It’s worth pausing this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, marked by Adolf Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s unconditional surrender. The Allied victory was a triumph of coalition warfare, the “Big Three” represented by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, joined by so many other countries and peoples.
The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent a disarmingly simple message to mark Germany’s total defeat and surrender:
“The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.”
It was a true “mission accomplished” moment — perhaps the last clear one America has had in any major war or conflict since then.
Eisenhower was a complex man who presented himself as a simple one. One thing he knew was how to lead, to bring people together, to keep hotheads like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and General George Patton under control while maximizing their gifts. It’s difficult to imagine a better coalition commander than Ike.
I love this image of Ike from May 7, 1945 (Ike is seen here with his deputy commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder of the Royal Air Force):
Note the simplicity of Ike’s uniform (just three rows of ribbons, and no badges, devices, or other military gewgaws). The same can be said of Tedder’s uniform (a few ribbons, his wings, and that’s about it). Compare their uniforms to America’s current Chairman of the JCS, Mark Milley:
With all this self-congratulation and self-glorification, is it any wonder America’s generals found stalemate in Korea and defeat in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan?
VE Day represented enormous sacrifices by peoples around the world to defeat a murderous fascistic regime in Germany. Well should we remember it and learn from it.
I grew up on a steady diet of threat inflation. Before I was born, bomber and missile “gaps” had been falsely touted as showing the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in developing nuclear-capable weaponry (the reverse was true). But those lies, which vastly exaggerated Soviet capabilities, perfectly served the needs of the military-industrial complex (hereafter, the Complex) in the USA. Another example of threat inflation, common when I was a kid, was the Domino Theory, the idea that, if South Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region of Southeast Asia would fall as well, including Thailand and perhaps even countries like the Philippines. Inflating the danger of communism was always a surefire method to promote U.S. defense spending and the interests of the Pentagon.
When I was in college, one book that opened my eyes was Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine.” James Fallows’s “National Defense” was another book I read in those days, together with Helen Caldicott’s “Missile Envy.” Early in the Reagan years, I recall those old charts that displayed Soviet ICBMs as being bigger than American ICBMs, as if missile size was everything. The message was clear: the Soviets have more missiles, and they’re bigger! Yet what really mattered was the accuracy and reliability of those missiles, areas where the U.S. had a decisive edge. U.S. nuclear forces were also far more survivable than their Soviet counterparts, but such details were lost on most Americans.
Throughout my life, the U.S. “defense” establishment has consistently inflated the dangers presented by foreign powers, which brings me to the current Pentagon budget for 2020, which may reach $750 billion. How to justify such an immense sum? A large dollop of threat inflation might help…
With the Islamic State allegedly defeated in Syria and other terrorist forces more nuisances than existential threats, with the Afghan War apparently winding down (only 14,000 U.S. troops are deployed there) and with Trump professing a “love” fest with Kim Jong-un, where are today’s (and tomorrow’s) big threats? Iran isn’t enough. The only threats that seem big enough to justify colossal military spending are Russia and China. Hence the new “cold war” we keep hearing about, which drives a “requirement” for big spending on lucrative weapons systems like new aircraft carriers, new fighters and bombers, newer and better nuclear warheads and missiles, and so forth.
Which brings me to the alleged Russian collusion story involving Trump. As we now know, the Mueller Report found no collusion, but was that really the main point of the investigation and all the media hysteria? The latter succeeded in painting Vladimir Putin and the Russians as enemies in pursuit of the death of American democracy. Meanwhile Trump, who’d campaigned with some idea of a rapprochement with Russia, was driven by the investigation to take harsher stances against Russia, if only to prove he wasn’t a “Putin puppet.” The result: most Americans today see Russia as a serious threat, even though the Russians spend far less on wars and weaponry than the U.S. does.
Threat inflation is nothing new, of course. Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized it and did his best to control it in the 1950s, but even Ike had only limited success. Other presidents, lacking Ike’s military experience and gravitas, have most frequently surrendered to the Complex. The last president who tried with some consistency to control the Complex was Jimmy Carter, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis, and his own political fortunes drove him to launch a major military buildup, which was then accelerated by Reagan until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the early 1990s, I briefly heard about a peace dividend and America returning to being a normal country (i.e. anti-imperial) in normal times, but ambition and greed reared their ugly heads, and U.S. leaders became enamored with military power. Rather than receding, America’s global empire grew, with no peace dividends forthcoming. The attacks on 9/11 led the Bush/Cheney administration to double down on military action in its “global war on terror,” leading to disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that further served to engorge the Complex with money and power.
Today, faced with a debilitating national debt of $22 trillion and infrastructure that’s aptly described as “crumbling,” you’d think U.S. leaders would finally seek a peace dividend to lower our debt and rebuild our roads, bridges, dams, and related infrastructure. But the Complex (including Congress, of course) is addicted to war and weapons spending, aided as ever by threat inflation and its close cousin, fearmongering about invading aliens at the border.
