Close the Pentagon, Feed the World!

In 2003, Peace Quest Cape Breton launched a modest campaign for a ‘Pentagon Vacation’: a two-week (336-hour) reduction in the US Defense Department’s annual budget of $379 million (all figures in US dollars)– a saving, calculating 14 days at a Pentagon Hour (PH) rate of $42 million/hour, of around $14 billion. What would such a sum have purchased?

David B. Gleason from Chicago, IL [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

The Pentagon, January 2008. (Photo by David B. Gleason from Chicago, IL, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Drawing on an impressive study – ‘What the World Wants: and How to Pay for It Using Military Expenditures’ – by the World Game Institute (a UN-affiliated US NGO), Peace Quest suggested a Pentagon Vacation could eliminate illiteracy ($5 billion), provide clean water to hundreds of millions of people ($9 billion) or save many of the 30,000 children dying each day (as estimated by Save the Children) from malnutrition and disease.

As an organization ostensibly committed to the defense of peace, prosperity and human rights around the globe, the Pentagon has a demonstrable interest in such investments. As Peace Quest argued in a letter (mysteriously unanswered) to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, US forces –- totaling over 1.4 million military personnel — are deployed in over 100 countries. But what if it could be shown that relaxing this heroic level of performance ever so slightly would do more to bring about a safer, freer world than working (and spending) without pause ever could?


Some things haven’t changed in the last 16 years. The defense budget ‘proper’ still excludes the cost (currently $20 billion+) of America’s nuclear arsenal, funded by the Department of Energy, and the regular injections of ‘contingency’ funding — expected to top $70 billion this fiscal year –- to support countless (overt and covert) military operations. Nor does it take into account the mind-boggling waste of money built into Pentagon ‘business as usual,’ particularly the padded contracts to arms contractors and the gigantic cost overruns, flawed testing, delayed production and serious glitches often associated with major new weapons systems like the infamous Lockheed Martin F-35 nuclear-capable ‘stealth’ fighter — at around $90 million a pop, ‘the plane that ate the Pentagon.’

With 1.3 million (and rising) armed service members, over a million (and rising) contractors, and a backroom staff of nearly half a million (and rising), the Pentagon can ‘boast’ of being not only the world’s biggest bureaucracy — 200,000 personnel in purchasing; 190,000 in property management; 85,000 in HR — but the federal government’s only unaudited department.

It is also, partly due to this epic opacity, widely suspected of committing what The Nation’s Dave Lindorff recently described as “massive accounting fraud.” (In November 2018, Ernst & Young, mandated by Congress to lead a multi-company, 1,200-staff audit — itself costing over $400 million — admitted defeat due to endemic bookkeeping errors and irregularities. To which Patrick Shanahan, now President Donald Trump’s Acting Defense Secretary, memorably responded: “We failed the audit, but we never expected to pass it.”)

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, marked AA-1, lands Oct. 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The F-35 Integrated Test Force staff concluded an air-start test. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, marked AA-1, lands Oct. 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The F-35 Integrated Test Force staff concluded an air-start test. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2003, analysts (and lobbyists) were either warning or hoping that by the end of the decade the official defense budget would approach or broach the half-trillion mark. It did, rising steadily through Republican and Democratic presidencies and Congresses alike, and on August 2nd last year, 40 Democratic senators voted with 45 Republicans to authorize a $716-billion National Defense Authorization Act (NNAA), named the ‘John S. McCain Act’ in tribute to the then-dying Arizona senator. It was signed into law by the president at Fort Drum, Texas, later that month. And the drum was duly beaten hard:

This is the most significant investment in our military and our war fighters in modern history. … We will replace aging tanks, aging planes and ships with the most advanced and lethal technology ever developed. And hopefully we’ll be so strong, we’ll never have to use it, but if we ever did, nobody has a chance.


The US, of course, has been ‘using it’ on many fronts in the 9/11-ushered age of constant American combat, a ‘war on terror’ (largely unauthorized and unscrutinized by Congress) that’s done nothing to help, and all too much to hinder, the wars on poverty, hunger, illiteracy, climate change and the epidemic levels of violence – particularly against women, children and the vulnerable – that both militarism and terrorism exacerbate and enable.

From 2003-2019, then, a Pentagon Hour has soared over 90% from $42 million to $81.7 million: $19,000 per second, $1.3 million per minute, $1.96 billion per day. A two-week Pentagon Vacation would thus save — to make every cent count — $27,463,013,698.70, or almost two-thirds the annual combined budget ($41.8 billion) of the US State Department and USAID.

