Poet's Notebook: The cost of war

Is our defense budget mostly necessary, or mostly wasted?

Read ‘em and weep.

—Old poker expression I heard a lot in the Army

When I finished my time as a draftee, I was sent home from Germany by slow military ship. The hold belowdecks was crammed with hammock-like double-bunks, which quickly developed a permanent sour stench from seasick soldiers vomiting over the bunks and each other. To get out of this unhealthy air, a friend of mine and I — going against the old Army rule of never volunteering for anything — volunteered to work for the chaplain, whose office was higher up on the ship. Lying our sinful heads off about our knowledge of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish rituals available on board (in 1957, the idea that Muslims existed hadn’t occurred to anyone connected to the Chaplain’s office), we were hired by a very bored officer. As far as I can remember, no one ever checked up on us, or even came by to worship.

We had in fact very little to do, so our job soon morphed into distributing toys and games to the children of the officers who were accompanying us privates and PFC’s home. There weren’t too many children, but we had a large hoard of board games like Monopoly, Parcheesi, chess, checkers, Chinese checkers, cribbage, and uncountable decks of cards, many of them the handsome oversized Bicycle variety. Greg (my fellow dungeon-dodger) and I sat in a small room with a sliding interior window and, after reading up on the rules, played endless hours of cribbage, checking out various items to the children, who were supposed to return them at the end of the day. (We also could duck up a small stairwell for fresh air, which we did sparingly, not wanting to get questioned and sent back below.) In this way we spent our seagoing week in a reasonably comfortable and pleasant way.

click to enlarge pn cards full - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
pn cards full

As we neared home, we asked the Chaplain where we should stack these treasures, especially those that were scratched or damaged. To our surprise, we were told to throw them all out: damaged, used, or untouched. We’d long ago learned not to question orders, and just pretend we understood. Obviously, it was easier for them to order new games each year. Although Greg and I were happy to obey — it meant more time outside — we returning privates (earning $98 a month) thought it an enormous waste of money, tossing perfectly good games into the harbor under the green copper eyes of the Statue of Liberty, even though we distributed decks of cards to our fellow draftees, and smuggled out a few cribbage sets for ourselves.

I remembered this minor crime when I read recently that our military has wasted at least $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money since 1996.

We know there are millions of Americans suffering from poverty, even hunger. We know we have an oddly connected obesity problem — the poor are fatter — and we don’t live as long as we should. Our racial wounds are still open, and our sexual prejudices still harmful. Our infrastructure’s inadequate and crumbling. Almost every city, including ours, seems to be having a homeless crisis. Public education’s in turmoil.

And each year we spend $600.4 billion on the military (2013 figure). That’s more than the next nine countries, friend or foe, combined.

Shouldn’t we know that this is just plain crazy?

We could cut $400 billion from that bill and still be able to chant, “We’re #1! We’re #1!” China, next in line, spends a paltry $112.2 billion on their “defense.”

Has this gargantuan expenditure on soldiers and guns made us feel happy, or at least safe? Apparently not. Some Americans think we kill too many people; some think we don’t kill enough. America’s very upset. But are they yelling about that $600 billion number?

What’s that? Speak up!

A Dead Statesman

I could not dig: I dared not rob:

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew

What tale shall serve me here among

Mine angry and defrauded young?

—from “Epitaphs of War” by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

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