Signs of the Times: Dispelling the Shadow of American Militarism

Johnny Zokovitch In the Headlines

The essay below is the ninth in a series of “Franciscan Response” reflections by friars and partners-in-ministry about issues facing our culture. The series is part of Holy Name Province’s response to the call to revitalize Franciscan life and ministry in the United States — a key objective of the leaders of the American OFM provinces.

These reflections are meant to provide social analysis as part of the many considerations involved with creating a preferred future for the Franciscans of the United States. Because it is hoped that this initiative generates dialogue, friars are encouraged to provide comments about the content of the essays in the series. These essays do not represent the official policy of Holy Name Province.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people…This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

The quote above is from no radical pacifist. It was spoken by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 in the midst of the Cold War. And it captures perfectly the trade-off that exists at the heart of American militarism.

I remember hearing Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, speak a few years ago on the engine that drives American militarism. To paraphrase, he suggested that the economic sense of it was quite simple. The U.S. economy is built for war and what we produce in massive quantities are weapons of war. And the goal is to sell as many of those weapons to as many countries (or factions within countries) as possible. He suggested, with sarcasm, that if the United States’ number one item of production was shoes, we’d make sure everyone around the globe bought a pair. Unfortunately, our major export is military hardware.

Cost of Military Expenditures
The figures are staggering. The National Priorities Project asserts, “The U.S. outpaces all other nations in military expenditures. World military spending totaled more than $1.7 trillion in 2013. The U.S. accounted for 37 percent of the total. …U.S. military expenditures are roughly the size of the next nine largest military budgets around the world, combined.”

The U.S. military budget for 2015 approached $600 trillion, taking up over half of the entire amount of discretionary spending in the FY 2015 budget. All other discretionary spending — from veterans’ benefits to housing to Medicare to agriculture to education — doesn’t equal how much the U.S. will spend on war and weaponry.

While the projection of U.S. military power in the world affects U.S. taxpayers in the wallet, the repercussions are far more drastic for citizens of countries on the wrong side of U.S. foreign policy. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqi fathers, mothers, and children lost their lives during the U.S.-initiated war in the region. Over the years, the U.S. has provided warlords, dictators, and corrupt regimes in Africa, Asia, South and Central America with the military hardware and expertise to fight wars against their own people to the benefit of both U.S. foreign policy and U. S. corporate interests.

Offshoots of Militarism
In recent years, we have seen how the projection of American militarism abroad has “come home to roost” in our own cities. Increasingly civilian police departments have turned to U.S. weapons manufacturers and the U.S. Department of Defense to outfit them with the latest military gadgetry to fight wars against the urban poor in our inner cities and undocumented immigrants at our southern border. Gun violence, police brutality, racially-motivated attacks, and stand-offs between police and protesters which escalate into urban warfare — all are offshoots of American militarism.

Pope Francis, in a speech titled “The Spirit of War Draws Us Away from God,” delivered in February 2014, stated:

War is a scandal to be mourned every day…Think of the children starving in refugee camps…these are the fruits of war. And then think of the great dining rooms, of the parties held by those who control the arms industry, who produce weapons. Compare a sick, starving child in a refugee camp with the big parties, the good life led by the masters of the arms trade. And remember, that the wars, the hatred, the hostility aren’t products we buy at the market: they’re right here, in our hearts. The Apostle James gives us a simple piece of advice: ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.’ But the spirit of war, which draws us away from God, doesn’t just reside in distant parts of the world: the spirit of war comes from our own hearts.”

As U.S. Franciscans, I would imagine that you share the same charism as both St. Francis and Pope Francis. Such a charism would include pronouncing in word and witness the connections between American militarism and other issues which our nation (and the world) face today, including – but not limited to – climate change, poverty, racial injustice and immigration. The tentacles of American militarism are intertwined with nearly every issue one can raise.

At its heart, I think American militarism has a spirituality of its own which sustains it and expands its shadows. Unmasking that false spirituality and replacing it with the spirituality of peace, justice and mercy at the heart of Jesus’s proclamation is the responsibility of U.S. faith leaders, especially because of how complicit religious people have been in bending the gospel to serve American militarism in the past.

Steps small and large are needed: preaching that lifts up and echoes the agenda of our current pope, formal statements that prophetically speak truth to the politically and economically powerful in our nation, the mentoring of young people – particularly at Franciscan high schools and colleges – into the spirituality of nonviolence and practice of compassion, acts of solidarity with those who are victims of American militarism (the impoverished, refugees, immigrants, victims of war, etc.) — much of this I know Franciscans are already doing, and inviting others like myself to undertake as well, yet more is always needed.

Pace e bene!

johnny-zokovitch— Johnny Zokovitch is senior communications officer for Pax Christi International. He is the co-founder of the Gainesville, Fla., Catholic Worker House, where he lived with his family for 10 years.



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