Understanding Military, Democracy, and Ethics

War has been a shared experience of mankind, predating written history. However, the ethics of war, its consequences, implications, and effects on others and ourselves has generally been a topic left to the professionals. Yet, given the fact that military spending makes up the largest part of our federal budget, that the US has been at war for 93% of its existence, and that military decisions often guide and strongly affect non-military foreign and domestic policies, understanding the core concepts of ethics of war is necessary for any meaningful participation in modern democracy, and discussion of ethics.

In this brief introduction, we’ll look at three elements of understanding the military that have profound consequences for ethics and democratic participation. These are: 1) Economic costs, 2) Global relations, and 3) Domestic policy costs. While these categories are neatly separated here; in reality, they are often deeply intertwined; and we cannot speak of Domestic policy costs of the military, without understanding the accompanying Economic and Global relations costs. For the time being, we will try to keep the three as separate as possible, to make the introductory analysis manageable.

But first, establishing a quick connection between military affairs and democracy will be useful to keep in mind as we go through the details. People elected to power, by default, bring with them some perspective on the military and its use when they take office. Further, depending on the elected position, they may have the additional ability to directly appoint people to run the military organizations and operations – which almost invariably results in the appointment of a like-minded person to the job. As a result, when we engage in democratic elections, we are also supporting or opposing the candidate’s vision of the military and its use – and so we become indirectly responsible for the kinds of decisions that will be made for us by our elected government.

Economic Costs:

The economic costs of the US military are staggering, by any account. The military budget for 2015 was $598.5 Billion, and took up 54% of all federal discretionary spending (actually, it reaches 60% when we account for Veteran’s Benefits).[1] To put that number in context, consider that the spending on education was 6%.

Military spending matters, because it comes out of our total budget – meaning that every dollar spent on the military is a dollar not spent on other projects. Granted, some money must go towards the military. However, the larger the military slice of pie, the less room we have for all other projects. How much money is dedicated to the military depends on the ideology and strategic vision of our elected officials and the people they appoint.

As an example, we can look at the F-35 (Lightning II) fighter jet. Commissioned around 2000, the original cost was set at $500 Billion over 55 years. Last year (2016), the budget had increased to $1.5 Trillion. Given that the plane is an utter failure (currently requiring 2 weeks of repairs for every hour of flight time), it is interesting that the additional funding keeps getting passed. If the cost were to remain at the $1.5 Trillion, that would average out to $27 Billion per year of operation – or roughly half of the current annual education spending. That bears repeating: one bad military project is sucking up as much as half of all education spending – every year.

As an additional example, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone have cost the US some $5 Trillion so far – and some projections estimate as much as another $1.2 Trillion for future costs – not including things like VA benefits.[2] In terms of context, the total US national debt is about $19 Trillion.[3] That is, the (failed) wars in Afghanistan and Iraq account for about a quarter of all our national debt. By comparison, all credit card debt is $1 Trillion, and all student loan debt is $1.5 Trillion.

In terms of functional democratic participation, we must be aware of the state of the economic costs of our military, as well as the positions of those seeking office. As is clear in the graph, clamoring for more education spending, or more healthcare spending makes no sense, if we simultaneously support the continued growth of the military – there just is not enough money left over in the budget, unless we’re willing to take an axe to other crucial programs. But even then, even if we entirely removed one of the other programs, the new funds would still be minuscule.

Ethically, military funding is a crucial issue. Poverty, homelessness, hunger, mental illness, education, health services, drugs abuse, infrastructure, etc. are the kinds of issues that seem unsolvable, because of the lack of funds. How ethical is it to buy yet another tank, or fire $95 Million worth of Tomahawk missiles without effect (US strike on the Syrian airfield), while failing to domestically provide citizens with access to water that is not poisonous?

Global Relations:

How we use our military matters. Where are they deployed, why are they deployed, what’s the end goal, when do they come home, what indicators do we use to judge whether our goals have been met? All these questions, as well as a host of others, play a part in a state’s global relations. As Clausewitz noted, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The main implication, then, is that the use of military power is the extension of our foreign policy and ideology regarding the state of the world, and how it should look.

