Dwight D. Eisenhower’s most famous address was his last one to the nation in January of 1961, when he warned America of what he termed “the military-industrial complex.” It was a warning as powerful as it was prescient, and though Ike achieved much in life, surely this speech and the meaning of his warning deserve to be captured in the boldest terms in the memorial to Ike in Washington, DC.
Sadly, it isn’t. Though I haven’t yet seen the monument in person, images of it are available online with audio commentary. Let’s tackle the audio commentary first. In Part 5, “Leader of the Free World,” the narrator speaks of Ike’s “farewell address,” not his address on the military-industrial complex, and that it included a “caution” (not a “warning”) to the nation. Ike is allowed a few sentences on the military-industrial complex, but the narrator provides no additional context or commentary. The narrator then ends by saying this was Ike’s goodbye speech; again, no mention of how powerful Ike’s speech was in its criticism of a force that Ike declared threatened America’s democracy and our personal liberties. And then the kicker: at the end of the narration, we’re told the audio commentary was made possible by “a generous donation” by Boeing!
I burst out in rueful laughter. Of course Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex was played down; the military-industrial complex funded the audio commentary! I felt like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” when he discovers his secret magic decoder ring is only useful for decoding crummy commercials that urge him to drink his Ovaltine.
Throughout America’s adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. Akin to and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society. We pray that…all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.
Farewell Address January 17, 1961
Notice how Ike’s warning (which I’ve bolded) about the military-industrial complex is buried in the text. Even more critically, the very heart of Ike’s warning is torn out. For here are Ike’s words that followed the warning about a military-industrial complex, and which are omitted on the memorial:
The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Why weren’t these powerful words of Ike also engraved in stone? Could it be because no one in the DC area, especially the military, its many corporations, and the Congress, wants the American people to come to grips with “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” in America?
Putting this memorial together required corporate funding. Congress was also heavily involved. So too was the military. Is it any wonder that Ike’s warning about the military-industrial-Congressional complex has been watered down to a “caution” and buried in the text of a fond “farewell”?
Remember, Ike implored us to be alert and knowledgeable citizens. How can we be when his speeches are bowdlerized at his own memorial and the audio commentary to the same is funded by Boeing?
You truly need to sharpen your focus if you want to catch a glimpse of what truly worried Ike:
Something tells me that Ike, if he were alive today, would be none too happy about this. Ike’s memorial celebrates his boyhood, his service and great victory in World War II, and his presidency, but it fails to capture his finest speeches against war, against wasteful and immoral spending on deadly weaponry, and against a powerful alliance among the military, its weapons makers, and Congress that Ike saw as a fundamental threat to liberty and democracy.
Our monuments betray us, America, in more ways than one.
What does “security” mean to you? My dad had a utilitarian definition. Born in 1917, he found himself in a fatherless immigrant family with four siblings during the height of the Great Depression. To help his family survive, he enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and served for two years, earning a dollar a day, most of it sent home to his mother. For my dad, security meant a roof over one’s head, three square meals a day, and warm clothes on one’s back. Food, shelter, clothing: it really was that simple.
Of course, you needed to pay for those bare necessities, meaning you needed a job with decent pay and benefits. Personal security, therefore, hinges on good pay and affordable health care, which many U.S. workers today – in the richest country in the world – continue to scratch and claw for. Another aspect of personal security is education because pay and career advancement within U.S. society often depend on one’s educational level. A college education is proven to lead to higher pay and better career prospects throughout one’s life.
Personal security is in many ways related to national security. Certainly, a nation as large as the U.S. needs a coast guard, border controls, an air force, a national guard, and similar structures for defensive purposes. What it doesn’t need is a colossal, power-projecting juggernaut of a military at $800+ billion a year that focuses on imperial domination facilitated by 750 overseas bases that annually cost more than $100 billion just to maintain. True security, whether personal or national, shouldn’t be about domination. It should be focused on providing a collective standard of living that ensures all Americans can afford nutritious food, a decent place to live, adequate clothing, a life-enriching education, and health care.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood this. In his farewell address as president in 1961, he warned us about the military-industrial complex and its anti-democratic nature. Even more importantly, he called for military disarmament as a “continuing imperative,” and he talked of peace, which he tied to human betterment, and which he said could be “guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.” Ike knew that huge, offensive-minded military budgets constituted a theft from the people; even worse, he knew they constituted a betrayal of our national ideals. A hugely powerful military establishment had “grave implications” to the “very structure of our society,” Ike presciently warned. We have failed to heed his warning.
