The military-complex grows amidst endless wars, intensified geo-political competition, and degraded environments: Part 1

This is the first of three parts on the military-industrial complex.

The Military-Industrial Complex grows,
amidst endless wars, intensified geo-political competition, degraded environments, and plans for nuclear war: Part 1
Bob Sheak, February 6, 2018; March 13, 2018

Three days before President Eisenhower left office on January 17, 1961, he addressed the “American people” by radio and television. One of the most notable and memorable part of the speech is when the president talks about the political and economic concerns he had about the growth of the military-industrial complex. Here is what he said.

“Until the latest 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.

“The 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 State house, 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 out peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together” (

The speech was given in a troublesome and somewhat unique historical time. Eisenhower was concerned about how we would, as a country, achieve some reasonable balance between national defense, the domestic economy, the material well-being of citizens, and democracy. On thing is clear. He was not saying that the military-industrial complex had to be curtailed. Indeed, he emphasized the country would have to maintain strong military forces and the industrial capacity to ensure their strength. The implication was that this emergent military-industrial complex was going to be a permanent fixture in American society. But, he cautioned, citizens must remain vigilant to keep it from going too far.

Remember this was a time when the cold war had already reached ominous heights. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets had launched the first satellite into space. The Korean War had ended in a divided Korea involving a truce, not a peace agreement. And China was now under the rule of a communist party led by Mao Tse-Tung . John Kennedy came into office later that January believing falsely that the U.S. suffered from a “missile gap” vis a vis the Soviets, which became another justification for increasing the military budget.

And then there was Vietnam. According to later revelations in The Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government and military establishment were concerned from the end of WWII that Vietnam should not fall under the control of the nationalist forces in North Vietnam led by the nationalist hero Ho Che Minh. Consequently, Truman and then Eisenhower supported the recolonization of the country by the French after WWII. Then in 1955, after the French occupation was overthrown, the U.S. helped to prevent a democratic vote by Vietnamese from all parts of Vietnam to unify the country and instead supported a puppet and unpopular administration in South Vietnam. After he left office in 1961, the next administrations under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (for the first years) were bent on preventing the nationalist/communist regime in North Vietnam from taking control of the entire country. They feared such a turn of events would lead to a “domino effect,” that is, that revolutionary movements in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia that would fall to communists, though better identified as nationalists and anti-colonialists. When developments in Vietnam turned against the U.S. backed regimes, President Johnson and his military advisers lied about an attack on American ships that never took place (the Tonkin Gulf incident), and used it as a pretext to vastly escalate the misbegotten, tragic, brutal, terribly destructive, and costly war. These historical events are captured well in John Marciano’s book The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration?

In Cuba, revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro had in 1959 overthrew the Batista-ruled government, which had been favored and supported by the U.S., including the Eisenhower administration. There were also anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, movements in Africa and other parts of the underdeveloped countries of the world (e.g., Indonesia, Central America, Guatemala). From the perspective of Eisenhower and others in leadership positions, the turmoil in the Third World was being caused by an expansionist communist movement under the influence of the Soviet Union. Thus, U.S. foreign/military policies rested on the assumption that the U.S. had to do its utmost to prevent the success of leftist, nationalist, revolutionary forces wherever they emerged, thus giving the U.S. government more plentiful reasons to maintain a powerful U.S. military-industrial complex with both the most modern conventional forces and with a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Bear in mind that the U.S. has always used its military to advance a certain conception of its national interests. U.S. military forces were used to protect the expansion of American colonists into Native American lands, and in the process killing millions. This goes back to the earliest years of the country. This “manifest destiny” is also exemplified in the 1846-1848 U.S. war with Mexico and resultant massive land acquisition that accompanied it – adding 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory to America. The U.S. Civil War was a boon to the incipient U.S. armaments industry. Then there were interventions in the late 19the century in Central America, the Philippines, Hawaii, and elsewhere. The U.S. has never been without a military and an expansionist, imperialistically-leaning foreign policy, though the military-industrial complex, as referred to by Eisenhower, did not emerge fully until during and after WWII. It was then spurred in the late 1940s by the “threat” posed by the Soviet Union and “communism,” the cold war that followed, resting on the lunatic doctrine of “mutual mass destruction, and the anti-colonial upheavals in South America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Of course, there is the tragedy of 9/11 and the subsequent justifications and lies for invading Afghanistan and Iraq and for mounting a “war against terrorism.”

