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:
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