For Ike, true national security was about fostering human betterment and working toward world peace. It was about securing the necessities of life for everyone. It entailed the pursuit of military disarmament, a pursuit far preferable to allowing the world to be crucified on a cross of iron erected by wars and weapons manufacturers.
Tragically, America’s “councils of government” no longer guard against militarism; rather, they have been captured, often willingly, by the military-industrial complex. The “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” that Ike was counting on to hold the line against incessant warfare and wasteful weaponry is largely uninterested, or uninformed, or uneducated in matters of civics and public policy. Meanwhile, military spending keeps soaring, and the result is greater national insecurity.
In a paradox Ike warned us about, the more money the government devotes to its military, the less secure the nation becomes. Because security isn’t measured in guns and bullets and warheads. It’s measured in a healthy life, a life of meaning, a life of liberty. The pursuit of happiness, not eternal belligerence, should be the goal.
Consider the following fable. A man lives in a castle. He says he seeks security. So he digs moats and erects walls and piles cannon ball upon cannon ball. He posts armed guards and launches raids into the surrounding countryside to intimidate “near-peer” rivals. He builds outlying fortifications and garrisons them, thinking these will secure his castle from attack. Meanwhile, his family and relations in the castle are starving; the roof leaks and internal walls are covered in mold; the people, shivering and in rags, are uneducated and in poor health. Has this man truly provided security for his people? Would we call this man wise?
Grossly overspending on the military and weaponry — on castles and cannons everywhere — produces insecurity. It’s the very opposite of wisdom. Let’s end this folly, America, and seek human betterment and world peace as Ike advised us to do.
Addendum: these are the words Ike spoke in 1953
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
As I mentioned in a previous Bracing View, I was invited to participate in a forum to generate new ideas to tackle the military-industrial complex (MIC) that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. Here are a few more thoughts in response to this stimulating collaboration:
When I was a college student in the early 1980s, and in Air Force ROTC, I wrote critically of the Reagan defense buildup. Caspar Weinberger, he of the “Cap the knife” handle for cost-cutting, became “Cap the ladle” as Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, ladling money in huge amounts to the Pentagon. History is repeating itself again as the Biden administration prepares to ladle $813 billion (and more) to the Pentagon.
How do we stop this? Of course, we must recognize (as I’m sure we all do) what we’re up against. Both political parties are pro-military and, in the main, pro-war. Our economy is based on a militarized Keynesianism and our culture is increasingly militarized. Mainstream Democrats, seemingly forever afraid of being labeled “weak” on defense, are at pains to be more pro-military than the Republicans. Biden, in Poland, echoed the words of Obama and other past presidents, declaring the U.S. military to be “the finest fighting force” in history. Think about that boast. Think about how Biden added that the nation owes the troops big. This is a sign of a sick culture.
Ike gave his MIC speech in 1961, and for 61 years the MIC has been winning. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s, the MIC held its own; after 9/11, it went into warp speed and is accelerating. To cite Scotty from Star Trek: “And at Warp 10, we’re going nowhere mighty fast.”
We need a reformation of our institutions; we need a restoration of our democracy; we need a reaffirmation of the U.S. Constitution; we need to remember who we are, or perhaps who we want to be, as a people.
Do we really want to be the world’s largest dealer of arms? Do we really want to spend a trillion or more dollars, each and every year, on wars and weapons, more than the next dozen or so countries combined, most of which are allies of ours? (“Yes” is seemingly the answer here, for both Democrats and Republicans.) Is that really the best way to serve the American people? Humanity itself?
Consider plans to “invest” in “modernizing” America’s nuclear triad. (Notice the words used here by the MIC.) What does this really mean? To me, it means we plan on spending nearly $2 trillion over the next 30 years to replace an older suicide vest with a newer one, except this suicide vest will take out humanity itself, as well as most other life forms on our planet. To channel Greta Thunberg’s righteous anger, “How dare you!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVlRompc1yE
Or, as Ike said in 1953, “This is not a way of life at all … it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
We will need the broadest possible coalition to tackle this outrage against civilization and humanity. That’s why I applaud these efforts to tackle the MIC, even as I encourage all of us to enlist and recruit more people to join our ranks.
My father enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 to do his bit for his family and his nation. He fought forest fires in Oregon and later became a firefighter after serving in the Army during World War II. That was the last formally declared war that America fought. It was arguably the last morally justifiable war this country has fought, waged by citizens who donned a uniform, not “warriors” who are told that the nation owes them big.
