America’s Peculiar Military Dictatorship

A satirical cover for the ages

W.J. Astore

President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in 1961.  He had wanted to add Congress as a key player in and contributor to the Complex, but why alienate Congress, he decided, when he was already taking on the military, industry, and universities/research labs.  Ike did his best to rein in the Complex while he was president, but since then it has galloped freely under the not-so-steady hands of subsequent presidents.

Recently, I re-read a diatribe about the Complex that appeared a decade after Ike’s farewell speech.  “Playing Soldier” is its title, written by Frank Getlein, a journalist for the Washington Star (1961-76).  His critique, sadly, is even more relevant today than it was in 1971.

Here are six insights from Getlein:

  1. Military veterans, Getlein suggests, are not “pushovers for the panic approach from the Pentagon” because “They have seen it all from the inside. They know that the military machine is a fraud, that the military mind is deliberately deluded most of the time, that the military capacity for incompetence is infinite. They know all these things and they have suffered because of them.”
  2. Getlein says America’s wars are “Like the amoeba, they go on forever because they have no form.” To illustrate this argument, he tackles the war of his day, Vietnam:

“Like soap opera, the Vietnam war is endless and hard to follow … Characters come and go, like joint chiefs moving in from the field and out to retirement, or like commanders in chief, for that matter, explaining that their only desire is to get our boys back but we have to keep our boys over there in order to protect our boys who are over there.  It’s the same language, the same incredibly circular reasoning that follows doomed heroines every day from career triumphs to mysterious ailments to adulterous temptations.  There is no more reason to imagine the war in Indochina will end than ‘Edge of Night’ or ‘The Secret Storm’ will end.  All three have within them the seeds of immortality.”

Of course, the Vietnam war finally did come crashing down in Saigon in 1975, but one can’t but admire the Pentagon’s persistence despite declining ratings and disastrous results.

  1. Noting America’s linguistic turn to deny wars, referring to them instead as “police actions” (Korea), “advisory services” (Vietnam), and “incursions” (Cambodia), Getlein notes “We have thus eliminated wars completely except for the people who have to fight them and the people who have to suffer them being fought across their fields, through their villages, and over their dead bodies.”
  2. Getlein notes the emergence of a national security state as a fourth branch of government, one characterized by a hidebound bureaucracy that wages war ineffectively due to its inherent inflexibility, but one that is also deeply socialistic. Indeed, he cites “the biggest triumph of Creeping Socialism yet [is] its all but complete takeover of military procurement.” The national security state represents a “vast” system of “socialist disbursement of federal funds,” all in the nebulous cause of “defense” rather than for the older, more focused, cause of war.  From this rigged socialistic process, predictable results ensue, including “shoddy” quality of materiel and “amazing escalation” in costs.
  3. Worst of all, according to Getlein, is that “The purposes of the state have been subsumed in the purposes of the military establishment.” While the military is supposed to exist to defend the state, defending the military and its power and prerogatives has become the new priority, synonymous with the health of the state in a process that is antithetical to democracy.

In an amusing passage, Getlein suggests America has “become a military state out of the sheer [selective] incompetence of the military”:

“They [the generals] come before us … and confess, more or less annually, that the problems they are paid to handle are beyond their handling and therefore they need more of everything: more men, more rank, more science, more research, more think tankers, more paper condottiere, and, always and everywhere, more money.  Like some hopeless, drunken uncle, they seduce us by their inability to make anything work and come around every year to pick up the handout and blackmail us into raising the ante.  The American soul has always been a soft touch for a hard luck story, but surely this is the first time … when the panhandler, down on his luck, was invited in to run the show.”

  1. “War may be hell, but peace is no bargain either, from the point of view of a military man,” Getlein wittily notes. The solution is “Permawar,” or permanent war, of which Vietnam was an early example. Whereas many Americans saw Vietnam as an “utter failure,” it was a telling success for the military-industrial complex, Getlein argues, given its vast expenditures and long duration for what was advertised initially as a “brush-fire war.”  “Future possibilities of Permawar exist,” Getlein notes, “in the Middle East, in Africa, and, most of all at the moment, in Latin America.”  (He mentions Chile; today we’d say Venezuela.  And who can ignore the Trump administration’s saber-rattling with Iran and across the Middle East today?)

