Swords into Plowshares
The Crisis Papers
May 30, 2006
||"And He shall judge among many people, and rebuke
strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into
plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift
up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
Micah: 4: 1-3
"We have a secret weapon ... we will deprive America of The Enemy. And
how [then will] you justify ... the military expenditures that bleed
Georgi Arbatov, Director
Soviet Institute of the US and Canada
Letter to the New York Times, 1987
An analysis of the events that have followed the fall of the Soviet Union
fifteen years ago, leads to a tragic conclusion: The United States economy,
as currently constituted, cannot maintain itself without an international
enemy. The defeat of one enemy, Soviet Communism, did not result in a “peace
dividend.” Instead it led to a desperate search for a new enemy to justify a
continuation of the Military-Industrial-(Political-Academic-Media) complex.
Then Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and “Islamo-Fascism” – George Bush’s “Axis of
Evil” – obligingly stepped forward to fill this role. And so we continue to
build multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers and submarines, and an
unworkable missile defense system, and we have reinvigorated our atomic
weapons program, to fight the new enemy: fanatics armed with box-cutters,
and armed brigands hiding in the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We now
spend as much on our military as the rest of the entire world combined. Our
military hardware is truly impressive, yet we cannot defeat an “insurgency”
in a small country equipped only with small arms and improvised explosives,
nor are we willing to furnish our troops with body armor and potable water.
Is this any way for a civilized nation to behave? Are there not better ways
to invest national wealth? Are there not more appropriate adversaries that
might promote international cooperation in the face of common peril? Must
these adversaries be national entities or international criminal
conspiracies? Must they even be personal “evil doers?”
I posed these questions in November, 1989, at a Moscow conference on “The
Ethics of Non-Violence,” sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. What
follows is a revised, updated and expanded reworking of the ideas presented
to that forum. (The original essay
can be found here).
On numerous occasions near the end of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan remarked
that if the Earth were faced with a common threat of invasion from outer
space, the United States and the Soviet Union would immediately set their
differences aside and would form an alliance. This idea was by no means
original with Reagan. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech in 1950, Bertrand
If you are English and someone says to you: "The French are your
brothers," your first instinctive feeling will be: "Nonsense, they shrug
their shoulders and talk French. And I am even told that they eat frogs."
If he explains to you that we may have to fight the Russians, that, if so,
it will be desirable to defend the line of the Rhine, and that, if the
line of the Rhine is to be defended, the help of the French is essential,
you will begin to see what he means when he says that the French are your
brothers. But if some fellow-traveler were to go on to say that the
Russians also are your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you,
unless he could show that we are in danger from the Martians.
In fact, the idea that alliances are usually formed against a common
threat is prominent in the thought of political philosophers such as Hobbes
and Machiavelli, and on back to the ancient Greeks where, as Herodotus
reports, the rival city-states, Athens and Sparta, united to defeat the
invading Persian army.
Common to all these observations is the assumption that the "common threat"
is the armed force of an aggressor and that the alliances disintegrate upon
the defeat of the aggressor.
Space probes have now assured us that there will never be a Martian invasion
(though a possible “invasion”
by a comet or
asteroid should concern us). How then might nations cooperate
absent a common military threat? Must we look for new "enemies," or will
common moral purpose and common human interest suffice to ensure global
cooperation and peace?
In the same Nobel Prize speech quoted above, Bertrand Russell offered an
answer which is instructive, both in its truth and in its error:
We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there
would be very few people whom we should love.
All this, however, is only true so long as we are concerned solely with
attitudes towards other human beings. . . You might regard Mother Nature
in general as your enemy, and envisage human life as a struggle to get the
better of Mother Nature.
Given the alarming news that is coming in from the environmental and
atmospheric sciences, we would be well advised to regard Nature as a common
threat. However, we would also be morally misguided to "regard Mother Nature
in general as [our] enemy." Nature is not malicious or blameworthy. And yet,
while nature is not a moral agent, it is, in an important yet figurative
sense, launching a dreadful retaliation against us. For those scientists
tell us that the same physical, chemical and biological processes which
nurtured and sustained us as a species, have been so damaged and distorted
by our thoughtless interventions upon the environment that we are about to
face consequences that we can barely foresee or scarcely imagine.