In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart, a true war hero, played a man who never fought in World War II, who stayed at home and helped ordinary people even as his younger brother Harry went off to war and earned the Medal of Honor. Yet the movie doesn’t celebrate Harry’s war heroism; it celebrates the nobility, decency, and humility of George Bailey.
How do we get back to that America? The America from before the MIC, that celebrated decency and kindness and humanitarianism?
Yes, I know. It’s just a Frank Capra movie, and America has never been a perfect shining city. All I’m saying is we need more of that spirit, and more of the righteous anger of Greta Thunberg, if we are to prevail.
In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s disastrous 60-year war (1961-2021), which began with Ike’s warning of the pernicious threat to democracy of the military-industrial complex and ended with last year’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. Has America learned anything? Based on recent events with Russia and Ukraine, together with bellicose acts toward China, it doesn’t seem so.
Here’s an excerpt from my article; you can read it in its entirety at TomDispatch.com.
Three Generations of Conspicuous Destruction by the Military-Industrial Complex
In my lifetime of nearly 60 years, America has waged five major wars, winning one decisively, then throwing that victory away, while losing the other four disastrously. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as the Global War on Terror, were the losses, of course; the Cold War being the solitary win that must now be counted as a loss because its promise was so quickly discarded.
America’s war in Vietnam was waged during the Cold War in the context of what was then known as the domino theory and the idea of “containing” communism. Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the Global War on Terror, a post-Cold War event in which “radical Islamic terrorism” became the substitute for communism. Even so, those wars should be treated as a single strand of history, a 60-year war, if you will, for one reason alone: the explanatory power of such a concept.
For me, because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in January 1961, that year is the obvious starting point for what retired Army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich recently termed America’s Very Long War (VLW). In that televised speech, Ike warned of the emergence of a military-industrial complex of immense strength that could someday threaten American democracy itself. I’ve chosen 2021 as the VLW’s terminus point because of the disastrous end of this country’s Afghan War, which even in its last years cost $45 billion annually to prosecute, and because of one curious reality that goes with it. In the wake of the crashing and burning of that 20-year war effort, the Pentagon budget leaped even higher with the support of almost every congressional representative of both parties as Washington’s armed attention turned to China and Russia.
At the end of two decades of globally disastrous war-making, that funding increase should tell us just how right Eisenhower was about the perils of the military-industrial complex. By failing to heed him all these years, democracy may indeed be in the process of meeting its demise.
The Prosperity of Losing Wars
Several things define America’s disastrous 60-year war. These would include profligacy and ferocity in the use of weaponry against peoples who could not respond in kind; enormous profiteering by the military-industrial complex; incessant lying by the U.S. government (the evidence in the Pentagon Papers for Vietnam, the missing WMDfor the invasion of Iraq, and the recent Afghan War papers); accountability-free defeats, with prominent government or military officials essentially never held responsible; and the consistent practice of a militarized Keynesianism that provided jobs and wealth to a relative few at the expense of a great many. In sum, America’s 60-year war has featured conspicuous destruction globally, even as wartime production in the U.S. failed to better the lives of the working and middle classes as a whole.
Let’s take a closer look. Militarily speaking, throwing almost everything the U.S. military had (nuclear arms excepted) at opponents who had next to nothing should be considered the defining feature of the VLW. During those six decades of war-making, the U.S. military raged with white hot anger against enemies who refused to submit to its ever more powerful, technologically advanced, and destructive toys.
NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, dates from 1949. From its very name, the alliance focused on North Atlantic countries and Western Europe, and stated its intent was to deter the Soviet Union from attacking European countries like Germany, France, and Italy.
Interestingly, Dwight D. Eisenhower was NATO’s first SACEUR, or Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and he favored the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops when Europeans were back on their feet from World War II and capable of defending themselves. Since U.S. troops are still stationed in Europe nearly 75 years after the founding of NATO, one must assume Europe is still not ready.
All kidding aside, getting the U.S. to commit troops to NATO was in part a European ploy against a repeat of American isolationism, which had manifested itself in the aftermath of World War I. There was indeed a time when Americans wanted nothing to do with European intrigue and folly, and in the 1930s the U.S. Senate even attacked European arms manufacturers as warmongering “merchants of death.” Imagine that!
Nowadays, of course, it’s the USA that dominates the world’s arms market, and our merchants of death truly dominate the world. Our weapons merchants now deliver weapons to places like Ukraine in the name of “freedom” and “protecting democracy,” though I have yet to see a freedom or democracy bomb. (Interestingly, the names we choose for weapons systems are far more honest, like Hellfire missiles and Predator and Reaper drones. Talk about peddling death!)
