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On a warm Saturday morning in the northern Alabama valley town of Huntsville, a group of dedicated local activists assembled near a Presbyterian church and a Fresh Market for a ritual they have kept up for nearly two decades: a weekly "Peace Corner."
Sweating under wide-brimmed straw hats and sporting face masks (a former Saudi Arabia resident wore a kaffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, as hers), they waved banners with social justice and anti-war messages: "Tax the rich," and "Support our troops: Bring them home."
See also: Alabama wrote the book on Black Lives Matter, but today's challenges to defund police have Freedom Fighters back at the drawing board
Here in a majority white, largely Republican stronghold, you might not expect to find this kind of activist resolve—especially after what happened this summer during the anti-police brutality demonstrations when police used force, unleashing rubber bullets and tear gas, during a nonviolent march.
But the Peace Corner activists, in groups as large as a hundred or as small as a handful, show up each week to directly take on something even more heavily armed than cops: the Pentagon.
At their location in the city's wealthy southside, protesters are a short driving distance from the gates to the Redstone Arsenal, an Army post where more than 44,000 active duty servicemen, Department of Defense civilians, and federal contractors work. The Huntsville metro region ranks among the top 10 defense contract spending locations nationwide, earning it the moniker, "the Pentagon of South."
The animated Peace Corner demonstration takes place as many of the city's rank-and-file begin their weekends with leisurely outings: boating the blue waters of Tennessee River, mountain biking the winding trails tucked along the Appalachian foothills, putting on green golf courses.
One protester joked we were in "Pleasantville."
But as a hub of missile and rocket development, and home to a major office of the Missile Defense Agency—which is tasked with defending Americans and allies against incoming missiles—the pleasantness of the city belies how many of its workers spend their day jobs preparing for Armageddon.
A large part of the economy in Huntsville is powered by the nightmare scenario of a rival nation choosing to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles loaded with nuclear warheads in fiery arcs across the globe toward American soil. To prepare for such a scenario, the U.S. government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars since the paranoid days of the Cold War on counter-weapons to attempt to intercept an incoming shower of devastating missiles.
As a result, the economic fortunes and workforce employment here and in places like Huntsville are tied up in that prodigious spending. What the Peace Corner protesters are up against is the entrenchment of the military-industrial complex in the American landscape through so-called "defense communities."
According to the advocacy group the Association of Defense Communities, there are an estimated 300 such communities across the country. They are often small or mid-size cities near bases where military-industrial employment plays an outsize role in the local economy, fostering constituencies whose livelihoods depend on the United States' military budget—which is not just the largest in the world but more than the next 10 biggest defense spenders combined.
Despite a decadeslong economic conversion movement that sought to end that dependence by taming the spending power of the military-industrial complex—think "Defund the Police" scaled up to the magnitude of the Pentagon—reformers have long found themselves up against a parochial question that stymies progress toward a peacetime economy: How could we possibly replace all these jobs?
The activists of the Peace Corner, organized by the North Alabama Peace Network, take a stab at America's war machinery by denouncing the powerful systems that perpetuate injustices with an approach straight out of Pleasantville: smiles and waves, invitations for deeper conversation.
They act like neighbors because, well, they are, and because their own lives have been shaped by the military economy: a Vietnam veteran-turned engineer for Raytheon (the world's fifth-largest weapons-maker), relatives of defense employees, and a former NASA software developer who said the "military-agnostic" work he did at the agency was still liable to being scooped up by the Pentagon.
For a demonstration that challenges a pillar of the local economy, the passing-by drivers who respond to the activists overwhelmingly do so in support. On a recent Saturday, one delivery truck driver honked his horn and pumped his fist in the air. Of the few people who responded with hostility, most shouted pro-Trump slogans, while one gave the Peace Corner the middle finger and yelled an obscenity about Black lives, apparently in response to the BLM sign carried by Joy Johnson, the demonstrator in the keffiyeh.
