Monday, January 17, 2011

The Military Industrial Complex--Fifty Years On

It is 50 years since President Eisenhower gave his great farewell speech in which he warned of a military industrial complex. The import of the warning in the nationally televised speech that aired on January 17th 1961 was largely ignored, particularly the theme that as Andrew Bacevich points out in this month’s Atlantic magazine was woven into the text that spending on arms was akin to “misappropriation of scarce resources” a kind of theft. “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold are not clothed.” Any nation that spends to purchase arms is “spending more than mere money.. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” Eisenhower made the first effort any President has done before or since to quantify the cost for ordinary people “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities..We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people.”

But the US continued to ignore the warnings. In the 1950s with economic prosperity booming the politicians and the public saw no need to trade off between guns and butter. We seemed to have sleepwalked our way into what Bacevich terms as the “national security state”
That state has such power over us so that despite the need for harsh choices, we are no closer to taking any kind of close look at $700 billion (doubling in the past decade)defense budget and no closer examining the underlying assumptions that dictate that we still need a huge defense build up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of asymmetrical war fare. In addition we exceed $80 billion in intelligence spending. Our military outlays are almost the same as all other nations combined. We continue with “threat inflation” as some have termed it to order new bombers and new battleships despite the chronic needs of America’s poorest citizens, the deteriorating infrastructure and the palpable needs to grow a 21st century green economy. Eisenhower wanted the people, the citizens to exercise common sense oversight over the expanding military budget—“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.” We know that military spending does not very much for the economy—investments in schools and hospitals would yield far more in jobs than missile production but 50 years later our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq costing one trillion (at least) with the final cost coming closer to three trillion while the military industrial complex expands we are at a cross roads. Can we develop a debate about the size of the military and cultivate a sense of what our global and American citizenship demands?

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