Feeding the Military Monster

Big-spending United States military is the largest polluter on earth

By S. Tom Bond

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the United States has the world’s largest military. Financed by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of $581 billion annually, it accounts for 36 percent of all that is spent on the military in the world. China, with $129.4 billion is second, a mere eight percent of the world total. Third is Saudi Arabia with $89.8 billion, about five percent of the world’s military expenditures. Russia is a close fourth, spending $70.0 billion, somewhat more than 4 percent of the total. Notably, only two out of the next ten are not United States allies.

Maintaining worldwide presence costs over $2 trillion

The United States has 12 aircraft carriers, ten of them nuclear powered, and all of them larger than any carrier belonging to any other country. In fact, nine of them are rated almost two-and-a-half times as big as the next country’s aircraft carrier. The newest, the USS Gerald R. Ford, launched in 2013, cost $12.9 billion. This does not include the cost of the airplanes, equipment and personnel.

One type of aircraft (the F-35) costs $182 million to $299 million per plane. Multiply that by hundreds. American taxpayers maintain the largest collection of foreign bases in world history: more than 1,000 military installations outside the 50 states (see here and here).

While the cost of maintaining these bases is very difficult to ascertain, Juan Cole gives an official figure and an educated guess: “Forced by Congress to account for its spending overseas, the Pentagon has put that figure at $22.1 billion a year. It turns out that even a conservative estimate of the true costs of garrisoning the globe comes to an annual total of about $170 billion. In fact, it may be considerably higher. Since the onset of ‘The Global War on Terror’ in 2001, the total cost for our garrisoning policies, for our presence abroad, has probably reached $1.8 trillion to $2.1 trillion.”

The world’s largest polluter

Grasping the size of the military is essential to understanding its reliance upon fossil fuels and the cost of that reliance, as Joyce Nelson revealed in a recent article. The Pentagon is the largest institutional user of petroleum products in the world, burning through 395,000 barrels of oil a day. The current annual cost – $16 billion – could easily track upwards when oil prices stabilize. It takes a lot of fuel to run big ships, like cruisers; a lot to run a land army with tanks and trucks; and a lot for an airplane with afterburners that go through 300 gallons of fuel a minute. And, it takes a lot for keeping up those 1,000 bases overseas in over 130 countries and more than 4,000 at home.

Because of the huge amount of oil it uses, the military is also the greatest source of global warming. In a remarkable piece originally published by the International Action Center, Sara Flounders wrote in 2014: “There is an elephant in the climate debate that by United States demand cannot be discussed or even seen. This agreement to ignore the elephant is now the accepted basis of all international negotiations on climate change. It is well understood by every possible measurement that the Pentagon, the United States military machine, is the world’s biggest institutional consumer of petroleum products and the world’s worst polluter of greenhouse gas emissions and many other toxic pollutants. Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exemption in all international climate agreements. Ever since the Kyoto Accords or Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1998, in an effort to gain United States compliance, all United States military operations worldwide and within the United States are exempt from measurement or agreements on reduction (“The Pentagon – The Climate Elephant,” International Action Center, 14 Sept. 2014; and, Global Research 17 Sept. 2014).

So, in the international debate, the military is exempt from having to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and doesn’t even have to report them. In spite of this exemption, the United States Senate did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, for fear it would hurt “the economy” (read “the oil and gas industry”).

Additionally, extracting tar sands oil produces more CO2 than production of normal oil. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences shows spills of it are different and more dangerous than ordinary oil.

One of the grimmer facts revealed by the Counterpunch article has to do with Canadian tar sands oil. It reported, “Only about 20 per cent of tar sands crude can be refined into oil [and gas] for a conventional car, but the product from it is almost identical to jet fuel. This helps explain the demand for tar sands oil, which is costly to extract and refine.”

It continued, “Scientists concur that the production, refining and burning of tar sands crude release at least 23 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil.” And, “Emissions from fighter jets and planes cause disproportionately high impacts on the climate because of the way they mix with atmospheric gasses at high altitudes. Much of this fuel comes from tar sands oil.”

Certainly, it is probably that this exemption for the military fuels the reluctance of other nations to make concessions in greenhouse gas reductions.

Is a large military necessary?

