Trigger warning: I’m going to write some things in this post that might upset some people. You will not like this post if you equate “serving in the military” with “being a hero beyond earthly reproach.”
Now, before I launch, I want to make something clear: there have been (and still are) thousands of actual heroes in the military. I am thankful beyond words that others have sacrificed so much to defend the ideals of our nation. I am grateful that my father, my uncles, my grandfathers and my great grandfathers (and probably more “greats” back than that) have answered the call when the nation needed them.
This isn’t about the military, really. This is about us, the voters. The consumers. This is about the masses (us) being duped, tricked, and pandered to in order to sell more goods and get legislation passed. And the huge cost many of our fighting men and women pay when they are used as pawns in this endeavor.
The ruling class loves it when we’re easy to manipulate. There’s nothing quite like having an easy button they can push to get us all frothed up.
Want us to ignore something? Invoke the sacrifice that our fighting men and women are making in Afghanistan. Want us to buy something? Wrap it in the flag and associate it with veterans and service members. Want us to vote for you? Visit the troops, wear a bomber jacket, or distribute a picture of yourself in your flight suit from 40 years ago.
And it works in reverse, too. If you can make it look like your enemy or competitor is not vehemently pro-warrior, you can advance your cause at their expense.
How, exactly, did we get here? How did we go from a nation of skeptical citizens to a country of blind, unquestioning “patriots”? When did we stop caring how the military spent its money? When did we become so easily swayed at the slightest wave of the red, white and blue?
Why do I feel like I’m living in the prequel to a dystopian saga, where we’re all commanded to revere the armed wing of our “representative democracy”?
I’m not a historian. Or an historian. Namely because I don’t know whether to use “a” or “an”. I just write stuff on the interwebs. If you cite my works, you will likely fail your assignment. And in doing so, you’ll be letting our troops down.
On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was preparing to hand off the baton to another, younger veteran of World War II: John F. Kennedy. Ike had served, mostly in the Army, and then in government, for over 50 years at this point.
He delivered a speech to the American people that is most remembered for his warning against the rising “military-industrial complex.” The escalating threats of communism, nuclear proliferation, and our increasingly established role as a “superpower” in the world, resulted in a change in how America worked.
In almost all of our history, we relied on manufacturers of tractors, cars, widgets, and thingamabobs, to shift focus in a time of war to instead produce bullets and tanks and such. War moved slowly. Slowly enough, in fact, that our standing Army and Navy could wage the fight for a while and our domestic, non-war-based industry could shift gears and get us resupplied to keep fighting.
Not anymore. WWII ended with 2 bombs that wiped out entire cities in one kaboom. Airplanes could travel farther and higher than ever. And our former Soviet ally had already assisted in turning the Korean peninsula halfway red. And the Reds (both Russian and Chinese) were arming the Vietcong…and we were trying to contain them to keep the commie dominoes (commie-nos?) from falling.
Tensions were rising, but more than that, the threat of immediate and rapidly escalating war had never been more real. The potential to go from peace to all-out threat of annihilation required a different approach to getting ready for war. We wouldn’t have time to rally Rosie the Riveter and sell war bonds and listen to big band music and drink Postum. We had to remain ready for instantaneous and fully escalated war.
That new reality gave rise to the defense industry. Suddenly, we had companies whose whole mission was to research, upgrade, market and sell the tools of war.
“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”
And Eisenhower was likely right. The reality of the modern world demanded that America utilize its resources to deter would-be attackers and to respond instantly if anyone dared ignore our growl. Having a well-armed military wasn’t about war so much as it was about keeping us out of war. The words wouldn’t be uttered for another few decades, but you can almost hear the beginnings of “mutually assured destruction” in Ike’s words.
“We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”
President Eisenhower knew, however, that this “development” had the potential to radically change the landscape of American economics, policy, international diplomacy, and just about everything else. Never before had America been engaged in wholesale production of military readiness – and by 1961, at the end of his presidency, the defense industry and U.S. Department of Defense budget together were more than the production of every other business endeavor in the U.S. combined.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. […] Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Ike took his last speech as an opportunity to warn our nation against the blurring line between American economics, American democracy, and American military might.
Fast forward a few years, and we’ve fought in Vietnam, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, Thailand, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Grenada, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, etc., etc. We’ve had an uninterrupted stream of military action for the last 60+ years.
Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense company, is now a $75 billion enterprise whose stock price as risen 1000% since its merger in 1995. It employs 113,000 people.
Northrop Grumman, another major player, is worth $25 billion and has seen approximately the same trajectory in the 1995-present timeline. 65,000 people work for this company.
Raytheon is worth about $45 billion and has about 63,000 people in its employ.
I could list another 20+ defense companies that have billion dollar market caps and employ tens of thousands of people.
The Department of Defense employs 3 million people and has a budget of about $600 billion per year. It makes up one-sixth of the United States’ budget each year.
