Ep. 039: Stephanie Savell

Stephanie Savell.jpg


Stephanie Savell is an anthropologist of militarism, security, and political culture and has studied these topics in the United States and in Brazil. She co-directs Brown University's Costs of War Project and conducts research on the U.S. war on terrorism and its costs for Americans and others around the world. Her other major line of research is on policing and activism in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Savell writes for academic and public audiences; she has published in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, the Smithsonian magazine, Axios, and The Nation, among others, and is co-author of The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life (Routledge, 2014).

Show notes


The niche of this podcast is about process interventions that build common ground. However, we also do a lot of figure ground analysis of complex systems and whether they may be small or large organization systems; it’s a really simple analysis – forest and trees. If you’re looking at a forest, what’s standing out? Is there a tree that’s standing out in the forest?

Susan says when she thinks about the planet and peace building; it's very hard to ignore two big themes: military spending and what’s happening with women globally. She talked about this phenomenon on the episode she did with Barbara Stanny who is an expert on women, money and power. Codependency still plagues women all over the planet but the movement that's happening of many women waking up: deciding to step into leadership and stop asking for permission and looking internally to their own sovereignty. Susan finds women talking to each other in ways that is unprecedented.  

Susan was excited to come across Stephanie and The Costs of War Project because she wanted somebody to talk about the level of military spending. She thinks the whole thing about money, and following the money is really important and asks Stephanie to speak to younger people, women, particularly in the global north and in the United States.


The Costs of War Project, Stephanie says, was founded by two women: Katherine Lutz, a professor at Brown University and Nita Crawford, a professor at Boston University in 2011. It was the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. They saw that there was very little conversation in the United States about the many costs and consequences of these “post 9/11 wars” and she says this is kind of the biggest story that no one talks about in the United States today.

Stephanie talks about other the aspects of the Cost of War: Economic, Social and Post Political costs. It includes political consequences like the US Military Counter Terror Missions around 80 countries. Another example is social cost wherein the people cannot even quantify the ways that all US military veterans have to be cared for by their families and communities, to which the burden of care usually falls on the women. People cannot put a figure on those kinds of costs but it is a horrific consequence of the United State’s decision to be at war all these years.


Stephanie says that there’s some interesting research about the trauma affecting the children of military vets who are coming back from the war zone. She also said that there is a connection to women, specifically Mother’s Day, that it was first celebrated in the 1800s, when the women were advocating for peace because their sons and husbands were the ones at war. So historically, women played an important role in the peace movement of the country.


Stephanie discusses how she got on board the Cost of War project. She was invited to join for her nonprofit experience as an anthropologist who did research on the issues of Militarization in Brazil. Her set of experience outside the academe helps her to give insights about the research and serves as a bridge between the academe and the broader public. 

Through this project, she can promote debate and ask questions such as: 

  • Why is the country at war? 

  • What is the objective? 

  • Does it reduce violence against civilians in the United States and abroad? 

Arguably, she thinks the answer is no.


Stephanie says it started off with the piece she wrote about her experience in a cocktail party.  She was asked what she does for work. When she answered she works on a research about the US War on Terror and its cost and consequences for Americans and other people in the world, she was answered with silence because the people don’t know what to say. 

Stephanie thinks it’s because the people are disconnected from the War on Terror and they don’t think about it very often.   She was also like that before until her research in Brazil led her to have an interest in Militarism, like the military policing the low income neighborhood. And the reason she did that was because she thinks that it’s important that as an Anthropologist, she knows what people really care about. She always has her ears to the ground. So she knows what kind of political issues impacts them the most, like Police Militarization and War on Drugs. Catherine Lutz, her dissertation advisor got her tuned in to the issues of Militarization that permeates a lot of different aspects of life in the United States. So it was pretty easy for her to make that transition since this issue in Brazil is the same in the US. She certainly thinks the issue of police militarization is more and more present in public discourse in the US these days than before. In her mind, the people’s lives are often dictated by Militarization and US imperialism that most of them are not aware of.


