Greed-War: The Power and Danger of the Military-Industrial Complex

Ike in 1959: Too critical of the military to be elected today

W.J. Astore

President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his most powerful speech as he left office in 1961.  He warned the American people about an emerging military-industrial complex, a complex that was already beginning to erode democratic rule in America.  Originally, Ike had Congress as a collaborator with and enabler of that Complex, but he deleted the reference in the final version, apparently deciding that by alienating Members of Congress, he’d only push them further into the Complex’s corner.

The military-industrial complex, the Complex for short, has only grown in power over the last half-century.  Today, more than half of Federal discretionary funding goes to it.  With the post-9/11 addition of Homeland Security and more and more intelligence agencies (seventeen of them at last count), the Complex continues to grow like Topsy.  It consumes roughly $750 billion each and every year, a sum likely to grow whether Trump or Clinton wins the presidency.  (Trump has promised to rebuild an allegedly shattered military; Clinton, meanwhile, is a steadfast supporter of the military as well as neo-con principles of aggressive foreign interventionism.)

In the U.S. today, the Complex is almost unchallengeable.  This is not only because of its size and power.  The Complex has worked to convince Americans that war is inevitable and therefore endless (it’s never the fault of the Complex, of course: it’s the terrorists, or the Russians, or the Chinese …), and also that military service (and spending) is virtuous and therefore a boon to democracy.

America’s founders like James Madison thought differently, knowing from bitter experience and deep learning that incessant wars and standing militaries are an insidious threat to democracy.  Nowadays, however, Americans say they trust their military more than any other societal institution, and mainstream society universally celebrates “our” troops as selfless heroes, the very best of America.  This moral, indeed metaphysical, elevation of the U.S. military serves to silence legitimate criticism of its failings as well as its corrosive effect on democratic principles and values.

All of these topics I’ve written about before, but I wish to cite them again by way of introducing an article by Maximilian C. Forte, an anthropologist who writes at Zero Anthropology (I first saw his work at Fabius Maximus).  The article Forte wrote is on Bernie Sanders and his limitations, but what struck me most was his reference to C. Wright Mills and his analysis of the nexus of interests and power between U.S. capitalism and militarism.

The following extended excerpt from Forte’s article shines much light into the darker corners of America’s corridors of power:

In The Power Elite (1956) and “The Structure of Power in American Society” (The British Journal of Sociology, March 1958), Mills’ explanations can look like an elaborated, in-depth version of what former president Dwight Eisenhower described as the military-industrial complex, but with a stronger focus on the role of private corporations and special interest lobbies. These approaches endure today — because the problem they describe and analyze continues — as shown in the work of anthropologists such as Wedel on Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market[as well as works by other authors that showcase] the relationship between the stock market, multinational corporations and the US’ CIA-led coups against foreign governments …

For C. Wright Mills, the problem was not just “Wall St.,” nor the “Pentagon” alone — focusing on one over the other produces a half-headed understanding, with all of the political demerits that result. As he argued in his 1958 article, “the high military, the corporation executives, the political directorate have tended to come together to form the power elite of America” (pp. 32-33). The power elite is what he described as a “triangle of power,” linking corporations, executive government, and the military: “There is a political economy numerously linked with military order and decision. This triangle of power is now a structural fact, and it is the key to any understanding of the higher circles in America today” (Mills, 1958, p. 32).

Contrary to Bernie Sanders, Mills emphasizes the decisive influence of the military in the corporate oligarchic state (as Kapferer later called it):

“The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of civilian distrust, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government; behind smiling public relations, it has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a great and sprawling bureaucracy. The high military have gained decisive political and economic relevance. The seemingly permanent military threat places a premium upon them and virtually all political and economic actions are now judged in terms of military definitions of reality: the higher military have ascended to a firm position within the power elite of our time”. (Mills, 1958, p. 33)

US politics are dominated, Mills argued, “by a few hundred corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decision,” and the economy that results is “at once a permanent-war economy and a private-corporation economy”:

“The most important relations of the corporation to the state now rest on the coincidence between military and corporate interests, as defined by the military and the corporate rich, and accepted by politicians and public”. (Mills, 1958, p. 33)