War has become an industry. It has a massive workforce that depends on “favorable market conditions” (e.g., armed conflict and unrest) to stay employed and keep growing. It has shareholders that need new contracts to be signed to grow the top line. It has lobbyists who make sure legislators do the “right” thing. The war industry donates massively to candidates to ensure a positive relationship when decisions need to be made on funding and contracts.
Ike knew it was coming and that modern times made it necessary…but in the same breath, he warned us of the impact such a development would have on our republic. The rise of “misplaced power” and “unwarranted influence” is one big reason our nation to spend more on our military than the next seven nations combined.
Okay, so we spend a lot on the military. And we do so because (a) we need to because we’re the big dog on the block, and (b) our need spawned an industry that now must sustain itself for the sake of its shareholders and employees.
So it makes sense for someone who is a fiscal watchdog to try to reign in spending, right?
Or maybe a peacenik socialist legislator can pressure us to shift spending to social programs, right?
Or perhaps a foreign policy wonk will step in and push for greater diplomacy and allow us to take our foot off of the military gas pedal, yeah?
We can’t do that, because any challenge made to military spending will be recast by your political enemies as your disdain for the sacrifice our soldiers make on the battlefield to protect your freedoms here in the States.
I’m opining here, because it’s my blog and I can opine if I want to. That sounds like a song. A shitty, wonky song, but I digress.
In my opinion, the now 70+ years that have transpired since the end of World War 2 have resulted in a few things:
One, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, and even Millenials have all been either raised by or raised on the stories of the sacrifice of “the Greatest Generation,” our parents and grandparents. Speaking as the grandson of WW2 veterans, I’ll vouch for their badassery.
Two, the rise of the military-industrial complex, as predicted by Dwight Eisenhower, proved necessary during the Cold War…but brought with it “unwarranted influence” by an industry with an incentive to keep us at war, and an advertising budget to keep patriotism, nationalism, and war associated with our knee-jerk national identity.
That’s right, kids. With industrialization comes a need to sell what you’re producing. And because you and I can’t just go out and buy an M6 Linebacker and some Stinger missiles (sorry, 2nd Amendment purists), they have to “sell” you the American spirit that helps you vote for hawks and support hawkish policies.
By the way, it’s not just defense contractors that benefit from this spin. USAA insurance makes sure 1000 times a day that you know that they take care of military families while the military takes care of us. You know, as opposed to State Farm, which burns the flag and tells you to go fuck yourself.
Or the commercial for the non-24 circadian rhythm disorder drug (which, as an aside, is advertised on a visual medium in a seemingly disproportionate amount vis-à-vis the condition for which the drug is prescribed, but again, I digress). They make sure you know that dude lost his sight in Afghanistan. Somehow, this drug now takes on a patriotic timbre. Vanda Pharmaceuticals (the publicly traded company that makes the drug in question – run by a Greek national, with its production in the UK and Germany) blows the dog whistle and knows how our American subconscious works.
I like to think they were originally going to run a commercial where the guy lost his sight to a wayward lawn dart, but then a sassy upstart marketing intern took a bold step, snapped his glasses off of his face, and said, “I have a different idea. What if…?”
So where does all of this leave us?
We’re at unceasing war, we have a war industry that must sustain itself through ever-increasing contracts, and we have every other industry tagging along on the proven marketing strategy of the war dogs.
We have 70+ years of this, combined with the awe-filled memories of our grandparents and parents who fought the last war in which we were actually, literally attacked by a foreign power.
So why is this a problem?
I mean, if Ike’s first assumption (we need to be eternally prepared for war) is accurate, given our place in the world, then what does it matter if the public is blindly pro-military?
It matters for a few reasons.
First, it matters because warriors like Ike have always told us the same thing: war is hell. But in an environment where we unilaterally and blindly support warfighting and military spending, there will always be an incentive for our politicians to gain votes at the expense of human lives.
Second, it matters because the nonstop glorification of all warriors as heroes feeds into that dangerous narrative. Plenty of warriors are heroes. And plenty aren’t. Like any other job, there are people who do it with honor and dedication, and there are people who suck. I hate it when we water down the title, “hero.” It robs actual heroes of the praise and appreciation they deserve. It becomes the equivalent of a participation ribbon. And it reinforces the narrative that military spending is beyond inspection, lest you underfund “our nation’s heroes.”
Finally, it diverts money and attention from potentially better means of solving disputes around the world. Every dollar we spend on Kevlar and shells is a dollar we don’t spend on humanitarian relief, education, improving trade, democratization, improving human rights, medical advances, agricultural training and improvements, or any of another thousand ways we can reduce conflict and strife around the world.
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”
That wasn’t some pacifist socialist who said that. That was native Texan, West Point graduate, 5-Star General, Certified Bad Ass, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A lifetime of fighting war transforms one’s take on the best road to peace.
That road to peace, unfortunately, stopped being paved and maintained years ago.
Hard to jump on that road, especially when we’ve paved a megafreeway right next to it.