Why Pay for War?


When millions took to the streets across the U.S. and around the world on February 15, 2003, in the largest global demonstration for peace in history, President Bush brushed it off with ease. To let this influence his decision to attack Iraq, he quipped, would be “like saying I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group.”

Such has been the administration’s disdainful response to every antiwar protest since, and the bloody occupation of Iraq rages on.

With tax day upon us, those fighting for peace should ponder another hardliner’s words. “Let them march all they want to,” Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig reportedly said in 1982, after a massive rally for nuclear disarmament in New York, adding: “as long as they continue to pay their taxes.”

Bush’s proposed federal budget for 2008 requested $645 billion for national defense, including the $142 billion supplemental to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even this enormous figure could be considered incomplete, as Winslow Wheeler, a defense analyst at the Center for Defense Information, has pointed out, because it does not factor in among other things the cost of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, military aid to allies, or “the share of annual payments on the interest of the national debt that can be attributed to the Defense Department.”

To the taxpayer, these numbers mean that at a bare minimum over half of every tax dollar that Congress has control over through the appropriations process – also known as the discretionary budget – will go to the current wars or for maintaining the military establishment.

 

Since marching has proven so fruitless against this administration, those working for peace may want to voice their dissent through tactics that sever the flow of tax dollars to policies they find morally reprehensible.

The National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund has sought to create such an option by lobbying Congress to extend conscientious objector status to taxpayers. Legislation that would support the diversion of federal income, gift and estate taxes from conscientious objectors to a nonmilitary life-affirming fund has been proposed in every Congress since 1972. Despite the bill’s benefits – restoring freedom of religion as protected in the first amendment, stimulating thought on moral convictions, and actually increasing tax revenue by spending less on the cost of forced collections from protesters – Congress has been remiss to pass it, fearful of jeopardizing its ability to wage war.

Still, there are plenty of supporters within the legislative branch. Representative John Lewis of Georgia is set to reintroduce the bill to the House in the coming weeks. Until a hearing is scheduled, the best course of action to support this legislation is to write, fax, email, visit or call your representative and urge them to cosponsor the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill.

For those whose conscience demands action now, there is another option, carved out by a long history of war tax resisters. According to the War Resister’s League, tens of thousands of Americans – including Dorothy Day, Joan Baez and Noam Chomsky – have at some point resorted to civil disobedience by not paying their taxes since World War II.

Some resisters have deliberately chosen to live below the poverty line to avoid paying taxes, while others simply do not pay part or all of what the government demands for its addiction to war. These actions no doubt come with risk and sacrifice, but it’s often not as bad as people think. Only rarely has anyone lost their house or car or faced jail time, while many have resisted for decades without significant consequences.

The War Resisters League and the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee offer numerous resources on their websites concerning every facet of this form of resistance, as well as contact information for local support groups.


While the U.S. government has been spendthrift when it comes to building its arsenal, Americans, by and large, have been the misers, refusing to pay any significant price for their convictions. As Father Daniel Berrigan, no stranger to personal sacrifice, once remarked, “Because we want peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course continues, because the waging of war, by its nature is total – but the waging of peace, by our cowardice is partial.”

Eric Stoner is a writer based in New York. He can be reached at: [email protected].

 

Bryan Farrell is a journalist in New York and researcher for “Rolling Stone.” Contact him at: [email protected].

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