In late December 2018, when James "Mad Dog" Mattis resigned as secretary of defense after President Trump announced that he was going to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, it was a hell of a story. The former general was pundited to heaven and back as the last "adult in the room," praised in Congress, and treated with enormous respect for his criticism of the president. But here's a story that would be reported only in passing and remain remarkably uncommented upon by the punditocracy or anyone in Congress: seven months after that resignation, Mattis took up a position on the board of General Dynamics, one of the nation's largest defense contractors, with all the perks involved. (Admittedly, he had been on that same board from the moment he retired from the military in 2013 until the president gave him the proverbial Trumpian bear hug and appointed him secretary of defense in 2017.)
There were no columns about it. No pundits raised a storm. Nobody of any significance said much of anything. Oh, let me amend that for accuracy's sake. There was indeed a public enthusiast quoted in the media: General Dynamics Chairwoman and CEO Phebe Novakovic, the head of a company that, just after Mattis's resignation, landed a $714 million delivery order to upgrade 174 Army M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks. She issued a statement saying: "Jim is a thoughtful, deliberate and principled leader with a proven track record of selfless service to our nation. We are honored to have him on our board."
According to the Washington Post, General Dynamics is "the fourth-largest corporate recipient of U.S. government contract dollars" and Mattis himself one of at least 50 "high-level government officials" hired by defense contractors since the Trump era began. In fact, on the very board that Mattis rejoined sit six other former military officers and officials, including a former Navy admiral, a former Air Force general, a former deputy secretary of defense, and Novakovic herself who once worked for the CIA and the Pentagon. And while we're on the subject, don't forget about all those figures from the world of the weapons makers who have headed the other way like Mark Esper, the current secretary of defense, who was previously a lobbyist for Raytheon.
Now, consider with TomDispatch regular Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight, just how everyday such events truly are in the world of the military-industrial complex. And remember that, in a century when a staggeringly funded military couldn't win a war anywhere (and yet never stopped trying), failure continues to prove to be the military-industrial complex's ultimate success. Tom
Never the Pentagon
How The Military-Industrial Complex Gets Away With Murder in Contract After Contract
By Mandy Smithberger
Call it a colossal victory for a Pentagon that hasn't won a war in this century, but not for the rest of us. Congress only recently passed and the president approved one of the largest Pentagon budgets ever. It will surpass spending at the peaks of both the Korean and Vietnam wars. As last year ended, as if to highlight the strangeness of all this, the Washington Post broke a story about a "confidential trove of government documents" -- interviews with key figures involved in the Afghan War by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction -- revealing the degree to which senior Pentagon leaders and military commanders understood that the war was failing. Yet, year after year, they provided "rosy pronouncements they knew to be false," while "hiding unmistakable evidence that the war had become unwinnable."
However, as the latest Pentagon budget shows, no matter the revelations, there will be no reckoning when it comes to this country's endless wars or its military establishment -- not at a moment when President Donald Trump is sending yet more U.S. military personnel into the Middle East and has picked a new fight with Iran. No less troubling: how few in either party in Congress are willing to hold the president and the Pentagon accountable for runaway defense spending or the poor performance that has gone with it.
Given the way the Pentagon has sunk taxpayer dollars into those endless wars, in a more reasonable world that institution would be overdue for a comprehensive audit of all its programs and a reevaluation of its expenditures. (It has, by the way, never actually passed an audit.) According to Brown University's Costs of War Project, Washington has already spent at least $2 trillion on its war in Afghanistan alone and, as the Post made clear, the corruption, waste, and failure associated with those expenditures was (or at least should have been) mindboggling.
Of course, little of this was news to people who had read the damning reports released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in previous years. They included evidence, for instance, that somewhere between $10 million and $43 million had been spent constructing a single gas station in the middle of nowhere, that $150 million had gone into luxury private villas for Americans who were supposed to be helping strengthen Afghanistan's economy, and that tens of millions more were wasted on failed programs to improve Afghan industries focused on extracting more of the country's minerals, oil, and natural gas reserves.
In the face of all this, rather than curtailing Pentagon spending, Congress continued to increase its budget, while also supporting a Department of Defense slush fund for war spending to keep the efforts going. Still, the special inspector general's reports did manage to rankle American military commanders (unable to find successful combat strategies in Afghanistan) enough to launch what, in effect, would be a public-relations war to try to undermine that watchdog's findings.
All of this, in turn, reflected the "unwarranted influence" of the military-industrial complex that President (and former five-star General) Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans about in his memorable 1961 farewell address. That complex only continues to thrive and grow almost six decades later, as contractor profits are endlessly prioritized over what might be considered the national security interests of the citizenry.
The infamous "revolving door" that regularly ushers senior Pentagon officials into defense-industry posts and senior defense-industry figures into key positions at the Pentagon (and in the rest of the national security state) just adds to the endless public-relations offensives that accompany this country's forever wars. After all, the retired generals and other officials the media regularly looks to for expertise are often essentially paid shills for the defense industry. The lack of public disclosure and media discussion about such obvious conflicts of interest only further corrupts public debate on both the wars and the funding of the military, while giving the arms industry the biggest seat at the table when decisions are made on how much to spend on war and preparations for the same.
Media Analysis Brought to You by the Arms Industry
That lack of disclosure regarding potential conflicts of interest recently came into fresh relief as industry boosters beat the media drums for war with Iran. Unfortunately, it's a story we've seen many times before. Back in 2008, for instance, in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon had launched a program to cultivate a coterie of retired-military-officers-turned-pundits in support of its already disastrous war in Iraq. Seeing such figures on TV or reading their comments in the press, the public may have assumed that they were just speaking their minds. However, the Times investigation showed that, while widely cited in the media and regularly featured on the TV news, they never disclosed that they received special Pentagon access and that, collectively, they had financial ties to more than 150 Pentagon contractors.
Given such financial interests, it was nearly impossible for them to be "objective" when it came to this country's failing war in Iraq. After all, they needed to secure more contracts for their defense-industry employers. A subsequent analysis by the Government Accountability Office found that the Pentagon's program raised "legitimate questions" about how its public propaganda efforts were tied to the weaponry it bought, highlighting "the possibility of compromised procurements resulting from potential competitive advantages" for those who helped them.