Stephanie says, the US spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined. In 2018, they spent about $700 billion for the Pentagon budget alone, excluding Overseas Contingency Operations which is the war fund for the war on terror.  And the next highest spender is China, which spent $250 billion on its military, then Saudi Arabia, India, France. So really the US is just spending massive amounts of money on the military for the War on Terror.


Susan flinches a little bit with that language but wants to talk more of it. She thinks the phrase ‘War on Terror’ originated from George W. Bush.

For Stephanie, the phrase itself is not something that she likes because it kind of legitimizes the sense that this is a just war to seek out these evil enemy terrorists and waging unjust war on them. They often call it the Post 9/11 wars, but that has so much less kind of cultural recognition and resonance that she will just use the War on Terrorism, for ease of reference. So it's a very fine line and she thinks that Susan is right to identify that the phrasing is problematic. 

Susan is always about taking perspective being a facilitator and mediator. She looks at the whole system. While many people around the world would look at the United States and call them us terrorists because of the extent of the militarization, she is agnostic on that and don't want to take a stand but she thinks and agrees with Stephanie that the language sounds like it justifies it.


The other issue is that all the research shows that when you treat terrorism as a problem that to which there is a military solution, a war solution. Stephanie thinks that it is not an effective way of dealing with that issue. So there are more terrorist groups and extremist groups in the world than there were before the Post 911 Wars began. They recruit in an ongoing basis. And there are all these ways in which a military solution kind of lends itself to a broad range of abuses. 

One of the interesting and horrifying things that she discovered is that the US says that it's training all these 80 different countries, Security Forces, and governments for counterterrorism missions. In turn, the autocratic governments are using US military trainings to crack down on political dissidents.  They're able to look at their political opponents and call them terrorists and use this training against them. That's the kind of the latest framework for repression. And the research also shows that there's different ways of dealing with terrorism like policing, which has its own set of problems. It should be getting to the root of the grievances that lead people to be recruited to terrorist groups in the first place. Then find ways in which a more just global economic system would alleviate a lot of the angst and anger that leads people to be angry.


Stephanie says that there's this myth in the United States that we have to support and give money to the military because it's for the troops. That is actually the furthest thing from the truth. So of the about $700 billion a year budget for the Department of Defense, over half of that over $300 billion a year goes to Private Security Contracting Companies. And the CEOs of the top five companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics, make hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The system really is set up such that those companies are the ones benefiting right now from all this money.

Susan agrees and says that Dr. Sheila Elworthy discusses in her book, “Business Plan for Peace” that it’s easy to figure out who the military contractors are and start putting pressure on them. But it's not really happening. There's a lot of other things they could do with all their expertise, but they might not make quite as much money from it.

It is called the Military Industrial Complex, says Stephanie. And it's very entrenched in this country for many years now. A big beast to tackle but there are lots of groups who are attempting to do so.


Stephanie says one of the major issues here is that these wars have basically been paid for on a credit card. Most of the money that has gone to these wars has been paid through but paid for by borrowing. Research has calculated that by 2060, we will owe over $8 trillion in interest alone on the money that that was borrowed to pay for these wars. 

Susan asks who is loaning the government, individuals or corporations. Why are they doing this?

Wealthy individuals, says Stephanie. In the past, the government would issue war bonds and get the population to contribute money to the war effort through selling bonds. Now, that's just not the case at all. It’s coming from corporations. Research shows an opaque mechanism on how the borrowing happens.

Susan understands the interest of lenders to get the government to buy credit. That it’s just a money making point of view. It's a lucrative loan, and the us government is known as a good, reliable creditor. 


With the $8 trillion amount in interest alone and all the other money that is used on veterans and the budget for the Pentagon itself, think about the ways in which that amount of debt is going to affect the children and their children. It's going to create ripple effects for generations to come and  will affect the standing of the United States in the world.

