On January 17th, 1961, President Eisenhower delivered a farewell address in which he warned of the burgeoning rise of the military-industrial complex, an apparatus that he helped create and one that was consolidating power & influence more rapidly than any instrument of the government should. For many decades, this speech proved esoteric. Yet in this era of the internet, it has emerged as a sociopolitical behemoth, a sort of abstract boogeyman that everyone fears. Regardless, it is more than imperative to elucidate why the military-industrial complex exists at the forefront of the U.S. political landscape.

Before we dig in, let’s define a military-industrial complex as a network of institutions and individuals involved in the production of weapons and military technologies; by practice, the notion of a military-industrial complex also entails a symbiotic relationship between a country’s military, economy, and politics. Indeed, the term was first coined 61 years ago by Eisenhower, but the idea of a military-industrial complex in the modern U.S. has evolved from a “theory” to an entity that is almost universally recognized in politics and academia.

The origins of the U.S. military-industrial complex date back to World War II, when arms production soared from around 1% of the U.S. GDP in 1940 to over 40% of the GDP in 1945. Perhaps many believed that this metric would plummet once Japan surrendered, but—while the American people celebrated victory—defense contractors entrenched in the establishment conspired to perpetuate their profits

World War II came in a pre-Truman era when U.S. foreign policy had not yet permeated into a systemized, for-profit, post-industrial enterprise: one that transcended the once perpetual oscillation between eras of war and eras of peacetime. This began to change in 1940 and 1941 when Congress appropriated $36 billion to the then-War Department alone, which was more than the federal government spent throughout World War I. From this point onward, the government established itself as the primary investor in military weapons, supplies, and technology. The War and Navy departments moved from sealed-bid contracts with defense contractors to negotiated contracts—paving the way for the likes of General Motors and Lockheed to be paid the full costs of their contracts plus a fixed fee—which eventually became an enterprise with multiple ancillary fees based on how long it takes for debts to be paid off.

At the same time, the nature of negotiations and a variety of other causes oversaw the beginning of the gradual consolidation of the defense industry from one with hundreds of competing companies to one with dozens of big corporations to what we have today, where a majority of profits are split among a few massive, multinational conglomerates. Meanwhile, as economic relationships between these companies and the government evolved, the political landscape began to account for the military budget as a focal point of how tax revenue is allocated within the federal budget. Thus emerged a prominent iron triangle that, indeed, can now be referred to as the United States’ military-industrial complex. All three parties benefit from this arrangement, and defense contractors going through hard times often get bailed out and subsidized across the board; it is a form of corporate socialism for the defense industry.

It is difficult to specifically ascertain the extent to which the military-industrial complex has shaped U.S. foreign policy and the unsolicited wars we’ve initiated—because such interactions necessarily take place deep behind closed doors, in places that are even more secretive than most such apparatuses—so, at least right now, one can only extrapolate the ability of defense elites to shape policy in certain eras. This is particularly apt when it comes to proxy wars initiated by the U.S. during the Cold War (though it is clear to anyone who’s done the research that the military-industrial complex was behind the Vietnam War).

Alas, the ability of the military-industrial complex to manufacture entire wars became clear by the time the George W. Bush administration lured us into Iraq. Say what you want about George H.W. Bush (who perhaps lost his bid for presidential re-election because he wouldn’t bow to those who sought a greater role in the Gulf War), but he didn’t sell out to the military-industrial complex the way his son did.

In contrast, George W. Bush loaded his administration with prominent neoconservatives on the right who effectively sought to keep the U.S. in a state of perpetual war. This way, the defense contractors in the pockets of both major parties would perpetuate their profits. So, Bush took the back seat and deferred to his neoconservative advisors—Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Paul Bremer, etc.—plus Bush’s VP, Dick Cheney, and Bush’s Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld (who did not self-identify as neocons but did share their propensity for backing policies that prioritize profits over the interests of the people). Driven by corruption, they were truly evil men who deceived decent people, like Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell, to get their way.

From left to right: Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney.

Soon enough, this nefarious faction within the Bush Administration successfully used the hysteria, confusion, unity, and desire to get “revenge” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to justify wars not only in Afghanistan but also Iraq: a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. They capitalized on U.S. ignorance about that region of Earth to justify wars while steering clear of Saudi Arabia, even though most of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi. (Why? Perhaps because both parties enjoy a clandestine relationship in which we discreetly sell guns to them, they sell oil to us, and each turns a blind eye to the other’s injustices.)

Flash forward roughly two decades: We blew $21 trillion on the neocons’ “War on Terror,” and we still spend over $800 billion per year on the military even in a time of “peace.” But wait: there’s more. The defense industry controls both parties. It really doesn’t matter which president we elect; they all cave to these powerful forces. The media cannot afford to decry any of this—both figuratively and literally. And because the propaganda campaigns of the military-industrial complex have proved so successful in penetrating American culture and society, anyone who dares to blow the whistle is painted as a crazy, anti-American extremist.

Nobody is denying that this country needs a military—and certainly one of the best—to protect itself, prevent threats, and other things of that nature. But if you take even one look at where all of the actual money is going, it’s clear that the budget is not a matter of defense; without a shadow of doubt, it is a matter of corruption. We don’t need fleets of tanks in Hawaii. We don’t need to have all three of the world’s largest air forces: the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy’s Air Force, and the U.S. Army’s Air Force. We don’t need a navy that is stronger than all of the other navies in the world combined. The list continues.

And that’s just general talking points. When you get into the case-by-case basis of how the $801 billion is officially distributed within the Department of Defense—not to mention the hundreds of billions (possibly even trillions) of dark money that goes unaccounted for—we are overpaying corporations like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing for rudimentary technology; we are replacing advanced technology that towers over the world with even more superfluous technology; and it is clear that we could cut the Department of Defense budget by at least $100-200 billion and still retain a military that could defeat all of our enemies combined if they somehow invaded us. 

China is the only other country that spends at least $100 billion on its military, and all of the other countries in the world spend less than $80 billion. Bernie Sanders is not afraid to speak out about this. In fact, even Donald Trump spoke out about it (although his policies did not reflect his rhetoric). But there aren’t many other prominent politicians who have dared to utter a word about the military-industrial complex ever since Eisenhower. That was 61 years ago, and all of the things he feared the most have gotten much worse. Yet until we begin to address it, nothing will change. The only things that will not change are the very constants that hurt this world the most: the hundreds of thousands of American lives lost in unnecessary wars, the millions of lives of other global citizens lost (most of whom were civilians), the billions of lives devastated, and the tens of trillions of dollars wasted.

-Luke Atkins


Note: Luke is Alyson’s boyfriend, and he wrote this guest post with intentions similar to those of Alyson in running this blog: to inform the public of contemporary societal problems that media outlets often fail to elucidate. He is currently studying Government and History at Harvard University.