On December 7th of this year – the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor – the United States will celebrate seventy years of perpetual war. September 11th will commemorate one aspect of this long war – the War on Terror – but the calendar could be filled with other bellicose starts and stops: the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the War in Iraq (parts I and II), the Afghanistan War, and various incursions into places like Nicaragua, Grenada, the Balkans, and even South America as part of something called the War on Drugs.
What’s it like to be at perpetual war for nearly three-quarters of a century? Americans have become a fearful people. They are so alarmed at the possibility of a terrorist attack they have willingly given up important Constitutional liberties, even to the point of submitting to intrusive and degrading inspections at airport security. Fear of crime is such an undercurrent of American society that all new cars come with theft alarms. Americans spend billions of dollars yearly to protect themselves from identity theft, and they are greeted at supermarkets with sanitary wipes because of the fear that some stranger left dangerous bacteria on the shopping cart. Fear has caused Americans to turn upon themselves: Democrats against Republicans, Red states against Blue states, liberals against conservatives, Christians against the non-religious, rural against urban, South against North, blacks against whites, the middle class against poor people, and so on. This is a fractured nation, but at the same time a highly militarized nation, and is it any wonder that Americans love their guns, even though firearm violence kills 39 Americans every day?
The Political Consequence of Perpetual War
The economic cost to the United States of perpetual war has been thoroughly documented. Well over a trillion dollars a year is devoted to the defense budget, the one part of the federal government that enjoys perpetual growth in expenditures. The recent proposal of Defense Secretary Robert Gates to cut the Department of Defense budget was not a cut at all – it was a reduction in the rate of growth. The only time in the past seventy years the defense budget was significantly cut involved the demobilization after World War II (a relatively brief affair because of the immediate start of the Korean War), and the Peace Dividend during the 1990s after the fall of Communism. Since the start of the George W. Bush administration, and even before the 9/11 attacks, the defense department began to enjoy annual increases of 5% or more in its budget, and President Obama has done nothing to reverse this trend. The United States, as is well reported, has a military budget larger than the combined budgets of all other countries, and it supports a standing army of millions positioned on over 800 bases around the world, supplemented by an armada of aircraft carriers, fighter jets, submarines, and so forth.
What is less appreciated is the political cost of the militarization program. Prior to World War II, neither political party was particularly identified as a war party, and the Republicans were in fact isolationist, arguing against any involvement in yet another European war. They quickly changed tack following the Pearl Harbor tragedy, and they fully supported Roosevelt in the war effort. It was after the war that the Republicans changed into a party of perpetual war, brought on largely by men like Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, who found they could win elections by spreading fear about the enemy – in their case Communism. An important transitional figure between the old and the new Republican Party was General Dwight Eisenhower, who served two terms as president in the 1950s. You might wonder what a man uniquely qualified in military matters thought of this burgeoning state of perpetual war.
Today we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation. He said this as part of that address:
Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
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.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. 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.
America has in the long run paid no attention to Eisenhower. The idea that there even existed a military-industrial complex was denied and derided by the Republicans in the 1960s, who were seeking to score political points against leftists and “hippies” opposed to the Vietnam War. Since then, no debate has been allowed on the influence of this “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” The only question raised about this industry in recent years was by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who wondered what good the military was if it couldn’t be used.
George W. Bush had an answer to that question when he was running for president in 2000. He confided to friends that he intended to use the military aggressively, because the only great presidents were wartime presidents, and George Bush meant to become a great president. Hence the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a war that came out of the blue against a nation that posed no significant threat to the US. The threat, in fact, had to be trumped up out of thin air in order to provide George Bush his purported avenue to greatness. This was precisely the type of perverse use of the military that Dwight Eisenhower warned about, when he said “God help the Nation when it has a President who does not know as much about the military as I do.” Recent presidents such as Clinton, Bush, and Obama not only have had no military experience, they are in thrall to the military, which has created the “disastrous rise to misplaced power” that so concerned Eisenhower.
Eisenhower could well conceive other abuses arising from the military-industrial complex. One involves the cycle of weapons development, which creates not only a “use it or lose it” mentality, in which the best test of an existing weapon is on the battlefield of real war The weapons cycle also promotes the desire by military officials and industry to sell off existing stock to make way for newer, more advancement armaments. This has led to the creation of a major business for the Pentagon: the resale of US armaments to other countries, which has led to the destabilization of many parts of the globe. A second concern that was probably on Eisenhower’s mind was the fact that status in the military accrues first and foremost to those generals and admirals who are bloodied in war. With a huge standing army and stockpiles of weapons and ammunition, the temptation is enormous for the military brass to go to war, at least periodically. Colin Powell has mentioned the cycle of war that occurs every 10 or so years, and which allows younger officers to “earn their stripes” in battle. At the opposite end of the career spectrum, Eisenhower could easily envision a third risk, which is that of the retired officer going off to work in the armaments industry as an influence peddler to the Pentagon. A recent study on this phenomenon by the Boston Globe has indicated that 80% of retired admirals and generals do exactly that.