No, nature is not our "enemy," nature is our Mother -- our source and our
sustenance. And what nature is about to do to us, we will have done to
ourselves by fouling our own nest. We have brought ourselves to this pass
through our collective folly, and we must rescue ourselves through
collective wisdom and restraint.
Clearly, we can not succeed with business as usual. Yet that is the policy
of the Bush/Cheney administration. Their response to global climate change
is ignore it, deny it, and then, when the public demand for action becomes
irresistible, make false promises to “do something about it.” The
Bush/Cheney response to the looming depletion of the world oil supply is to
grab the foreign supplies, by military force if necessary, and then continue
and even accelerate domestic consumption thus bringing us ever closer to the
time of final depletion. They seem to believe that the rest of the world
will sit still as we starve them of their share of this essential resource.
The Busheviks are profoundly mistaken, as they and the rest of us are about
to find out. For the industrial nations -- of Europe, the Pacific Rim, and
the oil-rich middle East -- have the capacity
to devastate the
US economy without firing a shot, and we are coming ever-closer to
provoking them to do just that.
Instead we should be planning, along with all the industrialized nations, a
global strategy aimed toward a transition to a world economy based on
renewable energy sources. To this end, the enormous American defense
industry must be redirected to “do battle” against the global threats of
climate change, environmental devastation and fossil fuel depletion.
Instruments of destruction must now be transformed into instruments of
survival: swords into plowshares.
Disarmament can be a very tricky business, which must be planned and
implemented intelligently and comprehensively, with the full cooperation and
coordination of the federal government and private industry. That was the
case in 1945 at the end of World War II as American industry converted
smoothly from war time to peace time production. The G.I. Bill, one of the
most enlightened Congressional acts in our history, put hundreds of
thousands of returning military personnel into colleges and universities
from which they would emerge as the foundation of an expanded and
flourishing middle class.
The “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of Communism in the early
nineties was a different story. With no peacetime projects to take up the
slack of diminished and cancelled defense contracts, thousands of defense
workers were laid off causing ripple effects throughout the economy. I know,
for I was a victim of the “peace dividend.” When the California defense
industry was set back in the early nineties, state tax revenues declined
precipitously. Consequently, state university budgets were slashed and
thousands of untenured faculty had to be laid off, including Yours Truly.
Throughout the state of California, the cry was heard: “Where are the
Russians, now that we need them?” I was lucky, for after a year of part-time
work I was appointed to an endowed chair at a Midwestern college. Others
were not as fortunate.
This historical experience leads one to ask: If the United States decides to
relinquish its self-appointed role as an international military bully and
chooses instead to join a world-wide endeavor to escape the looming menaces
of global warming, environmental deterioration and petroleum depletion, how
is it to manage a non-disruptive change-over?
Suppose that the US decides to shrink its $500 billion military budget to a
quite adequate $100 billion. What is to be the fate of the industries, the
stockholders, and the workers that were sustained by that half-trillion
dollars of federal appropriations and contracts? A repeat of the nineties’
“peace dividend” recession can be avoided if the spigot of federal funding
is kept on while the flow is directed to dealing with the aforementioned
global emergencies and to the requisite improvements in our domestic
infrastructure. However, to the consternation of economic libertarians and
free market absolutists, this must be a coordinated effort supported with
tax revenues. And that means planning and administration at the federal
level. Of course, these tax revenues would not be additional but would be
reallocated from budgets formerly directed toward military contracts.
There will be no shortage of urgent projects that will require all of the
$400 billion released from the military budget. Among them:
Balancing the budget and reducing the national debt. Fiscal
instability is crippling our capacity to deal aggressively with the
problems before us. Moreover our economic independence and national
security have been bartered away in our massive debts to competitor
Research and development of renewable energy sources: Solar, wind,
tides, biofuels and possibly atomic fusion.
Construction of renewable energy production facilities: wind farms, biofuel digesters, solar collectors.
Increasing fuel-efficiency of automobiles and converting to non-fossil
Building a renewable fuel infrastructure.
Severely reducing the commercial airline fleet and replacing it with
Research and development of technologies that will slow and perhaps
reverse global warming. This might include methods of capturing and
sequestering greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane. Also
increasing the outward reflection (albedo) of incoming solar radiation
(e.g. by increasing cloud and snow cover).
Full-length articles and books have been written about each of these
items. Let’s examine just one: the advantages of railroad travel to
automobile and airline travel.
