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Remembering what's important on Remembrance Day

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The United States might be drowning in debt but it's spending enough on its military-security complex to fix the crisis and save us all from economic Armageddon. There are priorities, after all.

But here America is exceptional only in scale. It's true it will over the next decade spend a cool $700 billion modernizing and upgrading nuclear warheads and delivery systems, maybe as much as all other countries combined. But in fact the entire family of nuclear powers is on the move toward this same warm and fuzzy goal, according to a new report for the British American Security Information Council. Of course we could heat the entire world with the hot air moaning about both budget crunches and the urgent need for disarmament or else (a Barack Obama rhetorical specialty). Alas for us, "or else" wins again. The report shows that we are in for a terrifying "new era of nuclear weapons."

Besides the United States, we have Russia, China, India, Israel, France, Pakistan and North Korea all intending to spend a king's ransom on missile systems. How dangerous is this? In some cases, the purpose is explicitly belligerent. Russia and Pakistan, for example, assign to their nuclear weapons "war-fighting roles in military planning" while Israel "seems to be on course ... for future development of an inter-continental ballistic missile." Strange, given the loud attention to Iran's obvious nuclear ambitions, that this report has barely been noted.

Have no fear that non-nuclear nations have been asleep at the switch. According to the annual study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, governments across the Middle East and North Africa spent billions last year to stock up on weapons. Whatever results from the Arab Spring, the world's arms manufacturers and their lobbyists continue to laugh all the way to the banks we've bailed out. Besides a tidy $60-billion sales package for Saudi Arabia of fighter jets and helicopters, for example, the United States is selling them another potential $30-billion package to upgrade the Saudi naval forces. (For perspective, Canada's entire killer deficit for the next year will be $32-billion.)

Just to be even-handed, the poverty-stricken, program-slashing U.S. government gives Israel as a gift between $2-billion and $3-billion a year in military aid, making it the largest such recipient, with Egypt, the second largest, getting as their gift only slightly less. Guns or butter, butter or guns.

I wonder if a single earnest speech commemorating Remembrance Day will mention these annoying little factoids.

Canada too spends unprecedented amount of scarce dollars on our military and security establishments though no one has a clue whether it's money well spent. There are two main reasons for this surge in expenditures. The first is 9/11. The second is Stephen Harper.

Now it should not be necessary for me to make the following declaration, but I somehow think I'd better: Yes, there are deadly fanatics in the world whose twisted minds contrive some excuse or other to justify killing innocent people. Sept. 11, 2001 did happen and it was inevitable that the world would react. Terrorists must be prevented from carrying out their heinous acts, as security agencies throughout most of the world are being generously funded to do.

And yes, Canada needs the military capacity to make a significant contribution to dangerous UN peacemaking missions. And yes, these functions require appropriate funding, more than makes most progressives comfortable. They need to be more realistic. But must we be spending the huge sums that we do, when public funds are ostensibly so scarce and social needs are so great? That's the question that needs far more debate.

Of course the lack of public funds is eminently situational, as the race for superior nuclear weapons demonstrates. There's an old universal rule that says however intolerable the debt, however precarious the economy, however endless the human needs, governments always find money for what they really care about, whether it's new prisons or stealth fighter-bombers or gazebos for Tony Clement. In return, the duty of the majority is to magnanimously accept austerity leading to more unemployment, less spending, constricted growth and the resulting decrease in government revenues leading to even more austerity and greater slashing of public services. Except for ... well, you know.

This ironclad rule is demonstrated in full bloom in a new study from the indispensable Rideau Institute called The Cost of 9/11: Tracking the Creation of a National Security Establishment in Canada. My bet is that most Canadians have no idea that we even have a national security establishment now, let alone that it's cost us an extra $92 billion (adjusted for inflation) since the Twin Towers came down. In other words, had we been spending since 2001 at the rate until then, we'd have spent a cool $92 billion less. Of course some changes after 9/11 were inevitable and necessary. But are we now getting value for all this money? No one knows.

All of this was begun by Jean Chrétien and continued or accelerated by Mr. Harper. The Department of Defence budget, for example, has almost doubled since 9/11. But even though he committed Canada to a highly dubious war in Afghanistan, Mr. Chrétien increased military expenditures only modestly; the big jump has taken place in the six years of the Harper government.

Nor were the costs in military dollars alone. Following the lead of the Bush administration, then in full hysterical mode, the Liberals created a new Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness as well as a new Canada Border Services Agency. The sensible goal of each was to consolidate intelligence and security functions under one umbrella. But again, no one knows how well these operations are functioning or how much they need to cost.

This year, the Rideau Institute reports, Canada is planning to spend more than $34-billion on its national security establishment; that is, $17-billion more per year than it did just prior to 9/11 and, as it happens, almost identical to next year's pesky deficit. Put another way, this is an increase in spending of over 100 per cent in that period. That's a lot of money that could be spent on lots of other urgent needs. Shouldn't we be talking about such matters?

And shouldn't we, on this day more than any other, remember that despite these enormous expenditures and our pious tributes to our vets, Stephen Harper intends to cut the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs by a quarter of a billion dollars, with potentially major consequences for soldiers benefits? Certainly the vets who staged protests across the country last week are deeply concerned, knowing as they do the Harper government's shameful record in this regard. Do we simply forget them today?

And here's another interesting Remembrance Day test. As many as 17,000 Afghan civilians have been killed by foreign troops -- that's our side -- in the futile war we've fought in that country in the last 10 years. Do any of us know the name of a single one?

Lest we forget.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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