Peace Is Our Profession
Fifty years on, Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex is very much with us. But it’s not inevitable that it must exist forever in this form.
Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex By William D. Hartung • Nation Books • 2011 • 296 pages • $25.95
Fifty years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address introduced the term “military-industrial complex” into the American lexicon. Eisenhower’s formulation anticipates all the modern content of the term: a fusion of commercial interests with military power and government might that distorts not just military planning and budgeting but also social, political, research, and academic priorities, and the role and liberties of the citizen. It touches upon themes that, with their resonance for civil and economic libertarians alike, ought to provide the beginnings of consensus in our invective-crazed polity.
Yet the complex has proven resistant to reform and invisible in present-day discussion and debate. Today, defense spending accounts for more than 50 percent of discretionary U.S. government spending and at least 35 percent of all global military spending—six times as much as China, and as much as all our “adversaries” put together. And the defense industry, the military, and our politics are tightly interwoven. Defense production occurs in every state. Meanwhile, The Boston Globe last year documented that 80 percent of retired three- and four-star generals take up paid positions with military contractors upon leaving the Pentagon.
The most audacious proposals to cut U.S. government spending, such as Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan announced in early April, pass off reductions in the rate of increase in Pentagon spending as spending cuts. While conservative and center-left budget hawks circulate plans and counterplans to save money on domestic entitlement spending, and debate the value and necessity of spending on everything from Head Start to foreign assistance to family planning, there is simply no serious debate on our military spending. The discussion and promulgation of options is left to a small group of libertarian, left, and left-er critics whose proposals are greeted with resounding silence.
How has this come to pass? A pair of deeply researched new books excavates the roots of the question, leaving the reader to supply her own answers. James Ledbetter’s Unwarranted Influence relates the history of the American public’s discomfort with the war machine in the interwar years and delves into Eisenhower’s personal intellectual development and speechmaking style. William D. Hartung’s Prophets of War tells the story of what is now the nation’s largest military contractor, Lockheed Martin, not so much through the weapons it makes or its financial expansion but through its most spectacular—and problematic—interactions and interconnections with Congress and the Defense Department.
The two books together demonstrate the persistence of a pattern that ought to disturb fiscal conservatives, antiwar liberals, small-government Tea Partiers, and market fundamentalists alike. They date the complex—both as an intellectual construct and an economic reality—back to World War I. Almost from the outset, major military contractors made a habit of failing to deliver products that performed promised functions at promised prices—while at the same time garnering ever-bigger government subsidies and bailouts, and ever-tighter ties among corporate leadership, active-duty and retired military, and Congress. Hartung dates “cost-plus contracting”—“an arrangement in which the company had all of its expenses reimbursed and then received an automatic profit on top of that”—to World War I airplane procurement. The arrangement resulted in the failure to deliver U.S.-built combat planes for use in Europe—which a postwar congressional investigation blamed on “incompetence, inexperience, blundering, or personal interest.” Yet cost-plus contracting as well as “lack of effective oversight and minimal accountability for malfeasance” have persisted for close to 100 years now.
Hartung, who has made a career of tracking the arms trade and currently directs the Arms and Security project at the Center for International Policy, presents a damning litany of practices with which modern-day defense industry skeptics will be familiar: cost overruns, knowingly unrealistic promises both on technology and pricing, aggressive-to-outright-illegal lobbying. His narrative locates the woman-gave-me-the-apple moment for Lockheed immediately after World War II, when the company recognized that its long-term financial security stood with the military rather than the private market:
Output increased by an astounding 13,500 percent during the war: The U.S. aviation industry produced more than 300,000 aircraft for the military services. It was hard to imagine how a peacetime economy could sustain anything approaching those production levels, and initially it didn’t. As Lockheed President Robert Gross put it in his reflection on the immediate postwar situation, “As long as I live, I will never forget those short, appalling weeks.”
Pressure from manufacturers and the creation of a military-industry commission resulted in recommendations for extensive government purchases in the late 1940s. And then the Korean War “opened the military spigot.”
