Updated: Jan 13, 2022
“I'm running out of demons. I'm running out of villains. I'm down to Castro and Kim Il Sung."
-- Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell on why cutting the military budget has become easier.
Newsweek, April 22, 1991
This is an essay I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. It’s one that if you’ve ever spent more than a few hours with me, especially drunk, or you’ve watched my Instagram stories sometime in the last few years, I’ve no doubt shouted at you with half-developed thoughts. So, I wanted to take the time to get it on paper and flesh out all these ideas into a fully formed piece. These are by no way original thoughts, and the development of my opinions on this topic is fully indebted to the writers, academics, filmmakers, and journalists who have covered this aspect of American history far more eloquently than I’m about to. These include but are of course in no way limited to: Howard Zinn, specifically his seminal work “A People’s History”, journalists and writers like Naomi Klein, Vincent Bevins, Jeremy Scahill, Greg Shupak, and others who have covered it in their own books as well as in publications like The Nation, The Intercept, Jacobin, and more, the incredible in-depth reporting done by Noah Kulwin and Brendan James in both seasons of their excellent podcast “Blowback”, and of course the many films on this topic from acclaimed director Oliver Stone.
The American military industrial complex is, to put it simply, a behemoth. The U.S. Department of Defense’s budget this year was just approved to the tune of $768 billion, a $30 billion increase from last year’s and around $10 billion more than what President Biden initially asked for. China, a country with more than four times the population of America, spends $252 billion on its military. India, the third highest, spends $72.9 billion, also for a country with about four times America’s population. In fact, America’s military budget is larger than those of the next nine countries combined. Defense spending accounts for about 3.5% of the total American GDP, a figure only surpassed by small Middle Eastern countries like Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon which have higher expenditures via GDP percentage, but all have populations approximately the size of New Jersey. Much of this money goes towards private corporations known as defense contractors. The largest and best-known, Lockheed Martin, has annual contracts with the US government totaling around $75.8 billion, comparable to the entire GDP of Maine or Delaware. Military contractors spend around $100 million in lobbying the government each year to ensure the money faucet stays on.
The military industrial complex is not particularly partisan nor does it care all that much about who is president or which party is in power. And it doesn’t need to, given that in both Democrat and Republican administrations alike, defense spending will always increase without much debate, while any proposed policy regarding healthcare, infrastructure, climate change, and the like, features endless fretting from both sides on “how to pay for it.” The Build Back Better agenda, currently gridlocked in Congress due to spending concerns from Republicans and moderate, corporate-backed Democrats, has been trimmed down to a price tag of $1.9 trillion over the course of ten years, during which the US will spend more than eight times that on defense expenditures. Defense budgets pass almost unanimously no matter which party controls the chambers of power. This year, the budget passed the House with 76% Democrat and 91% Republican “Yes” votes, with 84% and 94% splits in the Senate. During the four years of Trump’s presidency, Democrat leadership along with rank-and-file members frequently decried the orange man’s dangerous and hostile antics, yet nonetheless passed every one of his defense budgets without much protest.
During last year’s presidential election, Dave Calhoun, the CEO of Boeing, yearly recipient of around $23 billion in military contracts, was quoted as saying, “I think both candidates, at least in my view, appear globally oriented and interested in the defense of our country and I believe they’ll support the industries, I don’t think we’re going to take a position on one being better than the other.” Gregory Hayes, the CEO of Raytheon, recipient of $28 billion in contracts, concurred, saying “Defense has always been a bipartisan issue.” Indeed, political contributions to each party are almost exactly evenly split, and administrations of Republicans and Democrats alike feature a revolving door of former military officers, defense contractors, and lobbyists in high-profile positions. Biden’s current Secretary of Defense, former four-star general Lloyd Austin, spent the last 5 years on the board of Raytheon following his retirement from the armed services.
The American military industrial complex does not only encompass the building of weapons and other supplies for the 1.38 million active US troops (the third highest total in the world behind only China and India). The US, in its role as a global imperialist force, also bestows staggeringly large packages of military aid and arms sales to countless countries all over the world. While often this is done with the stated goal of shoring up the defenses of an American ally, in reality these are military actions in and of themselves, as a massive influx of high-quality American weaponry and funding can decisively tip the balance of power in any conflict, allowing the US to pick and choose who comes out on top without directly contributing their own troops. In 2019, the US granted $14.1 billion in military aid to various countries, the highest being Israel and Afghanistan, at $3.8 and $4.7 billion each, respectively, followed by Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. Israel has been by far the largest recipient of US military aid since WWII, receiving the equivalent of $243.9 billion in that time period, adjusted for inflation. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was recently the recipient of a $650 million sale of missiles from the US, after an effort by progressive Democrats and some Republicans to block the sale failed. In both cases, American military technology comprises the majority of each country’s armed forces, and both countries are able to carry out their own violent military actions, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Saudi’s ongoing offensive in Yemen, both of which fall somewhere on the spectrum between a vicious occupation and outright genocide, entirely because they are propped up by the might of the most powerful armed forces in history.