Underlying it all, the U.S. government has been concerned with protecting and advancing American corporate interests and their access to minerals, fossil fuels, agricultural land, and militarily strategic locations as well as to keeping friendly, often un-democratic governments in power. We can argue about the Marshal Plan. Of course, this dependence on a military-industrial complex is ever-more challenging in a multipolar world in which competition for scarce resources and military advantage involves an increasing number of countries, most importantly China. In this context, resource-rich Africa has become the arena for such competition. Nick Turse gives us some idea of how Africa is the renewed focus of U.S. military involvement in his recent book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. Here’s a sample of what he finds in the years of the Obama administration related to Africa, but one of only a host of places where U.S. was involved in ongoing wars (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria), counter-insurgency operations, the proliferation of military bases in over hundred countries, most of them in underdeveloped countries.

“Over the course of the Obama presidency, American efforts on the [African] continent have become ever more militarized in terms of troops, bases, missions, and money. And yet from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea, Mali to [the] camp in South Sudan, the results have been dismal. Countless military exercises, counterterrorism operations, humanitarian projects, and training missions, backed by billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have all evaporated in the face of coups, civil wars, human rights abuses, terror attacks, and poorly coordinated aid efforts. The human toll is incalculable. And there appears to be no end in sight” (p. 184).

The military budget, adjusted for inflation, has gone up and down, since the Eisenhower years, though it has always been a significant part of the federal budget. It rose in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, declined during the 1970s, and rose again during the Reagan years. Then, in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union and during the Clinton years, military spending fell. Then there was a big increase in the Bush years and the first years of Obama, reflecting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (See

Where do we stand today with respect to military spending? It’s going up. Kimberly Amadeo provides a detailed account of the fiscal 2018 U.S. military budget, which, based on official sources, is estimated to be $824.6 billion (

According to her analysis, the military budget goes beyond what the Pentagon “base” allocation is. She writes that there are three components of the military budget. First, there is the “base budget” of the Department of Defense amounting to $574.5 billion. Second, there is $64.6 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations for DOD “to fight the Islamic State group.” Third, there are the military-related budgetary allocations to other government agencies, coming to a total of $173.5 billion. The Department of Veterans Affairs is getting $78.9 billion, the State Department $27.1 billion, Homeland Security $44.1 billion, the FBI and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice $9.5 billion, and the National Security Administration in the Department of Energy $13.9 billion. Amadeo goes on to identify the details on how these various funds are going to be spent. For example: “The Air Force requested $10.3 billion for 70 F-35 Joint Strike aircraft. Overall, the program will cost $400 billion for 2,457 planes.”

She also points out that the expected military expenditures of the U.S. are greater than the military budgets of the next 10 largest government expenditures combined. “It’s four times more than China’s military budget of $216 billion. It’s almost 10 times bigger than Russia’s budget of just $84.5 billion.”

For all of this, Amadeo does not consider all the military-related costs. For one thing, her report is issued before the House and Senate Republicans have come to their final decisions on the Pentagon budget and the news is that they will want to raise the base budget by at least another $70 or $80 billion. She leaves out the military-relevant part of the interest payments on the national debt, some large portion of which is related to past wars. She does not attempt the full cost of treating the psychological trauma and brain injuries suffered by veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Then there is the cost borne by the families and communities of coping with the care of U.S. soldiers with these and other injuries. Amadeo also does not investigate how much land the DOD owns or the effects of military facilities and training on the environment. For example, the government facilities that have been involved in the production of nuclear weapons have all left terrible legacies – and large “sacrifice zones” – that are uninhabitable. Consider just one recent example of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. The following account is written by Hugh Gustersen for Nuclear News (
“On May 9 [2017], workers discovered a 20-foot-diameter hole where the roof had collapsed on a makeshift nuclear waste site: a tunnel, sealed in 1965, encasing old railroad cars and equipment contaminated with radiation through years of plutonium processing. Potential radiation levels were high enough that some workers were told to shelter in place while others donned respirators and protective suits as they repaired the hole.

