Sixty-one years ago, in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned America of the threat posed by the military-industrial complex (MIC). To that complex, Ike had rightly added Congress, whose members are generally supportive of immense military spending, especially when it occurs in their district. Americans, in the main, haven’t heeded Ike’s warning, mainly due to government/corporate propaganda, military lobbying and threat inflation, wars and rumors of war, the naked desire for global dominance in the stated cause of keeping the “homeland” safe, and, well, greed.
How does “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” tackle such a beast? I was part of a discussion this week on strategies to “dismantle” the MIC; more on that in a moment. First, a caveat. When I use the term “military-industrial complex,” I know what I’m referring to and talking about, and so too do my readers. But what about your average American, who perhaps has barely heard of President Eisenhower, let alone his farewell address in 1961? And what about those who prosper from the MIC, whether they know it or not? Why should they support calls for “dismantling” a big part of their livelihood?
Random example. I went to the doctor’s office today. The receptionist noted my military background as she told me about her son, whose work on red blood cells is funded by the Department of Defense, and her husband, whose work is connected to Raytheon, a major weapons contractor. Another example is my previous dental hygienist, whose husband proudly worked on the helmet system for the F-35 jet fighter. So many of our fellow Americans are connected to the MIC; lots of my friends are, especially if they served. As a retired military officer who writes articles that are generally critical of the MIC, I’m the exception. Many of my peers are still employed by the MIC in good-paying positions that would be difficult for them to replicate in the private, civilian sector of society.
This is not an argument for how wonderful the MIC is. But reformers need to recognize that significant cuts to MIC funding, desirable as they are, will impact ordinary people first, rather than retired generals and corporate CEOs, who will be just fine no matter what happens.
Whatever your reforming zeal, terminology is vitally important. To me, talk of “dismantling” the MIC is a non-starter. Like “defund” the police, it’s doomed to fail because its message is so easily twisted. Recall that for most Americans, the military remains a trusted institution within our society, much more trusted than Congress and the President. “Support our troops” is almost the new national motto, an adjunct to In God We Trust. Indeed, Jesus is often envisioned as a warrior-god who’s always on America’s side.
To be persuasive, we shouldn’t say “defund” the Pentagon; “dismantle” also sounds wrong in this moment. But if we talk of a leaner military, a smarter one, more agile, more cost-effective, more bang for the buck, those phrases will resonate better. Let’s talk as well of a military focused on national defense, motivated by high ideals, and aligned with liberty, freedom, and democracy.
Look: The MIC has a big advantage over would-be reformers and cost-cutters: the clarity that comes with a common goal, which for the Complex is profit/power. We live in a capitalist society that values those things. I don’t think we can compete on the money field with the MIC, but we can compete in the realm of ideas and ideals, and the military can be an ally in this, so long as its members remember the ideals of their oaths to the U.S. Constitution.
What do I mean here? We need to tell Americans their very future is being stolen from them by wanton military spending. At the same time, their past is being rewritten. We’re forgetting past American ideals like “right makes might” and the citizen-soldier as a public servant. Instead, it’s might makes right as enforced by warriors and warfighters. We are in yet another Orwellian moment where war is peace, surveillance is privacy, and censorship is free speech.
In fighting against this moment, we need to use all tools at our disposal. Somehow, we need to bring people together at a moment when our “leaders” are determined to divide us, distract us, and keep us downtrodden.
“Come home, America” is a famous speech given fifty years ago by George McGovern. He wanted to cut military/war spending and send rebate checks directly to the American people. Let’s advocate for that! Let’s put money back in the pockets of Americans as we make a leaner, smarter, cheaper U.S. military that can pass a financial audit. (I’d cut all Pentagon funding until it passed an honest and thorough audit.) Most Americans would support major reforms if they were pitched in this way.
At the same time, I’d like to see a revival of the Nye Commission from the 1930s and the “merchants of death” idea. Whatever else it is, selling weapons is not a way to peace, nor is it life-affirming. Harry Truman made his mark in Congress during World War II by attacking fraud and waste related to military spending. Again, today’s Pentagon can’t even pass an audit! We need to show the American people that the Pentagon brass is stealing from them and hiding behind a veil of secrecy that is undemocratic and probably illegal as well. Here, I would love to see Members of Congress act in the spirit of William Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” awards. The American people are being fleeced by the MIC, and we should be reminding them of this fact, every single day.
In the 1930s, General Smedley Butler, a Marine veteran who was twice awarded the Medal of Honor, saw how war was a racket, and that to end it, you had to take the profit out of it. How can America do that? Can we “nationalize” defense contractors? Can we make weapons building into a non-profit activity? Can we reverse Citizens’ United and outlaw weapons lobbying as a form of protected speech (it’s really legalized bribery)?
How about slowing the revolving door between the U.S. military and weapons contractors? Make it so that retired officers in the grade of major and above must forfeit their pensions if they join a weapons/war firm. Naturally, no one employed by, and especially on the board of, a defense contractor should ever be approved by Congress as the civilian Secretary of Defense.
Another idea: All retired military officers, CIA-types, etc., who appear on TV and media should be required to reveal their conflicts of interest (if any). For example, if retired General John Q. Public appears on TV and works for Raytheon, that should be identified in the on-screen chyron, and by the general himself if he has integrity.
It’s high time the Pentagon shares more information with the American people. Secrecy is a huge problem that the MIC hides behind and exploits. Democracy doesn’t work without transparency, which is why the MIC is at pains to hide the truth from us of malfunctioning weaponry and disastrous and murderous wars.
I would add that tackling the MIC is not a liberal issue, it’s not a progressive issue, it’s not a partisan issue: it’s an American issue. My readers, I’m guessing, are not fans of Fox News or commentators like Tucker Carlson. But if they’re against war and want to see major reforms to the MIC, recruit them! Work with them. They are not the enemy. Not even the MIC is the enemy. I was, after all, part of it for 20 years. The real enemy is war. The real enemy is spending trillions of dollars on weaponry that could, and just might, destroy us all. If we can’t set aside our differences and get together to save ourselves and our planet from war’s destructiveness, we’re pretty much doomed, don’t you think?
The MIC is united by profit and power. Maybe we can find unity in the preservation of our planet and love for the wonderful blessings it has bestowed on us.
Come on people now, smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now. Right now. Right now.