From then on the basic story repeats itself: questionable ties between private industry and government decision-makers; legislators of both parties who are even more eager to be bought than the industry is to buy them; wildly optimistic promises during procurement; and underwhelming efforts by a tiny minority of whistleblowers and legislators to hold the company to account.
The litany is numbing. There are some successes, like the U-2 spy plane, which 50 years later is still being flown on spy missions over the Middle East. But on the other side of the ledger, we find the C-5A “Galaxy” transport, whose engine broke off during a test flight and went “whizzing down the runway without the aircraft, ending up in a ball of flames”; spare-parts scandals, including the infamous $600 toilet seat; the company’s forays into international bribery and civilian contracting; and rigged missile defense tests. In one such test, Hartung reveals just how closely military brass was implicated in the perpetuation of bad behavior. Hartung writes that a 1984 test was fixed by both Lockheed and the Army and then adds:
Incredibly, it could have been worse. The Pentagon was contemplating a much more heavy-handed approach to rigging the…tests, one in which a bomb would be set off in the target vehicle regardless of whether it was hit by the interceptor.
The wealth of detail is painful, and it ceases to be illuminating after a certain point. But the repetition underscores just how profoundly knotted the military, industry, and Congress are, and how little impression most efforts at reform have made. Ledbetter, the editor in charge of Reuters.com, provides a more defined narrative arc but just as unsatisfying a conclusion. He traces the early rise of the military-industrial complex and the nascent concerns about it, and charts the phrase’s entry into the mass culture in the decades that followed. In 1962, when Congress voted to fund a plane that General Curtis LeMay wanted but Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the President did not, The New York Times columnist James Reston wrote that the subsequent attack on McNamara
seems to give some point to President Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned about the dangers of military and industrial forces combining to unbalance the nation…McNamara has been conscious of this danger ever since he entered the Pentagon but is more conscious of it now, especially when he sees political power on Capitol Hill added to the military-industrial complex.
Ledbetter notes, “This is an early, pivotal interpretation of what the [military-industrial complex] entails: distorting use of the military budget to build weapons for political purposes, regardless of whether they actually increase national security.” After exploring the role of the complex in the 1960s student movement—when the phrase was applied not just to business and military but also to the academy, and more generally to a broad sweep of interactions between power and society—Ledbetter skips ahead to the Iraq War, and cites filmmaker Eugene Jarecki’s 2005 documentary Why We Fight as key to the phrase’s renaissance and “the most elaborate popular expression of the notion that a military-industrial complex was largely responsible for the Iraq War that began in 2003.” He ends by noting that the phrase is so pervasive that the suffix “-industrial complex” is used pejoratively for prisons, real estate, and pharmaceuticals, among other fields.
Unwarranted Influence also tracks the evolution of Eisenhower’s thinking in the context of the intellectual and political debates of his time. Ledbetter offers a survey of ideas that date from before World War II about the harmfulness of the synergy among business, power, and the military: that arms dealers cause war, that too much of modern industry is tied to weapons, that future societies would organize along military lines and curtail individual liberties, that increasingly technocratic elites would produce similar anti-democratic results. He also looks at Eisenhower’s little-known correspondence with peace activist and editor Norman Cousins, as well as other prominent intellectuals who fixated on the concerns that Eisenhower raised unexpectedly in his farewell speech. Cousins maintained a regular correspondence with Eisenhower that seems to have influenced the President’s thinking:
The President phoned Secretary of State Dulles to say “he was unhappy with the draft of a speech [Arthur] Larson sent down…The President referred to a full page article that Norman Cousins and a group are going to publish—and he thinks a little of that idealism ought to go in this speech.”