And there you have it: a $750 billion military budget sucking up more than sixty percent of discretionary spending by the federal government. As Ike said, this is no way to live humanely, but it is a way for humanity to hang from a cross of iron.
[Note: I originally wrote this article for Truthout, where it appeared in August 2011. Little has changed since then; indeed, the current president has surrounded himself with advisers who are both screaming hawks and true believers in U.S. military strength. It’s a curious feature of American exceptionalism that our leaders parrot the notion that the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force” in history — and this boast comes despite disastrous results in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As my dad used to say, the best don’t have to boast.]
A line at the tail end of Nicholas Schmidle’s article in The New Yorker (August 8, 2011) on SEAL Team Six’s takedown of Osama bin Laden captured the military zeitgeist of the moment. Upon meeting the SEAL team, President Obama gushed that the team was, “literally, the finest small-fighting force that has ever existed in the world.”
As a military historian, I was struck by the sweeping nature of that boast.
The “finest small-fighting force” ever in the history of the world? What about the Spartan 300 who gave their all at Thermopylae against the Persians, thereby saving Greek civilization for posterity? What about those Royal Air Force pilots in the Battle of Britain, about whom Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”? Turning to an American example, what about the Rangers lionized by President Ronald Reagan for their sacrificial service at Pointe du Hoc to mark the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II?
Such caveats are not meant to diminish the bravery and toughness of the SEALs and other US Special Forces teams; the deadly risks they take are only too evident, as the helicopter crash in Afghanistan on August 6  reminds us. But immoderate boasts of how the US military is the “best ever” contributes to a myth of American omnipotence that has disturbing implications for the conduct of our wars and even for the future of our country.
The historian George Herring made an important point when he noted that a key reason the US lost in Vietnam was “the illusion of American omnipotence, the traditional American belief that the difficult we do tomorrow, the impossible may take a while.” Because of this illusion, we’re psychologically unprepared when events go south, therefore, we tend, as Herring notes, to “find scapegoats in our own midst: the poor judgment of our leaders, the media, or the anti-war movement.”
We’re so wrapped up in our own ethnocentric drama, Herring suggests, that we deny any agency or initiative to the enemy, as well as the vital importance of “the nature of the conflict itself, the weakness of our ally, the relative strength of our adversary.” We have no context, in other words, in which to process setbacks, to reconsider our commitment of troops overseas, to know when it’s both prudent and wise to walk away. How can we, when we’re always at pains to celebrate our troops as the finest warriors ever on planet Earth?
Our military is full of highly motivated professionals, but no matter how tempting it may be, we should take great care in elevating them to the pantheon of the warrior heroes of Valhalla. For only the dead gain access to its hall.
Nor should we mistake warrior prowess for true national security. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his State of the Union address in 1957, “National security requires far more than military power. Economic and moral factors play indispensable roles.” Eschewing Ike’s wisdom, our government today equates national security with astronomical defense budgets and global military intervention, never mind the damage done to our economy or to our moral standing.
Better than anyone, perhaps, Ike came to recognize the perils of misplaced power and the folly of placing too much faith in military action. Afforded the luxury of space provided by two oceans, rich natural resources and the wisdom of the founders who forged a representative democracy (however imperfect) based on personal liberty, the United States had the option of preferring peace and prosperity to war and destitution.
Yet, partly because we’ve come to believe in our own military omnipotence, we seem today to be determined to choose the latter option of war and destitution. We persist in dissipating our economy and our energy in endless military action, a fate Ike perhaps had in mind when he said, “Only Americans can hurt America.”
We can do better. And one small step we can take is to stop boasting of how great we supposedly are at fielding the “finest” fighting forces ever.
Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy. It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat. Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).
I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy. These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related. The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.
Threat inflation is a huge problem in America. The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea. If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents. Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings. How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?
North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power. Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country. He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally. Does he need to be deterred? Yes. Should Americans cower in fear? Of course not.
Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election. China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies. We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years. Why haven’t we?
Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex. Ike warned us about it in 1961. He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature. Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke. He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more. He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.
Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today. Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget). Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?
Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:
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 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 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.
What Ike said. The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.
And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war. Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.
So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:
Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
And add back one more: climate change/global warming. Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century. Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I detail how the U.S. military is out everywhere but winning nowhere. What I mean by not winning is the military’s failure to end wars on terms remotely favorable to national security and the interests of democracy. I hesitate to be a cynic, but perpetual war does mean perpetual high “defense” budgets and prolonged and prodigious power for generals (and retired generals). Peace would mean smaller defense budgets and far less influence for these men.