The current budget for the State Department’s Economic Development Assistance programs, for example, consists of $518 million for food security (down 48% from the previous year, to less than 7 PH), $512 million for education (a 51% reduction), and $1.23 billion for democracy promotion (-47%; 15 PH). But instead of repeating its call for a two-week ‘Hero Holiday,’ and in light of recent convulsions in the US body politic, this year Peace Quest is making a more ambitious call for a partial Pentagon shutdown to generate enough funding –- according to a 2015 UN estimate, $116 billion — to achieve what no war machine before it ever could: feeding everyone on earth.

One year-old Koursia Mahamadou is a beneficiary of the Save the Children feeding program in Niger. (Photo by GSK [CC BY 2.0 (]

One year-old Koursia Mahamadou is a beneficiary of the Save the Children feeding program in Niger. (Photo by GSK, CC BY 2.0)

Really? Really! The United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates 3.1 million children die of malnutrition each year. That’s 8,500 each day (354 an hour; 6 each minute), so 120,000 during a Pentagon Vacation: but for just under two months spending, the Pentagon could consign starvation to history. And where would it find such savings? Well, as the common, tellingly militaristic phrase goes: it’s a target-rich environment.


It could, for example, move to close some of the more anachronistic and superfluous of its 800 military bases in 70+ nations. According to David Vine, writing in Politico in 2015, “maintaining bases and troops overseas” costs between $85 and $100 billion a year (excluding bases in war zones, generally twice as expensive). A Congressional ban on domestic base closures, in place since 2012 (with no round of closures since 2005) could also be lifted, as strongly recommended by the Pentagon but resisted by both Democrats and Republicans: “That’s bipartisanship,” as The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus sarcastically put it in 2013, “but is it in the public interest?”

Three years later, the Post’s Craig Whitlock and Bob Woodward reported the Department had “buried an internal study” by the Defense Business Board “that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste.” The article quotes a member of the Defense Business Board warning Pentagon leaders before the study:

You are about to turn on the light in a very dark room. All the crap is going to float to the surface and stink the place up.

And then there are the big tickets items in the new budget, e.g. 77 F-35s ($7.6 billion), a Pentagon baby-step towards an envisaged $400-billion force of over 2,000 of the problem-plagued planes which, on the basis of this March 2018 exchange with Marilyn Hewson, Chief Executive of Lockheed Martin, Trump appears to believe are actually invisible:

Trump: And we buy billions and billions of dollars’ worth of that beautiful F-35. It’s stealth. You cannot see it. Is that correct?

Hewson: That’s correct, Mr. President.

Trump: Better be correct. Right?

Hewson: Absolutely.


In Closing Time, Joseph Heller’s 1994 sequel to Catch-22, Milos Minderbinder, “head of the dubious M&M enterprises,” successfully pitches the president on the “ultimate” plane, one “so radar-proof and noiseless it doesn’t even exist.” Inspired by Heller’s satire, why not wonder if the US would be harmed if the F-35 ‘didn’t even exist?’ If instead of bombs, the US dropped the fantasies of violent omnipotence Trump indulged (with the opposite rhetorical overkill) in September 2017:

When our enemies hear the F-35s’ engines, when they’re roaring overhead, their souls will tremble and they will know the day of reckoning has arrived.

The U.S. Navy littoral combat ship USS Independence (LCS-2) arrives at Mole Pier at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida (USA), on 29 March 2010. U.S. Navy photo by Naval Air Crewman 2nd Class Nicholas Kontodiakos [Public domain]

The U.S. Navy littoral combat ship USS Independence (LCS-2) arrives at Mole Pier at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida (USA), on 29 March 2010. (U.S. Navy photo by Naval Air Crewman 2nd Class Nicholas Kontodiakos, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Even at $90 million a shot, the F-35 is not the most expensive per-unit item in the budget, which requests $646 million for one Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). What does such ‘funny money’ (in the pockets of our friends at Lockheed Martin) buy? Boosted as a “futuristic jack of all trades,” the LCS, according to a study of ‘The 10 Most Expensive Weapons in the Pentagon’s Arsenal’ has found:

…nothing but trouble on the high seas, with recent Pentagon testing and watchdog reports concluding the ship can’t adequately fulfill its core functions and is susceptible to cyber-hacking and suffers from other technical issues.

(The Pentagon has so far bought 32 LCSs, and would like 23 more.)