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO’s reason for being collapsed along with it, but reason not the need, as King Lear said. NATO was not about to disband itself; lucrative and powerful bureaucracies rarely do. So NATO’s mission began to change to “out of area” operations, working in concert with the UN in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. Speaking of “out of area,” NATO countries also got involved in the War on Terror, including U.S. folly in Afghanistan, which provided political cover for the U.S. in the sense that American officials could claim to be working as part of a coalition to help the Afghan people.
But the biggest money maker of all for NATO and for today’s merchants of death has been expansion. Recall that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Recall that NATO was created to deter a Soviet attack on Western Europe. If NATO was going to continue to exist, it needed to morph into something else, but most of all it needed to grow. And so it did.
In 1999, former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined. Five years later, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the three Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) joined as well. In short, what began as a defensive alliance focused on Western Europe has grown into an alliance that includes just about all of Eastern Europe. And the new NATO members have been eager customers for NATO-compatible weaponry, much of it made in the USA.
If I were Russian, I think I’d look at the dramatic eastern expansion of NATO as worrisome. If not aggressive, it is most certainly constrictive. And with former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine mentioned as future NATO members, this constriction would seem more like strangulation if I occupied the Kremlin. And I’m not an ex-KGB agent like Vladimir Putin.
I remember a military history symposium in 1998 I attended in which the future of NATO was bandied about. Russian concerns about NATO expansion were discussed by four senior generals. One of them, General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, basically argued that NATO should tell the Russians to go pound sand. In the notes I took from the discussion, Farrar-Hockley said that to forego NATO expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe. Besides, Russia had nothing to fear from an expanded NATO, he added. The three other generals expressed some concern that Russia could see expansion as encirclement, and given Russia’s history of being invaded and devastated by countries to its west, any expansion would have to be done carefully, with plenty of dialogue.
We’re not witnessing much dialogue, are we? Instead, NATO expansion is seen by the U.S. as uncontroversial, and indeed as desirable, and certainly as non-threatening. Surely the Russians have nothing to fear from such a vast alliance creeping up to its very door step! It’s not like Russia wasn’t devastated by Napoleon in 1812, or by Germany and its various allies in World Wars I and II. I’m sure that will never happen again. Right, comrade?
Here’s an idea. Perhaps NATO expansion would be less problematic for the Russians if the U.S. withdrew all its troops from Europe, harkening back to Eisenhower’s initial vision. Shouldn’t European countries be able to defend themselves after almost 75 years of U.S. aid? Maybe Donald Trump wasn’t so crazy after all in asking whether NATO was really worth the candle.
The American people have failed Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex. He told us it was sapping our resources and livelihood. He said its total influence — economic, political, and spiritual — was warping the very structure of our society. Its growing power, Ike warned, posed a grave danger to our liberties and our democratic processes. We heard his words, but we failed to act on them.
Ike didn’t just issue a warning in his farewell address in 1961. He gave us a mission. He literally put us on guard duty, as he said we must guard against the growing power of the Complex. He challenged us to be an alert and knowledgeable citizenry. Notice those three words: alert, knowledgeable, citizenry. Ike told us to get smart, to be vigilant, to be fully informed and involved citizens. Not citizen-soldiers for war, but citizen-guards against the growing power of the U.S. military and its weapons makers within a democracy that was increasingly compromised by militarism and imperialism.
Collectively, we have failed to heed Ike’s warning. We have failed to curb the military-industrial complex. And thus it has become a leviathan within our society and our culture. It has, as Ike warned, come to dominate our economics, our politics, even our spiritual lives.
Ike had a different vision. He knew war and hated it. So he asked Americans to work for world peace and for human betterment. Yes, of course he was worried about communism in the climate of the Cold War. Of course he was in favor of negotiating from a position of strength. But Ike was in favor of the kind of strength that feels free and confident to extend the open hand of friendship rather than the mailed fist of war.
The latest Pentagon budget is all about the mailed fist of war. It undermines world peace and human betterment. It is a betrayal of Ike’s vision and a failure of democracy.
The American Republic is dead. The American Empire, consumed by militarism and powered by threat inflation and greed, is visibly in decline even as it consumes the lion’s share of federal discretionary spending. What is needed is a spiritual rebirth of America, a turning away from greed-war, a collective reawakening to the idea that strength is not measured by nuclear missiles or tanks or fighter jets, but by the health of our society, especially our commitment to human rights, to maximizing our human potential while protecting our environment and our planet.
