Why write so much about the military-industrial complex?
Loyal readers may recall that in June of 2022 M. Davout and I posted a debate between the two of us on the Russia-Ukraine War. This debate is still worth reading, I think.
The other day, my old friend Davout quipped that I had MIC on the brain. Of course, I had suggested that he had Putin on the brain because of his keen support of Ukraine’s war of national liberation, so it was a fair retort. It was also one that I embraced, for as I wrote back to him:
You’re right that I have MIC on the brain. MICIMATT is a useful acronym. The military industrial congressional intelligence media academia think tank complex. Awkward, but it captures some of the scope of the MIC.
There’s a reason Ike warned us about the MIC in 1961. It absorbs more than half of federal discretionary spending. This year Congress gave it $45 billion more than even Biden and the Pentagon wanted. And it just failed its fifth financial audit in a row.
Biden, back in the day, stated “show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” Looking at the federal budget, we see what they value.
The MIC’s budget is at least 14 times greater than the State Department’s. And there are times when State acts as a salesman for U.S. weaponry overseas, as I wrote about here: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/our-state-department-a-ti_b_748658
Back when I wrote that article (2010), the Pentagon Budget was 10 times as great as State. Now it’s 14 or 15 times as great. Progress!
So, yes, I have the MIC on my brain. All Americans should. That’s why Ike said “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” has any hope of keeping the MIC under control.
So far, we’ve failed, myself included.
Davout then made this reply:
What are the real problems with the MIC?
That it functions as a mini-welfare state for many Americans is not a big problem for me. That it supports weapons systems we do not need and in numbers we do not need is a big problem.
That it needlessly supports redundant bases across the country because of protection from members of congress worried about employment and small business in their congressional districts is not a big problem for me. That it provides military surplus to local police departments is a big problem.
The more crucial issue is to what extent and in which ways are military contractors like Boeing more corrupt, wasteful of US taxpayer dollars or endangering to the common good than Exxon Mobil or Philip Morris or Merck?
Haven’t you squeezed enough meaning out of Ike’s speech by now? Why not do a deep dive into the Pentagon budget and give like-minded people better arguments to make to their congressional reps than the top line DOD budget figure and Ike’s warning?
To which I made this reply:
One “deep diver” on the Pentagon budget is William Hartung. You can read his stuff at TomDispatch.com and Responsible Statecraft. There are other deep divers as well. One of my colleagues, Christian Sorensen, has done detailed work on the MIC. Here’s one of his articles: https://www.businessinsider.com/military-industrial-complex-budget-us-security-profit-forever-wars-2021-5
Google his name for more “deep dives.”
“Deep divers” already exist. I don’t need to duplicate their fine work.
I’m not sure of the relevance of comparing big oil or big tobacco to the MIC. My focus is on the MIC because that’s what I know best. Do I need to add nuance to my critique of the MIC by saying there are other bad corporate actors out there too?
You can see I was getting testy, but we’re old friends, so we don’t mince words.
Davout responded by saying:
The point I was making (inelegantly) about the one-sided focus on the MIC is that if one does not see it in the context of other factors, one might tend to deploy it as an explanation in cases where it doesn’t apply. (If one only has a hammer in one’s toolbox, then one might try to use it for tasks for which it is not fitted.)
For example, you have suggested the US MIC is a major factor explaining the transfer of weapons from western countries to Ukraine. While I think the US MIC does benefit from those transfers (though not so much as one might think, given that some of that weaponry is drawing on overstocks of weapons systems no longer in use), it is not driving this war. Russian aggression, Ukrainian resistance, and NATO countries’ concerns about future Russian aggression are the prime factors driving those weapons transfers.
To which I replied:
And you’re wrong about the MIC and its profits here. For example, in the case of M-1 tanks, the 31 going to Ukraine will be newly built, despite the fact that we have thousands of Abrams tanks in Army inventory. Also, most of the weapons/ammo being sent from U.S. inventories have to be replaced. (Yes, a few weapons systems are obsolete, like MRAPs and M113 APCs, but most aren’t.). Assuming we send F-16s, again these will be new, and Lockheed Martin has already announced they’re willing and eager to produce more.
Don’t worry: the MIC is doing very well indeed [from the Russia-Ukraine War]. It has decades of practice at this.
That was the end of our exchange. I’d add that the MIC profits far more from the atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety created by the Russia-Ukraine War than it does from the war itself. Even though Russia’s forces haven’t performed well in this war, even though Russia is arguably weaker today than it was before the invasion, the MIC and various preening politicians are exaggerating the Russian threat as a way of boosting military spending. And it’s working, hence the $45 billion extra given to the Pentagon by Congress in this year’s budget.
And so I will continue to have “MIC on the brain” because it continues to grow ever more powerful within our society, and ever more ambitious on the world stage. You might say it’s invaded my brain as well, though (so far) I haven’t sent it more than half of my discretionary income.
Davout and I don’t always agree, but we’re always willing to talk and to listen. We need more conversations among Americans about war and the MIC, for conversing leads to clarity and clarity can lead to a shared commitment to act.