What I’d really like to do is skip over the statistics-stuffed task of proving that the military-industrial complex is what the military is for. I’d much prefer to discuss why this well-documented fact lies wispily in the margins of serious conversations about the military—why it’s underestimated, ignored, misunderstood, mocked.
I feel myself sounding a little like an overzealous college sophomore who’s been up all night in the library reading Chomsky when I say that the Pentagon today exists primarily, though not exclusively, to confer trillions of dollars to thousands of companies. Why is this so? The data itself is easy to find. It’s uploaded daily to the Pentagon’s contracts database. It’s summarized and analyzed year-round in the pages of venerable journals like the Nation and Jacobin and Dissent. Every winter, when Congress lays down its swords and passes near-trillion-dollar defense budgets with singularly enthusiastic bipartisanship, skeptical think pieces even make their way into the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Yet, aside from the work of our most impudently progressive journalists, such reports tend to fall shy of wholesale institutional reconceptualizations. When nationally syndicated columnists and pundits tell us that the military’s spending is neither acceptable nor practical, they manage to leave intact the premise that the military itself is indispensable to our safety and security. They tiptoe around the profligacy’s deepest implications. They disclaim intimations of operative disloyalty. As it happens, they—and we—are usually happy to point out corruption elsewhere: on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in foreign governments and foreign companies. I recall seeing a number of my friends from Egypt, Bangladesh and Mexico—openly derisive of civic corruption and misfeasance—roll their eyes at their respective soldiers and policemen and politicians. Americans seem to have a slightly harder time reconciling their own distinctly gigantic defense industry with their military’s essential purpose.
This is why I find the abasement and browbeating of the military-industrial argument more fascinating than the argument itself. It shows us both the military’s curious invulnerability to damning evidence, as well as a collective hesitation to defang the military of a great or noble or even necessary purpose, even if it means bedeviling skeptics and impounding such damning evidence so that it never really taints our fundamental ideas of the military—what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “something approaching a conspiracy of silence or neglect.”
David Greenberg, in an analysis for Slate several years ago, found indictments of the military-industrial complex to generally be “hackneyed,” “histrionic” and “faddish.” Anti-institutional tones have never boded well for geopolitical theorists, but they’ve fallen especially out of favor in the last decade. Today, to half the country and most of the intelligentsia, a skepticism of civil institutions (not counting the anti-police stance) tends to imply some degree of allegiance to a bigoted, chauvinistic, alt-right provincialism. Indeed, during the last presidential administration, a peculiar nostalgia emerged for the early aughts, when the worst public gaffes came to be known as “Bushisms” and the worst policy decision we had to worry about was the eponymous president invading a distant country too haphazardly. This nostalgia has given formerly maligned national security apparatuses like the CIA quite a credibility boost among liberals, even among progressives, but we’ll get to that later.
The thing is, Greenberg wasn’t wholly wrong to warn against “a grand theory of global conflict” puppeteered by “shadowy, faceless forces.” The key to understanding the question of the military-industrial complex—the key to all questions, really—is to abstain from the sort of ideological zeal that creates all-encompassing explanations and monolithic enemies. We should try, in other words, to understand the morphology and influence of this system without nervously coming to believe it is the linchpin in every foreign policy, war and geopolitical development.
But this doesn’t mean we should shrink from obvious deductions, especially if they’ve proven to be systematically underemphasized. The forces that define the military aren’t at all “shadowy” or “faceless.” We know their names. We know their subsidiaries. We can name their CEOs, their boards of directors, their lobbyists, the terms of their government contracts. We know that about 80 percent of retired three- and four-star generals go on to work for firms that directly depend on contracts from the Department of Defense. Some of them are recruited while they’re still in power. We know that sitting congresspersons, despite a bill attempting to ban it, hold stocks in military firms. We know that four of the past five Secretaries of Defense were executives or board members at one of the top five arms contractors. We know that the Pentagon’s spending rate of more than a million dollars per minute brings years of security and prosperity to such contractors while leaving taxpayers with bigger threats and fewer social services. We know that the ever-doughty Pope Francis, “in the name of God,” asked “arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead.” We know that, despite His Holiness’s discouragement, and despite having finally ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress just passed the largest defense budget since World War II even when accounting for inflation. And still, even with all this knowledge, one strains to bite the bullet, reject capitalistic fatalism and say it outright: the officials empowered to declare war, command the military and shape national security policy have had, have or will have a financial stake in conflict, expansion and stalemates. For this financial stake to burgeon, security can’t be an end; it has to be an instrument. And if we are to reconceive of the military accordingly, it must be seen primarily as an instrument of industry and secondarily as one of aid and defense.
