Virus hospitalization is new barrier to military enlistment (copy)

FILE - This March 27, 2008 file photo shows the Pentagon in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Dwight Eisenhower warned at the beginning of his presidency: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Eisenhower was a military man by training and inclination. Yet, he recognized that excessive Pentagon spending could undermine the economic and social security of the United States. “This world in arms is not spending money alone,” said the 34th president. “It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.”

Those words resonate powerfully today, as the United States struggles with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic meltdown extending from it. We are coming to recognize that the greatest threat facing the United States is not a foreign adversary. It is a virus, and the economic instability associated with it.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan recognizes that our budget priorities must be adjusted accordingly.

“The enemy we’re fighting right now is COVID-19, so our sole focus should be on expanding testing, tracing and treatment, funding towards vaccine development, and relief for the American people,” the Town of Vermont Democrat said. “Increasing defense spending now would be a slap in the face to the families of over 90,000 Americans that have died from this virus.”

Pocan and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, are leading a group of Democratic lawmakers in calling on the House Armed Services Committee members who will draft this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to authorize “a level of spending below last year’s authorized level.”

This newspaper endorses their call — enthusiastically.

We agree with the points made in a letter Pocan, Lee and 27 of their Democratic colleagues sent last week to the ranking members of the committee. In it, they argued, “Congress must remain focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic and distributing needed aid domestically. In order to do so, appropriators must have access to increased levels of non-defense spending which could be constrained by any increase to defense spending. In the last three years alone — during a time of relative peace — we have increased annual defense spending by more than $100 billion, almost 20%. This has occurred during a period without any military action authorized by this Congress. Right now, the coronavirus is our greatest adversary. It has killed more than 90,000 Americans, far surpassing the number of casualties during the Vietnam War. We must remain focused on combating the coronavirus and not on increasing military spending that already outpaces the next 10 closest nations combined (China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil)."

That argument has been made before, but it takes on new meaning when Congress is wrestling with questions of how much can and should be spent to address an overwhelming public health crisis, mass unemployment, and the perilous circumstance of state and local governments that have already spent down their budgets in the fight to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

“The COVID pandemic has laid bare how America has failed to make its budgets reflect the real needs of our everyday families,” Lee said. ”It’s long past time that we address our bloated military budget and re-target resources towards policies and programs that matter the most for keeping us safe, healthy and secure.”

That’s logical. But logic does not always prevail in Washington.

Any proposal for sound budgeting will face pushback from the political careerists who claim to represent constituencies across this country but, in fact, serve the military-industrial complex.

Already, the most cynical of the right-wing budget hawks are claiming that too much is being spent to protect lives and jobs. These objections will grow louder as the 2020 election approaches. Pocan, Lee and their colleagues push back with an argument that the fiscal challenges of these “unparalleled times” can be eased by making the smart and necessary choice to “constrain defense spending during this pandemic so that we can defeat the greatest threat to our nation — the coronavirus.”

There’s nothing radical about that assessment. It echoes the wisdom of Eisenhower, who preached about the need for a “proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” And it speaks to the moment into which we have entered.

We share the practical view of our congressman and his colleagues: “America needs a coronavirus cure, not more war. We need more testing, not more bombs,” the House members argue. “In order to reopen our nation in a data-driven, safe manner, we need to focus our spending efforts on the millions of additional coronavirus tests and tens of thousands of additional contract tracers we will need, as well as covering treatment costs, developing therapeutics, and distributing future vaccines.”

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