BY DR. MICHAEL SERAPHINOFF
Don Brunell’s recent “Sound Off” column in support of further military spending and recruitment relied too much on the argument that military spending is good for our economy and provided too little to convince us of the need for investment. While I can agree with him that there are serious security threats to our nation, I cannot wholeheartedly agree with his solution to the problem, simply more spending on weaponry and military recruits.
I have arrived at a different understanding of our national security over decades of lessons learned and experience lived. I tend to honor both peacemakers and warriors, but only after hard questioning of their motives, understanding and actions. Fortunately, some prove their worthiness, men like MLK Jr. or Ukrainian President Zelensky. War, the use of force to achieve some necessary end, is always the last resort for the best of leaders. They also would not trust anyone profiting off of the making of weapons of war to make the decisions on what we manufacture and how much is enough spending for our defense.
Unfortunately, companies that profit from defense spending buy influence when our elected representatives do the work of drawing up our defense budget. As a result, our nation spends nearly 10 times as much on defense as our nearest competitors, China and Russia. There is a good deal of evidence that the political decisions concerning how much and on what to spend this money is in large part based upon Mr. Brunell’s calculation that such spending is “a golden egg” that only adds to our prosperity through expanded industry and employment.
This has led, unfortunately, to a serious imbalance in federal government spending for domestic needs in comparison to military needs. Well over half of the annual federal budget goes to military spending alone, and too much of that is not properly accounted for or spent wisely. It also fails to take into account the fact that our national security is also very dependent on the health and well being of our people. Spending on education, health care, housing, law enforcement, roads, bridges, airports, and the like, actually can serve to motivate the public to support defense spending. Why send our children to serve in the military or spend our tax money on weaponry unless there are things worth defending here?
I have spent many years trying to promote peace and understanding among competing nations in one particular troubled region of our world. My academic and teaching career in Russian and East European studies has been devoted to the understanding of how language, literature, history and culture can promote the common good, help us overcome that which divides us. My study in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, and my teaching in Russia, as well as my study and teaching in the U.S. over the years, have helped form my understanding of our national defense needs. We truly need to defend the best of American values, those that have helped define who we are for the rest of the world, such things as our slow progress over the generations toward racial and social justice.
Unfortunately, we have recently faced a situation where diplomacy failed, and our only real option was to support the Ukrainian people in their brave resistance to a Russian attempt at a military takeover of their country. The Chinese threat to Taiwan or North Korean aggression against South Korea, or Iranian threats to their neighbors also need our military support.
In the case of the tragic and very complex conflict in the Middle East, on the other hand, there is more likelihood that diplomacy will be more effective than military force has been. My own experience studying, teaching and living abroad in authoritarian states has also taught me another important lesson. Authoritarian regimes are as afraid of the free expression of ideas as they are of military might. And so they ban books, lock up their critics on false charges, deny choice to their people and generally rule through fear. Exposing their use of such practices is itself a potent weapon against them.
Fortunately, we do have much worth defending, including our freedom of speech and assembly, our functional legal system and our representative form of government. If it is not ideal and in need of constant reforms, it is still far superior to life under the authoritarian dictators and regimes in places like Russia, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia or Iran. We do need to defend ourselves against them. They are constantly working to erode our confidence in our system of government through such things as disinformation campaigns and buying influence from the worst of our politicians. And, of course, they are more than willing, if the opportunity presents itself, to use military force to invade and overthrow governments like our own. Not to say that our own government hasn’t intervened unwisely abroad at times, which only makes it our duty to work even harder to live up to the values enshrined in our Constitution.
That great foe of fascism Winston Churchill argued that our democratic system is quite the flawed system, the only thing worse being all of the alternatives. So we must defend it, because it is worth defending, never because we think that military defense spending is good for business, “a golden egg” for all concerned. Military spending, like war itself, requires our most careful consideration, and the weapons we create ought only be used after we have exhausted all other reasonable alternatives. Military spending wisely ought never be more than our investment in peacekeeping operations and our promotion of measures that make life better for people both at home and abroad. So that those who today seek sanctuary here may prefer to stay home rather than risk long, hard journeys to our borders in search of refuge or a decent life.
Dr. Michael Seraphinoff is a Whidbey Island resident, a former professor at Skagit Valley College and academic consultant to the International Baccalaureate Organization.