If one’s blood boils at the disenchanting realization that “it is private passions and interests that customarily propel acts of state,” as Andrew Cockburn wrote last year in The Spoils of War, it’s because we’re talking about a special sort of corruption. Sure, it involves a lot of the same mechanics—crafty merchants, complaisant statesmen and (studiously legalized) bribery and embezzlement. But the corrupted institution in question is tasked with securing the nation. Just as importantly, it’s tasked with shaping the public’s understanding of security at home, danger abroad, enmities and alliances, progress and regress, war and peace. So when the military’s foregoing geopolitical narratives seek out jeopardy, when such catastrophizing enriches private industries using monumental sums of public money, when it brings sprees of violence to far corners of the earth, and when the evidence behind such narratives frequently ends up being either factually manipulated or simply wrong, well, then yes, the blood begins to boil. But this brings us back to the question of that overzealous college sophomore. Perhaps there’s something reasonable about our mortification at his sermonizing, his radical pacifism. Outrage doesn’t make for a good essay. It ends up being predictable. Sheer injustice as an end point can be dull. And anyway, there are plenty of red–hot rants about this issue by experts in the field who are far more knowledgeable than I am.
Maybe I’m so chary of naked indignation when it comes to the military for another reason: I’ve learned the inexpediency of this tactic the hard way. When I moved to the United States at eighteen, I’d only ever thought of the American military as the harbinger and henchman of imperial expansion. It was a perky, simple sort of realism, and yet, for any kid who grows up in the Arab world, U.S. imperialism isn’t abstract. It doesn’t end at Chomsky readings and Chapo Trap House episodes. Not that I grew up anywhere close to a war zone. My childhood home was in a serene pocket of one of Dubai’s old coastal neighborhoods, where gated villas had large gardens with date trees and bright red bougainvillea plants, and the Persian Gulf could be seen from most rooftops. My American school was American insofar as its curriculum resembled those of most decent private schools in Boston and Westchester, but its students, much like the population of Dubai, came from dozens of countries. They were children of bankers and traders and oil and gas executives—wealthy expatriates enjoying the city’s cushy standard of living and nonexistent taxes.
On a flat map of the world, Dubai’s dot seems to sit at the very center. On school holidays, we’d fly out of this focal pinpoint to visit aunts, uncles and grandparents in our corresponding “passport nations”—places like the United States, India, Singapore and the Netherlands, as well as regional neighbors like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
When it was founded in 1966, the American School of Dubai (ASD) was a sleepy outpost where American employees of the Dubai Petroleum Company could send their children. But as the U.S. government turned its attention from South America and Europe to the Middle East, the school acquired an uneasy symbolism. If the American Embassy was based in the United Arab Emirates’ then-inconspicuous capital, Abu Dhabi, the most prominent American institution in the country’s most notable city was ASD. And while the UAE, in the years after 9/11, successfully precluded the terrorist attacks that came one by one to neighboring countries, the long shadow of American military adventurism had already cast its pall over our campus life.
During President Clinton’s 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein from power, about two thousand bombs and missiles fell upon Iraq over a two-year period, killing and injuring an unknown number of Iraqi civilians, children included. When the bombing got particularly bad, as it did during Operation Desert Fox, school was canceled in anticipation of retaliatory threats and attempts. Sometimes, bomb threats were phoned in midday, and we’d come pouring out onto the soccer field while the police scoured the campus with German shepherds.
