The House and Senate are fighting over the Pentagon budget — not because anyone objects to an obscene level of military spending but because it’s become yet another a proxy for the culture war. The Left should oppose the budget for the right reasons.

Members of the 182d Infantry Regiment load their weapons with live ammunition before heading into the field to train. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

Tens of millions of Americans go without health insurance. Millions of American parents can’t afford childcare. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of the wealthiest society in human history sleep in shelters, on benches, or in encampments in public parks.

Instead of doing anything about any of that, Congress is in the process of finalizing the biggest defense budget in American history. As Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed out in an op-ed on Monday, the United States already spends more money on its military than “the next 10 nations combined, most of whom are [US] allies.”

It’s been almost two years since the disastrous and seemingly endless American war in Afghanistan finally ended. But instead of cutting some of the monstrously bloated Pentagon budget to reallocate the money to domestic social programs, this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) further bloats it to an utterly unprecedented $886 billion. Add that together with the money the Department of Energy spends on America’s potentially civilization-destroying nuclear arsenal, and we’re talking about more than $900 billion.

Defense budgets often sail through without much debate. The good news is that this year is an exception. All but four House Democrats — Jared Golden of Maine, Don Davis of North Carolina, Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Washington, and Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico — voted against the House version of the NDAA. The Democratic-controlled Senate finalized its version yesterday, but the differences between House and Senate versions are stark, with the fight far from over.

The bad news is that almost none of the battle over the NDAA has anything to do with the fundamental absurdity of the United States pouring $900 billion into the coffers of its military while so many of its citizens struggle to meet their basic needs.

Senator Sanders wants to have that fight, which is why he voted no. But he’s a voice in the wilderness. The majority of his colleagues take the obscenity of an endlessly expanding military budget as a given. They’re only interested in fighting about the NDAA as one more front of the culture war.

The House Version

Last year’s election delivered the GOP a narrow majority in the House. Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to face down steep opposition from the most unhinged members of his caucus to make it to the top spot, and he remains reluctant to stand up to them when they make demands. The end result of all this is a House majority that misses few opportunities to throw culture-war red meat to the hardest core of the Republican base.

The House version of the NDAA includes amendments doing away with Pentagon DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) offices, ending reimbursement for the travel expenses of service members who travel to other states to have abortions, stopping the military health system from covering the transition expenses of transgender soldiers, reinstating troops who were discharged for refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19, prohibiting the teaching of anything that smacks of critical race theory in military academies, banning drag shows from military bases, and strictly banning anyone on bases from flying the pride flag.

When I say all these things culture-war red meat, my point isn’t that none of the specific issues matter. Many fronts of the culture war don’t matter — it’s extremely unimportant, to pick an example some conservatives have gotten surprisingly worked up about, whether candy manufacturer Mars Wrigley changes its animated green M&M to make her less sexy.

But the Venn diagram of issues politicians use to shore up their culture-war bona fides and issues that matter contains real overlap. While I doubt that many service members were ever institutionally required to read Derrick Bell’s essays on critical race theory in the first place, for instance, many of the amendments to the NDAA passed in the House range from “somewhat obnoxious” to “disturbingly cruel.”

Policies implemented so the politicians who pass them can score culture-war points often have very real material consequences for their victims. What defines the culture war as a whole, though, is that for most of its combatants the battle lines are drawn not over material interests but cultural sensibilities. All the issues listed above will tend to divide people in ways that run through economic classes rather than tending to pit one class against another.

None of that means that the Left can or should avoid taking positions on important social policy issues. But it does mean that on a strategic level, if we’re going to defeat the right wing and be in a position to implement better policies on every issue, our job is to find ways to change the channel every chance we get to issues with the potential to rally the support of working-class people in general based on shared material interests.

By contrast, both conservatives and neoliberals benefit when the political conversation steers away from issues where neither has much to offer most ordinary people of any demographic. Neither major party wants to talk about why the US government doesn’t guarantee health care as a fundamental right and why it instead spends its money on sowing chaos and destruction abroad. But the pride flags on military bases? That’s a fight they’re happy to have until the end of time.

The Culture War, the Class War, and the American War Machine

The United States mainland is surrounded by oceans to its east and west and close allies to its north and south. Even if we didn’t spend ten times as much on “defense” as the next ten nations combined, there are few countries in the world in less ongoing need of being defended. Terrorism exists, of course, but its incidence within the United States has always been tiny, and there’s precious little a giant army or navy can do about it in any case.

The reality for a very long time has been that the military budget exists not for defense but for offense. The list of nations around the world the United States has bombed or invaded since the end of World War II is absurdly long. It’s even longer if you start counting the proxy wars in which US arms play a significant role, the military coups carried out by foreign officers trained by the US military — and, as Slavoj Žižek might say, “so on and so on and so on.”

All of this is very bad for the people who live in countries that come into conflict with the United States. But America’s empire is also bad for the majority of Americans. As Sanders reminds us in his op-ed, every dollar spent on “defense” is a dollar not spent on meeting the material needs of ordinary Americans.

That’s why, even though the Senate version of the NDAA isn’t loaded down with conservative culture-war amendments, Sanders voted no. Plenty of Senate Democrats talk about standing up for the interests of working-class people. Voting for a $900 billion military budget as long as nothing culturally conservative is in it is a perfect way of demonstrating that it’s just talk.

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