Next year's military budget will start off at $700 billion, which is more than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, India, France, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom altogether spend. As our defense budget increases every year, our knowledge of how that money is spent diminishes. We're ignorant of the economic truth behind our military empire. Too many of us are OK with that, but our 'ignorance is bliss' attitude is understandable.
It's difficult to sort through the dozens of government agencies responsible for national defense, and checking their budgets is harder than doing your taxes. But once you start looking it becomes easy to see that it takes a huge pile of cash to keep American soldiers stationed in 900 military facilities in 156 countries that cover much of the planet.
It’s not possible to learn the exact amount we spend because hundreds of millions are directed into classified projects that won't show up in any account books until decades have passed – if ever. It’s safe to say, however, that the total of all defense-related spending amounts to more than half of all federal spending.
My own estimate puts it right about two-thirds. In a nice piece of symmetry, our defense spending is about one-third of the amount spent by all of the 201 other countries on Earth combined.
Some numbers are clear. Over the past fifteen years Congress approved $1.4 trillion dollars of supplemental spending requests for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those kinds of requests go beyond the annual military budget and are always approved.
Some costs don't fit neatly into any category. The Pentagon's public relations department employs a staff of 27,000 people and spent $4.7 billion in 2009 on a wide variety of activities. For comparison, the full State Department has a staff of 30,000 and the entire annual budget to operate the United Nations is $1.9 billion.
The Veterans Administration budget is currently $41.2 billion, but it will increase dramatically every year into the foreseeable future. Estimates of the cost of caring for wounded veterans vary wildly; numbers between $500 and $800 billion over the next two decades are offered from different sources. Include disability payments to soldiers and add a little to account for the unexpected, and $800 billion seems much more likely.
My conservative guess at the true total we spend every year on national defense would be well over one trillion dollars. A huge chunk of that could be saved and redirected if we took an honest look at our military presence in Afghanistan. Of course, our president could just ask his Russian friends about their experience in that rugged land known throughout human history as "The Graveyard of Empires".
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