To put it simply, the US War Machine is as intrinsically part of American life and government as can be. Much like how it was pointed out by activists during the BLM protests of 2020 that many American cities were less actual municipal governments and more simply bloated police departments with some underfunded extraneous social services arms, the US government often feels more like a military force that occasionally pretends to dabble in sectors like healthcare, housing, and the like versus an actual, all-encompassing government. And that didn’t happen by accident. In fact, the history of America in the 20th century onwards is very much the history of the military industrial complex, as almost every political and historical development from World War II onwards can be examined through the lens of the country’s mass militarization. Over the last 80 or so years, presidents have come and gone, policies and movements have taken hold and run their course, parties have gained and lost control, and yet the war machine through its constant adapting has remained largely untouched and unbothered with only a few high-profile exceptions (which we’ll obviously get into).
When I began writing this essay, I realized there was no way that I’d be able to fit everything into one piece, so this project is going to be split up into three parts. Part 1 (what you’re reading now) will focus on defining what the military industrial complex is and tracing its roots to World War II, describing how it all came about. Part 2 (to be released next week) will cover the post-war years of the Truman Doctrine, Cold War, and all presidents up until 9/11, with an extended sojourn into the JFK years (obviously). And Part 3 will bring us to the present, discussing the ramifications of 9/11, the changes that took place during the Iraq War and Obama years, and the current state of the military industrial apparatus.
So let’s start at the beginning, which in the context of this story is the years following the Great Depression leading up to the US’s involvement in World War II. The US was of course helmed at this time by FDR and his New Deal programs, the closest thing America has seen to democratic socialism. FDR’s programs have been rightfully criticized from the left for their failure to go as far as they should’ve (and of course for more or less ignoring racial issues, but that’s for another article), but it’s not an oversimplification to say they represented the last time the federal government undertook an actual vast effort to improve the lives of its non-wealthy citizens. The New Deal put millions of jobless Americans to work, built scores of public works that still stand today, and brought about probably the most popular government program of the 20th century in social security, which still exists today despite decades of attempts to gut it by neocons and neolibs alike. Simply put, it was an investment and mobilization by our government on a scale unthinkable today. FDR astutely recognized that there was plenty of work to be done to build a better country and there were millions of Americans desperately needing work, so the government poured money into programs to make this happen.
The New Deal lifted the US out of its worst ever depression and strengthened the working class to historic levels, reducing inequality and building up a robust social safety net comparable to anywhere else in the world. But this mobilization was nothing compared to what followed when in 1941 the US jumped into World War II and sent scores of American troops off to fight the Nazis. Overnight, a massive war machine apparatus needed to be built and supplied. All the sudden, after a decade of historically high unemployment levels, jobs couldn’t be filled fast enough, with the country reaching full employment by the end of 1941. With millions of working-age men being shipped off to the front lines, women rushed to fill jobs previously unavailable to them. Factories that had been lying empty for years due to lack of demand now found themselves literally firing on all cylinders, flush with mammoth government contracts to build planes, weapons, rations, uniforms, and everything that makes a massive armed forces run.
The US’s war effort in the European and Pacific theaters was mind-bogglingly immense. Over the course of the conflict the American armed forces totaled around 16 million soldiers. And it would take an equally immense effort to supply this behemoth. Scores of men and women moved from rural areas to urban centers, eager to fill the growing need for industrial jobs. Hours became longer, leisure time became shorter, and productivity was expected to be raised exponentially. These were all seen as necessary sacrifices by the American populace, who found themselves more united than at perhaps any point in the country’s history in a sense of national pride and patriotism. The government drilled into every citizen’s head that no matter their age, race, or gender, they had a role to play in ensuring the US won the war. With a never-ending demand from an insatiable military, the federal government poured previously unimaginable amounts of money into these efforts, and workers and corporations alike felt the benefits. Organized labor enthusiastically supported the war effort, and corporations saw record profits after years of toiling in the depression.
So what happens when the fighting stops? For four years companies had been flush beyond their wildest dreams, as the unceasing money spout from the federal government allowed them to operate at previously unthinkable volumes and reap record profits in return. To a money-driven executive, needing to scale everything back because there are no more enemies to fight would be a tough pill to swallow. But it was naïve to think that anyone in this newly formed behemoth of a military apparatus and the arms that supplied it had any intention of going back to how things were before the bloodiest war in human history left profiteers fat and happy. The war machine had enriched far too many people to staggering degrees that there was no chance it would ever again be dialed back in peacetime. The empires of yore in Europe laid in ruin, leaving only the USSR and the United States as the dominant superpowers, a role both rushed eagerly to fill. But how do you justify a bloated war machine apparatus when there’s no war to fight or enemy to oppose?
You create one.