As anyone who has traveled on Japanese and European railroads is fully
aware, the American rail system is, by comparison, a national disgrace. In
the last sixty years, 40% of the railroad tracks in the United States have
been torn up. And in 2005, responding to his patrons in the auto and
petroleum industry, George Bush proposed an elimination of all federal
funding of Amtrak, the sole remaining national passenger rail service.
In the face of the permanent energy shortage immediately ahead, the planned
demise of the American railroads is irrational in the extreme.
The per-passenger energy
consumption of existing railroads is half the consumption of automobile
and air travel, and with advanced railroad facilities abroad that advantage
approaches three to one. With speeds
excess of 180 mph, modern trains provide faster, safer, more
comfortable and more energy efficient downtown-to-downtown travel than
airlines at distances up to 400 miles.
Magnetic-levitation (MagLev) trains, now in operation in
Germany and China, are capable of speeds up to 300mph. Via MagLev, one might travel
from Manhattan to downtown Chicago in about four hours. The Los Angeles to
San Francisco run would take an hour and a half. All this with enormous
savings in energy.
Public subsidy of a railroad system? “But that’s socialism!”
Yet public subsidy of auto transportation through highway construction, or
of air travel through airport construction and air traffic control, somehow
fails to arouse these capitalist qualms.
Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas are world leaders in the technology and
construction of airframes. How difficult would it be for these industries to
convert to the manufacture of state of the art railroad engines and railroad cars?
How effectively might General Electric develop, manufacture and install a
nationwide system of solar-electric production and distribution? How soon
could Exxon-Mobil, Texaco-Shell and British Petroleum shift to the
production and distribution of bio-fuels? With $400 billion of the military
budget redirected to these essential “national defense” goals, these
questions become rhetorical. As Bernard Weiner points out in
Crisis Papers article, the primary obstacles immediately before us are
not economic or technological, they are political.
Just as drastic cuts in military spending have ripple-effects throughout the
economy, so too would a conversion of military technology to a sustainable
energy economy and infrastructure. But these would be positive “ripples.”
There would be a demand for scientists, engineers and skilled workers – for
jobs which, by their nature (i.e. building, maintaining and operating
on-site infrastructures) could not be outsourced. Unlike military hardware,
the output of this industrial conversion would be economically productive. A
high-speed rail system contributes permanently to the national economy.
Tanks, bombers, submarines and aircraft carriers, once built, produce
The military-industrial-(political-academic-media) complex is a giant
tapeworm in the gut of the American economy, soaking up nutrients,
contributing nothing, and starving the host organism. The “defense” industry
flourishes, and what the Pentagon wants the Pentagon gets. Meanwhile, public
education withers from neglect, rising tuition costs keep talented but poor
students from professional careers of which they are fully capable, skilled
workers are being laid-off as their jobs are shipped overseas, the nation’s
infrastructure – bridges, highways, railroads, harbors, water supplies,
sewage disposal – is rotting from within. Non-defense tax revenues required
to reverse this deterioration are lost to “tax relief” for the very wealthy.
While the regressive-right has no problem with centralized governmental
control of the military, all other federal institutions are withering from
neglect, incompetence and under-funding resulting from the Reaganite
aversion to big government – “the problem, not the solution.” Witness the
federal response to Hurricane Katrina. As long as this ideology reigns
supreme in Washington, an informed and coordinated national response to the
incoming emergencies of climate change, environmental deterioration, and oil
depletion is unlikely.
Meanwhile, competing national economies abroad, unburdened by the
extravagant diversion of national income to useless military appropriations,
race ahead with scientific research, industrial development and an energy
infrastructure that anticipates the coming end of the petroleum age.
As the climate, environmental and energy emergencies that are now upon us
are global, so too must be our response. And the gravity of these global
emergencies are such that they require an international commitment and
response sufficient to render obsolete and irrelevant all remaining violent
disputes among nations. For there is in fact no national interest which
transcends in importance the common international interest in halting the
onset of global climate change, in repairing and restoring ecological
balance, and making the transition to a post-fossil-fuel world economy, thus
securing common survival on a functioning planet. Those are the simple facts
of the matter. Can we now at last come to appreciate that these threats
before us transcend any existing tribal feuds or national disputes and can
we then proceed to invest and act accordingly? Upon the answer to that
question, the future of humanity will be determined. For international
cooperation is no longer merely an ideal, it is now a necessity.
Copyright 2006 by Ernest Partridge