The Social Costs of a Militarized Society
Eisenhower’s warnings are a half century old, and are long forgotten by a nation that is so saturated with military concerns and military thinking that it doesn’t notice how the nation has turned into a garrison, under siege by domestic and external enemies. There is barely a Congressional district in the country that doesn’t have a military base or National Guard Armory. Military recruiting offices can be found virtually anywhere in the US, since the military prefers an all-volunteer army that can be recruited from the lower middle classes with enticements such as college scholarships and on-the-job training in technology. This recruiting effort has exploited young American male fascination with video games, by developing advanced video games simulating military combat in places like Iraq. These have proven to be very successful recruiting tools, giving an impression to the public that military service is fun and exciting, rather than dangerous and stressful.
The reality of warfare – of being on the receiving end of cluster Bombs and drone airplane attacks – entirely escapes Americans, because warfare is remote and sanitized. The military wants it to be viewed that way, just as it wants military casualties to be brought back to the country in the dead of night, the wounded to be forgotten, and military mistakes like the friendly fire that killed Pat Tillman to be hushed up. This practice of air-brushing the cruelty and destructiveness of war has led to a public that never questions war or the influence of the military on society. Candidates for public office can therefore readily use military metaphors such as “lock and load” when talking about how their supporters should prepare for electoral battle.
Notice, for example the media and public reaction to the recent Tucson slayings. The use by the killer of a military weapon such as a semi-automatic gun was rarely questioned, since the debate as to whether the public should be allowed to own such weapons ended in 2004 when George Bush let lapse the Clinton-era prohibitions on these arms. The use by candidates of military metaphors remained unquestioned too. Instead, the media focused on the “rhetoric of violence” in the political process. The fact that this is often military violence let loose in American political campaigns is overlooked, precisely because the militarization of society is now so pervasive. This is why civilians are allowed to engage in an arms race to own the most destructive weapons possible, why police forces increasingly come to street protests girded in military uniforms with military vehicles and weapons such as assault rifles, why private militias are allowed to proliferate and billionaires allowed to protect themselves with ex-Marine bodyguards, why on any chosen night American television will have shows featuring SWAT teams, military forensic labs, and CIA officers who travel about the country in a private jet, and why all of this is interspersed with commercials encouraging young people to join up and be “An Army of One.” Yet nowhere will you find pictures or videos of American soldiers screaming in agony on the field of battle, or of bodies torn asunder from a roadside bomb, or of the tens of thousands of wounded who have come home with half a skull, in perpetual pain, and with no prospects for employment.
Will This Ever End?
Is it any surprise then, that American society, under the weight of decades of warfare, and incessant and glorified exposure to military deeds and military strength, is collapsing internally. The Republican Party, which has throughout this period found electoral employment through the use of fear and the pursuit of the enemy, was forced to focus internally once Communism collapsed. To survive with its culture intact, the party and its right-wing acolytes to be found on talk radio and at FOX News had to create new enemies at home, and so the demonization of East Coast liberals began, along with attention drawn to feminists, college professors, the main stream media, minorities, immigrants, gay people, abortionists, and anyone believing in global warming. The statement of Rush Limbaugh that Tucson assassin Jered Loughner “had the support of the Democratic Party”, was of course absurd factually, but entirely believable by millions of Americans steeped in the rhetoric of the enemy – rhetoric which thrives and has meaning in a militarized society.
The fact that the Republican Party could turn on a dime after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and start exploiting internal “enemies” is a tribute to a half century legacy of electoral fear-mongering. The Democratic Party was immediately put on the defensive, having long lost whatever halo of glory it once had as the party of Roosevelt and victory in World War II. The Democratic Party was also hindered by its own cultural impulse derived from the Depression – a tendency to seek votes by concentrating on the victim of economic privation or social injustice. Try as the Democrats might to concentrate attention on the middle class as victim, the Republicans turned the spotlight on black welfare queens as the real beneficiary of victim mythology, and also as an enemy of the middle class white worker.
The Democratic Party has played defense ever since. It has abandoned welfare programs and assigned them to oblivion during the Clinton years. It has bought into the trickle down and supply side economics of the Republicans, which work only for the benefit of the rich and corporations. The party has begun the first steps to gutting Social Security and “reforming” Medicare. All while this has been happening, both parties have fully ascribed to the military-industrial program, with the Democrats constantly on the defensive to prove they are “tough enough” to defend the country. The military has positively thrived in an environment where both political parties compete to throw money into weapons, wars, and generous military pensions.
Can this process be halted or reversed? It appears not, other than through a catastrophic collapse of the economy, brought on in part by excessive diversion of national resources to the military machine. This is what happened to the Soviet Union, and could ultimately happen to the US. Until such an occurrence, there is no possibility for America to reverse its reliance on the military as a primary determinant of national culture. The US will remain a warped society, willing to tolerate disintegrating roads and bridges, pathetic schools, a dysfunctional health system, increasing loss of personal liberties, and its wealth concentrated in a corporate oligarchy, all because the military demands a tribute in excess of a trillion dollars a year. This too, despite the fact the military is leaving Iraq without the clear victory that had been promised, and is still bogged down in Afghanistan. The military was useless, in fact, in preventing the 9/11 attacks, whose perpetrators killed nearly 3,000 Americans on a budget of only $200,000.
Do not expect a change in American attitudes unless the weight of the military-industrial complex drags down the entire economy. Until then, expect an America that increasingly shows the signs of stress that occur as a result of being ever-vigilant, ever-afraid, and ever-willing to give up liberty and happiness for the illusory protection afforded by a behemoth that is no longer able to be controlled by the very people it purports to protect.
First published at The Agonist