On September 13, 2001, when ASD had reopened, our superintendent called a somber, schoolwide assembly during which the attacks were discussed and students were offered comfort and guidance. Each class that day began with a reflective soliloquy from the teacher—some led to long discussions that lasted until the bell rang. Our teachers were from Iowa and Minnesota and New York, and also from Ontario and Islamabad and São Paolo. Many had spent half their lives teaching at international schools around the world. They took various approaches to the week’s events, but not one among them, I noticed, seemed surprised. Decades among people with few romantic illusions about American military violence had distanced even our American teachers from the cris de cœur that were inescapable inside the U.S. at the time.
The solace we were offered that day was less about honoring the victims of 9/11 than it was about preparing us for the tense days and months to come. We weren’t wrong to be nervous. We’d arrived on campus that day to find uniformed guards with AK-47s and metal detectors outside every gate. And while all but two of the guards were eventually withdrawn, the atmosphere had stiffened. Beloved neighborhood activities, like trick-or-treating on Halloween, were canceled and never resumed. Major events and ceremonies brought back the guns and metal detectors. We traveled with extra security on class trips, during which we were advised to pretend we were Canadian if anyone asked.
Then the drums for war beyond Afghanistan started beating. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had written a memo hours after the 9/11 attacks, according to declassified notes, that read: “Best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Osama Bin Laden].” He also wrote: “Go massive—sweep it all up, things related and not.” That evidence for the invasion of Iraq was falsified wasn’t surprising. Even as teenagers, we’d jeer at both the Bush administration’s transparent opportunism and the three out of five Americans who lapped up the rhetoric. The extent of the impending catastrophe, however, was less clear. Iraq had already been blighted by decades of economic sanctions, but just in case, our Iraqi classmates started pulling their remaining relatives (and their Iraqi dinars) out of Baghdad. The rest of us prepared for more guards, more threats. After the invasion, stories of mass violence ricocheting through the region became so commonplace that the role of the U.S. military in our world was less a question than a truism.
I moved from Dubai to New York in 2007 to attend a beautiful, unorthodox liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley. After three years of human rights, philosophy and political theory classes, I decided to return to the subject of Iraq. My senior thesis deployed the shadowy question of the war’s death toll to explore the challenges of gauging civilian mortality in conflict and, more broadly, of using quantitative language to appraise severity and iniquity. In 2011 (and this is still the case), the gap between the most conservative and the highest estimate of Iraqis killed after the invasion exceeded one million. As part of my research, I interviewed the authors of the feather-ruffling Lancet study, sponsored by Johns Hopkins’s School of Public Health, that used cluster samples to calculate 654,000 and possibly as many as 940,000 excess deaths in Iraq by 2006.
It turned out President Bush, having divined a death toll of thirty thousand the year before, wasn’t a fan of the study. “Six hundred thousand or whatever they guessed at is just, it’s not credible,” he said at a press conference on the day it was published. At a Pentagon briefing, General George Casey, then the senior coalition commander in Iraq, similarly assured reporters that the Lancet estimate was “way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I’ve not seen a number higher than fifty thousand.” But the study’s authors convinced me that excess mortality rates provided a less embellished depiction of a conflict’s ambit than the considerably more exclusionary surveys of violent deaths, which the Pentagon tended to prefer. Why should someone who died from a lack of insulin because of bombed-out roads and hospitals count any less than someone hit directly by shrapnel?
During conversations about my coursework and research, I discovered something peculiar among my peers at the second-most progressive college in America (according to one of the Princeton Review’s more frivolous surveys). They were smart and extraordinarily well read, but unlike my friends and teachers in the Middle East, they were prone to qualify, however marginally or ironically, the role, application and idea of American military power. Their uncanny sort of moralizing tended to lace foreign policy with disclaimers, with inklings of the unconscious Orientalism that allays bad military behavior by reminding us that there are worse barbarians out there: “A million dead Iraqis is horrible, but Saddam…,” or “Yes, we abet Israeli repression, but terrorism…” It seemed to demonstrate what sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1956 called “military metaphysics—the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military,” or perhaps more accurately, as inevitably military.