A brief glance at our military activities over the past 16 years, shows us starting seven wars: in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. The consequences of these involvements have been staggering monetarily, but also politically. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are now failed states. Pakistan is a mess. Syria is a quagmire that threatens to start WWIII. Somalia and Yemen are human rights disasters, and might as well be failed states.

Beyond the states themselves, the insurgency, terrorism, radicalization, creation of ISIS, utter loss of regional good-will towards America and the West, etc. are all part of the consequences of these wars. To be sure, these consequences were not intended, but they certainly were foreseeable, and are here regardless of our intentions. Whatever the justification behind it, we helped to create a mess that has cost us politically, monetarily, and of course globally. That the reason for these developments is the US military interventions is made abundantly clear in Robert Pape’s Dying to Win.

Beyond terrorism, military involvement (i.e. war) creates major stress on issues such as trade, resource availability, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and refugees – all issues that tend to make the bad situation worse, and which have global and domestic effects. The Syrian war alone has created more than 11 million refugees and IDPs;[4] people who have no home to return to, and need to be resettled.

Depending on the ideology of decision-makers we elect, the global relations situation changes. This means not only the improvement/worsening of various relations, but also additional commitments that we take on as a result of our military policy – from providing military and non-military aid to the affected regions, our allies in the region, dealing with the humanitarian fallout, etc. This aspect also plays into the economic costs – such as foreign aid we provide. Again, making an informed and functional decision in our voting depends on understanding at least that these factors exist and have an impact on us. Ideally, we would all have at least a general sense of how the various military decisions abroad affect our global relations – and how those global relations affect our economy.

Ethically, the use of military is a far greater issue than just about anything else – including climate change (consider how difficult it is to talk about anything but war, and how the funding available for climate change projects suffers as a result of bloated military spending). How we approach war is tied up in the way we understand human/civil rights. The 2015 PSR analysis[5] notes that the death-toll resulting from the US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan was over 1.2 Million. Keeping in mind that all three wars were part of the US response to 9/11 (under 3,000 casualties), it would seem that the response was beyond disproportionate – and that’s not talking into account the 2.5 failed states. More importantly, the kind of risk posed to the civilians caught in US wars is existential – i.e. a matter of life and death. In just the US drone operations, over 3,000 civilians and “other” people have been killed – with only 52 confirmed high profile deaths (it may be telling that the classification scheme now used makes any 15-65-year-old male into an enemy combatant – without any proof).[6] This matters, especially ethically, because it helps demonstrate the kinds of human/civil rights that are at stake when using the military.

The populations of the seven states the US is currently engaged in militarily comes up to about 330 Million – roughly the size of the total US population. That means that we are directly responsible for 330 Million lives having been placed at an existential risk by our military activity. By comparison, the 2010 US census notes that about 12 Million Americans self-identified as being part of the LGBTQ spectrum; the US prison population (2015) was about 6.7 Million; and the size of the African-American community (2010) was about 40 Million. The problems faced by these communities – all of which have (rightly) been a major part of the US political discourse over the last 16 years – do not reach the existential threat level faced by the civilians on the receiving end of US military deployments, nor do their numbers begin to match the numbers of civilians whose rights are being violated by our military actions abroad.

Here, we must turn to the issue of nuance, which lies at the heart of all ethics. The comparison above is not intended to say that the rights of the African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, or the incarcerated population do not matter, or that they are somehow unworthy causes to pursue. Rather, in the comparison between how many (innocent) people are affected, and the type of effects that are in question, the military actions of the US government far outweigh the domestic ones. That is to say, the death rate of the African-American community by violence does not begin to compare to the death rate of Iraqis or Afghans or Yemenis by violence carried out, sponsored, or created by the US. The US prison conditions (though abhorrent) do not begin to compare to Abu Ghraib or any number of Black Sites the US government has used. The civil rights issues of the LGBTQ community in the US do not begin to compare to the human and civil rights violations carried out abroad by the US government. This is why the military issue is inherently an ethical issue.

