In his 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower’s warnings to the American people about the dangers of the burgeoning military-industrial complex may have been prophetic, but they were also vastly understated.
America may be the self-professed capitalist hub of the world, but its best-selling product, and export, is armed military conflict. This is facilitated by the insidious connection between the military, especially the elites, and the defence industry. The military industrial complex involves defence contractors, lobbyists, and agencies, all joined in symbiotic relationships, which are in turn parasitic on the rest of the world.
The US has a bigger defence budget than the next ten countries combined: 801 billion dollars in 2021 alone. The staggering scale of this spending is almost incomprehensible. War is a massive, self-sustaining industry. It is always driven by potential gain, in this case for the fat cats at the top of the military-industrial complex.
The war-based economy encompasses and effects every aspect of American life and culture. And if the economy of a country is primed for war, then of course that country will continue to embroil itself in conflicts. Additionally, decisions around whether to engage in military conflicts are shaped by people with vested interests in perpetuating them. Defence industry elites have a massive degree of influence over American policy making, which could be linked to broader debates around political corruption, campaign spending, and political revolving door process within the US. The military-industrial complex is a threat to democracy, not only within the US, but to all of the places that the US plays out its grandiose, imperialistic ideals.
Since 1961, America seems to have been in a perpetual state of war, from the Vietnam War (1964-1975) to Desert Storm (1990-1991), to the ongoing Global War on ‘Terror’. These conflicts mean perpetual losses, violence, and destruction for the countries invaded and families involved, but perpetual gains for the ever-expanding military-industrial complex.
In my opinion, the situation has worsened since 9/11. The War on Terror was incoherent and unconscionable in its goals, and there were no winners, besides the lined pockets of the military elites and defence contractors. For example, Lockheed Martin Corp, the biggest military contractor in the world, made $45 billion in 2017, $35 billion of this from the US government. In stark contrast is the senseless death toll, which some put at 6 million people.
In the same farewell address, Eisenhower warned of the ‘the potential of the disastrous rise of misplaced power’. Concerns around unchecked military expansion, and continuing close ties between private military contractors, the military establishment, and the federal government, as well as the vice grip of the military on American culture have led some to suggest that the complex should be renamed, to the military-industrial-congressional-media complex.
At the end of the day, within American borders, it is working class people who pay the cost of war. They do not need war, but war needs them. The US military meat grinder preys on its own citizens, exploiting the working class, employing sick and pervasive propaganda. They offer material benefits, such as fast-tracked citizenship or free college admission, as if this even begins to make up for the ripples of individualised and cultural destruction caused by military service. American culture is superficially obsessed with veterans, acting as if hollow prestige is an adequate replacement for robust welfare and economic support. It has no sense of the value of human life, not even of its own citizens.
The American military-industrial complex continues to monetise death and destruction and seems to be on a steady trajectory to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. War will continue to be waged, the poor will continue to die, and the rich will continue to get richer.