Stephanie highlights how the money gets allocated in this country. Congress has a pot of money and much of that money goes to obligated spending like Social Security and Medicare. Then there's a pot of discretionary spending that's going to the military. This kind is increasing and the percentage right now is something like over 50%, maybe close to. And then if you take into account other programs, like costs that are related to the war, that aren't necessarily included in the military budget, for example, care for vets, this other associated expense basically squeezes out what's left for everything else: education, health care and housing. It is directly affected by the amount of money that goes to the military and the amount of unrelated expenses less the amount of debt that we have for this war budget.


Stephanie shares that one of the things that has been pretty dismaying has been if you go to a peace conference, for example, a lot of organizing momentum around this issue is from an older generation, who are kind of calling on their years that, since Vietnam have experience of struggling for peace and pushing for peace and mobilizing against nuclear weapons. This issue is hard to resonate among the millennial generation and younger even though there are polls that show that young people today are really concerned about the US as Empire in the world, and the ways in which that kind of Imperialism needs to be checked. She thinks this population is ready to care about this issue but right now, there's just so much cultural detachment in the United States about the fact that it is at war.  

The people don’t get it because these wars are being paid for through borrowing. It doesn't affect them on a day to day basis.  And if there were increased taxation there has been in many cases in past wars in the United States, and then people feel the pinch. But also, there are geographic differences in the United States, such that there are majority of regular enlisted troops come from a handful of some of the poorest states in the United States, and certainly not from the kind of elite East and West Coast where a lot of times generates the hubs of colleges and universities and future policymakers.  So there really is a lot of sense in which the kind of socio economic differences in this country are playing into a lack of cultural attention to this as well.


Stephanie thinks, like Susan is saying, momentum around discussions of climate change and militarism are very much tied together. They actually have new research on the Fossil Fuel Emissions of the US military. It measured the amount of Greenhouse Gases that the military has admitted and so they're exempt from international protocols. But the military is this huge contributor to climate change. 

So for young people who will care about any issue: from climate change, to education, rights and, access to college, militarism is tied in through the money. It's the status quo in this country not to question how much money is going to the military, and why and for what purposes. Who are the ones willing to take on this issue head on and really question about where the money spends on the military? 

Stephanie thinks the generation of young people is needed who cares enough to actually do something about this and, in order to care enough, needs to know enough, where the cost of war project is.


Congress has not debated this issue, fully, as a whole says Stephanie. Since 2001, when there was something called the Authorization for the US Use of Military Force (AUMF). It was a blank check for the President to wage war, the name of this fight against terrorism. And that AUMF has been used all those years in that time to expand the war to Syria and all these other countries where the US is engaged in direct action on the ground. And the people need to push the lawmakers to first of all, take back the Congressional Right and responsibility to declare war and take that back from the President. There's momentum around that in Congress right now. Representative Barbara Lee of California has been an important player and pushing for the repeal of that AUMF. There are other representatives in the house building momentum around this issue of what many people call the Forever War, the Endless War. The people need to  at the very granular level, just keep pushing the lawmakers to debate these issues: 

  • Why are they waging this war? 

  • What are they accomplishing? 

  • Are they meeting the objectives? 

  • Are less people dying? 

  • And if not, then what's a better grand plan for dealing with the issue of terrorism, and other threats to the United States?


Stephanie is someone who really gets fired up about bringing the research to the public. She feels like when she gets questioned, she falls back on all these research and what she’s doing and its effects: its effectiveness at fighting terrorism or addressing this problem. 

The research is like that she’s speaking from a place where she’s backed up in solid evidence. And that really helps at the hands of situation.

Susan says Stephanie is amazing. She is so grateful for the work that Stephanie is doing, like it's a huge tree sticking up out of the forest that no one seems to really be talking about, at least in this country. In other countries, people may be paying more attention because they're experiencing it. 

Susan gives kudos to Stephanie and The Cost of war Project and thanks her for her time.