The Price of Empire: An Interview with Michael Zweig

John Tarleton Jul 16, 2014

Americans are accustomed to their military straddling the globe. It’s been that way for 70 years, few of which have passed without the United States engaging in fighting in one or more countries. Supporters say a large military is essential to protect the national interest. Meanwhile, critics like Michael Zweig, a professor at the State University of New York-Stony Brook and author of The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, insist that garrisoning the planet is counterproductive and involves tremendous opportunity costs here at home and that the costly and ultimately futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be an occasion for rethinking the path we are on.

John Tarleton: For the United States the combined financial costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are well over $1 trillion to date and annual military spending is running upwards of $600 billion a year despite the lack of any serious military rival. Why does this continue?

Get Your Priorities Straight

The U.S. has spent $817 billion on the Iraq War since 2003, according to the National Priorities Project. To date, New York City’s share of the bill is $35.28 billion. The Priorities Project website has a tabulator that allows you to enter your choices for how you would have spent the $35 billion. Here’s one version of what New Yorkers could have received that money for: 

$9.19 billion Providing 100,000 children every year with Head Start slots for 10 years.

$5.05 billion Hiring 5,945 elementary school teachers for 10 years.

$6 billion Granting 100,000 college scholarships of $6,000 every year for 10 years.

$12.59 billion Providing low-income health care for 150,000 people for 10 years.

$2.45 billion Providing VA medical care for 25,000 veterans for 10 years.

Total $35.28 billion

For more, see

— John Tarleton

Michael Zweig: The reason why we have such military expenses is to project U.S. interests around the world. That means U.S. corporate interests. This is in all the documents and strategic doctrines that presidents present to Congress. This is fundamentally a class question of protecting and projecting the power of American corporate interests, which are 180 degrees different than the interests of American workers. That shows not just in these strategic policies but also in the way that federal budget priorities are set and the funding of the military compared with other alternative uses of those funds. 

JT: It’s hard to see how U.S. interests have been advanced by wars like Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Yet, there seems to be little desire in elite circles to reflect on and learn from these experiences. 

MZ: Well, I do think that President Obama and his immediate circle of advisors have learned some lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, even though we see a lot of Dick Cheney in the media. Obama is projecting force through the use of drones and special operations forces, and things that are not as obviously militaristic. Tactical lessons have been learned about how best to project power. 

JT: How did we come to have a full-time war economy?

MZ: At the end of World War II, the United States emerged as the dominant economic power in the capitalist world while the British and the French were receding as colonial powers. The United States undertook in that circumstance to assert itself economically, but also politically and militarily, and established a standing military, which was new to this country. Eisenhower warned about it in 1961 in his famous farewell address he gave on the military industrial complex. 

JT: Since 9/11, the military has grown ever larger.

MZ: Yes, we’re constantly being told there’s no money, we have to cut, cut, cut. There’s lots of money, and it’s just a matter of changing priorities and redirecting those resources.

I was in Brooklyn the other day and did a little calculation from the data on the National Priorities Project website (see sidebar on page 10). The people of the 9th congressional district, which encompasses a big swath of central and east Brooklyn, sent $677 million to the Pentagon this year. If you take just 15 percent of that, or $100 million, you would get 2,675 university scholarships, 1,875 Pell Grants, 100 police officers, 1,400 veterans receiving VA medical care, 2,000 low-income people with health care, 1,300 low-income children receiving low-income health care, 100 elementary school teachers, 1,300 Head Start slots for small children, 8,375 households getting solar power retrofits and 4,000 getting wind power retrofits. 

Keep in mind, that’s just one of New York City’s 13 congressional districts and one out of 535 congressional districts in the country. 

JT: You could shrink the military budget by half or more, still have a substantial military and begin to address a tremendous number of other needs. But that doesn’t seem to be the direction of things. 

MZ: It’s important for us to ask what it takes to really be a secure country. And in my view, the American people would be secure if they were healthy, if they would have jobs that paid living wages and an infrastructure that was stable and efficient so that the economy and businesses could grow.

Those are the things that are possessed by a healthy and educated population, a skilled population, a population that’s fully employed, a population that can live on the wages that it makes, those are things that make for a secure people. People are still afraid of being sick, still afraid that they’re going to be bankrupted by an illness even with the insurance that they have. We could have a military, but a much smaller one that protects the country from aggression, but without having the capacity to have hundreds of bases all around the world and all the expenses that are associated with those.

JT: One group for whom there never seems to enough resources are veterans. That seems especially cynical. 

MZ: If you look at who’s in the military, they’re basically working-class men and women who join the military for a variety of reasons. And they’re treated like workers are treated anywhere. They’re treated like shit. Everybody stands up and says how wonderful veterans are and always thank them for their service, but when it comes time to really deliver for these men and women, the corporate elites and the government that serves them have about the same attitude towards those workers in the uniform as they do workers who are working in a mine or a mill or in an office someplace, or in a call center, which is no regard at all.

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