Warfare is welfare for the merchants of death. Consider the Russia-Ukraine War. In the name of Ukrainian liberation, the U.S. Congress is preparing to approve another $37.7 billion in mostly military aid, bringing the total to nearly $100 billion in less than a year. This remarkable sum represents roughly 5% of federal discretionary spending, nearly the same as what the federal government spent on education in America this year. So far, all Democrats in Congress have supported aid to Ukraine, with only a minority of Republicans objecting.
Why is this? America is fertile ground for anti-Russian sentiment, but that’s not the main reason. It’s all about the Benjamins, as war is always immensely profitable for some sectors of society. Recall that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us of the disastrous rise of misplaced power represented by the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC). Congress is heavily influenced by weapons contractors, not only through campaign contributions but by the jobs in their districts tied to the production of weapons of all sorts.
In a refreshing burst of honesty from the 1930s, the U.S. Senate referred to weapons contractors as “merchants of death,” and so they are. Weapons, from mundane bullets and artillery shells to “sexy” stealth fighters like the wildly expensive F-35, are designed to kill our fellow human beings. That’s why Eisenhower famously said in 1953 that humans essentially crucify themselves on a cross of iron when they prioritize weapons building over hospitals, schools, and other necessities of a civilized life.
More and more money to the merchants of death ensures three things: more power to weapons contractors, higher profits for them, and in this particular case a lot more dead Russians and Ukrainians. Some Americans seem to think it’s all worth it, though I’m skeptical about Ukrainian liberation being an important goal to officials in Washington.
Ike exhibited basic common sense when he noted the MICC is fundamentally anti-democratic. That it threatened our liberties and democratic processes. He told us to take nothing for granted, and challenged us to remain alert and knowledgeable. For when you empower the MICC, you weaken democracy. You also choose death over life.
Whether it’s the Russia-Ukraine War or previous ones like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the MICC has been and is making a killing in America and indeed across the globe— and in more ways than one. And as Ike said, that’s no way of life at all.
What is to be done? We need to start by recognizing that the MICC is fundamentally anti-democratic, often wasteful, driven by greed, and consistent with imperialism of the worst sort. Again, I’m not really saying anything new here; Ike, a five-star general and two-term president, said the same almost 70 years ago. His sentiments were echoed by James Madison when Madison wrote in 1795 that a large standing military and incessant warfare were deadly to democracy and liberty.1 Yet wars continue to find a way, and the MICC continues to thrive and expand its reach and power.
To resort to Scripture, not only is the flesh weak in America when it comes to reining in war and weapons: so too is the spirit. The spirit is unwilling because we are saturated in war and violence. An imperial vision like “full-spectrum dominance” has come to dominate American culture and society. Too many people believe that freedom is best projected and protected through the barrel of a gun.
The words of Ike come to me again when he said that only Americans could truly hurt America. The primary dangers are within not without. In that spirit, Ike warned us about a danger within, the MICC. We would do well to heed his warning if we wish to preserve and strengthen the tree of liberty.
How best to heed his warning? With respect to the Russia-Ukraine War, stop sending weapons that drive more killing. Put more effort on diplomacy. With respect to America itself, abandon the concept of a “new cold war” with Russia and China. Recognize America’s strength instead of focusing incessantly on hypothetical weaknesses. Stop listening to the screech of war hawks. Invest in life instead of death. Start from a place of life-affirming confidence rather than of fear and doubt.
There’s a powerful scene in “Enemy at the Gates” about the Battle of Stalingrad where Soviet political officers are debating how to inspire the troops to fight to the last. The Soviets had been relying on fear, and indeed at Stalingrad Soviet units killed thousands of their own troops for “cowardice” in the face of the Nazi enemy. One commissar is brave enough to offer something other than fear and death. “Give them hope!” he cries. Hope that they can and would prevail against a ruthless enemy.
That’s what we need in America today, a lot less fear and a lot more hope.
Madison wrote that: “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”