America desperately needs a new vision of the good life, one that abjures war and rejects weaponry. War and weaponry are not the health of society; quite the opposite. Ike saw this; he challenged us to see it as well, and to act to ensure our democracy wouldn’t be destroyed by a permanent military establishment of vast proportions.
And we the people have failed him — and ourselves.
What is to be done? We need to reject fear. We need to cut military spending. We need to dismantle the empire. And we need to see these acts for what they are: the acts of a strong people, confident that right makes might, committed to avoiding the utter waste of war and the depravity of building an economy based on weapons production and arms exports.
Nobody said it would be easy. Ike knew it wouldn’t be. It’s why he put us on guard duty. He told us to be alert, to get smart, and to act.
Ike gave us a mission, not just a warning. Are you ready to enlist and fight against weapons and war?
May I make a suggestion to all my fellow Americans? Even if you’ve read it, even if you’ve listened to it before, listen again to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in 1961. It’s the speech in which he warned against America’s military-industrial complex, to which Ike wanted rightly to add Congress as well but decided against it.
You’ll hear some words in Ike’s address that you rarely hear in political discourse today. Words like liberty, charity, dignity, integrity, love, mutual respect, and that rarest word of all, peace. You’ll hear him speak of Americans as citizens, not just as consumers, and at the end you’ll hear him rejoice in becoming a private citizen as he prepared to leave the White House to his successor, John F. Kennedy.
You’ll also hear Ike deplore war as one who’d seen its horrors. Ike referred to 20th-century wars as “holocausts,” which they were, and of the need to avoid future wars as they could utterly destroy civilization if nuclear weapons were used in them. Ike called for disarmament in the cause of world peace, and when was the last time an American president made such a call?
Ike further urged Americans, despite this country’s military strength, to avoid arrogance. The strong must not dominate, Ike said, for the weak also deserve a say and a seat at the negotiating table. Ike talked about exercising power for the cause of world peace and human betterment, and that moral intellect and decent purpose should rule, not fear and hate.
Of course, this speech is best known for Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex, the immense U.S. military establishment “of vast proportions” as well as corporate weapons makers and the “disastrous rise” of their “misplaced power.” It’s vitally important we recognize how Ike framed his warning. His meaning is plain. He says the military-industrial complex, if allowed to grow unchecked, will endanger our liberties and our democratic processes. He says its immense power poses grave implications for the structure of our society. He calls on Americans, as alert and knowledgable citizens, to keep the Complex in check, and indeed to do their best to lessen its power.
Ike gave this address 60 years ago, and we have largely failed to heed his warning. We have allowed the military-industrial-Congressional complex to grow unchecked, so much so that the so-called national security state has become a fourth branch of government that gobbles up more than a trillion dollars a year while pursuing endless war around the globe.
As citizens (are we still citizens?), we are witnessing the slow death of our democracy, even as American militarism and repetitive undeclared wars have made the world a meaner, nastier place.
Our course of action is plain, as it was to Ike in 1961. Until we reject the holocaust of war and reduce as much as humanly possible the power of the military-industrial complex, America will remain on a catastrophic path that threatens the very existence of humanity.
Ike implored us to seek balance; to come together; to look toward the future; to cherish and protect our democratic institutions. He confessed he was disappointed in his own performance as president in ensuring disarmament and pursuing fair-minded diplomacy, but he enjoined us all to seek peace and to advance freedom around the world.
Why not do that?
Ike’s Warning (1961)
The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Can it also be said that the unexamined military is not worth having?
What amazes me about the U.S. military is how little it is scrutinized. Sure, there’s armed services committees in the House and Senate, but they seem most concerned about shoveling more money toward the Pentagon. Either that or the dire perils of “critical race theory,” which is surely threatening the Republic more than runaway militarism, endless wars, and unneeded nuclear weapons.
What is to be done? I see only one solution: major cuts to the “defense” budget. And that budget is even higher than the stated figure of $705 billion or thereabouts. Nuclear weapons come under the Department of Energy, for example. Homeland Security has its separate budget (isn’t defense of the homeland what the Pentagon is all about?). The various intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA and so forth churn through scores of billions yet couldn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 9/11 attacks. Interestingly, after 9/11 these agencies saw vast increases in funding. Who knew incompetence could be so rewarding?
If you add up all the billions tied to weapons and wars and “defense” in America, you routinely exceed a trillion dollars a year. It’s almost an unfathomable sum. Perhaps it is to the U.S. military as well, since they can’t pass an audit. No one really knows where all the money is going.
