Right now all eyes are on the “fiscal cliff” debate. So far, the focus seems limited to domestic spending cuts and taxes. Many Americans feel that military spending ought to be cut instead. Unfortunately, the way we shape our demand for that shift often fails to be heard. Why? There are many reasons for our failure to speak American about military spending cuts. The most important ones are: 1. the “perceived enemy” glitch, 2. the “perceived solution” glitch, and 3. the insider language glitch. Let’s take the “perceived enemy” glitch first. As of September 11, 2001, the public’s perception is that we have very dangerous terrorist enemies. Yet all too often our pitch about cutting military spending is that we should be spending that money at home instead.
Instead? Instead of what? Yes, we should be spending any military savings we can find at home. But that isn’t the answer to the public’s worry about what to do about our perceived enemies. It isn’t even an answer to the question of what we should have done in the past to prevent our having enemies. The issue is what we should do about them now. That question must be answered first. If you can show that your alternative proposal for dealing with terrorists works better and saves money, then you can talk credibly about where to spend those savings at home. I’ll say more about this point below.
Now let’s take up the “perceived solution” glitch for a minute. If you can show that a lot of the “military money” we are spending isn’t really dealing with “enemies” at all, but is going into waste, fraud, and abuse, then you can make an airtight case that savings from those military cuts should be spent at home. The reason? Yes, there still has to be a reason that matches the locus of the “security” argument, as we rhetoricians say. And the reason is that growing inequality and social breakdown at home are very serious national security problems too. (Make clear that no amount of domestic militarization will ever succeed long term, if our people are deeply miserable and furious.) The 2012 election is just the first sign of that home truth.
But to make the “waste, fraud, and abuse” approach really stick, we must face up to our other big framing problem with military spending: insider jargon/choir speak. Phrases like “military contractor” or the “military industrial complex” roll off our tongues all too easily. Does the public get what those phrases mean? Do they believe anything can be done about such mysterious monoliths? Probably not. What if we spoke of “military corporations” instead?
There we have a frame already strong in the public mind right now: excessive, selfish lobbying for stuff that doesn’t serve the public interest, outrageous CEO salaries, abusive worker practices, all at public expense. All we have to add is that, dollar for dollar, “military corporations” generate fewer jobs than any other kind of business, including green energy businesses, which could actually help to reduce the threat of future climate conflict.(1) It’s the standard waste, fraud, and abuse story—a classic element of the American Nightmare story.
Now that we’re talking about actual language, let’s get back to the “perceived enemy” glitch for a minute. What about the idea that there are better ways to deal with perceived enemies than just throwing money and weapons at them? We can point out that civilian-led “peacebuilding” moves work much better than military ones. (2) This tack also has the advantage of putting a positive idea out there first, something I always advocate. (In fact, I think we need a lot more emphasis on educating the public about what peacebuilding is, how it works, when it’s worked in the past, and the need to fund and practice it more.) So some phrases like “peacebuilding works best,” or “peacebuilding stops war” would be a good way to start. In this case, the “hunh?” factor coming from public ignorance about “peacebuilding” could provide an opening to say more about it. (It also could produce some nice graphics.)
Second, only after putting a positive image out there should we go on to trash war as a tactic: “war fails,” “war doesn’t work,” “war is obsolete,” etc. Notice I left out the old perennial favorites, “no war,” “stop the war,” or “war is not x or not y.” Pure negatives lack suggestions about exactly what the problem with war is. Moreover, modern cognitive science has shown that people fail to process “not” in a statement on the first go round, especially if they already think war might be a good idea.
Finally, it always helps to get very specific about exactly what other things military we want to cut. Just repeating over and over again that we want to cut “military spending” is sleep-inducing. Get specific about stopping the counterproductive Afghan budget drain. Then (except for stockpile protection and reduction), there’s cutting spending on nukes and keeping nukes on alert, drone warfare, and along that line, the biggest, most dangerous new drone boondoggle of all, “Star Wars II,” the idiotic plan for a global space-based surveillance and attack drone system, eventually to be run by robots! (3) This system is what Obama used to ridicule Romney’s “build up the Navy” idea during the campaign.) I think we need to start ridiculing this global drone system plan ourselves; ridicule worked to help do in “Star Wars I.” Remember those black umbrellas with big holes in them being flourished in drill team style at media events? It was wildly popular. (If you are too young to recall that, ask an old peacenik how that went.)
Even if the “fiscal cliff” negotiations end up leaving too much military spending in place, the changes in framing tactics I’ve suggested here will serve us well in all of the years ahead. Budget battles are seldom really over for good.
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of The Metaphor Project, and author of Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. Before starting The Metaphor Project, she was a co-founder of The “Who’s Counting?” Project, an online vehicle for publicizing the film, Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies, and Global Economics. In the 1990’s she served as Senior Research Associate for six years at The Center for Economic Conversion, (Mountain View, CA), publishing “The GDP Myth: How It Harms Our Quality of Life and What Communities Can Do About It,” (The Center for Economic Conversion, Mountain View, 1995, 38 pp.). She also served as a co-founder of Peace Action’s original Peace Economy Campaign and National Strategy Committee Co-Chair.
- One bit of military spending we do need to keep and defend from the G.O.P. slashers attacking it is the Pentagon’s green energy initiative. Ironically enough, the military, which the G.O.P. usually worships, has drawn the non-G.O.P. conclusion that our forces and our bases must go green in the interest of national security. Military futurists have studied the climate science and run the global conflict scenarios. They are facing the facts and making plans, unlike most of the rest of the world. Why should we peace advocates be happy about this? Because the Pentagon has the purchasing power to help drive green energy business into the mainstream economy, and going green will help reduce conflict in the future. For details, see
- http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/making-it-home/the-real-reason-the-military-is-going-green and
- also http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Solar-wind-power-get-Pentagon-boost-3767317.php, as well as
- http://www.epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.Blogs&ContentRecord_id=79b9ea75-802a-23ad-4dd3-3cbf1e2adc47 and the update article at
- I may be using the term “peacebuilding” more broadly here than the technical definitions of it in use by some official bodies like the U.N. and other institutions or theorists in the field. For details about those restrictions on the term, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peacebuilding. I think the word has more educational power than those technical definitions may cover. If you search the web for “peacebuilding,” you will find a wide variety of other resources as well.
- My source for this point is an article published on 11.06.12 on TomDispatch, by Alfred W. McCoy, and reposted by AlterNet. The title is “New Weapons Systems Could Give Pentagon Unprecedented Power Over the Planet. . .or Lead to Future Military Disaster.” http://www.alternet.org/world/new-weapons-systems-could-give-pentagon-unprecedented-power-over-planet-or-lead-future