by Erik Edstrom
Remarks delivered at the People & Planet, not Profits Tax Day in Boston, MA on May 17th 2021.
My name is Erik Edstrom.
I am 35 years old. I am a veteran of the Afghan War. And like the rest of my generation—‘Millennials’—there has never been a single day in my adult life when America was not at war. For Gen. Z Americans, the situation is worse. For every day of their lives, the US government has been leveraging the future prosperity of their country in debt to pay for self-defeating wars of aggression. No progress. No gains. Only squandered opportunities, debt, depression, displacement, and death.
In the past twenty years, many things have changed. I graduated from Stoughton Public High School and West Point. I served in direct combat in Afghanistan where 25% of my platoon became casualties. Upon returning home, one former soldier–18 years old at the time of deployment—committed suicide. Another former soldier is serving life-in-prison in Oregon for murder. At my final duty station, as part of the Honor Guard, I buried one of my best friends in Arlington National Cemetery and handed the folded American flag to his crying mother.
Much has changed in 20 years.
One thing, however, has remained constant: America is still at war, locked in a spiral of political violence and ever-growing military budgets.
Year-after-year, our politicians overlook far more pressing national priorities to throw our hard-earned tax dollars at wasteful military R&D—the F-35—gargantuan operating expenses—maintaining a military boot print in 80 different countries—and wartime slush funds—waging a series of negative-sum, non-declared wars that have been septic since the George W. Bush administration.
This. Is. Not. Normal.
I could use this moment—speaking with you today—to talk about the sheer futility of America’s $6.4 trillion dollar, self-perpetuating, negative-sum, multi-decade War on Terror.
I could talk about how, on the ground, I participated in a mission nicknamed “Operation Highway Babysitter,” in which the infantry secured the road, allowing logistics convoys to resupply the infantry—all so that the infantry could secure the road, so that the logistics convoys could resupply the infantry. Ad Nauseum. This was known as the ‘self-licking ice cream cone.’
Worse, whenever a road was blown up—since protecting all the roads, all the time, was impossible—American forces would pay exorbitant cost-plus contracts to Afghan construction companies to rebuild it. It was common knowledge that many of these companies were owned by Afghan warlords guilty of human rights abuses. In turn, the construction companies paid a protection tribute to the Taliban. Then the Taliban would buy more bomb-making materials to destroy the road—and U.S. vehicles. We were, indirectly but also quite literally, paying the Taliban to kill us.
Or…I could talk about how, despite the bloated military budgets, there is no precedent in American history where more was spent accomplishing less.
During the past two decades, politicians of both parties waged political violence that heaped $6.4 trillion dollars of debt onto future generations, killed 100 times more civilians than 9/11, while simultaneously exacerbating the original problem they originally intended to solve—terrorism.
Calling these wars, “self-defeating,” is a cartoonish understatement.
Instead, what I really want to talk about today is opportunity costs and cold, hard, investment.
Study-after-study notes that domestic, not military, spending fuels job growth. The facts are uncontroversial. Military spending does not provide the foundations for future growth as well as other types of public investment. A country that borrows to make productive investment—in education, technology, or infrastructure—enhances its future potential. For most countries, the return on these public investments far exceeds the cost of capital. Thus, such investments, more than wasteful military spending, strengthen the country’s balance sheet and make it more capable of withstanding shocks.
It may sound like a paradox, but it is no less true: every dollar of military spending, beyond what is necessary to protect Americans at home, is a dollar of spending that makes America more brittle, not tougher or stronger.
Sound fiscal policy is deeply intertwined with, not separate from, sound national security. We must prioritize that which is important, not that which is sensational.
It is true: This nation’s leaders have either been too inept to tell the difference between a true existential threat—like Climate change—from sensationalist clickbait—like foreign-born terrorists, or they lack the courage and conviction to draft policies that focus our country on what matters most. In either case, these politicians either need to get on board and rationalize the military budget or hit the bricks and get out of office.
“What is the size of the risk,” you may ask. If you are standing before me today, you stand a greater likelihood of being killed by bees, or dogs, or your own furniture falling on you than you do of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist.
“And how can we contextualize the $6.4 trillion America wasted on this war,” you may ask. Instead of the Global War on Terror, America could have paid the $1.6 trillion bill on all student debt in the U.S., provided an entire year of free health care to every American—$3.5 trillion—and had just enough left over to hire Beyoncé for a private concert, every day, for the next 2,000 years.
Or, if you wanted to waste money in a different way that wouldn’t cause 4 million Afghans to be displaced from their homes, we could have strung single $100 bills lengthwise—long enough to take nearly twelve round trips to the moon.
Every dollar that America invests in war today is not only a dollar not spent on addressing the direct causes of climate change, but a reinvestment in more and worse wars in the future, caused by climate change. Our failure to apply our nation’s assets to what is important will have long-term implications on the prosperity and health of this nation—and the world.
The story of America is the story of people arguing about what America stands for. But from this two thing are clear: rationalizing the military budget is not “unpatriotic;” and the number of dollars given to the DoD is not a proxy for how much you respect the troops.
If our elected officials do not heed the facts, we must not moan in dejected resignation. No.
If your elected representatives do not oppose endless war: fire them.
If your elected representatives do not invest in the future: fire them.
If your elected representatives use foreign policy to demean others: fire them.
If your elected representatives undermine international law or treaties: fire them.
And if no one steps up: run for office. You have my vote.
— Erik Edstrom is a Stoughton native, West Point graduate, Afghanistan War veteran and a member of Massachusetts Peace Action