Ike knew the score. Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower warned us all about the military-industrial-Congressional complex. A few people listened, but nobody in power did anything about it. Since then the Complex has only grown stronger and more pervasive (and invasive) in America. And now that same Complex owns the mainstream media. Remarkably, the “journalists” telling us all about the Complex on MSNBC and CNN and Fox are often retired CIA and military officials; they don’t even bother disclosing their obvious conflict of interest here.
Strangely, it’s become patriotic to salute our military rather than to examine it and challenge it. Americans, generally a boisterous and busy bunch, are remarkably quiet and passive except for all the saluting and praising. Until this mindset, and this behavior, changes radically, America will continue on a wasteful and wanton path forged by weapons and war.
And that really is something we need to examine in the collective life of our country.
There’s a bill before the Rhode Island State Legislature (House Bill 6026) that aims to divest state pension funds from military contractors. I wrote a short letter in favor of this bill and submitted it, as follows:
I served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2005. There are many of us within the military who recognize the wisdom of General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor. Butler wrote that the best way to end war is to take the profit out of it. Butler wrote in the 1930s, when our country believed that weapons makers were “merchants of death.” They were called that because of the vast killing fields of World War I, a war that killed more than 100,000 Americans, together with millions of other troops from Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere.
Joining Smedley Butler was another great American, General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower. In his famous “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953, Ike wrote that unnecessary spending on weaponry would lead to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron. Here are his words:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
In 1961, President Eisenhower warned all Americans against the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Sixty years later, in 2021, America dominates the world in selling weapons across the globe. We have become the “merchants of death” that Generals Butler and Eisenhower warned us about.
Weapons kill. Weapons make wars more likely. And as Eisenhower said in 1946, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
It’s time for us to hate war again. It’s time for us to beat our swords into ploughshares, as the Bible tells us. It’s time for us to pursue more peaceful activities.
Rhode Island can set a strong example – a shining example – in the pursuit of peace and sanity. I urge you to vote “for” House Bill 6026.
The “Divestment Fact Sheet” for the bill explains its purpose, as follows:
Allows us to redirect our investment dollars toward socially productive corporations addressing important social assets like climate resilience, health, and education, which aid economic growth;
Seeks to move money away from corporations whose output foments violence, death, destruction, and social chaos.
Educates the general public about the role of weapons manufacturers in the cycle of tax breaks, lobbying largesse, increasing military budgets and weapon sales.
Reduces the flow of scarce economic resources to military weapons manufacturers by reducing public investment;
Sends a message to the US Congress that we need to sharply reduce investment in military weapons where the costs are increasingly public (ever increasing health bills for traumatized and injured vets of the endless wars, reconstruction bills in foreign lands, ever increasing maintenance bills and graft on weapons systems) and the benefits are private (lobbying firm profits, huge weapons manufacturer bonuses and excessive CEO pay packages).
In America, money talks. As Smedley Butler said, ending the madness of war will most likely come when we can take the profit out of it. Here’s hoping Rhode Island’s effort succeeds — and sets an example for others across our nation.
I came across this quotation yesterday: “I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad,” Deputy SecDef nominee Kath Hicks tells the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, “and, if confirmed, that is an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away.”
The U.S. military plans to spend well over a trillion dollars over the next thirty years to “modernize” the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and sub-launched ballistic missiles. Long ago, I remember reading (from December 1982) that Charles Bennet, a Democratic Congressman, had said “The triad is not the Trinity.” But the Pentagon treats it as if it is a (un)Holy Trinity, shoveling money to build even more nuclear weapons to devastate and destroy humanity. I don’t use the concept of evil lightly, but I can’t think of policies much more evil than developing yet more genocidal weaponry at enormous cost.
We desperately need new thinking in America, which is why I wrote the following article for TomDispatch. Maybe some of these are pipe dreams; then again, maybe we should all be smoking peace pipes more often.
The Power of America’s Example
When it comes to war, if personnel is policy, America is yet again in deep trouble.
As retired Army Major Danny Sjursen recently pointed out at TomDispatch, when it comes to foreign policy, President Joe Biden’s new cabinet and advisers are well stocked with retired generals, reconstituted neocons, unapologetic hawks, and similar war enthusiasts. Biden himself has taken to asking God to protect the troops whenever he makes a major speech. (How about protecting them by bringing them home from our pointless wars?) “Defense” spending, as war spending is generally known in this country, remains at record levels at $740.5 billion for fiscal year 2021. Talk of a new cold war with Russia or China (or both) paradoxically warms Pentagon offices and corridors with yet more funds. The only visible dove of peace at Biden’s inaugural was the giant golden brooch worn by Lady Gaga. So what exactly is to be done?
