The Threat of Militarism

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Presentation to Students in the Global Scholar Program
9 July 2006
Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia

It is an honor for me to participate in the Global Scholar program, and I’m happy to be able to spend an hour or so with you, talking about something that I know a little about — the nature of modern United States foreign policy and what it all means for us, especially if we disagree with its directions and aspirations.

This is also a topic about which I myself am always learning more.

About me —

  • 20-year military career
  • Experience in military acquisition, communications and computers, and operational policy-making
  • Eye-opening experience in my final tour….
  • After retiring, I spoke and wrote publicly about what I believed in 2002 and 2003 were lies told and falsehoods fabricated and promoted by the administration in order to gain public support for an invasion of Iraq. Key among these were of course that Hussein had WMDs that could and would harm the United States, that Hussein was allied with al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, and that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9-11 attacks. I wrote what I saw in the Pentagon for both the right-leaning American Conservative Magazine, and for the left-leaning Salon.com.
  • I have since written regularly for Lewrockwell.com and militaryweek.com, been occasionally interviewed by magazines, and have appeared in several documentaries, including Hijacking Catastrophe and Why We Fight, winner of the best documentary of 2004 at the Sundance Film Festival.

As a retired military officer and adjunct faculty teaching U.S. foreign policy for James Madison University, I became interested in why and how we really decide in this country to make war, to invade foreign lands, to build up our military in peacetime. The simple idea that we face a threat, and we respond accordingly is not satisfactory to explain our American history in the 20th and 21st centuries. When we examine it closely, it doesn’t even explain our behavior as a nation in the 19th century.

Looking for answers, I rediscovered President’s Eisenhower’s farewell speech. Ike gave this speech to the world, and all Americans, in January 1961, a year after I was born. You have reviewed this address yourselves, and it is generally known as the "Military Industrial Complex" speech. In it, this five-star general and two-term Republican president in the 1950s reminds us that we live in a technological and industrial age. He says that forces of technology and industry that were rightly defending us from nuclear destruction had also become powerful forces for change in their own. He says,

"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."

Eisenhower’s speech — his warning to contemporary and subsequent generations — was timely when he gave it in 1961. It was based on what he understood to be true about the nature of American democracy, and the nature of man. For me, the seven deadly sins come to mind.

In terms of our democracy — Eisenhower reminded us to remain alert to our government actions and directions, lest those actions and direction be hijacked by what he referred to as the "scientific-technical elite." This was the age of early space research, early nuclear technology research and production, and early computing machines. It was long before desktops, laptops, the Internet, chat-rooms, I-pods, blogging, and voice over IP for $24.99 a month from Vonage, or its competitors Skype, Free World dialup and Nuvio.

But this democracy in early 1961 — even before the distractions of a hundred cable channels, Internet gaming, gambling, and pornography, and the hectic business of the dual-income family — was typical of all democracies. There is always a lot to do, and once we send a representative to Washington, we generally forget about what he or she is doing, and we certainly aren’t interested in how they do it. In fact, it may be impossible for us to even understand exactly how it is done. Even congressmen and women are amazed and surprised at the legislative process, and how it really works. In deadly sin-speak, this is sloth.

The other sins that tend to challenge all democracies are gluttony, greed, pride and anger. Gluttony and greed drive domestic policies, and are the cause of the entitlement demands and the desire we all have to get more from government than we pay in. Congresses and presidents have generally been eager to please us. George W. Bush and the Republican Congress has driven the national debt to $8.4 trillion and the deficit for 2006 is expected to be more than $400 billion. But these statistics might have happened to any president and Congress, because of the nature of American democracy.

Pride and anger fit more obviously with foreign policy. You are old enough to remember the emotions that possessed most Americans in the wake of 9-11. You probably all know the words to Toby Keith’s "Boot in your Ass" song, formally entitled Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American). It was a popular song because it tapped into something real about Americans and about all democracies.

Democracy is about people, and the nature of man is not improved through his public exercise of government. This is why Plato was critical of democracies, seeing them as the immediate precursor of tyrannies, initially led by populist demagogues, and later by unpopular, but feared and brutal tyrants.

Ike advised us to be citizens who rise above our slothful, greedy, prideful, and angry tendencies. He also named a part of government and society — the military industrial complex — that would need to be watched for these same tendencies.