In short, my peers seemed to be saying that even if Noam Chomsky was onto something in his indictments of American brutality in books like Imperial Ambitions, embracing this self-disparagement too gleefully indicated a willful denial of what distinguished us from them, our relatively principled republic from the autocrats and militants. More knotty still was the way that idealism’s aura of undesirability, its embarrassing cluelessness, made realism more and more respectable.
Even my most critically inclined professors couldn’t fully endorse the idea that legitimizing national armies at the expense of factious “terrorist” groups acted as a moral cover for the indisputably greater violence committed by the former. I was asking, to put it another way, if it counted for anything that the U.S. military’s actions had led to more civilian deaths than those of any terrorist group in modern history. But it seemed to me that my peers and professors, deep down, had some difficulty humanizing foreigners enough to equate their lives with American ones. They’d seen or met or even been American service members. As an “alien” myself at the time, it was easier for me to be dialectically quantitative. It was also easier to view 9/11 as neither the beginning nor the end of history. I couldn’t sincerely ratify the American drone pilot any more than the Iraqi suicide bomber, though I probably shared more culturally with the drone pilot. Unbecoming though it sounds, I even felt slightly squeamish when I met service members in New York and around the country, real people instead of those filmic action figures I’d see from afar outside American bases in Bahrain and Kuwait. I didn’t want to humanize them, to thank them for their service, any more than I wanted to shake the hands of soldiers in Sudan or Burma.
In these grizzled memories, we find two things. First, the roots of my neurotic dread of appearing sophomoric. My questions and reevaluations over cafeteria dinners and office hours were commonly countered not with astute historical concatenations or persuasive political realism, but with those insinuations of naïveté and fanaticism. Second, the perplexing power of nationalism. While I may have grown up relatively detached from my nationality, ethnicity and the country of my residence, was it fair to have expected the same sort of detachment from my new American friends? To have asked them to wean themselves from the cathectic imagery and mythologies of national pride in order to look shrewdly and dispassionately upon the institution of the military?
With time, I concluded that my expectations were fair, mainly for one reason. To be American is to have a weighty role in the world’s affairs. It is to have eight hundred overseas military bases, at least three times the rest of the world’s foreign bases combined. It is for star-spangled soldiers, sailors, pilots, spies, diplomats and contractors to operate overtly and covertly in over a hundred countries. It is for this generations-old global influence to seep into your political identity and thus into conversations about self and other, here and there, authority and abnegation. It is to feel at once alone at the center of the galaxy and in possession of a historical hand of god—unavoidable symptoms of a cultural and military empire vast enough to nullify the invocations of nationalist oblivion that other citizenries can get away with.
After I graduated from college and a few years went by, I realized I had been gullible after all. It wasn’t because I was iconoclastic. It was because I’d assumed U.S. military activity was imperialist in the classic sense: “the advocacy of imperial or sovereign interests over the interests of dependent states.” Yet, as I landed editorial jobs at various news networks, I learned to look more closely at speeches by State and Defense Department officials. I learned to sift through the torrents of information, made publicly available daily, for pretext and subtext. I learned, in short, to follow the money, not in search of hidden clues or an all-encompassing explanation, but rather for a clear and demonstrable account of why our military—“our” because I’m American now—does what it does.
As it happens, the world’s most powerful and expensive military is pretty bad at doing what militaries classically have been supposed to do. Its intelligence is frequently wrong. Its missions are rarely accomplished. Its equipment regularly malfunctions. It loots its own treasury and leaves its countrymen mired in debt. Encyclopedias could and should be filled with its misadventures, but a few sour cherries can convey my gist.
Here’s one: According to the State Department, there were 29 foreign terrorist groups at the beginning of the War on Terror. After twenty years, $6 trillion and millions of people killed, the number of such groups has more than doubled to 72. In 2017, for example, all U.S. forces killed in Afghanistan died battling an ISIS offshoot that hadn’t existed until 2015.
Here’s another: the 150 commandos and $800 million that President Obama administered in 2011 to dismantle the famously brutal Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and kill its leader, Joseph Kony, had managed to do neither by the operation’s end, six years later, even though the LRA reportedly comprised no more than a few hundred armed fighters.