What chance of peace with President Trump in charge surrounded by the generals of all these losing wars? Indeed, generals continue to speak of generational wars, so much so that I’m tempted to make a play on words: generational wars generated by generals. It’s not entirely fair, nor is it entirely unfair.
Anyway, here’s an excerpt from my article. You can read it in its entirety at TomDispatch.com.
What gives? Why are highly maneuverable and sophisticated naval ships colliding with lumbering cargo vessels? Why is an Air Force that exists to fly and fight short 1,200 pilots? Why are US Special Operations forces deployed everywhere and winning nowhere? Why, in short, is the US military fighting itself — and losing?
It’s the Ops Tempo, Stupid
After 16 years of a never-ending, ever-spreading global war on terror, alarms are going off in Asia from the Koreas and Afghanistan to the Philippines, while across the Greater Middle East and Africa the globe’s “last superpower” is in a never-ending set of conflicts with a range of minor enemies few can even keep straight. As a result, America’s can-do military, committed piecemeal to a bewildering array of missions, has increasingly become a can’t-do one.
Too few ships are being deployed for too long. Too few pilots are being worn out by incessant patrols and mushrooming drone and bombing missions. Special Operations forces (the “commandos of everywhere,” as Nick Turse calls them) are being deployed to far too many countries — more than two-thirds of the nations on the planet already this year — and are involved in conflicts that hold little promise of ending on terms favorable to Washington. Meanwhile, insiders like retired Gen. David Petraeus speak calmly about “generational struggles” that will essentially never end. To paraphrase an old slogan from ABC’s Wide World of Sports, as the US military spans the globe, it’s regularly experiencing the agony of defeat rather than the thrill of victory.
To President Donald Trump (and so many other politicians in Washington), this unsavory reality suggests an obvious solution: boost military funding; build more navy ships; train more pilots and give them more incentive pay to stay in the military; rely more on drones and other technological “force multipliers” to compensate for tired troops; cajole allies like the Germans and Japanese to spend more on their militaries; and pressure proxy armies like the Iraqi and Afghan security forces to cut corruption and improve combat performance.
One option — the most logical — is never seriously considered in Washington: to make deep cuts in the military’s operational tempo by decreasing defense spending and downsizing the global mission, by bringing troops home and keeping them there. This is not an isolationist plea. The United States certainly faces challenges, notably from Russia (still a major nuclear power) and China (a global economic power bolstering its regional militarily strength). North Korea is, as ever, posturing with missile and nuclear tests in provocative ways. Terrorist organizations strive to destabilize American allies and cause trouble even in “the homeland.”
Such challenges require vigilance. What they don’t require is more ships in the sea lanes, pilots in the air and boots on the ground. Indeed, 16 years after the 9/11 attacks it should be obvious that more of the same is likely to produce yet more of what we’ve grown all too accustomed to: increasing instability across significant swaths of the planet, as well as the rise of new terror groups or new iterations of older ones, which means yet more opportunities for failed US military interventions …
The Greatest Self-Defeating Force in History?
Incessant warfare represents the end of democracy. I didn’t say that, James Madison did.
I firmly believe, though, in words borrowed from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that “only Americans can hurt America.” So how can we lessen the hurt? By beginning to rein in the military. A standing military exists — or rather should exist — to support and defend the Constitution and our country against immediate threats to our survival. Endless attacks against inchoate foes in the backlands of the planet hardly promote that mission. Indeed, the more such attacks wear on the military, the more they imperil national security.
A friend of mine, a captain in the Air Force, once quipped to me: you study long, you study wrong. It’s a sentiment that’s especially cutting when applied to war: you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Yet as debilitating as they may be to militaries, long wars are even more devastating to democracies. The longer our military wages war, the more our country is militarized, shedding its democratic values and ideals.
Back in the Cold War era, the regions in which the US military is now slogging it out were once largely considered “the shadows” where John le Carré-style secret agents from the two superpowers matched wits in a set of shadowy conflicts. Post-9/11, “taking the gloves off” and seeking knockout blows, the US military entered those same shadows in a big way and there, not surprisingly, it often couldn’t sort friend from foe.
A new strategy for America should involve getting out of those shadowy regions of no-win war. Instead, an expanding US military establishment continues to compound the strategic mistakes of the last 16 years. Seeking to dominate everywhere but winning decisively nowhere, it may yet go down as the greatest self-defeating force in history.
Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas? Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in? Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?
At Trump’s first news conference today as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program. The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare. These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.
Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he cancelled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.
Excepting Carter, U.S. presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors. Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.
Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war. Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these 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.
Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the U.S. military. Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion. More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the U.S. military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.
Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings. Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism. But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief. It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.
Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign. But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual. Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.
Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the U.S. military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies. He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state. Ike, however, could and did say “no.” He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms. Will Trump?
Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights. Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president. Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other U.S. allies pay their fair share of defense costs.
If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state. But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well. Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.
If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.
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:
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?