Even without actual shooting wars, however, Getlein notes how Permawar will continue “without respite or truce in the think tanks, the executive offices and the congressional hearing rooms.  The real Permawar is the one of ever-new, more elaborate, more lethal, more expensive, more absolutely essential, weapons systems.”

The result of militarized socialism, socialized militarism, and Permawar?  “Our country has become a military dictatorship in its own peculiar American way.”  Frank Getlein wrote that sentence toward the end of the Vietnam war.  What he said back then is even more accurate today.


Addendum 1: From the Kirkus Review of Getlein’s “Playing Soldier” in 1971:

An entertaining blitzkrieg on creeping or galloping militarism in America. According to journalist-commentator Getlein it began after World War II when the “cheery and modest, honest and limited” War Department was rebaptized the Defense Department thereby acquiring “a permanent all-season hunting license with no place out of bounds.” The inventive Americans outdid themselves acquiring a “nonprofit empire” just as the colony biz was becoming obsolete. Learn how Vietnam is a spectacular success as a “permawar” designed not to work. Meet the paper condottieri, the “contemplative military” (Kahn and Kissinger) who subsist on hypotheses. (“What if the Russians or the Chinese . . . come up with the incredible new weapon of knocking off edges of the moon and so timing the knockoffs that the eastern half of the United States can be thickly covered with moondust?”) Getlein is here to show you how the Pentagon has ‘gone Red’ via non-competitive, no-bidding contract letting under the insufficiently vigilant nose of Reverend Carl MacIntyre, yet. But don’t be fooled by the author’s avowal that Vietnam is “not moral tragedy but slapstick farce.” His true mentors are C. Wright Mills and George Orwell and the caricature, through a glass darkly, of a hardening “crypto-military dictatorship,” is razor-edged.

Addendum 2: A Recent Description of the Pentagon and the Complex (MIC)

The Pentagon Syndrome,” Harper’s, May 15, 2019 (“The Military-Industrial Virus:
How bloated defense budgets gut our armed forces,” by Andrew Cockburn)

“This entire process, whereby spending growth slows and is then seemingly automatically regenerated, raises an intriguing possibility: that our military-industrial complex has become, in [Chuck] Spinney’s words, a “living organic system” with a built-in self-defense reflex that reacts forcefully whenever a threat to its food supply—our money—­hits a particular trigger point. The implications are profound, suggesting that the MIC is embedded in our society to such a degree that it cannot be dislodged, and also that it could be said to be concerned, exclusively, with self-preservation and expansion, like a giant, malignant virus.”

Addendum 3: Every Democratic Senator Supported Trump’s Vast Military Budget in 2018

Senators voted 93-7 for the Pentagon’s $674 billion spending bill in 2018.  The seven Senators who voted against: six Republicans and Bernie Sanders (Independent).  Military dictatorship is bipartisan in America.


17 thoughts on “America’s Peculiar Military Dictatorship

  1. Not at all surprising is that the biggest and most treasonous crime in this country today is that of being a ‘whistleblower’ or letting the people know the truth about what the hell is going on.

    I’ll have to be fair, though; It’s probably not any better in most other countries either.

    Jerry King

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In Canada, we have a Welfare State. Canadians complain about high taxes. By spending a lot of money on social programs, we at least make a dent in the ills affecting less fortunate citizens. Not incidentally, governments at all levels employ of multitudes of people who oversee and provide services that the gov’t mandates. No welfare programs, no jobs for civil servants.

    I’ve occasionally wondered if the US military, in all its forms, acts as a sort of welfare program for skilled workers/engineers/scientists/companies etc. I recall something I read several years ago where the senator of Oregon managed to wangle a $1 million contract for sweatshirts for soldiers. So the requirements are not just bombs, ships and guns, but boots, underwear, uniforms, food, medical/dental care and so on.

