The Permanent Militarization of America
By AARON B. O’CONNELL
IN 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office warning of the growing power of the military-industrial complex in American life. Most people know the term the president popularized, but few remember his argument.
In his farewell address, Eisenhower called for a better equilibrium between military and domestic affairs in our economy, politics and culture. He worried that the defense industry’s search for profits would warp foreign policy and, conversely, that too much state control of the private sector would cause economic stagnation. He warned that unending preparations for war were incongruous with the nation’s history. He cautioned that war and warmaking took up too large a proportion of national life, with grave ramifications for our spiritual health.
The military-industrial complex has not emerged in quite the way Eisenhower envisioned. The United States spends an enormous sum on defense — over $700 billion last year, about half of all military spending in the world — but in terms of our total economy, it has steadily declined to less than 5 percent of gross domestic product from 14 percent in 1953. Defense-related research has not produced an ossified garrison state; in fact, it has yielded a host of beneficial technologies, from the Internet to civilian nuclear power to GPS navigation. The United States has an enormous armaments industry, but it has not hampered employment and economic growth. In fact, Congress’s favorite argument against reducing defense spending is the job loss such cuts would entail.
Nor has the private sector infected foreign policy in the way that Eisenhower warned. Foreign policy has become increasingly reliant on military solutions since World War II, but we are a long way from the Marines’ repeated occupations of Haiti, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in the early 20th century, when commercial interests influenced military action. Of all the criticisms of the 2003 Iraq war, the idea that it was done to somehow magically decrease the cost of oil is the least credible. Though it’s true that mercenaries and contractors have exploited the wars of the past decade, hard decisions about the use of military force are made today much as they were in Eisenhower’s day: by the president, advised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council, and then more or less rubber-stamped by Congress. Corporations do not get a vote, at least not yet.
But Eisenhower’s least heeded warning — concerning the spiritual effects of permanent preparations for war — is more important now than ever. Our culture has militarized considerably since Eisenhower’s era, and civilians, not the armed services, have been the principal cause. From lawmakers’ constant use of “support our troops” to justify defense spending, to TV programs and video games like “NCIS,” “Homeland” and “Call of Duty,” to NBC’s shameful and unreal reality show “Stars Earn Stripes,” Americans are subjected to a daily diet of stories that valorize the military while the storytellers pursue their own opportunistic political and commercial agendas. Of course, veterans should be thanked for serving their country, as should police officers, emergency workers and teachers. But no institution — particularly one financed by the taxpayers — should be immune from thoughtful criticism.
Like all institutions, the military works to enhance its public image, but this is just one element of militarization. Most of the political discourse on military matters comes from civilians, who are more vocal about “supporting our troops” than the troops themselves. It doesn’t help that there are fewer veterans in Congress today than at any previous point since World War II. Those who have served are less likely to offer unvarnished praise for the military,