Ledbetter documents that Eisenhower had been thinking for at least two years about his farewell address: “I’m not interested in capturing headlines, but I want to have a message and I want you to be thinking about it well in advance.” The earliest mention of the themes of his speech, however, comes in October 1960 and refers to “the problem of militarism.” Ledbetter documents Eisenhower’s frustration with the Pentagon’s willingness to buck the White House publicly. He reviews the record and concludes that we can’t actually tell who recommended the phrase “military-industrial complex,” though several different speechwriters later claimed credit. Critics debate whether the speech was actually “about” the complex, and it’s hard to say whether Eisenhower’s warning was intended more for the Kennedy Administration or for the complex per se. Ledbetter notes:
There is a plain contradiction between Eisenhower’s desire—stated both publicly and privately—for a world at peace, and the fact that the military-industrial complex grew up largely on his watch (although his failure to corral it hardly makes him unique among modern presidents).
But for all the rich and useful detail in both books, each author comes up short in discussing the military side of the equation. After all, the industries could not have grown without the military’s hunger for the wares they provide. Ledbetter mentions how a newly emerged set of boosterish aerospace journals “irritated” Eisenhower. Hartung discusses at greater length the revolving-door culture that puts senior defense executives in Pentagon jobs and turns retired military brass into corporate job-hawkers, selling the idea of cushy industry gigs to their former colleagues, but he too gives the military’s intellectual take on the complex and its appropriate limits short shrift.
This matters not just because the military is the complex’s linchpin, but because it is the most respected part of government, by far, such that criticisms about big government and corporate welfare—and it certainly should be susceptible to both—bounce off it. The practice of using military voices to grab attention and gain credibility on a range of subjects—from climate change to torture to childhood obesity—has become endemic. It simply will not be possible in today’s political climate to change the relationships among military, Congress, and industry without the military’s acquiescence. And particularly in recent years, serving and retired officers have had much to say on the subject. The twenty-first century’s proliferation of blogs and online media gives outsiders an unprecedented window into how military officers—current leadership, future leaders, deep thinkers, and outsiders—see the complex from their side of the “Iron Triangle,” and there’s more debate and dissent than you might think. Retired colonel, cultural conservative, and bereaved military father Andrew Bacevich, who publishes extensively in traditional as well as “new” media, has become perhaps the best-known military critic of the military-industrial complex. Bacevich seems to channel Gore Vidal when he writes:
Victory in World War II produced not peace, but an atmosphere of permanent national security crisis. As never before in U.S. history, threats to the nation’s existence seemed omnipresent, an attitude first born in the late 1940s that still persists today. In Washington, fear—partly genuine, partly contrived—triggered a powerful response.
One result was the emergence of the national security state, an array of institutions that depended on (and therefore strove to perpetuate) this atmosphere of crisis to justify their existence, status, prerogatives, and budgetary claims. In addition, a permanent arms industry arose, which soon became a major source of jobs and corporate profits.
Bacevich’s view is a minority one within the armed forces. However, it is by no means new or isolated. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates quotes Douglas MacArthur to say that any leader planning to send a big land army into Asia “should have his head examined,” or Colin Powell reminds the public, as he did in January, that he and Dick Cheney “cut the defense budget by 25 percent” at the end of the Cold War and suggests that it can be done again, they are drawing on this behind-the-scenes debate. Gates and Powell have had decades of military and public life to develop these views. The ferment of thinking that shaped them can be seen in the blogging of Andrew Exum, the former Army officer and Middle East analyst; the writing and speaking of Powell’s former chief of staff, retired Col. Larry Wilkerson; and the vigorous debate that occurs on dozens of military-themed blogs and listservs. Those voices are central to any effort to change the way we conceptualize, fund, and equip our military.
U.S. military spending has been cut significantly three times in the last 60 years—after World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. Each time, these authors suggest, the military-industrial complex has roared back stronger, and fundamental problems of efficiency and effectiveness have not been addressed. What attempts at reform have worked? Can they be repeated?
And perhaps the most important question, which both authors edge right up to but do not quite address: Is it possible to imagine a defense sector that operated differently? And, if so, what would be the policy steps to move toward creating it? Do other countries with technologically advanced weapons industries and militaries succeed in managing this process better?
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