These same sins afflict the military industrial complex — after all, it still just people. If I mention Halliburton to you, you will think of a company that is getting a lot of no-bid contracts to do billions and billions of dollars worth of things in warzones from Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

But in the beginning, Halliburton was a much smaller company, providing technology and services for oil companies. Most of its income came from the private sector. In 1962, it purchased a construction and logistics firm called Brown and Root. In 1995, Dick Cheney was hired as CEO, and in 1998, Halliburton merged with Dresser Industries, which included the M.W. Kellogg company that also did construction and oil services. With each merger, more and more government contracts came to this single, and now very large and politically connected company. Many people feel that the size and the political connections of Halliburton today have paid off. That would be capitalism at work. But one might go further, as Eisenhower did in 1961, and suggest that, in fact, policies that would profit Halliburton were being legislated and implemented.

Greed and gluttony in big government contractors is understandable. But when the last remaining materially productive enterprise in America is the defense and security sector, and when it is only from those sectors that high-paying American jobs are created and sustained, then the greed and gluttony of Americans themselves is harnessed with that of politically connected weapons and war-support companies. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and many others also fit this model. It’s all good, you see, to spend this type of money. It means American jobs. All we need is a demand in the marketplace. And sometimes, Congress and a President can also help with some of that "creation of demand."

Sloth is seen in the military-industrial complex, whether in the lack of competition for contracts, or the nature of federal acquisition rules which hide and seem to be designed for lots and lost of waste, and wasted time on the clock.

Pride and anger may not be a key sin associated with the military industrial complex — but indeed it is noted that Eisenhower originally warned us against something he initially called the "congressional-" military-industrial complex. Now you have the source of pride and anger, with a great big building called the Capitol, and guaranteed news coverage to get the population hopping mad and ready for a fight.

We can add one more sin we sometimes see in the military-industrial and political complex — and that is envy, or its close friend, lust. The main reason that the folks in the Middle East, and in Russia, India, and China believe that we are occupying Iraq is for the oil. To take or somehow control the oil — oil we no longer export to the world as we did in 1920, when 64% of the world oil was produced by the United States.

Mind you — profitable fights, and wars, are those chosen against those enemies known to be weak, those fights we know we can win with little risk. Afghanistan and Iraq we can do. North Korea, not so much.

1961. A long time ago. Is this conduct of American foreign policy — an expansive and interventionist foreign policy only related to the Cold War, or the emerging information technology revolution?

Well, that’s why I asked you to read the 1935 "War is a Racket" written by three-star Marine General Smedley Butler. This is a more emotional piece, and it may sound angry because Smedley Butler was at the time running for the Senate (as a Republican). He had recently been denied the coveted four-star position as Commandant of the Marine Corps, and perhaps that bothered him. Maybe, Smedley actually just realized that his whole military career had been a farce — fighting for something he might have called the congressional-military-industrial complex. Certainly, we see this latter motivation when we read, "War is a Racket."

You read the article. In summary — and Butler does this well — he says we must take the profit out of war, we must allow the youth of the land to determine whether they will fight or not, and we must limit our military forces to defensive purposes only.

How old-fashioned is that?

Well — actually, it is an idea that guys like George Washington — another military general and president — embraced, along with about every one of the founders. In fact — if a founding father believed that we should have profit in war, force people to fight those for-profit wars, and expand our military capabilities to offensive and imperialistic, he would have kept those thoughts to himself. These thoughts and ideas brought forth the stench of kings and emperors and royal armies, and were not popular in the America of the 1700s, or the 1800s.

Interestingly enough, if today you suggested that we should not have profit in war, you would get some strange looks. If you demanded that companies like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, their thousands of government contractors and employees, and several million military and civil servants employed by the federal government work for only a token payment, a symbolic paycheck, and that they do their "defense work" as a patriotic duty, you would be laughed out of town.

Today, if you suggested that people should be able to choose not to fight in a government war because they disagree with it, or feel it is wrong and unnecessary to the nation’s defense, you will be condemned as a terrorist lover. If you are a military guy who takes this stand, you would be court-martialled and jailed, as in the current cases of Lt. Ehren Watada who opposes the war in Iraq as unlawful, or the case of SSgt. Kevin Benderman, who was sent to jail for declaring himself to be a conscientious objector after serving a tour in Iraq.

Today, if you suggest that the $400 billion annual budget of the US military and its over 750 installations around the world be reorganized and reduced to a true focus of domestic defense — even border security — you would be treated as if you are unsophisticated and don’t know a thing about history or the world. Plus you are probably a very bad and untrustworthy citizen.

Well — this country has certainly changed. It is my country and your country, but it is not the country the founders envisioned, hoped and prayed for. But it didn’t change overnight — it has been evolving in the directions that President Eisenhower noted, and Lt General Butler wrote about, since the late 1800s.