But the steady stream of thumbs-up and peace signs from locals familiar with this now-habitual demonstration seems to indicate that many in this so-called defense community see the people of the Peace Corner as their own.
Against the odds, activists see an appetite for change.
After "Star Wars"
Johnson is a math tutor who grew up in Saudi Arabia and landed in Huntsville because of her stepfather's career in the Army Corps of Engineers.
She said it only dawned on her as an adult that the reason she had spent part of her childhood in North Dakota was because her stepfather was employed digging missile silos in the Great Plains to hold America's own stock of hundreds of ICBMs. Nowadays, teaching feels as close as she can get to what she called a "right livelihood," a Buddhist concept for ethical professions. But in a place like Huntsville, where the Chamber of Commerce estimates 74,000 people are employed in aerospace and defense in a regional workforce of 544,000, she's aware of where the pipeline of STEM education often leads.
"The deck is stacked against us," Johnson said.
An environmentalist, she's working to establish a better sort of pipeline: Johnson leads Friday "climate strikes" at City Hall to call on the government to direct resources toward sustainability. Such a transition is not just an activist pipe dream but a budding reality as a new movement of engineers and STEM professionals are redirecting their talent and experience toward renewable energy, developing green jobs in Huntsville.
Mike Schroer understands how everyday lives become entangled in the military economy. He feared being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. So at age 17, fresh out of high school, Schroer volunteered for the Navy, hoping his time there would at least give him some employable skills. He grew up in a swath of Ohio where Catholic churches and the American Legion were the local fixtures. Several uncles had served in World War II, including ones who had been wounded.
Dissent about the prevalence of war in the American way of life just wasn't something he heard from the people around him, he said.
"You never question that stuff, you're a kid, you just believe it all," Schroer said of the social scene he grew up in. "Sometimes I envy those people. They don't think about it, and it doesn't bother them."
Using funds from the GI bill, Schroer was able to get math and computer science degrees when he got out of the Navy. As is the case with many STEM graduates, defense employment beckoned.
"Because of my military experience, military companies were the ones who wanted to hire me," Schroer said.
He worked for a handful of defense contractors, including on the Patriot missile system in Huntsville. Ethically, he was on board with the weapons project as it's defensive in nature and claims the possibility to shoot down incoming missiles. Independent analysts struggle to find verifiable successes of missile defense systems in real-world conflict zones.
During the Reagan-era defense-spending spike, Schroer grew disillusioned with what he saw as increasingly fantastical weapons projects that he suspected were unworkable boondoggles. And he wanted out.
"As long as I was working on things that seemed fairly real, I was OK with them," he said.
Reagan initiated what he called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—its many lampooners called it "Star Wars"—that sought to develop a space-based missile defense program to counter the threat of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union, a risk that is still real as eight countries in addition to the United States continue to possess thousands of nuclear weapons despite the advance of a nuclear ban treaty among much of the rest of the world.
While such a doomsday scenario is terrifying, critics say the United States' quest to spend its way to invulnerability is a quixotic one that is really just an arms race.
Among the potential foibles that skeptics have identified is that a would-be attacker could scramble missile defense systems by employing a flurry of decoys. A theoretical approach to defend American cities against incoming missiles through space-based sensors faces a wildly alarming counter-weapon: space mines planted by rivals to blow the sensors up.
Deep skepticism exists over whether interceptors could perform with precision and accuracy during the heat of battle; missile defense is often referred to as "shooting down a bullet with another bullet."
Eventually, Schroer left the industry for a more quotidian job in telecommunications, where he worked for 14 years before retiring.
He joked that he called Reagan's Star Wars a "welfare program for defense contractors."
Exorbitant spending continues to pose an ongoing guns-vs-butter tradeoff—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who introduced Americans to the phrase "military-industrial complex," described spending public money on weapons as "a theft from those who hunger and are not fed." Next year's freshly negotiated defense budget comes in at an eye-watering $740 billion while thousands of Americans are dying daily not from a rival nation's weapons but from a virus.
