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Beginning November 12, 2023

Can the Military-Industrial Complex Be Tamed?

A large military warship on the open waters

February 2, 2023
By William J. Astore
Published in CounterPunch

My name is Bill Astore and I’m a card-carrying member of the military-industrial complex (MIC).

Sure, I hung up my military uniform for the last time in 2005. Since 2007, I’ve been writing articles for TomDispatch focused largely on critiquing that same MIC and America’s permanent war economy. I’ve written against this country’s wasteful and unwise wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its costly and disastrous weapons systems, and its undemocratic embrace of warriors and militarism. Nevertheless, I remain a lieutenant colonel, if a retired one. I still have my military ID card, if only to get on bases, and I still tend to say “we” when I talk about my fellow soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen (and our “guardians,” too, now that we have a Space Force).

So, when I talk to organizations that are antiwar, that seek to downsize, dismantle, or otherwise weaken the MIC, I’m upfront about my military biases even as I add my own voice to their critiques. Of course, you don’t have to be antiwar to be highly suspicious of the U.S. military. Senior leaders in “my” military have lied so often, whether in the Vietnam War era of the last century or in this one about “progress” in Iraq and Afghanistan, that you’d have to be asleep at the wheel or ignorant not to have suspected the official story.

Yet I also urge antiwar forces to see more than mendacity or malice in “our” military. It was retired general and then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after all, who first warned Americans of the profound dangers of the military-industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address. Not enough Americans heeded Ike’s warning then and, judging by our near-constant state of warfare since that time, not to speak of our ever-ballooning “defense” budgets, very few have heeded his warning to this day. How to explain that?

Well, give the MIC credit. Its tenacity has been amazing. You might compare it to an invasive weed, a parasitic cowbird (an image I’ve used before), or even a metastasizing cancer. As a weed, it’s choking democracy; as a cowbird, it’s gobbling up most of the “food” (at least half of the federal discretionary budget) with no end in sight; as a cancer, it continues to spread, weakening our individual freedoms and liberty.

Call it what you will. The question is: How do we stop it? I’ve offered suggestions in the past; so, too, have writers for TomDispatch like retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich and retired Army Major Danny Sjursen, as well as William Hartung, Julia Gledhill, and Alfred McCoy among others. Despite our critiques, the MIC grows ever stronger. If Ike’s warning wasn’t eye-opening enough, enhanced by an even more powerful speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967, what could I and my fellow TomDispatch writers possibly say or do to make a difference?

Maybe nothing, but that won’t stop me from trying. Since I am the MIC, so to speak, maybe I can look within for a few lessons that came to me the hard way (in the sense that I had to live them). So, what have l learned of value?

War Racketeers Enjoy Their Racket

In the 1930s, Smedley Butler, a Marine general twice decorated with the Medal of Honor, wrote a book entitled War Is a Racket. He knew better than most since, as he confessed in that volume, when he wore a military uniform, he served as “a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.” And the corporate-driven racket he helped enable almost a century ago by busting heads from the Caribbean to China was small-scale indeed compared to today’s thoroughly global one.

There’s an obvious lesson to be drawn from its striking endurance, never-ending enlargement, and distinct engorgement in our moment (even after all those lost wars it fought): the system will not reform itself. It will always demand and take more — more money, more authority, more power. It will never be geared for peace. By its nature, it’s authoritarian and distinctly less than honorable, replacing patriotism with service loyalty and victory with triumphant budgetary authority. And it always favors the darkest of scenarios, including at present a new cold war with China and Russia, because that’s the best and most expedient way for it to thrive.

Within the military-industrial complex, there are no incentives to do the right thing. Those few who have a conscience and speak out honorably are punished, including truth-tellers in the enlisted ranks like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale. Even being an officer doesn’t make you immune. For his temerity in resisting the Vietnam War, David M. Shoup, a retired Marine Corps general and Medal of Honor recipient, was typically dismissed by his peers as unbalanced and of questionable sanity.

For all the talk of “mavericks,” whether in Top Gun or elsewhere, we — there’s that “we” again (I can’t help myself!) — in the military are a hotbed of go-along-to-get-along conformity.

Recently, I was talking with a senior enlisted colleague about why so few top-ranking officers are willing to speak truth to the powerless (that’s you and me) even after they retire. He mentioned credibility. To question the system, to criticize it, to air dirty laundry in public is to risk losing credibility within the club and so to be rejected as a malcontent, disloyal, even “unbalanced.” Then, of course, that infamous revolving door between the military and giant weapons makers like Boeing and Raytheon simply won’t spin for you. Seven-figure compensation packages, like the one current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gained from Raytheon after his retirement as an Army general, won’t be an option. And in America, who doesn’t want to cash in while gaining more power within the system?

Quite simply, it pays so much better to mouth untruths, or at least distinctly less-than-full-truths, in service to the powerful. And with that in mind, here, at least as I see it, are a few full truths about my old service, the Air Force, that I guarantee you I won’t be applauded for mentioning. How about this as a start: that the production of F-35s — an overpriced “Ferrari” of a fighter jet that’s both too complex and remarkably successful as an underperformer — should be canceled (savings: as much as $1 trillion over time); that the much-touted new B-21 nuclear bomber isn’t needed (savings: at least $200 billion) and neither is the new Sentinel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (savings: another $200 billion and possibly the entire Earth from doomsday); that the KC-46 tanker is seriously flawed and should be canceled (savings: another $50 billion).