If we care about human rights and civil rights, we cannot draw an imaginary line at our borders, and pretend that what our government does beyond that line does not matter. To be sure, we cannot be held responsible for the actions of other governments, in other countries. But we are morally responsible for the actions our government takes, on our behalf, having been elected by us. It’s more than a little hypocritical to clamor for civil rights at home, while supporting the violations of the most basic right to life for other people – simply because of the geographical difference between “us” and “them.”

Domestic costs:

Between the economic costs and global relations, the impact on domestic costs of military becomes clear. Our ideas of what the military is, and what it should do, guide our economic policies – and ultimately take money away from all other projects. Our actions abroad have a wide range of political and economic consequences, that we must pay – one way or another. This translates into domestic costs of the military, which must be understood if we’re to make ethical decisions in a democratic society. While there are many domestic costs, I would like to focus on two: 1) cost to freedom, and 2) secondary economic cost.

The cost to freedom comes as a result of the consequences of our global relations. The NSA monitors our activity, reads our emails, the Government creates ever-longer no-fly lists (which have included 5-year-olds), our library activity is monitored, people are arrested and detained without charges, habeas corpus can be randomly suspended, the government hides behind “state secrets” concerns to justify its illegal activities in court, many of those imprisoned by the government for terrorism are not even made aware of the charges against them at their trial, etc. In short, the nature of the American landscape is changing, and many of our liberties are being infringed upon for the sake of security. Security that is only necessary because of our military actions abroad.

The secondary economic costs come in the form of paying for all the security – e.g. DHS’s 38.2 Billion budget in 2015. This cost also includes additional research, development, and staffing for organizations like the TSA, NSA, etc. There’s also the additional cost of dealing with issues like refugees (generally caused by our military involvement), additional costs of police monitoring of specific groups, FBI operations, etc. There are also costs that are passed down directly to the citizens – like Facebook or Twitter content check, additional immigration issues for H-1B visas, etc. Then there’s the costs of new technology – like the body-scanners at airports – the time costs for airport security, the time costs for additional screening, etc.

All these issues add up to less time and money for other domestic policies – from climate change to civil rights. They also add up to the creation of a society that is willingly trading away its freedom for “security,” which is necessary primarily as a result of our attitudes about the military and its use.


Democratically, these are issues we cannot overlook as we vote. Ethically, these are issues we cannot afford to overlook – as they directly affect both our moral standing and our ability to engage in other ethics issues – from civil rights to climate change. Pragmatically, our attitudes about the military and its use need to reflect a coherent understanding of the world, and our place in it. They must reflect a coherent idea of the costs and consequences that necessarily accompany these attitudes. We cannot demand more money for domestic issues, while simultaneously pushing for a bigger military budget. We cannot demand a reduced military budget while demanding more US military involvement around the world. We cannot coherently complain about the civil rights of US minorities, while engaging in, or endorsing, the most severe human rights violations and atrocities abroad.

Actions have consequences. Military actions have very big, wide-ranging, and long-lasting consequences. However, military actions are ultimately within our control. Who we vote for, what we vote for, what we support and what we condemn, are all elements that directly shape our ideas of the military and its use. Understanding these issues is a necessary part of functional democratic participation, as well as an ethical engagement with the world.

As a final note, none of the above is intended to disparage our military, our veterans, etc. In most cases, they do the best they can with what they’re given. It’s not Bob the Marine that has created our current predicament – it’s the political ideas and attitudes about the military and the use of that military. Honoring our service members is still the right thing to do; but we honor them for their commitment to the state, not for engaging in wars.

[1] https://www.nationalpriorities.org/campaigns/military-spending-united-states/

[2] http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/war-costs-report-brown-university

[3] http://www.usdebtclock.org/

[4] Syrian Refugees. A Snapshot of the Crisis – in the Middle East and Europe.  http://syrianrefugees.eu/

[5] Body Count. Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the War on Terror – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Washington DC: PSR, March 2015. Pp. 15, 18.
The PSR report is particularly important, because their work is both thorough in terms of casualties, as well as methodology and results of all other major studies. As such, it represents the best source on the subject.

[6] http://drones.pitchinteractive.com/

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