In the meantime, Congress has been unable to reach a deal to provide four-digit pandemic relief checks to Americans.
Bombs for jobs
Following tradition, the current Republican administration shovels money to defense contractors.
But President Donald Trump also does its reformers a twisted favor by speaking plainly to the crass commercial calculations behind much of the weapons industry: "They don't sell a lot of bombs when we're not dropping bombs on people. You know that, right?" he told rallygoers in Tulsa in June.
In a White House photo-op with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who has overseen a bombing campaign in Yemen that has killed civilians, including a bus with 40 school children, Trump held a high school science fair-style yellow poster board with pasted pictures of military aircraft and a missile defense system. In the middle of the poster was a U.S. map with several states shaded in red, including swing states that Trump narrowly won in 2016. A message was emblazoned over the map: "Over 40,000 jobs in key states."
If the military-industrial complex is less about actual security and is really just the closest thing the government has to a federal jobs program, it isn't even very good at that.
Research from economist Heidi Garrett-Peltier has shown just about any other kind of government spending—on health care, green energy, or education— creates more jobs than weapons spending. Despite ever-increasing budgets, the defense industry is shedding jobs—from 3.2 million in 1985, around the time Schroer got fed up with "Star Wars," to an estimated 1.1 million in 2019, according to the National Defense Industrial Association.
The remaining jobs, though, often pay better than their civilian counterparts, which fuels the dependency of economies like Huntsville's. Peltier calls this the "wage premium" from arms companies awash in government money.
A lot of progressives working for the military industrial complex "feel conflicted" about their job, said Tom Moss, one of the regulars at the Peace Corner and a former NASA software developer.
"But they are happy to be making good money," he added. Moss said the Peace Corner is a place to begin discussion about the ways war can be avoided if peaceful solutions are prioritized, freeing up funds for human needs. This is a similar argument to that made by activists calling to transition public money away from police and toward services that address the root causes of violence and unrest.
Moss said he's empathetic to working class people who need the financial security that comes with a good defense job, "but still it's money that could be better used doing things that help people rather than hurt them."
From quiet dissenters to a different future
The protesters at the Peace Corner aren't expecting radical change today.
They take the long view, cued by the longevity of the military-industrial complex itself. One nuclear weapons project showing up on Huntsville job boards aims to put new missiles into the U.S. arsenal that will be usable through 2075, a weapon poised to outlive many of its makers.
The corner began with four "Peace Mamas," local mothers alarmed by the Bush administration's plans to embark on a war of choice in Iraq. That was back in 2002, and nearly every Saturday since, save breaks during storms or the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, they've turned out for one-hour demonstration centered around a "PEACE" banner. Recently, that was swapped out for one calling for neighbors to vote Trump out of office.
Johnson said the corner's visibility offers a "validating presence" for quiet dissenters who may otherwise feel alone.
Maggie Martin, the director of a national anti-war veterans group who lives in Tennessee, said the Peace Corner and similar activism she's participated in near military bases have a way of speaking the quiet part out loud.
"Folks who are inside the system for the most part know that it's really messed up," Martin said. "In the military… you talk about it with each other, but you wouldn't necessarily talk about it to other people or talk about it publicly."
For Schroer, the Patriot missile engineer who grew up hearing little in the way of dissenting views, his retirement years have offered a chance to reflect. He became friendly with a colleague from Vietnam and asked him his age.
"When we were lobbing bombs over there," Schroer said, "he was about 12 years old." It sickened him to think about it.
Taking part in the Peace Corner, where Schroer waves a large "Veterans for Peace" banner, is a chance to make friendly eye contact with his neighbors as they drive by.
"It's a military town," Schroer said, "but there's a lot of people like myself who think: I could be putting this effort into something constructive rather than destructive."