Originially published in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Opinion//Open Forum section on Earth Day 2020-04-20:
An Earth Day thought for our ‘wartime president’ during coronavirus crisis
by Rob Caughlan
We always fight the last war. The Maginot Line is a perfect example. After World War I, the French built it to protect themselves from the Germans. (André Maginot’s fortified wall made President Trump’s wall look like chicken-wire fence.) The Germans just blitzed around it.
The United States spends $600 billion a year on “defense spending.” We buy 10 times more bullets and bombs than all the other countries in the world combined to protect us from the last war. But we aren’t the only ones fighting the last war. On a global scale, every year the world spends about 2 trillion dollars on defense. It’s not just the U.S. It’s all of US.
The new world war we are waging is not against a different ideology or religion. It’s not even for the usual motive of taking territory. This war is against a protein molecule. The soldiers are the doctors and nurses and grocery store clerks and the people who try not to share it. Only smart politicians, scientists and scholars working together can win victories in this war. The weapons are not bullets. They are ventilators and face masks and medicine.
Moving our national defense budget from bombs to global health solutions won’t be easy.
The merchants of death are usually tougher and greedier than the saviors of life.
If a virus could scoff, this nasty little protein molecule scoffs at national boundaries, ideologies and religions. It is forcing us to think globally in a powerful new way.
My friend Tom Flynn thinks it could be done the way President Dwight Eisenhower did it. Shortly after World War I, Lt. Col. Eisenhower took an Army convoy road trip across America. The roads were so bad it took them 62 days to get from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Years later when Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Eisenhower was fighting in Europe, he said, “Germany made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”
When Ike was president of the United States, he used national defense as the primary reason to build our national highway system. It took him a couple of years to get the Congress and the states to figure it all out, but Ike was persistent. He built more than 40,000 miles of interstate highways and strengthened the nation.
So I say, it’s time for all the nations to stop fighting the last war. The world wars we are now in are molecular and atmospheric. Solving a global virus and solving the global climate crisis are the wars we must win.
Let’s divert all that gun money into butter money. Let’s build more hospital ships and face masks. How many problems could the world solve and how many jobs could the world create with an extra $2 trillion a year?
Can something good actually come from all the pain and death and economic suffering this virus has caused? Like the even larger climate crisis, the pandemic is telling us that this world war can only be won with a new global perspective on defense. It is simply about the survival of our species.
Rob Caughlan worked in the White House on President Jimmy Carter’s Global 2000 Report. He has a degree in International Relations and Political Science from San Francisco State.