 25.

Even entertainment has been used as a means of recruiting. The Pentagon has provided more than $6 million in taxpayer money to the NFL to display patriotic spectacle at football games with the purpose of recruitment in mind. The military has also been known to write recruitment messages into scripts of popular movies in exchange for filming resources such as official military equipment and uniforms. A report published by Insurge Intelligence back in 2017 found that the DoD has contributed to the development of over 800 films and 1,000 television titles. Again, these programs are funded by taxpayer money, and if the exact same recruitment strategies were being used in countries like Russia and China, Americans would probably be the first to rail against the government propaganda.

Demanding the defunding of the military does not even take away from demands to defund the police. It actually strengthens them, because you cannot have a militarized police culture without a militarized culture. One of the more popular demands being made by the current abolition movement is the confiscation of excess military equipment that has been given to police departments. Along with demanding police hand over this equipment, we should be demanding an end to the excess production of this equipment in the first place.

Equipment is not the only military export that increases violence within police forces. A study conducted by the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas found that police with military backgrounds are more likely to be involved in a police shooting. In fact, the method of policing in cities throughout the U.S. closely resembles military strategy abroad. Police going into a neighborhood they do not live in, strapped with guns, and thinking of those streets as hostile territory is of course going to lead to police violence. When the most toxic elements of imperialist culture go unchecked abroad, they find power at home.

Colonialism and imperialism have never been separate. With the National Guard and police departments sharing the task of suppressing peaceful dissent, that should be more clear than ever. This is the time to bring anti-imperialism to the forefront of leftist activism. This is the time to defund the military.

~ Sam Carliner

Sources on US global presence

Sources on DoD budget

Sources on recruitment claims

Source for militarized police info

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Posts from the United Left’s Writing Team.