Now, tote it up. By canceling the F-35, the B-21, the Sentinel, and the KC-46, I singlehandedly saved the American taxpayer roughly $1.5 trillion without hurting America’s national defense in the least. But I’ve also just lost all credibility (assuming I had any left) with my old service.

Look, what matters to the military-industrial complex isn’t either the truth or saving your taxpayer dollars but keeping those weapons programs going and the money flowing. What matters, above all, is keeping America’s economy on a permanent wartime footing both by buying endless new (and old) weapons systems for the military and selling them globally in a bizarrely Orwellian pursuit of peace through war.

How are Americans, Ike’s “alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” supposed to end a racket like this? We certainly should know one thing by now: the MIC will never check itself and Congress, already part of it thanks to impressive campaign donations and the like by major weapons makers, won’t corral it either. Indeed, last year, Congress shoveled $45 billion more than the Biden administration requested (more even than the Pentagon asked for) to that complex, all ostensibly in your name. Who cares that it hasn’t won a war of the faintest significance since 1945. Even “victory” in the Cold War (after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991) was thrown away. And now the complex warns us of an onrushing “new cold war” to be waged, naturally, at tremendous cost to you, the American taxpayer.

As citizens, we must be informed, willing, and able to act. And that’s precisely why the complex seeks to deny you knowledge, precisely why it seeks to isolate you from its actions in this world. So, it’s up to you — to us! — to remain alert and involved. Most of all, each of us must struggle to keep our identity and autonomy as a citizen, a rank higher than that of any general or admiral, for, as we all need to be reminded, those wearing uniforms are supposed to serve you, not vice-versa.

I know you hear otherwise. You’ve been told repeatedly in these years that it’s your job to “support our troops.” Yet, in truth, those troops should only exist to support and defend you, and of course the Constitution, the compact that binds us all together as a nation.

When misguided citizens genuflect before those troops (and then ignore everything that’s done in their name), I’m reminded yet again of Ike’s sage warning that only Americans can truly hurt this country. Military service may be necessary, but it’s not necessarily ennobling. America’s founders were profoundly skeptical of large militaries, of entangling alliances with foreign powers, and of permanent wars and threats of the same. So should we all be.

Citizens United Is the Answer

No, not thatCitizens United,” not the case in which the Supreme Court decided corporations had the same free speech rights as you and me, allowing them to coopt the legislative process by drowning us out with massive amounts of “speech,” aka dark-money-driven propaganda. We need citizens united against America’s war machine.

Understanding how that machine works — not just its waste and corruption, but also its positive attributes — is the best way to wrestle it down, to make it submit to the people’s will. Yet activists are sometimes ignorant of the most basic facts about “their” military. So what? Does the difference between a sergeant major and a major, or a chief petty officer and the chief of naval operations matter? The answer is: yes.

An antimilitary approach anchored in ignorance won’t resonate with the American people. An antiwar message anchored in knowledge could, however. It’s important, that is, to hit the proverbial nail on the head. Look, for example, at the traction Donald Trump gained in the presidential race of 2015-2016 when he did something few other politicians then dared do: dismiss the Iraq War as wasteful and stupid. His election win in 2016 was not primarily about racism, nor the result of a nefarious Russian plot. Trump won, at least in part because, despite his ignorance on so many other things, he spoke a fundamental truth — that America’s wars of this century were horrendous blunders.

Trump, of course, was anything but antimilitary. He dreamed of military parades in Washington, D.C. But I (grudgingly) give him credit for boasting that he knew more than his generals and by that I mean many more Americans need to challenge those in authority, especially those in uniform.

Yet challenging them is just a start. The only real way to wrestle the military-industrial complex to the ground is to cut its funding in half, whether gradually over years or in one fell swoop. Yes, indeed, it’s the understatement of the century to note how much easier that’s said than done. It’s not like any of us could wave a military swagger stick like a magic wand and make half the Pentagon budget disappear. But consider this: If I could do so, that military budget would still be roughly $430 billion, easily more than China’s and Russia’s combined, and more than seven times what this country spends on the State Department. As usual, you get what you pay for, which for America has meant more weapons and disastrous wars.

Join me in imagining the (almost) inconceivable — a Pentagon budget cut in half. Yes, generals and admirals would scream and Congress would squeal. But it would truly matter because, as a retired Army major general once told me, major budget cuts would force the Pentagon to think — for once. With any luck, a few sane and patriotic officers would emerge to place the defense of America first, meaning that hubristic imperial designs and forever wars would truly be reined in because there’d simply be no more money for them.

Currently, Americans are giving the Pentagon all it wants — plus some. And how’s that been working out for the rest of us? Isn’t it finally time for us to exercise real oversight, as Ike challenged us to do in 1961? Isn’t it time to force the Pentagon to pass an audit each year — it’s failed the last five! — or else cut its budget even more deeply? Isn’t it time to hold Congress truly responsible for enabling ever more war by voting out military sycophants? Isn’t it time to recognize, as America’s founders did, that sustaining a vast military establishment constitutes the slow and certain death of democracy?

Just remember one thing: the military-industrial complex won’t reform itself. It just might have no choice, however, but to respond to our demands, if we as citizens remain alert, knowledgeable, determined, and united. And if it should refuse to, if the MIC can’t be tamed, whether because of its strength or our weakness, you will know beyond doubt that this country has truly lost its way.

This column is distributed by TomDispatch.