Peace-driven progressive policies will not emerge easily from the rainbow kettle of hawks Biden has so far assembled, but his inaugural speech did mention leading and inspiring others globally “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” It would have been an apt rhetorical flourish indeed, if not for this country’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s harsh war-fighting reality suggests that “the example of our power” still remains standard operating procedure inside the Washington Beltway. How could this possibly be changed?
I have a few ideas for Biden — a 10-point plan, in fact, for turning his softball rhetoric into hardball reality. Consider, Mr. President, the following powerful examples you could set as America’s latest commander-in-chief:
1. Stop the U.S. from building new generations of nuclear weapons and downsize the vast existing American arsenal, while launching global negotiations to work toward the elimination of all such arsenals. The U.S. military is set to spend well over a trillion dollars in the coming decades to “modernize” its nuclear triad of bombers and land-based and submarine-launched missiles. Such a staggering “investment” can only move the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. If America is to lead by example when it comes to the ultimate power on this planet, why not begin by cancelling this trillion-dollar-nightmare as part of a new global anti-nuclear initiative? Why not commit us, long term, to the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere, while moving to adopt a “no-first-use” policy?
2. When it comes to President Biden’s commitment to slow climate change and clean up the environment, why not do something in military terms? America’s armed forces have an enormous appetite for fossil fuels. The Pentagon also has a sordid record when it comes to the poisoning of the environment. (Consider the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the military’s burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the birth defects and severe health problems that were linked to the munitions its forces used in assaulting the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.) If the president wants to set an example when it comes to demilitarizing this over-armed, over-polluted planet of ours, reducing both the military’s fossil-fuel emissions and its poisonous munitions would be a powerful way to start.
3. End this century’s forever wars and radically downsize this country’s unprecedented global network of military bases. Driving the colossal size of today’s military is what my old service, the Air Force, likes to call its “global reach, global power” mission. At least in theory, that mission, in turn, helps justify the sprawling network of 800 or so overseas bases, a network that costs more than $100 billion a year to maintain. Such bases not only consume resources needed here in the U.S. and help stoke those forever wars, but they present high-value targets to opponents and incite ill-feeling and resistance from “host” countries. So, downsizing that global base structure would be an act of peace — and fiscal sanity.
4. Make major cuts in the country’s war budget. Fewer bases and fewer or no wars should translate into a far lower defense budget. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion annually to defend this country and cover its real “national security” interests seems reasonable for the self-styled lone superpower. The money saved (roughly $340 billion based on this year’s budget) could then perhaps be partly rebated directly to American families in need in this pandemic. Perhaps every American family earning less than $50,000 a year could see a rebate on their taxes directly attributable to downsizing that budget and America’s imperial footprint overseas. Taking a page from Donald Trump, President Biden, as America’s thrifty and giving commander-in-chief, could even have his name put on those rebate checks. Call it a long-delayed peace dividend. Regular Americans, after all, need such “dividends” far more than giant defense contractors like Boeing or Raytheon. And don’t get me started on the need to invest in rebuilding this nation’s infrastructure at a moment when the extremities associated with climate change threaten to devastate parts of the country.
5. Create a Department of Peace (here’s looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) with influence at least approaching that of the so-called Department of Defense. Currently, the U.S. military is all about power projection, domination of the global battlespace, and similar buzzwords that add up to exporting violence abroad, special op by special op, drone by drone. You are what you do and the U.S. military does permanent war with plenty of “collateral damage.” (Picture mutilated black and brown bodies and flattened and poisoned cities and towns.) If the U.S. government can create a Space Force just to fulfill the fantasies of Donald Trump, then why not a peace force, too? (America’s current, humble Peace Corps asked for $401 million for Fiscal Year 2021, roughly the cost of four underperforming F-35 jet fighters.) Peace, much like war, doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it — and that would be precisely the mission of the Department of Peace.
6.Pay attention, for once, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address and exert rigorous oversight and zealous control over the military-industrial complex. That means ending the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force that Congress passed in a climate of panic and revenge in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (though it was only to be against those associated in some fashion with those terror attacks), and the second one Congress authorized in 2002 in preparation for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. They have been misused and abused by presidents ever since. Furthermore, end any conflict that hasn’t been authorized by a direct Congressional declaration of war. That means withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s security is not, in fact, directly threatened by those countries. As a self-declared democracy, the United States should set an example by not fighting wars disconnected from the people’s will and the true needs of national defense.
