A Strong Welfare State Could Be a Blow Against Imperialism

The US military is a human-maiming, planet-destroying machine. We have to begin rolling it back immediately.

US soldiers roll barrels of fuel onto a truck during a fuel drop at Forward Operating Base Waza Kwah, Paktika Province, Afghanistan, in July 2010. Jeffrey Alexander / US Army

The US military has a massive footprint in every sense of the term.

Environmentally, it’s staggering. The Department of Defense currently burns enough fossil fuels that were it a sovereign nation, it would rank in the top third of carbon-emitting countries.

Physically, the US military occupies an astounding amount of real estate around the world. It operates a network of approximately eight hundred military installations in 40 percent of the world’s nations. Staffed by hundreds of thousands of service personnel, this foreign base system gives Washington an unparalleled and unprecedented ability to project power anywhere on the planet, with unconscionable results.

At home, too, the military has taken deliberate steps to imprint itself into the United States’ social and cultural fabric — flooding public venues like sporting events and even high schools with militaristic messages, presenting the military as a noble career path, and establishing the Department of Defense as the largest employer in America.

This physically and economically sprawling military machine requires a steady supply of cheap and disposable fuels, both human and fossil. Ruling elites have built a gigantic, hulking system wherein the military uses poverty to recruit enlistees, the impoverished rely on the military to secure economic stability, and the entire military machine is lubricated with enough fossil fuel to power Ukraine. We need to begin rolling back this planet-killing, human-maiming machine.

While the US military has officially been an all-volunteer force since 1973, the Department of Defense fills its ranks by mining poor and working-class communities for the human fuel needed to power the war machine. In what some have called a “poverty draft,” young people are recruited with promises of health care, higher education, job training, and economic advancement. In recent years, as the US military increasingly struggles with recruitment, the Pentagon has added another tactic: targeting the young people hit hardest by the United States’ $1.5 trillion student debt crisis.

The military’s strategy mirrors the playbook that resource-extraction corporations have successfully used for more than a century. From the company towns of the nineteenth century — in which corporations exercised social control over workers through debt bondage, among other means — to the oil-, gas-, and coal-extraction single-industry towns of today’s small-town America, the story is the same: option-less people often take on dangerous, life-destroying, and frequently lethal work not because they believe in it, but because it’s the only choice that makes any economic sense.

These two sectors (fossil fuels and the military) not only imitate each other, they are mutually dependent: as the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum, the US military is a crucial customer for fossil-fuel companies. Likewise, the fixation on US energy security means that the military-industrial complex necessitates a huge, reliable domestic energy sector. Both systems need a steady stream of human inputs to ensure the machine runs smoothly.

Those who argue that military service (or, for that matter, oil, gas, and coal extraction) offers poor and working-class people a chance to improve their circumstances and secure health care and education are missing the point: these basic rights should be universally available. They should not come at the potential cost of PTSD, permanent physical disability, or violent death (whether for those enlisted or for those unjustly affected abroad).

Yet trying to push the Pentagon to end the poverty draft is an exercise in futility. The physically sprawling, greenhouse gas–spewing Cthulhu that is America’s global military presence requires a precarious and impoverished working class. The lack of a social safety net ensures that the school-to-soldier pipeline remains full.

Likewise, with the erosion of already minimal public services, the working class has come to depend on the military. The military serves as a sort of parallel state, with a budget roughly on par with the combined federal and state governments of India, extending education, employment, and health coverage both during and after military service.

But what if we fought instead for a robust welfare state that guaranteed everyone health care, education, and decent work? What if every person in the United States had the right to free college, high-quality medical care, and a well-paying job, outside of the military-industrial complex? If the US military lacked a stream of economically coerced recruits, the United States’ far-flung network of imperial outposts might actually begin to wither on the vine.

Giving people options other than the military is also key to avoiding climate disaster. And the Green New Deal, which is rapidly gaining currency with its promise of a “just transition” away from an extractivist carbon-intensive economy, is the most promising avenue. The best iteration would integrate anti-militarism into its vision by providing Medicare and education for all, delivering well-paying green jobs to those currently caught in the poverty draft, and cleaning up the military’s toxic environmental footprint around the world.

The economic struggles of workers in the United States, the fight for climate justice, and the resistance to the United States’ imperial footprint all come together here. In this realm domestic and foreign policy cannot be cleanly separated; presenting an economically secure alternative to military service is the key to advancing the cause of justice both at home and abroad.

America — and indeed the world — needs a Green New Deal. And the United States’ military footprint must be one of its first casualties.