Hunger, homelessness and pestilence stalk the land. We are not talking here about Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, Iraq or Pakistan. The territory in question is distant from the occupied, war-ravaged regions of the world where cruise missiles and ordnance have turned once proud cities into rubble and devastated the economic infrastructure of nations and where the wretched of the earth, the living dead, the maimed or injured survivors of aerial bombardment and ground battles -- orphans, bereaved parents, wives, husbands and other victims of violence -- crowd in their millions or are herded into refugee camps.

This country situated thousands of miles from the theater of war in West, Central and South Asia is none other the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the world.

"According to the USDA, one in seven Americans struggled to obtain adequate food in 2008."
Scarcity in the land of plenty? Do I rave or exaggerate? Only if the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has doctored its data. Around mid-November, the USDA dropped a bombshell in the form of a report that showed that the incidence of hunger in the United Sates is far more severe than previously thought. According to the USDA, one in seven Americans struggled to obtain adequate food in 2008.

With the economy continuing to bleed jobs, nationwide unemployment rates have reached a high of 10 percent. Along with job loss come other consequences. New record-setting figures show that 14 percent of borrowers, or 7.4 million households, are behind in their mortgage payments or in foreclosure. The economic storm that broke last year rages all around and shows no sign of abatement.

In an exception to this bleak landscape of hardship and scarcity, military spending has remained unaffected and in fact soared to new heights. Military outlay swallows over 50 percent of the federal budget, amounting in 2009 to 54 percent of federal funds. In estimates of global military expenditure, the United States takes the lead, accounting in 2007 (the most recent year for which complete data is available according to armscontrol.org) for 43 percent of the world total, spending 4.6 times more than China, the next-highest-spending country, and 85.2 times more than Iran.

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When Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks at the IU commencement on Dec. 19, will he address the issue of defense appropriations? Even in ordinary times it is relevant to question the gargantuan resources allocated to the Department of Defense and compare these with the relatively meager budgets that remain for social and infrastructure spending. The ongoing economic crisis imbues such questions with extraordinary urgency.
"In an exception to this bleak landscape of hardship and scarcity, military spending has remained unaffected and in fact soared to new heights."
It is useful, for instance, to consider the topic of redundant military capabilities. On this theme the by-no-means-dovish, conservative historian Andrew Bacevich, career soldier turned critic of American militarism, writes that since the end of the cold war, "the United States . . . is committed as a matter of policy to maintaining military capabilities far in excess of those of any would-be adversary or combination of adversaries."

These excessive capabilities include military installations maintained by the Pentagon in as many as 130 countries. The Pentagon acknowledges the existence of up to 702 overseas military bases, but the actual number according to Chalmers Johnson, an authority on the topic, may top 1,000. Johnson goes on to point out that the majority of Americans are unaware of this vast network of American bases on every continent except Antarctica. According to him, these military garrisons constitute a new form of empire and global domination.

Obviously these redundant capabilities must be paid for by cuts in social spending or by increasing the national debt. There is also an intangible cost that must be paid, one that has been examined by Bacevich and other critics of U.S. militarism. This price is the moral rot that ensues when military power becomes an automatic recourse rather than "something that democracies ought to treat gingerly."

There is, of course, the related issue of the impact of American military power on target countries. As head of the Department of Defense, Gates plays a crucial role in the conduct of ongoing war and occupation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Naturally one would expect that he is well-qualified to talk about the civilian casualties of these wars.

The audience at the commencement ceremony -- like the rest of the American public -- is aware that these wars are killing defenseless civilians and may look to the defense secretary for precise information. They should stand warned that they will need to check elsewhere for the facts on civilian casualties. As General Tommy Franks famously said, "We don't do body counts."

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The information vacuum created by the Department of Defense has been filled by volunteers of conscience. The independent Web site Iraq Body Count has been recording the violent civilian deaths that have resulted from the 2003 military intervention in Iraq. The Web site's estimates are the result of painstaking and meticulous data collection carried out by citizen volunteers in the United Kingdom and the United States.
"When Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks at the IU commencement on Dec. 19, will he address the issue of defense appropriations?"
According to Iraq Body Count, the total number of Iraqi casualties must be placed in a range that lies between 94,130 and 102,710. Some estimates place the number of Iraqi casualties even higher. A study published in October 2006 by the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that the U.S. invasion of 2003 had led to the deaths of 655,000 Iraqis. In Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that over 60 percent of the population of 33 million has been directly affected by the conflict.

Systematic records of civilian casualties have been maintained only since 2007, and it is difficult to obtain totals for violence-related civilian deaths since 2001. The military surge that was implemented early this year by the Obama Administration has aggravated the security situation in Afghanistan. The UN has warned that civilian casualties have spiked, jumping some 24 percent above figures from last year.

Malalai Joya, one of Afghanistan's leading democracy activists and a former elected member of the Afghan Parliament, has stated in a widely circulated article that the worst massacres since 9/11 were committed since President Obama took power and called on behalf of the women of Afghanistan for an immediate end to the US occupation.

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When he delivers the Commencement Address, the defense secretary may be well-advised to avoid references to an earlier phase in his career when he participated first as an intelligence officer and later as deputy director of the CIA in the funding and arming of the Mujahideen, the foreign and indigenous resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As brought out by the defense secretary in his memoir, the covert operation was underway prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979.
"Inevitably this year's commencement opens up the question of complicity between the military-industrial complex and the institution of higher education in the United States."
Initially the clandestine involvement appeared to reach a successful culmination. The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the American victory in the Cold War. Unfortunately there were unanticipated consequences, and a blowback ensued with grave implications for the national security of the United States. Covert CIA operations in Afghanistan in the '80s were grounded in fanning the flames of Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Eventually the foreign remnants of the anti-Soviet jihad metamorphosed into Al-Qaeda and turned against their former patrons.

The tragic consequences are well-known. Actions transpiring in the present -- the U.S./NATO bombardment of Afghanistan and the secretive drone warfare in Pakistan-Afghanistan -- could well carry the seeds of another blowback. No doubt, this particular can of worms is one that the defense secretary would prefer not to open when he is being honored at IU.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates' upcoming visit to Indiana University invites some obvious reactions from those who are opposed to war and militarism. They cannot but ask if IU intended to serve the interests of the warfare state by inviting the defense secretary to give the commencement address. They will note that by honoring the defense secretary, IU is legitimizing and normalizing a military establishment that destabilizes regions of the world, violates the sovereignty of nations, and brings death and misery to their population. And inevitably this year's commencement opens up the question of complicity between the military-industrial complex and the institution of higher education in the United States.

Since the Defense Secretary's visit -- unwelcome as it is to advocates of a just foreign policy -- has been scheduled to take place, it may be useful to view the occasion as an opportunity to hear what Gates will say, for example, in response to the call made by Malalai Joya, democracy activist and former parliamentarian, for an immediate end to the US/NATO occupation. Or his analysis of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and in particular the following declaration: A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Radha Surya can be reached at rsurya@indiana.edu.