Guest columnist Allen Woods: Wars have no winners except arms merchants


Published: 06-01-2023 6:17 PM

Memorial Day always immerses me in a pool of mixed feelings, like those inspired by the national anthem soon after the Vietnam War. Then, the song was used as a club in the culture war, which boiled down the complex issues surrounding the war into the simplistic slogan “Love It or Leave It.”

I loved our country, but opposed many of its political decisions. It was a false choice using a narrow definition of “love” that did not allow for the basic right of dissent and protest that is central to a healthy democracy.

My father was a World War II veteran, and when I considered his, and our country’s, choices back then, I gave up imagining myself a pacifist who would refuse to serve in an army necessary to defend our country. But since that time, our potent military has been used too often for misguided reasons or under false pretenses.

During the Vietnam War and after, I’ve come to know many drafted and volunteer veterans and families fueled by high ideals who made sacrifices at a terrible personal cost. Along with the hundreds of thousands of military deaths worldwide, millions of civilians have died, along with the loss of so much potential for those deeply scarred by the wars. The costs have been staggering.

Memorial Day each year brings a sad realization: Our young people have been sacrificed in a system that offers no real winners (although some countries declare victory) other than the military-industrial complex, first identified by President (and former General) Eisenhower in 1961 when he retired from public life.

For decades, requests for U.S. military expenditures have been treated like sacred texts handed down from the heavens. In 2022, the U.S. spent more than 10 times as much on the military as it did on education, transportation, the environment, or any other category. The total was also more than the next 10 countries combined.

In my lifetime, one glimmer of hope was quickly snuffed out by elected officials supported by arms manufacturers. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it seemed that the Age of Aquarius (from the musical “Hair”) might be right around the corner, with “harmony and understanding” guiding the planet. People imagined using a “peace dividend” to improve social conditions since the global arms race was no longer necessary.

But the arms lobby prevailed with the support of President Bill Clinton. Congress lifted restrictions on exporting arms around the world, and today, the U.S. supplies developing nations and other countries with 40% of its arsenal. The flood of weapons created an increasingly unstable world. How did the U.S. military respond? By increasing its own stockpile, of course. It’s another deadly feedback loop: more weapons abroad (supplied by the U.S.) mean more are needed at home, meaning more are needed abroad, etc., etc.

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One old bumper sticker said, “It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” Today, an F-35 fighter jet costs  $70-$90 million, while Greenfield’s mayor and City Council search for $1.5 million for the School Department budget, less than 2% of the cost of one plane. The military plans to spend $1.7 trillion on 2,500 F-35s in coming years, more than 1 million times the current shortfall in our local schools.

Will it get better? A year without war happened only about once in every 20 in recorded history. With the war in Ukraine, worldwide military spending continues to increase, topping $2.2 trillion in 2022. Even a few years of peace would be a complete reversal of human history. We continue to invest “blood and treasure” in deadly wars, rather than put our human and economic potential to better use.

Another tree in this forest of tragedies is the contempt shown for the men and women who risk their lives as “boots on the ground.” Congress spends exorbitantly on weapons, but pinches pennies when providing assistance for those suffering the physical and mental damage those weapons caused. Treating veterans as simply collateral damage subverts and denies the sacrifices they’ve made.

So here we are, another Memorial Day with parades and speeches, while there are few government attempts to prevent the need for an annual day that should come with mourning as well as celebration and honor. Huge amounts of “blood and treasure” will continue to be wasted with little besides destruction in return, and our schools and social agencies will continue to hold bake sales.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly. Comments are welcome here or at