The War on Terror Militarized America More Than Ever

Lindsay Koshgarian

The War on Terror projected American power abroad with devastating consequences. But it also wrought suffering and waste at home, with consequences we’re still living with today.

US Army ahead of a possible military strike near the Kuwait-Iraq border, 2003. (Scott Nelson / Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

According to a recently published report from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPC), America has spent a whopping $21 trillion on militarization since 9/11. It’s an astonishing figure, so large it can be difficult to comprehend. Here, the report’s authors offer some useful clarity: militarization, they argue, should be understood as a domestic process as well as a series of foreign interventions funded by direct spending on tanks, machine guns, and cruise missiles. The so-called “war on terror,” after all, also brought with it a sprawling new apparatus concerned with what is generally branded “domestic security”: allocating billions, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, to areas like border administration and domestic surveillance.

Lindsay Koshgarian is the program director of the IPC’s National Priorities Project and a lead author of its new report “State of Insecurity: The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11.” In this interview, Koshgarian speaks with Jacobin about its calculations, and the alarming process of militarization undertaken since the September 11 attacks twenty years ago.

Luke Savage

Your top-line finding — that America has spent $21 trillion on militarization since 2001 — is quite breathtaking. Could you break it down for us and run through how exactly you got this figure and what it includes?

Lindsay Koshgarian

We track Pentagon spending as a matter of course, and that’s now at about three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year. But it has become increasingly clear that you can’t draw clear lines between the military and domestic militarization.

The Pentagon hands down weapons to federal and local law enforcement, and law enforcement gets military-style training. Our borders are heavily militarized, and the fact that we have militarized immigration so heavily has major implications for our foreign policy, in terms of relations with other countries, how we regard our own culpability for conditions in those countries including political instability and climate crises, and what role we will play in an increasingly destabilized world as climate change worsens.

Stoking flames around immigration and xenophobia has given rise to a resurgent white supremacist right, contributed directly to the January 6 Capitol insurrection, and has given comfort to white supremacists and authoritarians around the world. Federal law enforcement jumped into the counterterrorism game and has used it as cover for racial profiling and the surveillance of entire communities with no evidence of any crimes. Those same law enforcement agencies operate in the United States but also in other countries, meaning the Pentagon is the largest, but far from the only, US militarized force that operates in other countries.

So, it’s all tied together, and if you want to understand how much of our federal budget we’ve given over to militarizing the world, it doesn’t make sense to look only outside our borders. And from a budget point of view, we know that more than half of the federal discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon, but that doesn’t mean that the rest is left over for constructive programs. When you add up the Pentagon and war, punitive immigration and homeland security enforcement, and federal law enforcement, nearly two-thirds of the federal discretionary budget goes toward violent methods of control.

Our $21 trillion includes the costs of war, the gargantuan Pentagon budget, and our global military presence, which total about $16 trillion. Another $3 trillion is for the cost of veterans’ programs. Those programs are necessary because we’ve put people in wars, but the costs go up with every military deployment when troops come back injured or traumatized, so those are war costs, too.

About $949 billion is for homeland security, primarily for punitive and militarized immigration and border enforcement. And about $732 billion is for federal law enforcement, including the FBI (of which about half of its budget is dedicated to “defense-related” activities), the DEA, and other law enforcement agencies, federal prisons, and federal prosecutors. More than half of federal arrests recently have been for immigration crimes, so this is really part of the carceral immigration system, too.

Luke Savage

I also wanted to ask about your report’s methodology, on which the key findings and top-line numbers were ultimately based. In calculating the cost of militarization since 2001, you included a range of expenditures not related to direct military spending — such as spending on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), and even some federal funds that were allocated to, of all things, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Maritime Administration. Can you discuss your rationale for including these things in your calculations?

Lindsay Koshgarian

I think I answered this generally above, but we aren’t interested in a definition of military or militarism that just follows the lines of which government agencies have “defense” in the name. We’re looking for agencies and activities that are contributing to the spread of violence inside and outside of our borders, or that contribute to violent repression.

When border patrol uses Predator drones to search out immigrants, or federal law enforcement shows up with military gear at a protest, or when the FBI completely disregards civil rights in entire communities based on the race or origins of the people in those communities, those things have more in common with military activities and occupation than they do with government programs like public housing or education.

There are some funds for the National Science Foundation and Maritime Administration, among other agencies you might not expect. Those particular examples are agencies that receive funding considered defense-related spending by the federal government. Take the National Science Foundation: some of its funding comes through the National Defense Authorization Act, for things with applications the Pentagon or national intelligence communities are interested in, like research on artificial intelligence, electromagnetic spectrum applications (like 5G), and nanotechnology. It’s actually part of the NSF’s legislated mission to “secure the national defense.” It’s just an example of how wide-reaching the total national security apparatus is in our federal government.

Luke Savage

How does America’s spending on the war on terror compare to other extended periods of militarization and foreign intervention, during the Cold War for example?

Lindsay Koshgarian

Our current military spending, which is slightly lower than at the peak of the war on terror, is higher than at any point during the Cold War, the Vietnam War, or the Korean War. The last time the military budget was this high was during World War II. A critical difference is that after World War II, the military budget actually plummeted — just like you might expect for a country that wasn’t at war anymore. There’s no sign of that happening now with the exit from Afghanistan. The Biden Pentagon budget was $13 billion higher than the last Trump budget, and now the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have both voted to add $25 billion on top of that. It’s become a self-perpetuating machine.

Not only that, but our spending on punitive immigration policies through ICE and Customs and Border Protection has doubled over the last twenty years, from just over $12 billion in FY 2002 for the equivalent agencies, to more than $25 billion in FY 2021. It’s worth remembering that these agencies didn’t exist before the formation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, which itself was part of the war on terror.

Luke Savage

The report also discusses, as it were, the opportunity costs of investing so grotesquely in militarization as opposed to social or other expenditures. What were some of your findings here?

Lindsay Koshgarian

We’re living in some pretty dystopian times. We’re seeing constant loss of life and destruction of communities by fires, floods, and the pandemic. Millions of us are at risk of becoming homeless when pandemic eviction moratoriums end at the same time that billionaires have seen their wealth balloon. We are desperately in need of solutions for these things. And yet we’re still hearing key members of Congress insist that we can’t afford the solutions.

Well, we afforded $21 trillion for militarization because three presidents and bipartisan majorities in Congress decided that was the thing to do. The thing is that a lot of major steps we need for the pandemic, to keep people out of poverty, and to address climate change cost less than that. A fully decarbonized, renewable electric grid for the whole country would cost $4.5 trillion. Creating five million $15-an-hour jobs with benefits would cost $2.3 trillion. Vaccinating low-income countries to save lives and stop the pandemic would cost just $25 billion. These are not expensive compared to what we’ve done the last twenty years militarizing the world. So we can afford things, when we want to.

One goal of this report is to make it perfectly clear that our options for the future are open, and we can choose differently.