Mills also pays attention to the history of this type of corporate-military state. The influence of private lobbies dates back deep into US political history, when the influence of railway tycoons, banana magnates, and tobacco barons was considerable at different times. From this Mills discerned the rise of what he called the “invisible government,” which existed starting from at least 50 years prior to his 1958 article…

“Fifty years ago many observers thought of the American state as a mask behind which an invisible government operated. But nowadays, much of what was called the old lobby, visible or invisible, is part of the quite visible government. The ‘governmentalization of the lobby’ has proceeded in both the legislative and the executive domain, as well as between them. The executive bureaucracy becomes not only the centre of decision but also the arena within which major conflicts of power are resolved or denied resolution. ‘Administration’ replaces electoral politics; the maneuvering of cliques (which include leading Senators as well as civil servants) replaces the open clash of parties”. (Mills, 1958, p. 38)

The corporate-military government is tied to US global dominance, and its power increased dramatically from 1939 onwards. As Mills noted, “the attention of the elite has shifted from domestic problems — centered in the ’thirties around slump — to international problems centered in the ’forties and ’fifties around war” (1958, p. 33). (As I argued elsewhere, this shift also registers in US anthropology, which moved from research at home, on domestic social problems, to fieldwork abroad as the dominant norm.)

Rather than challenge the arms industry, whose growing size and power stunned Eisenhower, Sanders would simply tax them more. It is open to debate whether Sanders is offering even half of a solution, and whether he sees even half of the bigger picture. Usually Sanders has voted in favour of military appropriations, supported the financing of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has backed a range of regime change and “humanitarian interventionist” efforts, from NATO’s war in Kosovo, to support for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act and for regime change in Libya (contrary to his false representations on the latter point). He is also an aggressive supporter of NATO and its anti-Russian posture. While he is not even half of anti-imperialist, some might argue that it is also too generous to see him as half of a socialist–either way, we need to do better than beat each other up with half-answers.


Forte’s criticism of Sanders is spot on.  My guess is that Sanders refused to take on the Complex precisely because of its financial, its political, and finally its cultural and societal clout.  There are only so many windmills you can tilt at, Sanders may have decided.  Yet, notwithstanding his willingness to appease the Complex, Sanders has been relegated to the sidelines by a corrupt Democratic establishment that did everything it could to ensure that one of its own, Complex-abettor Hillary Clinton, won the party nomination.

The fundamental problem for the U.S. today is as obvious as it appears insoluble.  The Complex has co-opted both political parties, Republican and Democratic.  It has at the same time redefined patriotism in militaristic terms, and loyalty in terms of unquestioning support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism.  Candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are simply not allowed on the stage.  Their voices of dissent are suppressed.  They are never heard within the mainstream.

Johnson, for example, has suggested cuts to the Complex approaching 20%; Jill Stein has suggested cuts as deep as 50%.  Such suggestions, of course, are never seriously discussed in mainstream America.  Indeed, when they’re mentioned at all, they’re instantly dismissed by the “power elite” as the ravings of weak-kneed appeasers or unserious ignoramuses.  (Johnson, for example, is now depicted as an ignoramus by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)

We have a new reality in U.S. government and society today: the Complex essentially rules unchallenged.  Back in the 1950s, Ike had the military and political authority to constrain it.  Today, well, no.  There are no restraints.  Just look at Hillary and Trump, both boasting of how many generals and admirals support them, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.

And America calls this democracy?

Democracy in America is dying.  It’s dying because it’s being strangled by winner-take-all capitalism and corrosive militarism.  Greed-war is consuming America’s resources.  Not just material, not just political, but mental and emotional resources as well.  The greed-war nexus as represented and nurtured by the Complex and its power elite is both narrowing and coloring the horizons of America.  Tortured by mindless fear and overwrought concerns about weakness and decline, Americans embrace the Complex ever tighter.

The result: America builds (and sells) more weapons, supports higher military spending, and wages more war.  Trump or Clinton, the war song remains the same.  It’s a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, that we will overcome only when we reject greed-war.

