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Tomgram: William Astore, Drowning in Militarism

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

It's no small thing to lodge a word or phrase of your own in our language. So give Dwight D. Eisenhower credit. In his presidential farewell address to the American people in 1961, the former five-star general of World War II warned -- and who would have known better -- of the growth of what he called "the military-industrial complex." ("Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry... We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions... Added to this, 3½ million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment... Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience... 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.")

As it turned out, Ike couldn't have been more on target and the phrase stuck (as, of course, did the military-industrial complex). Almost six decades after he introduced the term, the national security apparatus, according to William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger, now gulps down a staggering $1.25 trillion of our tax money annually, while fighting endless wars, and could hardly be more powerful. In a world in which the U.S. national security state is still expanding, however, Eisenhower's phrase may actually be too modest for our militaristic moment. As political scientist Daniel Wirls wrote recently, "That Cold War term no longer fits. 'Industrial' does not capture the breadth of the activities involved. And 'military' fails to describe the range of government policies and interests implicated... If anything, Eisenhower's complex has become more complex and potentially influential." Wirls suggests instead "National Security Corporate Complex," which may prove a bit of a mouthful, but he does catch the spirit of the new world of corporations like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics in calling them, aptly indeed, "Walmarts of war."

As retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, blogger, and TomDispatch regular William Astore suggests today, we Americans, just as Ike feared so long ago, are now caught in a riptide of war and preparations for more of the same. And just as Ike also feared, in a Washington where little the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, or our many intelligence services ask for is ever denied them by Congress or the president, American democracy is increasingly up for grabs. Tom

The Riptide of American Militarism
Lessons from the Natural World on Washington's Unnatural Wars
By William J. Astore

Put up with me for just a moment while I wax literary. It turns out that, if French novelist Marcel Proust lived today, he might have had to retitle his Remembrance of Things Past as Remembrance of Things Present, or even more sadly, Things Future. As an ex-military man who lived through part of the Cold War in uniform, let me make my point, in terms of the Pentagon and an ever-growing atmosphere of American militarism, this way: I love used bookstores. I've been browsing in them since my teens. I was, then, an early fan of Stephen King, the famed horror-story writer. Admittedly, today I'm more likely to browse the history section, which has horrors enough for us all, many of which eclipse even the most fevered imaginings of King, though Pennywise the Clown in It still gives me the creeps.

A while back, speaking of things not past, I stumbled across Senator J. William Fulbright's 1970 book The Pentagon Propaganda Machine and, out of curiosity, bought it for the princely sum of five dollars. Now, talk about creepy. Fulbright, who left the Senate in 1974 and died in 1995, noted a phenomenon then that should ring a distinct bell today. Americans, he wrote, "have grown distressingly used to war." He then added a line that still couldn't be more up to date: "Violence is our most important product." Congress, he complained (and this, too, should ring a distinct bell in 2019), was shoveling money at the Pentagon "with virtually no questions asked," while costly weapons systems were seen mainly "as a means of prosperity," especially for the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex. "Militarism has been creeping up on us," he warned, and the American public, conditioned by endless crises and warnings of war, had grown numb, leaving "few, other than the young, [to] protest against what is happening."

Back then, of course, the bogeyman that kept the process going was Communism. America's exaggerated fear of Communism then (and terrorism now) strengthened militarism at home in a myriad of ways while, as Fulbright put it, "undermining democratic procedure and values." And doesn't that ring a few bells, too? Complicit in all this was the Pentagon's own propaganda machine, which worked hard "to persuade the American people that the military is good for you."

Perhaps my favorite passage from that book was a message the senator received from a citizen who had attended a Pentagon rah-rah "informational seminar." Writing to Fulbright, he suggested that "the greatest threat to American national security is the American Military Establishment and the no-holds-barred type of logic it uses to justify its zillion-dollar existence."

In a rousing conclusion on the "dangers of the military sell" that seems no less apt nearly a half-century later, Fulbright warned that America's "chronic state of war" was generating a "monster [military] bureaucracy." Citing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, he noted how "the mindless violence of war" was eroding America's moral values and ended by emphasizing that dealing with the growth of immoral militarism was vitally important to the country's future.

"The best defense against militarism is peace; the next best thing is the vigorous practice of democracy," he noted, citing the dissenters of his day who opposed America's murderous war in Southeast Asia. And he added a warning no less applicable today: Americans shouldn't put their faith in senior military men whose "parochial talents" were too narrow "to equip them with the balance of judgment needed to play the political role they now hold in our society."

Reading Fulbright today, I couldn't help but recall one of my dad's favorite sayings, translated from the French: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sure, the weaponry may be upgraded (drones with Hellfire missiles rather than bombers dropping napalm); the names of the countries may be different (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia rather than Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia); even the stated purpose of the wars of the moment may have altered (fighting terrorism rather than defeating Communism); but over the last 50 years, the most fundamental things have remained remarkably consistent: militarism, violence, the endless feeding of the military-industrial complex, the growth of the national security state, and wars, ever more wars, always purportedly waged in the name of peace.

Sometimes when you buy a used book, it comes with a bonus. This one held between its pages a yellowed clipping of a contemporary New York Times review with the telling title, "O What a Lovely Pentagon." In agreeing with Fulbright, the reviewer, Herbert Mitgang, himself a veteran of World War II, wrote:

"To keep up the [Pentagon] budgets, all three services compete for bigger and better armaments in coordination with the publicity salesmen from the major corporations -- for whom retired generals and admirals serve as front men. Thousands of uniformed men and millions of dollars are involved in hard-selling the Pentagon way of life."

Change "millions" to "billions" and Mitgang's point remains as on target as ever.

Citing another book under review, which critiqued U.S. military procurement practices, Mitgang concluded: "What emerges here is a permanent floating crap game with the taxpayer as loser and Congress as banker, shelling out for Pentagon and peace profiteers with an ineptitude that would bankrupt any other business."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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