    In 2010, there were 2.266 million personnel in the military’s ranks. So just on its own, the DOD employs a boatload of people. Not to mention all the people who work for companies that contract with Defense.


  3. The U.S. is a Welfare State too. The only difference is that it is a Corporate Welfare State.

    Good point, J. CANUCK
    Too darned bad that we cannot seem to channel our efforts into something more productive that would be good for this country AND for the rest of this world. Maybe we should stop saber rattling with Iran and start a WAR against global warming. “Too Disruptive” are the buzz words I hear about any disturbance of status quo.

    Jerry King

    Liked by 2 people

  4. a military dictatorship … how was is you worked for them for , was it 20 some odd years ?

    now that is what I call integrity. still cashing that retirement check though ?


    1. Hello OG: “military dictatorship” — that’s how Frank Getlein saw it in 1971. A “peculiar” form because it’s not a traditional dictatorship with one leader; rather, it’s just as powerful but with a center of power that is more diffuse. I used it for my title since it’s attention-grabbing.

      And, yes, I still get my monthly check as a former operative. 🙂


      1. well Sir, my point being :

        if you as an individual believe what Frank saw in 1971 is still true and has been since then, you worked to support and are receiving a retirement check from a non traditional dictator.

        that isn’t like having your cake and eating it too ? is it ?


    1. Thanks, Clif. Yes — Warren wants to have it both ways. She has mild criticism to offer about wars and the military-industrial complex, but she’s basically for the status quo, including high “defense” budgets, blanket support of Israel (note the AIPAC connection), rhetorical support for the troops, etc. Sort of a Hillary Clinton-lite when it comes to these topics.


  5. Rather than “Military Dictatorship,” I prefer professor Sheldon Wolin’s term, “Inverted Totalitarianism,” as described and explained in his masterful work, Democracy, Incorporated. Also of timeless relevance: George Orwell’s aptly named,” Oligarchical Collectivism,” brilliantly and prophetically laid out in his dystopian user’s manual (only superficially a work of “fiction”) 1984, especially its Appendix on Newspeak. The U.S. military establishment does not so much dictate domestic and foreign policy as voraciously consume whatever national resources might otherwise go towards enacting programs — like universal education and single-payer healthcare — which would produce an informed and active citizen democracy capable of utilizing government for the broadest possible public benefit.

    Of currently on-line analyses of those economic and institutional forces producing America’s vast, diffuse, and unaccountable money laundering scam marketing itself as “national defense” I suggest the following lengthy article by Andrew Cockburn and discussion of it between the author and Scott Horton on his podcast.

    The Military-Industrial Virus – How bloated defense budgets gut our armed forces, by Andrew Cockburn, Harpers Magazine (May 19, 2019).

    5/14/19 Andrew Cockburn on the Military-Industrial ‘Virus’, by Scott Horton, (May 16, 2019).

    Warfare Welfare and Make-work Militarism mercilessly marketed to the masses through Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification.


    1. Speaking of “1984,” Mike, there’s a good article here:

      Here’s an excerpt:

      I was reminded of something Orwell wrote about fascism in 1936: “If you pretend that it is merely an aberration which will presently pass off of its own accord, you are dreaming a dream from which you will awake when somebody coshes you with a rubber truncheon.” Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book designed to wake you up.


  6. Hi OG: Well, not everyone in the military is to blame! 🙂

    Seriously, the military-industrial-Congressional complex exercises an enormous amount of power in our government, our politics, our economics, and our society. To a certain extent, the Complex does dictate what is possible (stealth bombers! aircraft carriers!) and what is not possible (single-payer health care, judged as “too expensive,” though the military health care system is socialized medicine).

    But note the inclusion of Congress in the Complex. It’s not just the military that acts as a “dictator.” We are all complicit because we elect Members of Congress. And the only way we’ll end the “dictatorship” is to change our votes. We need to stop accepting trillion-dollar “defense” budgets and start fighting for a different way of life. Let’s start by bringing our troops home and downsizing our gigantic overseas empire of bases.


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