Surplus Military in a Deficit Society

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Surplus Military in a Deficit Society

 The city of Manchester, NH parading around their special armored SWAT vehicle. (Photo: Manchester City Library/ CC/ Flickr)

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the distribution of military hardware to state and local police. Great. Now can we have a review of the distribution of military influence throughout US society?

What we’ve learned so far is that under a federal program, more than $5 billion worth of military equipment has gone to more than 8,000 city and state agencies since 1997. I found out this weekend that one small town not far from me received six military HumVees for a police department where just 25 officers work.

Mine-resistant trucks aren't the only war tools showing up in US suburbs. Take those gunshot wounds. Michael Brown, the unarmed teen shot by a police in Ferguson August 9, was shot six times, twice in the head. Ever wonder why so many gun shot victims show up with multiple bullets in their flesh?  It’s certainly the cop, it’s also the gun.

As the Atlantic Magazine reported this summer, every time that Congress pays a military contractor to develop a new killer weapon for the battlefield, it almost at once shows up at High Street gun shops – and in Hollywood movies, like Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Obama’s review has been sparked by public shock at images from Ferguson, but what do people think happens when war profiteers dominate the marketplace, the media and Congress?

There’s a lot of surplus out there because defense contractors lobby for it. The top five companies spent more than $65 million last year persuading Congress to cancel promised cuts. As a result the 2014  budget gave them everything they asked for, including the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapon system ever, and a tank that we already know that nobody wants.

Weapons makers don’t just do war work of course. Lockheed Martin, the maker of that costly fighter, has also snapped up government contracts to do data collection for everyone from the Postal Service to the IRS, despite a history of fraud.  

Now the country's SWAT teams are lobbying to keep their military surplus and there’s about to be more of it because Congress is already hearing the Pentagon’s $555 billion budget for next year, isn’t sufficient, in light of the threat posed by the Islamic State. That's good news for the SWAT teams and probably for ISIS. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS has seized an arsenal of US military gear --  even more than the Ferguson police!

So by all means yes, let’s examine the surplus program. But let’s not stop at that. And while we’re at it, Obama says the review will be done by White House Staff and “relevant" agencies including Homeland Security and the Departments of Defense. We can guess what will come of that. How about the residents in towns with all this firepower review the program?  Especially the ones who’ve been shocked, not just by the images  -- but by the experience of having police point assault rifles at their heads.

Laura Flanders

Laura is YES! Magazine's 2013 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.

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