Americans have an insatiable appetite for military spending

Americans have an insatiable appetite for military spending
President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, delivers remarks during a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Like the original 1980s Top Gun, the new sequel Maverick opens with the camera lovingly panning over military aircraft to the thumping synths of Kenny Loggins’ “Highway to the Danger Zone.”

I’m hardly the first person to note that Top Gun, and now its sequel, are essentially military recruitment ads. The original led to a recruiting boom. The Navy worked closely with Maverick’s producers, providing equipment and consulting on the script, because they hoped that the sequel would inspire a new generation to join up.

“I do think it's going to strike gold, and I think it's going to be a huge return on investment for the Navy,” said Capt. Brian Ferguson, the Navy’s technical advisor for the film.

The return on investment there isn’t just about getting more people to sign up to be Navy pilots. It’s about defense budgets.

When Congress is willing to spend money on nothing else, it is willing to spend on defense. Hollywood’s “cinema industrial complex” (as Viet Thanh Nguyen calls it) and the country’s military industrial complex are mutually reinforcing. Maverick sells defense spending, and the military in turn sells Maverick. Dreams are hardware and vice versa.

Maverick, like Top Gun before it, is vague about who the United States is fighting and why. The title character, played by an eternally young, eternally grinning Tom Cruise, is brought back to the Top Gun fighter pilot training facility to prepare hotshot fighters for a new mission.

An unnamed nation in an unnamed location is enriching uranium to create potential nuclear weapons. The pilots are supposed to invade this nation’s airspace and destroy the base before it goes online.

The enemy fighters have superior planes. The base is heavily defended. The terrain is difficult. Everything is stacked against our heroes.

You never see the faces of the enemy behind their helmets. Only Americans have personalities, families and features. Wars are about the men and women who fight for the US. Anyone on the other side is simply a convenient obstacle. They are supposed to resist and die.

The sweeping indifference to the opposition is in line with the approach to defense spending, which goes up no matter what.

From 2000 to 2019, the US spent $16.52 trillion on the military budget, including the Veteran’s Administration. The Trump administration’s 2021 Pentagon budget of $740.5 billion was an $100 billion increase over 2016. It was also the biggest expenditure since World War II.

Biden’s defense budget for 2023 is even larger, $813 billion.

Biden says it’s needed to counter China. But the US already spends far more than any other nation on defense. In 2019, US spending was almost three times more than China and 10 times more than Russia. The US was responsible for 38 percent of military spending worldwide.

Congress is willing to spend more and more. It approved additional emergency expenditures, like $40 billion in aid to Ukraine last month.

Helping Ukraine fight against Russian imperial aggression is a worthy goal. But it’s striking that funding for that can sail through the Congress while other security concerns are stalled indefinitely.

Hundreds of Americans are dying every day from covid. If hundreds of Americans were dying from enemy air assaults every day, Maverick would be breaking even more box office records and Congress would be appropriating trillions to equip more fighter planes.

But Congress has stalled on appropriating funds to fight covid.

Climate change is also a major threat. Shifting weather and rising oceans will displace millions, leading to refuge crises, as an example.

Again US climate spending is stalled, perhaps indefinitely if Republicans retake either chamber of Congress, which seems likely.

There is infinite appetite for guns and bombs and fighter planes, even though the US hasn’t faced a military threat in almost 80 years. Meanwhile, real pressing threats are aggressively ignored.

The explanation is simple.

As Maverick demonstrates, military spending is fun.

Hollywood is built on exciting militarized action: guns, explosions, speed and enemies overcome. Ed Whitfield at The Ooh Tray said that Top Gun and Maverick are “built on US exceptionalism, on competitive machismo, on bread and butter heroics.” It’s empty-headed patriotic empowerment fantasies for adrenaline junkies. It’s fun.

The fun sells movie tickets. Maverick has had a huge box office haul and is already Tom Cruise’s most successful film of his very successful career. As the pandemic drags on and we face an ongoing assault on democracy at home, people enjoy turning off their brains for a couple hours to revel in a dream of military triumph.

There are some Hollywood examples of brave scientists developing vaccines (as in Contagion), and there are many warnings of future climate dystopia (Don’t Look Up!). But those stories are swamped by superhero films, war pictures and action movies warning of invasion and foreign threats stomped out by cool heroes and awesome tech.

The money we pay for defense for the most part doesn’t protect us from real threats. Rather, it gives people permission to imagine themselves shooting faceless villains out of the sky like Tom Cruise.

Congress is appropriating billions so people can go to movie theaters and enjoy Maverick. Hollywood advertises the military, and the military advertises Hollywood right back.

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