Afterword: The sad part is that Martin Luther King said it far better than I can fifty years ago in this speech on Vietnam.  Ike in 1961, MLK in 1967, both prophetic, both largely ignored today for their insights into the “spiritual death” represented by greed-war.  Even earlier, General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, argued in the 1930s that war is a racket and that it would end only when the profit motive was eliminated from it.

So, if I had one question for Hillary and Trump, this would be it: When it comes to your decision to enlarge the military-industrial complex, to feed it ever more money and resources, what makes your decision right and the warnings of Ike, MLK, and General Butler wrong?

7 thoughts on “Greed-War: The Power and Danger of the Military-Industrial Complex

  1. This is one of the best essays I have read in analyzing the rise of the Complex and its stranglehold on American government and on our culture that worships militarism and blindly elevates anyone in the military to “hero” status. What is most troubling is how our young have been so indoctrinated that any criticism of the military is taken as being disloyal, unpatriotic to America. Nick Turse wrote a book several years ago on the “Complex” and Andrew Bacevich published one called “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, an excellent article with some timely and relevant citations from American sociologist C. Wright Mills. I especially like the forthright terminology, “Greed-War.” Succinct and to the point.

      Still, by way of “analyzing the rise of the Complex” — meaning, the Corporate-Military Complex: a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ruling Corporate Oligarchy — I would like to add something from historian Barrara Tuchman’s book Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 (New York: the Macmillan Company, 1970):

      “The making of foreign policy in World War II came out of the great allied conferences dominated by the military where the military staffs were the working members, and the civil arm, except for the two chiefs of state, was represented meagerly, if at all. Pomp and uniforms held the floor and everyone appeared twice as authoritative as he would have in the two-button business suit of ordinary life. Human fallibility was concealed by those beribboned chests and knife-edge tailoring. By the nature of the message they proposed to send to Chiang Kai-Shek, the military were conducting foreign policy and nobody questioned it” [emphasis added].

      What did Professor Tuchman mean by this foreign policy “message” that the U.S. military proposed sending to China’s leader, Gereralissimo Chiang Kai-Shek? Just this: Start using all that aid that we have given you to fight the Japanese or we will cease aiding you.” Something like that. An ultimatum. Leaders of sovereign governments don’t like receiving those sorts of messages:

      “The message adopted the tone of a headmaster to a sullen and recalcitrant schoolboy. … it is doubtful if the note would have been addressed to the head of any European government. …”


      “… the fault lay in failure to think through the implications. It made no sense to send a message of implied unfitness to rule to a chief of state unless it was backed by readiness to cease investing support in him. In the absence of such readiness the message was a crippled ultimatum from which the senders must inevitably retreat.”

      So, the U.S. military began overtly dictating U.S. foreign policy even before the end of the Second World War. In essence, War became U.S. foreign policy. The civilian arm of the U.S. government never managed to reassert its control over the ostensibly subordinate military. As a consequence, the U.S. thus began many long decades of military bluster and threats that the target clients of U.S. “leadership” hugely resented and mostly milked for their own purposes and profit. They quickly percieved that the myth of U.S. “leadership” back home in Washington, D.C. meant more to Americans than whatever it might signify abroad. As with Chiang Kai-Shek in WWII, so, too, his many like-minded successor foreign clients today:

      “Cynicism about the war and a lapse into increasing passivity was the result [of endless and rude American threats]. An attitude of “Let the Allies do it” prevailed in the teahouses of Chungking after the fall of Burma. To use barbarians to fight other barbarians was a traditional principle of Chinese statecraft which now more than ever appeared not only advisable but justified. Chinese opinion, according to a foreign resident, held that not only was China justified in remaining passive after five years of resistance; “it was her right to get as much as possible out of her allies while they fought.” The exercise of this right became the Government’s chief war effort. The long endeavor to shake off the foreigners and emerge from dependence had not succeeded; China’s problems had been too great. With dwindling capacity to cope with its own circumstances, the Kuomintang applied all its energy to making dependence pay” [emphasis added].