“The Hanford complex, which dates back to 1943, produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Half the size of Rhode Island, it is often described as the most contaminated place in the United States. Until its last reactor closed in 1987, it churned out plutonium for the roughly 70,000 nuclear weapons the United States built during the Cold War. As the historian Kate Brown documents in her book Plutopia, which explores the uncanny similarities between Hanford and its Soviet counterpart Ozersk, Hanford has been a slow-motion environmental disaster since its opening, constantly excreting radioactive contaminants into the air and water.
“More dangerous than the tunnels are the giant tanks of liquid nuclear waste: 177 of them containing 56 million gallons of radioactive soup whose composition is only approximately known. The contents of some have to be stirred periodically to prevent the formation of hydrogen bubbles that would cause the tanks to explode. One million gallons of this witches’ brew have already leaked into the groundwater from tanks that were built to last only 20 years. The US government projects that it will cost more than $107 billion to clean up the site, with remediation finished by 2060. Few knowledgeable people put much credence in either number.

“It would be nice to say that Hanford is a unique canker on the US nuclear landscape, but it is not. It may be the most contaminated, but it is far from alone. At the Rocky Flats facility outside Denver, where workers fashioned Hanford’s plutonium into cores (or “pits”) for nuclear weapons, there were major fires in 1957 and 1969; each sent plutonium-laced plumes of smoke over nearby communities. Enough plutonium dust gathered in the facility’s ductwork that some worried about a spontaneous criticality event—that is, an accidental and uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Eventually President George H.W. Bush closed Rocky Flats in 1992 after an FBI investigation found that the facility was secretly (and illegally) burning nuclear waste in the middle of the night.

“At Ohio’s Fernald plant, which processed uranium for the weapons complex, operators dumped radioactive waste into makeshift pits where it contaminated local groundwater, and blew uranium dust particles out of the smokestacks when the filters failed, as they did with some regularity. Similar stories could be told for the nuclear weapons facilities at Savannah River in North Carolina and Oak Ridge in Tennessee, which hushed up criticality accidents while contaminating nearby air and water.

“There are three reasons these Cold War nuclear facilities turned into such environmental catastrophes. First, the Cold War American state, fixated on winning the arms race, put a premium on beating the Soviets at all costs. Producing uranium, plutonium, and weapons components was a higher priority than protecting the health of nearby residents or the workers at the plants, a disproportionate number of whom died of cancer. Ironically, since 1945, American nuclear weapons, intended to keep the country safe, have mainly killed Americans.

“A second factor was state secrecy. As leading Cold War public intellectuals such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Shils argued, abuse thrives in the dark, and Cold War secrecy provided much cover of darkness to places like Hanford. For decades, government officials and the contractors that ran the plants were able to deflect civilian regulators, nosy journalists, local citizens, even congressmen, by hiding behind the skirts of national security. Officials defined vital nuclear secrets expansively, to include not just the design and deployment details of weapons, but also the secret harms inflicted on Americans through their production. Anyone who revealed the extent of contamination risked losing his clearance or being incarcerated. The harms concealed at production facilities were mostly caused by accidents and bureaucratically ingrained negligence, but they were sometimes deliberate—as in the now infamous 1949 “Green Run,” when Hanford deliberately released a substantial invisible cloud of radioactive iodine and xenon to see how it would disperse.

“Finally, we should not underestimate how novel and complex nuclear technology was in the early decades of the Cold War. Physicists, engineers, and technicians were still learning how the technology worked, how esoteric radioactive materials behaved in a range of conditions, and how toxic waste products were absorbed into the environment. As in any endeavor, you learn by making mistakes. Unfortunately, those mistakes left a legacy of contaminated Cold War production sites around the country that are beginning to look like a permanent archipelago of national sacrifice zones. “Will Hanford ever be cleaned up?” was the title of a 2013 Seattle Times article noting how little progress had been made after spending $36 billion on cleaning the site.”

In short, the national-security policies of the U.S. have had a very significant military thrust. And the influence of the military-industrial complex has played an incredibly large role in the pursuit of missions that often-reflected questionable U.S. geopolitical and corporate interests rather than democratic values, diplomacy, and peace. In a recent article, historian Andrew J. Bascvich writes: “I’m prepared to argue that no nation in recorded history has ever deployed its troops to more places than has the United States since 2001. American bombs and missiles have rained down on a remarkable array of countries. We’ve killed an astonishing number of people.” Why? There are many sources of scholarship and investigative journalism that offer answers. John W. Dower offers an answer in his short book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II. Here’s my take.

National security? We’re told by Pentagon officials and most members of the U.S. Congress that it is for national security. The world is becoming more dangerous and volatile. Thus, we need our military to protect the country from foreign enemies, including what they define as rogue nations (e.g., North Korea, Iran), nations that threaten our geopolitical (some say, imperialist) interests and pose an increasing military threat (e.g., Russia, China), and, since 9/11, from terrorists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda in Iraq and other areas in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia.