Allow me to share with you something I did not assign as reading, but you know the tune. It is a poem by Mark Twain, written in 1901, and intended as parody of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a Union song. In 1901, many people in this country were opposed the American colonization of the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. It goes like this:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps-
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!”

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom-and for others’ goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich —
Our god is marching on.

Perhaps Smedley Butler read Mark Twain’s parody. At the time, Butler might have been serving his country’s expand in the Pacific, or perhaps extending our control on behalf of the United Fruit Company in Central America. He had only joined up a few years before, as a teenager, to help America occupy foreign land in the Philippines for fun and profit. I bet he didn’t find it amusing as a young Lieutenant or Captain in the Marine Corps, but over time, Butler saw much in Twain’s parody with which he came to agree.

I spoke earlier of what I saw in the Pentagon, about lies created and widely promoted by media and government to gain an expected-to-be profitable war overseas. Remember, the 9-11 for the Spanish-American War was the sinking of the USS Maine in the Havana harbor — something that has been termed in retrospect an accidental fire unrelated to any Spanish hostility. Yet at the time, this accidental fire was sold as an act of war that had to be answered by taking over Spain’s Pacific and Caribbean colonies.

How, then, did Twain get it so right? Or any of the other voices in the 1900’s against unnecessary overseas’ wars built on public falsehoods?

And as this long speech of mine winds to an end — I want to tell you how they did it, and how we can all accomplish whatever it is that we want, ideally for the good of our country and her policies.

First, Twain, Butler, and Ike were all educated, competent, and aware of the world around them. They didn’t have it all presented to them in some school or classroom, and their knowledge was not found in framed diplomas on walls. These three successfully challenged authority, government policies and bad behavior, because they all had some degree of practical knowledge and understanding of history, technologies of the day, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and people. Ike and Butler were also career soldiers — leaders and motivators of men. They all studied when they didn’t know something, and they worked hard and insisted upon high standards for themselves, in their work, and in others. Being willing to learn, willing to question, and willing to work hard will actually help counteract six of the seven deadly sins — envy, greed, gluttony, lust, pride and sloth. Sorry — anger management, I can’t help you with.

Second, Twain, Butler, and Ike knew what they could do, when they ought to do it, and they used their best talents to critique what they felt was problematic for this country. To complain, if you will.

For Twain, a popular novelist and social commentator, this took the form of poetic parody. In fact, the very best of these is Twain’s "The War Prayer." I’m assigning that one for homework!

Smedley Butler became a public figure in an era of the 1930s when war talk was unpopular, and people actually wanted to be able to have a referendum or a vote on whether the nation would go to war. It was another time when the people of the country didn’t trust the Congress, president, or the military. Naturally, Butler was in a position to use his Senate run to say the things that while they would anger many in the government, they would also greatly appeal to many average Americans. You can’t learn if you aren’t listening.

Ike, of course, as one of the best loved and respected Presidents, had the most power to communicate his ideas. He shared his criticism and concern with the entire nation on his televised farewell address. People watching this would be people caught up in emotion, eager to hear this last formal statement. They would be receptive. Not only that, in insulting the Congress, military and industrial complex — the scientific technical elite, Ike picked a time where this challenge would not be able to be countered effectively by the defenders of the military-industrial complex or the Congress. It is a famous speech in part because it came at the end of a successful era, never had to be defended and nit-picked politically, and because it was seen as measured and contemplative.

Lastly, each of these men were right — and were publicly vocal about it — in an age when being right and vocal about it could mean losing your job, going to jail, being viciously attacked in the media, and shattering your potential career success and income. This is something we often call courage, but it is not something only a few can acquire. It is courage based on hard work, study, contemplation, commitment, humility and a way of life that requires few material goods that others may grant to you, if only you say things with which they approve. We call it courage, but really it is more akin to independence of the intellectual, emotional, and material kind.

Of course, you can’t have a speaker come in to a group of young people without telling them how they ought to live, so I’ve now done my part. But more than that, I hope I have gotten you to think a little bit and realize that human history is filled with crazy things, and sometimes it really is the same damn thing over and over. That knowledge should free us from fear, and allow is to truly benefit from our historical experience and our modern technological capabilities. And maybe, with competence, confidence, and independence, we really can make the world a better place!

Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send her mail], a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for militaryweek.com, hosts the call-in radio show American Forum on Saturday nights, and blogs occasionally for Huffingtonpost.com. To receive automatic announcements of new articles and upcoming guests on her American Forum radio program, click here.

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