      The U.S. military has managed, in a little over half a century, to establish itself as the “leader” of a world where it increasingly “aids” a horde of dependent client governments who simply ignore what America says that it wants while “making the dependent relationship pay.” The proverbial tails wagging the Dog have multiplied beyond count, which explains the palsied shivering and shaking of the increasingly poor and bewildered Corporate-Military Dog. There you have the historical devopment and present status of U.S. military “leadership.” Not a lot of foreign “followers,” though. But don’t tell the American taxpayer. “Dependence” on U.S. corporate-military “leadership” certainly hasn’t paid for him or her.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Mike. Barbara Tuchman — what a great writer and historian she was.

        Six years ago, I wrote an article on the U.S. State Department as representing a tiny subsidiary branch of the Pentagon. It’s still relevant, of course. Here’s the text:

        Last week, a quotation and a joke captured the zeitgeist of the American moment. The quotation came from Philip J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, related to a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony:

        “We think we have the finest military hardware in the world,” Rowley said. “And if India is upgrading its defense capabilities, they should buy American.”

        The joke came from Hillary Clinton as she tried to defend her department’s overseas developmental funds from Congressional cuts. With Secretary of Defense Bob Gates in her corner, she quipped that his Department of Defense (DoD) gets all the money it asks for from Congress, even as her Department of State is forced to fight to preserve what would be “small change” to the DoD.

        Why this quotation, and why this joke, to capture the spirit of our times?

        Is there not something less-than-dignified about our State Department serving as shills for U.S. defense contractors? Yes, if India truly needs modern warplanes, I’d prefer to see them buy F-16s or F-18s and not Russian MiGs, but our defense contractors are already quite proficient at marketing their products, and our Pentagon has plenty of resources devoted to FMS (foreign military sales). Again, is it not unseemly to have our Secretary of State, our chief diplomat, pressuring allies to buy only those weapons with a “Made in America” label on them?

        Now, let’s turn to that U.S. Global Leadership Coalition at which Clinton uttered her little joke. Is it not unconscionable that our diplomats and foreign development experts have to fight for what amounts to table scraps compared to the cornucopia of funding and resources available to the Pentagon and DoD?

        To Gates’s credit, our Secretary of Defense has himself complained about the paucity of funding available to State, a point Clinton hammered home in January 2009 when she noted, “the disparity of resources is such that when you’ve got more than 10 times the resources going to the Defense Department than you have going to the State Department and foreign aid, DOD has in effect been re-creating mini-State Departments.”

        If nothing else, Clinton’s joke last week suggests that nothing has changed in Washington’s ordering of priorities since Obama became president. More money for defense and for war; more penny-pinching for diplomacy and foreign development.

        Surely our country has its priorities out of order. More for war and weapons, less for diplomacy and foreign aid, and shilling for American defense contractors, is a recipe for forever war – and for the irreversible decline of America, morally as well as strategically.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “making dependence pay” could that mean Afghanistan or would it mean Iraq or would it mean Syria or perhaps Somalia or Ethiopia or even Turkey, Kurdistan or Pakistan.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Real Reason the Vietnam War Lasted so Long

    Plaudits to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their staff for digging up so much moving/factual film footage detailing one of America’s most indiscriminate wars. All those civilian casulties. All those young innocent American boys that tried to do their “duty” and instead ended up dead or worse yet, crippled for life.

    The question that Burns and Novick failed to ask is….why? Why, did Lyndon Johnson drag this immoral war out so long? The writers failed to bring to their viewers the reason the Johnson Crime Family dragged this thing on and on. The Answer: LBJ’s longtime pals and business partners George and Herman Brown ….Brown and Root Construction….were making Billions with their construction projects….Cam Ran Bay port facility….and the big Da Nang Airbase. Furthermore their fellow Texans Bell Helicopter Consortium ….and Texas based General Dynamics jet fighters…and oh, yes, there is Lady Bird’s brother Jack Taylor’s (Southland Corporation) lucrative contracts for foodstuffs and heavy construction eqquipment.

    A war that destroyed our military draft, bankrupted the United States, saddled us with perpetual debt and yet Burns and Novik neglected to identify the real Vietnam War Criminals….Johnson, Nixon, Jack Taylor, Lady Bird Johnson, Herman and George Brown, and a host of other war criminals, the names of whom we will never know!

    George Meredith MD
    Virginia Beach

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.