Here’s a third: In just one portion of a thirteen-month operation in northeast Afghanistan, leaked documents revealed 90 percent of the dozens of people killed by airstrikes weren’t the intended targets. The leaker of these documents, an intelligence analyst at Bagram Air Base who was later imprisoned for 45 months for violating the Espionage Act, wrote a letter to his judge that described his crushing trauma at having overseen the killing of women and children, not to mention the “splattering purple-colored crystal guts” of “young men who were but mere children on the day of 9/11” and who were peacefully drinking tea when the drones came for them. The war, he concluded, “had very little to do with preventing terror from coming into the United States and a lot more to do with protecting the profits of weapons manufacturers and so-called defense contractors.”
The Pentagon, as it turns out, has never passed an audit. Still, up to half of the $14 trillion it’s spent since 2001 has gone to defense contractors, who are known to build increasingly inefficient products for increasingly high price tags, even as civilian technology gets cheaper and cheaper. President Obama, for example, approved $1.5 trillion for a new fleet of F-35 fighter jets, made by Lockheed Martin, which had its own caucus in the House of Representatives. Despite being the most expensive weapons program in history—six times more expensive than the perfectly capable F-16 fleet it replaced—the F-35s debuted after seventeen years with a malfunctioning radar, an inaccurate gun, cockpit pressure problems that left pilots in agonizing sinus pain and 850 other minor issues.
In another instance of expensive dysfunction, the HMS Manpack portable radio that the Army buys from General Dynamics for $72,000 each (a contract worth up to $9 billion) is twice as heavy as its predecessor, with one half the range and one fifth the battery life. It can also overheat to the point of severely burning its carrier. Still, the Army said it would keep buying them. The Pentagon has also continued buying helmets worn by soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan despite evidence, as Andrew Cockburn reports, that they are needlessly vulnerable to bullets and shrapnel and “can actually amplify the effects of an explosion on one’s brain … thanks to a corrupt contractor skimping on the necessary bulletproof material.” Perhaps the most unsettling example of all is that service members have been forced to raise their own money from neighbors and family members, as Cockburn tells us, “for vital needs such as armor and night-vision goggles, while we throw hundreds of millions of dollars at exotic contraptions” like toilet seat covers that cost ten thousand dollars apiece in order, as a senior Air Force official explained, “to save the manufacturer from ‘losing revenue and profit.’”
Is this all merely abject failure? Is the world’s most moneyed and technologically advanced military really so inept? If we’re convinced the Pentagon’s objective is the swift and just administration of national security, then yes, it has failed. But if we reframe its primary objective to that aforementioned transmission of trillions of dollars to thousands of companies, then all that waste and failure amount to dazzling victories.
It just so happens that Chomsky did foresee the derision that awaits gadflies and dissidents of powerful establishments. In a speech titled “Responsibility,” which he delivered at MIT in 1969, he said, “It is fashionable to decry such talk as naïve and simplistic,” referring to critics of the military-industrial complex. Then he added: “It is useful to observe that those who manipulate the process and stand directly to gain from it are much less coy about the matter.”
One only has to observe the sublime efficacy of the “revolving door” schema to find such gain. Defense companies hire about seven hundred lobbyists a year, more than one for every member of Congress, according to a Brown University study. In 2019, the Government Accountability Office found that the top fourteen defense contractors had hired over 1,700 recent Pentagon employees, including a large number of acquisition officials who had overseen the purchasing of weapons systems. Another report found that 90 percent of senior military officials poached by contractors go on to become lobbyists. No sector has a higher percentage of lobbyists who formerly worked in government. In an essay for the Atlantic, the historian Andrew Bacevich recalled a former student of his, then a serving officer, telling him about a meeting of the Association of the United States Army where he was “accosted by two dozen former bosses, now in suits with fancy ties and business cards, hawking the latest defense technologies.”