A long list of other wildly-expensive, funding-hungry aircraft, ships, submarines, bombs, missiles and other death-on-delivery systems could now follow, all of which could be safely trimmed or sanely trashed to help feed the planet some of those systems threaten with destruction.

Take the B-21 ‘Raider’ bomber, for instance – consuming $2.3 billion this year – set to serve, in the words of the trade journal Military Embedded Systems (MBS), as “a key component of conventional and nuclear-capable deep-strike capabilities.”

Or the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, preliminary development of which – in MBS-speak, “advance procurement for long-lead systems, design detail, and research and development of nuclear technologies” – cost $1.8 billion in the last budget, $3.7 billion in this.

And as a final nugget, over $1 billion is currently being spent on the “second year of construction” (of how many?) of the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, part of a “next generation warship” development program Senator McCain, to his credit, lambasted as “one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent memory”.


But it hasn’t, of course, just been Uncle Sam filling his military boots. Global military spending has also been rising – to just under $1.7 trillion in 2015, the year the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) calculated 10% of such a sum “could cover the costs of global goals” – as defined by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – “aiming to end poverty and hunger in 15 years.”

SIPRI’s latest authoritative Yearbook on Armaments, Disarmament and International Security documents $1.739 trillion in military expenditure in 2017, “the highest level since the end of the Cold War, equivalent to 2.2 per cent of global gross domestic product or $230 person.” But even though 2017 was the year before the ‘Trump Bump’ budget of $716 billion, the US still accounted for the lion’s share of spending ($610 billion), trailed by China ($218 billion) and Saudi Arabia ($99.4 billion, with much of it in arms purchases from the US). Russia came in fourth with $66 billion, a 20% cut from the previous year, a few billion ahead of India.

Peace Quest dares to believe its request for a partial Pentagon shutdown may receive support from high places. On 4 December 2018, the Commander-in-Chief himself tweeted:

In October, Trump ordered all Departments except one – “It’s defense. It’s very important” – to reduce spending by 5%. Defense, he predicted, “will probably” get $700

billion, a reduction of less than 3% which nonetheless induced apoplexy among senior ‘brass’ and their bipartisan ‘base’ in Congress. On the day of Trump’s ‘Crazy!’ tweet, for example, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the President’s nominee as Commander of U.S. Central Command, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “anything below 733 would increase risk,” adding: “we are in the process now of examining the details of what the nature of that risk would be.” Most senators reacted as if that risk was of a beautiful beast being cruelly starved.

In truth, most of those senators, and perhaps McKenzie himself, would also share the sentiment long-expressed by a Who’s Who of Pentagon leaders, civilian and military, that the US emphasizes ‘hard’ power over ‘soft’ not just at the cost of others’ but its own security. As Obama’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, argued:

US foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent on the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands, and not enough on the State Department.

And as Trump’s first Defense Secretary, General Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, famously told Congress in 2013:

If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.

(The quote was prominently featured in a February 2017 letter to Congressional leaders from no less than 120 retired three- and four-Star Generals and Admirals conveying “our strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.”)

Neither Mullen nor Mattis, however, argued for even a modest reduction in Pentagon spending but rather for massive increases —  while doubtless regretting the ‘real world’ threats and dangers imposing such perverse priorities on the public purse. Senator McCain, too, for decades sought the Grail of a ‘cost-effective,’ corruption-free, politically- and fiscally-accountable Pentagon — while lambasting any attempt to reduce US military presence overseas, supporting every war he ever saw, and constantly calling for more (including an attack on Iran while the Iraq War was raging).


So, with some influential consciences to salve, and a vast number of lives to save, this is where the peace movement comes in, mustering all the comparatively paltry resources at its command to spread the news that seems too good to be true: that never in the history of America has it been so easy to do so much good with such a small slice of money scheduled to be spent on making the world a worse place.

DFID - UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0 (]

DFID – UK Department for International Development, Pakistan clean water project, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The moment may be propitious, with much talk among US progressives of a ‘Green New Deal’ saving the planet from catastrophic climate change by making the homeland a radically cleaner, fairer, safer place to live. Why not add ‘a partial Pentagon shutdown’ to the mix? Because the idea may prove ‘too big’ for a deferentially militaristic society — or, more to the political point, a Democratic Party largely in the pocket of the Pentagon?

But if you want such a ‘deal’ to be truly ‘new’ and ‘green’ you can’t afford to leave a $700-billion war machine running. And when it comes to offering that kind of paradigm-shift — such a stark choice between a culture-of-life or death — we may find ourselves pleasantly surprised to learn just how hungry how many people are.


Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.







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