Remembering the Military Industrial Complex


When he went to play golf, a note of ease could be detected in the American populace. Ike, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower was referred to, could be counted on winning the Cold War on the golf course. His reactionary Secretary of State John Foster Dulles could be counted on being a firm and reactionary foe of Communism, nursing his own ideas of mass nuclear annihilation in the name of God. America, certainly as it moved into the hot phase of conflict with its communist enemies, was fearfully apoplectic with such charming figures as Senator Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin and the emergence of the John Birch Society.

Amidst the turmoil, the Loyalty Acts, the ideological baiting that came to make the United States resemble its much feared enemy behind the Iron Curtain came a statement of cold clarity. Ike, 40 years ago, had hit upon an awful realization. Uncontrolled expenditure on armaments would doom the state to a spiral of fear and potential conflict. The republic would become hostage to the military industrial complex. Phantoms of foreign policy would become attractive, corporeal subjects worthy of targeting.

The original speech, made on the eve of his departure, coined the term ‘military industrial complex’, a modified version of what had been, in a previous draft, ‘the military-industrial-scientific complex’. James Killian, Eisenhower’s scientific advisor, was not too fussed with that designation, even if it proved accurate, notably after universities threw in their scientific lot behind state sponsored military projects. ‘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.’

So, in what state of health is that complex these days? From all accounts, it seems to be going along its merry way, well fed and vibrant. There have been hiccups, of course. Obama, to press his reformist credentials, won a victory in the Senate in 2009 in scrapping $1.75 billion for the F-22 fighter. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had been instrumental in suggesting the amendment, along with Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), was cognizant of the term ‘military industrial complex’.

That said, the United States expenditure on military spending is unsurpassed, dwarfing its nearest rivals. Account keeping in the Pentagon is a matter of dubious bookkeeping practices that seemingly fail to translate raw power into strategic victory. In the words of Andrew Bacevich writing in (Jan 27), ‘The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did any time during the Cold War – this despite the absence of anything approximating to what national security experts like to call a “peer competitor.”’

In terms of giving the complex an encouraging push, President Obama went on to appoint scientific figures very much part of the military establishment. Discover in the name of guns and butter! Scientific advisor John Holdren began his career looking at the magical and somewhat terrifying world of nuclear fusion, and worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, birthplace of the hydrogen bomb. In terms of energy alternatives to deal with climate change, he prefers looking at the fission principle at work.

The Obama administration has done little to thin the accounts and trim the outlays. Victories against the establishment have been small and piecemeal. ‘Yes we can’ is definitely ‘yes we can’t’ in military circles. The military industrial complex, that great employer of Americans, has modeled itself as indispensable. In the game of cutting expenditure, services such as social security and medical services will always seem more attractive for the chop. Yet, that very complex is proving ineffective in gaining Washington anything that amounts to victory, certainly in Afghanistan. The account, in crude financial terms, for each enemy fighter killed in Afghanistan remains a staggering 20 million. Both financially and ethically, it’s a hard account to square.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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