They say the sun never sets on the U.S. military. Our military remains vigilant around the globe, at all times, to respond to any and every threat before it reaches American shores.
That has long been and remains an important mission. But, while the sun may never set on our military might, the United States has revealed its woeful lack of preparation for and defense against the two greatest national security threats facing this nation. No, I do not mean Russia and China. Or Iran and North Korea. Or any combination of nations. The greatest threats facing our way of life, our economy and the lives of American citizens are pandemic illness and climate change.
The death toll of the pandemic already has surpassed our combat deaths from the Vietnam War and is more than seven times our combat deaths since 9/11. It’s likely the number of COVID-19 deaths already is much higher, and continues to climb. And if there’s a fall and/or spring 2021 resurgence of the virus, the numbers could be more than we’ve suffered in any single war.
Already this pandemic has been far more costly and damaging to our economy than war. At $2.3 trillion, the CARES Act alone cost more than all our war fighting in Iraq since 2003, and is more than a third of the $6.4 trillion cost of the entire Global War on Terror since 2001. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of the economic toll on the United States from this crisis, or the long-term effects yet to come. An April 20 Brookings Institute report found it is “now a foregone conclusion that the global economy will slip into a recession in 2020.”
“As a result of the unprecedented sudden stop in global economic activity, 2020 is on track to witness the deepest global recession on a scale not seen since World War II,” the study’s authors wrote.
The effects of COVID-19 thus far have completely disrupted our society and economy, and for all its impact this is mild in comparison to what scientists have been predicting and warning against from more serious pandemics — which remain future threats.
If you replaced the cause of all this death and economic disruption with the words “terrorist” or “foreign” anything instead of “pandemic,” there would be no shortage of bipartisan effort and public support to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year making sure this never happened again. And that would be proper, because anything that threatens the lives and property of American citizens to this extent cannot by any rational measure be considered less than a serious national security threat.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a good track record of gearing up to face national security threats that can’t be countered with military force and obscenely lucrative defense contracts. Just as scientists and risk analysts have been ringing the alarm bell about pandemics since the 1960s, scientists also have been trying in vain to make American politicians address an even more serious and potentially deadly threat — climate change.
The National Climate Assessment released in November 2018 predicted, unless we take drastic measures to counter climate change, by 2100 we face sea level rise that will cause chronic flooding in 670 U.S. communities, wildfire outbreaks across a huge swath of the country and persistent drought where we grow our food.
Those risks will reduce the U.S. economy by 10%, the study predicts, costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Habitat loss, species extinction, flooding, wildfires, an increasing frequency and strength of hurricanes and loss of human life due to a declining environment and increasing natural disasters, famine and disease will follow.
In January 2019, the Pentagon submitted a report to Congress acknowledging climate change poses a national security threat to the United States and her citizens.
“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,” the report stated, in characteristic militaresque understatement. If you dig deeper into the report, the Pentagon states operations capability at two-thirds of U.S. military installations is threatened by climate change-related risks such as sea level rise, drought and recurring wildfires.
Again, if any threat identified with a nation or ideology posed that kind of danger to American lives, property and national security assets, the only sound louder than politicians clamoring to increase spending to counter the threat would be the incessant replaying of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.”
But, because the threats of climate change and pandemics cannot be wrapped in the flag and do not carry the possibility of absurd profit margins for defense contractors, they go unheeded.
None of this should be construed as minimizing the importance of our military and the men and women who serve in uniform. But, if we truly want to secure our nation, its people and their property, we must begin to look at national security in terms that go beyond bullets and bombs. That may not be appealing for the military-industrial profiteers. But, it is absolutely essential for our security, and that of future generations of Americans.