The returns are golden. Drawing on a report from the Center for International Policy, the Project on Government Oversight recently found that since 9/11, “the top five U.S. Pentagon contractors—Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman—received more than $2.1 trillion worth of contracts … meaning that for every dollar they spent lobbying, they received a staggering $1,909 in taxpayer funds in return.” In 2020, when the pandemic shrunk the economy by 3.5 percent, Lockheed Martin alone was awarded $75 billion in Pentagon contracts, significantly more than the combined budgets of the State Department and the Agency for International Development. That year, the CEOs of the top five weapons makers made more than $150 million in compensation.
The formula works so well because the U.S. government is the principal customer of such firms, just as it’s also the official vendor to foreign governments on behalf of such firms. Either way, the contractors don’t have to compete in a free market. They only have to woo the custodians of the deepest war chests in history.
Cockburn tells a tale of Ivan Selin, a senior Pentagon official in the 1960s who, in an unusually transparent admission, told newcomers: “Welcome to the world of strategic analysis, where we program weapons that don’t work to meet threats that don’t exist.” In a 2015 interview, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, echoed Selin’s admission when he staidly recounted the billions lost in “fraud, waste, and abuse,” with no one fired despite his reports to Congress. Among the taxpayer-funded sums Sopko lists: $43 million for a gas station in a province where most Afghans couldn’t afford gas and where comparable gas stations had been built for five hundred thousand dollars; $36 million for a 64,000-square-foot building in Camp Leatherneck that local generals had said was unnecessary and that thus sat untouched; five hundred million dollars on a fleet of G222 airplanes so ill-suited to Afghanistan’s weather than they ended up rusting on the Kabul airport runway with trees growing out of them.
I copiously cite Andrew Cockburn, the Washington editor at Harper’s, because he may be our most deft and prolific contemporary critic of the military-industrial complex. He compares it to “a giant, malignant virus” that “exists purely to sustain itself and grow,” that creates far fewer jobs than other industries like education and health care, and, worst of all, that so effectively conjures threats as reasons for spending that one would surely be willfully ignorant to deny the link between a proliferation of terror groups and foreign crises with the advantage of defense contractors. Yet maybe the ludicrous gap between rhetoric and consequences requires denial, or at least compartmentalization, if we’re to talk about the military at all.
What civilian deaths and displacement indicate about the ethics of the business of war should be obvious. Still, not everyone is in on the game. Most, in fact, are not, and here is one respect in which we can rise above ideological certainty and simplistic antagonisms. The narratives of security, threats and military glory are not just crafty tools of the industrial complex. They are also sincerely held beliefs. They are symptoms of those deeply rooted sentiments of national exceptionalism. They can be unconsciously internalized and embraced. They can also disappear into the sort of foggy bureaucracy that relegates professional decisions to shortsighted and self-interested increments. All this makes the relationship between defense and profit a messy and multipronged one. In my years in newsrooms, for example, I’ve noticed that even senior editors and correspondents tend to presume an essential valor of our military leadership. They do not do this because they are ordered to, or because there are puppet masters behind the scenes peddling agendas, but because of the history books they read in school, the language to which they are accustomed, the imagery they’ve consumed—not to mention the psychological repercussions of acknowledging that their national protectorate, rather than being an authoritative source on global affairs, is dishonorable and self-serving.
This explains—partly—why news outlets regularly invite former military and intelligence officers to discuss defense policies without disclosing the officers’ financial interests. Also why the New York Times can publish op-eds on the unwarranted influence of contractors, or investigations proving the Pentagon regularly lied about killing civilians during airstrikes in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, without integrating the skepticism merited by such articles into their broader military coverage. In the weeks preceding those harrowing revelations of mass killings in the Middle East, a customary Times report about “proliferating terror threats in Africa” uncritically cited a think tank funded by the Department of Defense and a statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who himself founded a consulting company whose clients include a developer of combat drones for the Air Force. In the weeks following its investigation of deaths from airstrikes, the Times continued to credulously quote Pentagon and State Department officials sounding the alarm about a volley of new threats in Eastern Europe, which they started doing as soon as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan, winning contractors fresh hundreds of millions for weapons shipments to Ukraine and Poland, and swiftly puncturing two dozen congresspersons’ hopes, expressed in a letter to President Biden, that we’d cut defense spending at last.