In light of recent terrorist attacks, the military is sacrosanct, at least in GOP debates. So, questioning whether a large military is necessary is not popular in many quarters. Yet, it is necessary. If you want to read deep mendacity, just conduct an Internet search of the phrase, “Why is a large United States military necessary?” Among the answers you find “defense” ranks high. Yet, to our east and our west, our nation enjoys natural fortifications – oceans thousands of miles wide.  Our neighbors to the north and south of us are friendly.

Yes, there are threats, but they are overstated or of our own making. ISIS or Daish is 30,000 people at the most, lacking ships and airplanes, and with territory as fluid as a pool of mercury. If it wasn’t for oil smuggled out through Turkey, a United States ally, and Sunni businessmen from United States and allied countries that pay its bill, ISIS would be less of a threat.

Despite recent economic troubles, China has largely been propped up by United States economic and fiscal policies. Russia, as students of world history understand, is simply attempting to reclaim lost territory and prestige from the collapse of the Soviet Union and expansion of NATO. In short, the potential military threats faced by the United States could arguably be mitigated through improved diplomacy. Certainly, the competition from China and Russia is not new, so responsible diplomats can negotiate competing interests without dropping bombs or fighting proxy wars.

According to Alexander J. Bacevich, writing in The Washington Post, “… to judge by outcomes, the Army is not a force for decisive action. It cannot be counted on to achieve definitive results in a timely manner. In Afghanistan and Iraq, actions that momentarily appeared to be decisive served as preludes to protracted and inconclusive wars. As for preventing, shaping and winning, this surely qualifies as bluster…” Certainly, the military is required to honor orders from its civilian leader, the president. So, poor diplomacy by politicians is largely to blame for military failures. Whatever the reasons – strategic, tactical or both – it is clear that a large military does not ensure the achieving of our political, economic and diplomatic agendas.

The military probably has been useful in South Korea, especially, and Taiwan and perhaps a few other places in holding the line since World War II, but not when called on to fight land wars, particularly in Asia. I concur with Bracevich: “Defense per se figured as an afterthought, eclipsed by the conviction that projecting power held the key to transforming the world from what it is into what Washington would like it to be: orderly, predictable, respectful of American values and deferential to U.S. prerogatives.” Such projection of force also provides a fertile field for U.S. business interests, I might add.

The changing financial world order

The United States came through World War II with industry and the civilian population relatively unharmed. At the Bretton Woods Conference, the U.S. dollar was made the world reserve currency. That meant other countries had to have the dollar to buy from a second nation. Today the euro, the Yen, the Pound Sterling, the Australian dollar the Swiss franc and the Chinese renminbi are all used.  The U.S. dollars, often called petrodollars, are coming home.

Our business has changed from making things to making money, a situation called financialization – using money to make money. Our “soft power” – economic strength – is fading fast.


The unbridled use of limited fossil fuels to secure access to fossil fuels is the ironic result of our huge military. It is, to say the least, counter-productive.

Some of our resources are well on the way to depletion, namely, water, oil, natural gas (we have reached the stage of using extreme extraction methods while the rest of the world is still has abundant conventional reserves), phosphorus (for fertilizer), and we never had much aluminum, rare earths or lithium. The United States has only 1.9 percent of the dry surface of the earth to draw from, and about 4.5 percent of the population.

How would we replace really serious losses of the military? Women have recently been permitted to join all jobs in the combat arms. A bill making it possible to draft women is in the hopper. Does that sound like strength?

Perhaps surest of all is the realization that United States military strength is largely devoted to controlling oil, whether in the Middle East or the South China Sea. The oil the military burns is so the United States can control access to the world’s oil.

Our national course needs to be set using a lot more brains and considerably less “testosterone.”  After all, a man manages a bull.

© S. Tom Bond / Appalachian Chronicle, 2015.  Michael M. Barrick contributed to this article.

S. Tom Bond is a retired chemistry professor and a farmer in Lewis County, W.Va. He expresses his gratitude to Jessica Ernst, who circulated the Counterpunch article which inspired this essay.

We are on Facebook

Twitter: @appchronicle


  1. On this Christmas Eve..the temperature will be 71 degrees..The polluting climate change deniers are real quiet this year…and the irony is…the warmer the planet becomes, the less money the polluting oil companies make…I haven’t turned on my heater once this winter and my heating bill has been like 5 dollars a month for the past 2 months…they are all stupid polluting idiots who let their greed shoot themselves in the foot

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s