Additionally, we are told, that the U.S. military must again be prepared to to shore up forces in Afghanistan, where the government remains weak (and corrupt), to stem the growth of the Taliban, an indigenous fundamentalist Islamic movement. This reasoning also applies to Iraq. But there is much more. Indeed, the Pentagon deploys troops or special forces to many “developing nations,” wherever there are weak or failed states threatened by terrorists. In such situations, the U.S. troops advise and support local government military forces, in some situations provide temporary humanitarian support, and/or protect American corporate investments, often involving fossil fuels or other natural resources.

To spread democracy? There is also an idealistic component to the official justification for spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the military and continuously being told that it is not enough. This is perhaps better thought of as a rationalization or cover for the material interests of the military-industrial complex. That is, American leaders tell us that America is a “beacon of liberty” and America’s foreign policy is basically about protecting and advancing “democracy” and “freedom” around the world. We are the good guys. Of course, our history by and large belies such claims.

The reality? In the final analysis, and except perhaps arguably for WWII, the U.S. record in foreign affairs is filled with examples of forced land acquisitions, unwelcomed military interventions that benefited U.S. corporate interests and the interests of often corrupt indigenous elites, wars based on lies, massive carpet-bombing attacks that destroyed cities and took the lives of millions of civilians, and the horrific example of being the only country that has ever dropped atomic bombs on another country. For a sad but remarkably informative account of the long-lingering and awful effects of the atomic bombing of Nakasaki, read Susan Southard’s book Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War.

Our foreign policy, since the late 1940s, has been infused by an uncompromising antagonism, filled with hatred and fear, of the “communist” Soviet Union and China, an un-critical “America first” kind of patriotism, and the enduring assumption that the U.S. is an “exceptional” nation that is energized by self-sacrificing ideals. In a word, the Pentagon and its political supporters have continuously found a supportive culture and many reasons to ask for and get big military budgets to maintain a large military force, along with the deployment of U.S. troops all over the world, the never-ending acquisition of enormous military supplies and the most advanced weapon systems, and until recent decades the production and storage of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. There are still thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched within minutes of a perceived enemy attack or even in the absence of such an attack. The U.S. government has never renounced a “first use” policy, as Daniel Ellsberg reminds us in his recently published book, The Doomsday Machine.

The official view, today as before, is that the U.S. must have a multifaceted military capacity that is able to deter, contain, or destroy the growing number of enemies identified by our political and military leaders.

The critics – What’s the down side? As critics of such policies have long said, and I am a critic, this policy adds to the national debt, drains resources from domestic programs, reduces the importance of diplomacy in foreign relations, leads to a massive military-industrial complex and various unwelcome impacts on government priorities and processes, is filled with inefficiencies and waste (never been independently audited or responsive to audits), destabilizes the countries in which we intervene politically while wreaking vast devastation, contributes enormously to the pollution of environments, and generates widespread antagonism, if not outright hatred, of the U.S., according to international polls. And to top it off, U.S. military policy never stops looking for new enemies, maintaining distrust of old enemies, and looking for justifications for an ever-bigger military-industrial complex.

The critics’ position is based on important but little-considered assumptions, namely, that the Pentagon’s perceived enemies, especially Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, can be approached diplomatically in ways not only to avoid war but also to gradually usher in a mutually agreed process of reduced military expenditures, along with the phasing out of nuclear weapons. And, further, critics argue, reasonably,that the U.S can make better use of its resources by promoting non-military projects that would foster sustainable economic development at home and abroad, stop or severely curtail the U.S. sale of weapons to other countries, reduce the rising number of refugees, and find ways through international organizations like the United Nations to advance diplomatic resolutions to international conflict.

I’ll end here. And, in Part 2, I’ll consider critically what the Trump administration, filled with generals and neo-conservative ideologues, is proposing in the new National Defense Strategy and in Part 3 their proposals in the Nuclear Posture Review. If Trump and his advisers and congressional and corporate and wealthy allies get their way, the military-industrial complex will grow to be larger than ever, tilting the “balance” that Eisenhower talked about some 57 years ago more and more in favor of military priorities at the expense of domestic priorities. And, if not challenged, the threat of war, even nuclear war, will increase by leaps and bounds, though in the meantime the profits will flow to arms makers and the army of Pentagon consultants and contractors.

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