The threats in Eastern Europe turned out to be real and deadly—but they were neither insulated from history nor necessarily the scourges of a black-and-white game: thugs versus democrats. “Everybody knows if Russia had troops in Mexico or Canada there would be invasions tomorrow,” Cornel West recently said, pointing to NATO’s clear and decades-long (but still muffled) creep upon Russia’s western sphere of influence. Our selective and self-absolving anger comes at a very real price. When we hear blistering calls today for Putin’s head, for a no-fly zone, for more military aid, for direct military involvement, we should not forget the Pentagon’s thirst for a post-Afghanistan wellspring of cash. The absence of discussion about our own historical accountability for what’s happening in Ukraine—not to mention the absence of calls for Bush’s or Obama’s or Blair’s or the NATO Commander’s head when farther-away countries were invaded with commensurate illegitimacy, when fabrications were mongered, when hospitals were bombed, when civilian death tolls were even higher—likewise plays happily into the military-industrial establishment’s habit of decontextualizing and then incriminating foreign entities that it can strive to sabotage for years thereafter with bounties of money, equipment and blood.
In 2019, before I stood and took the Oath of Allegiance to become a U.S. citizen, my naturalization ceremony regaled us with a series of video messages. One was from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Czechoslovakia and attended her own naturalization ceremony in 1957.
“I encourage you and all American citizens to apply for your ticket to the world: a United States passport,” she told us, an enormous brooch of the American flag gleaming below her collar. “You too can feel that same pride that I experienced when traveling overseas as a citizen of our wonderful nation.”
There was some mild applause, but mostly just papers rustling, babies crying and the titters of two hundred people who were eager to culminate the years of paperwork, processing fees, interviews and the dread of making that one small mistake that could’ve sent them packing. I knew that, if just for the afternoon, I was supposed to set aside all reservations about being formally initiated into a tribe. And the truth is, I was excited to become an American. It was the country in which I’d come of age and made my dearest friends; whose books, music and movies I’d cherished since I could speak; and where I could write freely and thoughtfully about my opinions and politics. So my discomfort at watching Albright’s message of welcome—the same figure who famously told Leslie Stahl during a 60 Minutes interview in 1996 that the alleged sanctions-induced deaths of five hundred thousand Iraqi children were “worth it”—wasn’t because I didn’t want to be part of the tribe. It was because I didn’t believe she spoke for me as an American, the same way I don’t believe my appraisal of the military today gives me any less credibility as a loyal and dutiful citizen.
No institution or official should be able to act on behalf of a citizen without his right to disown them and their values with all the vituperation he can muster. Unthinking allegiance doesn’t just lead to violence—it makes for an inferior republic. And now that I’m American, my dismay at the military-industrial complex has acquired a self-interested element. It’s now my money that Congress is embezzling, my money that’s bungling weaponry and spilling blood and engorging wallets, all while I can barely afford health care, my friends are mired in student debt and nearly eleven million children are in poverty. I can’t help but think of all the advantages that we, the world’s richest citizenry, are being robbed of: the rent that could be subsidized, the teachers that could be given raises, the medical benefits that could be dispensed, the debt that could be forgiven.
While President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address has become the most famous historical reference to the military-industrial complex, his speech a decade prior to the American Society of Newspaper Editors more vividly captured the extent to which ordinary citizens forfeit their health and wealth for the gilded merchants of war:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. … The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of sixty thousand population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals … This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.
It’s hard to imagine an American president saying this today. All the same, it would take a military that was significantly defunded, that was staunchly isolationist and that devoted its resources within our borders to disaster relief, public health crises and mass shootings, for me to proudly call it my own. A decisive step in this direction—and I can only hope that I don’t sound too ingenuous when I say it—might be the “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” that Eisenhower said was indispensable to preventing war without unleashing a monstrously uncheckable industry in the name of peace.
This essay is part of our new issue 27 symposium, “What is the military for?” Click here to see the rest of the symposium.
Art credit: Shawn Campbell. Big Stick; mixed material object; 86 × 20 × 16 in.; 2019. Courtesy of the artist.