7. And speaking of President Eisenhower, America needs to embrace his lesson that military spending represents a theft from Americans who are hungry, sick, and need help. For its “national security,” this country needs more hospitals, better education, safer food, a cleaner environment, and, most of all, clean water and fresh air. Eisenhower knew that warships and warplanes were simply not the answer to the American people’s real and pressing needs.
8. Reject threat inflation, including the heightening talk of a “new cold war” with Russia or China or of an ongoing “generational” war on terror. Eliminate talk of a new Red Menace, of likely wars with Iran or North Korea, or of America’s backwardness in cyberwarfare research and development. Terrorism is nothing new and will always be with us in one form or another (including, vis-a-vis the Capitol on January 6th, domestic terrorism). Indeed, since war is terror, a war on terror should truly be considered an oxymoron. Terrorist acts are mostly the recourse of the weak when taking on the strong. The United States isn’t going to stop them by getting stronger yet. Nor are China and Russia about to invade this country. (This isn’t Red Dawn.) Iran is not coming to impose Sharia law and North Korea is not about to launch nukes against us. As for cyber-attacks, don’t worry: no matter what you’ve heard, no country does cyberwarfare better than the U.S.A.
9. End the practice of foreign aid taking the form of military aid. When taxpayers give aid to foreign countries, it should be in the form of food, medicine, and other essentials, not cluster bombs, F-16s, and Hellfire missiles.
10. Learn from Abraham Lincoln. In President Biden’s recent Inaugural Address, as a call to national unity, he made reference to Lincoln’s initial inaugural appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” But he should have focused on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the finest speech ever given by any president. As Lincoln put it then, when it came to ending the American Civil War:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln was unafraid of speaking of and seeking a just and lasting peace. In this century, until at least the Trump years, Americans often heard their leaders speak of this nation’s “exceptional” nature. What could be more exceptional, more laudable, than seeking a lasting global peace?
Biden, like me, is Roman Catholic. My Catholic bible (Matthew 5:9) tells me that Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Instead of beseeching God to protect the troops that American presidents have continually sent into harm’s way, Joe Biden might ask for blessings for America’s peace activists. To echo Lincoln again, that would indeed be a case of right making might, instead of the might-making-right vision that a militaristic America has grown far too comfortable with.
An Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry
So long ago, President Eisenhower spoke of the importance of having an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” Isn’t it time for mainstream media outlets to foster real, critical, investigative journalism that would truly inform those very citizens about America’s wanton military spending and endless wars, while providing educators with crucial material to teach their students about the horrific costs of militarism? This country needs to free its collective mind from the prevailing forever-war narrative. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, and Nash, if we teach the children well, perhaps they won’t repeat their father’s hell.
In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon asked us all to imagine a different world and said that it’s easy if you try. Lennon got the first and most important part right, but the second part sadly doesn’t apply, at least to this country in this century. Nowadays, Americans are so immersed in a culture driven by war, profit, and exploitation that it’s no longer easy to imagine anything but war. If Americans truly paid attention to war, up close and as personal as they could get, they’d begin to grasp the folly and wickedness of it and so perhaps relinquish what I’ve come to think of as their prisoner-of-war mentality in relation to it. They might actually begin breaking down mental barriers to peace.
Don’t count on Congress doing it, though. Congress is incestuously part of what should be renamed the military-industrial-congressional complex. Don’t count on the military doing it either. Its most senior men and women have been carefully selected, groomed, and promoted because they believe in the system, which includes incessant lobbying for more weaponry and exaggerating the threats to this country to get it. They exist to wage war; the rest of us should be willing to fight for peace.
Change, if and when it comes, will have to be driven by people like us.
It won’t be easy, but it is necessary for America’s survival. And it’s unlikely to come without campaign finance reform and the public funding of elections. In a “pay-to-play” oligarchy disguised as a democracy, the giant weapons-making corporations simply pay much more than you do and so speak through megaphones, leaving you with a dead mic. Unless the corporate dominance of our politics is curtailed, ordinary Americans will continue to be outshouted and overwhelmed by the bellicose and the greedy, leaving the country forever at war.
It won’t be easy to work for peace, but it sure is worth the try. It sure as hell beats the alternative of guns, bombs, and missiles being produced like so many sausages in a militaristic country that ever more resembles George Orwell’s nightmarish image of the future as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
America’s new president has called for us to lead with the power of our example rather than just the example of our power. I can’t think of anything more exemplary and powerful than a strong commitment to making war no more.