The militarization of America
Carlton M. Caves
2008 April 20

No so long ago I re-read Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. The 14th Century was the time of the great European Black Death and of the first half of the Hundred Year's War between England and France (although to describe this as a war between two countries is to invite thinking in terms of nation-states, when in fact, the conflict was initially a dynastic conflict, which helped during its long history to precipitate the emergence of national identities).

The warrior class in the 14th Century was knights on horseback, governed, at least in principle, by the code of chivalry. Anyone who reads Tuchman's account will be struck by two features of this warrior class. First, the system produced more knights than necessary, and having nothing much to do, they became a destabilizing force, banding together into gangs that terrorized the countryside and often had to be bought off to go plunder the population somewhere else. Wars abroad were promoted and funded---the Crusades are a prime example from previous centuries---partly to get the excess knightly population to go away and leave the countryside in peace. The warrior class, once necessary for defense, had grown to the point that it instead became a threat to peace and stability.

The second feature was the knights' adherence to the ideology of chivalry, with its attachment to personal displays of courage and reckless bravado. This ideology was becoming outmoded during the 14th Century, as effectiveness in battle moved decisively to the impersonal, but lethal rain of arrows launched by skilled longbowmen entrenched far away. French nobility clung to the old methods of personal combat, and as a consequence, again and again, over a period of 80 years, they were mowed down by English longbowmen. From our perspective today, it seems almost beyond belief that the French knights persisted in riding into certain death just because of fealty to a code of personal honor. The only reason the French didn't lose was that they had four times the population of England, which meant they produced a steady stream of knights to be mowed down and they couldn't be occupied effectively anyway. Yet it wasn't till Joan d'Arc came along in 1429 that the tide turned decisively, and the French were able to begin driving the English from their territory.

The French nobility was incapable of change, because the required change necessitated a different, higher-level organization of their society, particularly in military affairs. It required professional militaries that would de-emphasize courage and pointless displays of bravado in favor of discipline and effectiveness. That change would mean there was no more need for knights, and their class and life style would disappear. Since the knights and the higher nobility were the ruling class and could terrorize the general population at will, it was very difficult to dislodge them in favor of a more effective military and social organization. Only repeated defeats and a turnover of several generations produced the required change.

Is this a distant mirror? The 20th Century had its share of calamity, yet it ended on an optimistic note, having achieved the defeat of both great threats to liberal democracy, fascism in the middle of the Century and Soviet communism near the end. Unfortunately, in the 21st Century, the United States has stumbled badly and lost its way in finding a response to the threat of fundamentalist Islam. A good part of our failure lies, I think, in our readiness to adopt a purely military response to a problem that requires a nuanced and yet aggressive response on social, cultural, economic, and political fronts. Our propensity for military responses is unquestionably influenced by the over-militarization of our country. We have a large and expensive military, whose very presence invites us to think in terms of military solutions, and we have a large military-industrial complex, to use Ike's term, which for powerful economic reasons and in a thousand ways, resists thinking any other way.

Please don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we have too many enlisted personnel in the military. Determining how many enlisted personnel we need depends on the missions they are assigned; for the current missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, we clearly do not have enough enlisted personnel. Of course, one can oppose one or both of these missions, and if one or the other were ended, it would change how many enlisted personnel are required. The point is not how many enlisted personnel we have or need, because the large volunteer force of enlisted personnel has little to do with the nexus of power and money that encourages us to launch ill conceived military adventures. That nexus lies elsewhere, in the web of connections between senior military leaders---civilian and military, active and retired, generals, admirals, colonels, and captains---and the myriad of defense contractors, gigantic, large, and small, that gather around the Pentagon like big blue ticks on a yellow dog.

How did we get here? World War II started it, and the Cold War sustained it. Despite Ike's prescient warning in his farewell address, the continuation of the Cold War through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, only led to further concentration of power and money in the defense establishment. With the end of the Cold War, the complex went into a brief retreat, only to come roaring back after 9/11. This was the terrorists' chief gift to us---to empower an administration that saw their main chance in governing by fear and fear alone, fear to be fed and assuaged by increased military expenditures and by military adventurism, all with the endorsement and connivance of the big economic interests that benefit from military spending.

Like the knights of the 14th Century, our 21st Century warriors in the military-industrial complex can't see that what they're doing is the problem, not the solution. They can't see that their size and influence invites thinking exclusively in terms of military responses to complex social, economic, and political problems and that their voracious appetite for resources strangles our country's ability to address the real problems that we face in the 21st Century. Problems such as global warming, where we ought to be leading the world, instead of standing in the way of action. Problems such as maintaining America's economic, social, and cultural prominence, which requires an educated population and a country that works---have you flown a plane in the US recently or seen whose bridges are falling down?---all of which is being shortchanged to feed the military-industrial maw.

Most of the time the over-militarization of America acts subliminally, with varying degrees of success, on all of us. We usually don't have a clue what it would be like to try something truly different. There are times, however, when the interconnectedness of military and economic interests is so blatant that it is clear to anyone who chooses not to look away, and so it is with a front-page article in the April 19 New York Times, entitled "The Message Machine: Hidden Hand of Pentagon Helps Steer Military Analysts."

In the article reporter David Barstow meticulously details, through access to e-mail and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, how the Pentagon has given hundreds of special briefings on Iraq and Guantanamo to so-called independent military analysts for the major news outlets. These briefings regularly involved officials as high as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The analysts, generally retired high-level military personnel or occasionally civilians formerly in the Defense Department, typically work for defense contractors or for companies that help defense contractors secure contracts. The quid pro quo is obvious: the Pentagon gets apparently independent analysts to repeat its story about conditions at Guantanamo, the case for war in Iraq, or progress in Iraq, and the analysts get continued access to high-level defense personnel, which is the main reason for their employment. For any who doubt this quid pro quo, Barstow reveals that the Pentagon contracted with a company called Omnitec Solutions to track the analysts' activities in the news media and often called those whose reports didn't hew sufficiently closely to the Pentagon line.

Much of the article deals with excuses from the Pentagon, the analysts, and the news outlets that consulted them, but these excuses succeed in excusing nothing. These analysts were flacks for the Pentagon, pure and simple, bought and paid for with your tax dollars---indirectly, of course, through their participation in the military-industrial complex---but presented to the public as giving independent opinion. How would their analysis have been received had it been preceded by the truth, which would go something like this: "And now we turn to retired General X to give his expert perspective on the current situation in Iraq. General X is head of The Bloviation Group, which helps defense contractors win Pentagon contracts, and he participates in regular meetings with senior civilian and military officials in the Pentagon to get the government line. His report today will be monitored by a special Defense Department program that checks the extent to which he is hewing to the line laid out in the latest briefing."

I would encourage anyone who wants a glimpse directly into the workings of the military-industrial complex to read Barstow's article. But again, don't get me wrong. I'm not putting all retired officers in the class of these analysts. Retired officers bring a special perspective to public affairs in America. There are not many sources in America of people who are unsullied by the greed and self-interest of the private economy, and the military is one of those sources. Retired military are often informed by an intense sense of duty and service to country, combined with a profound understanding, tempered by actual experience, of the sacrifices required by war. The military's emphasis on duty and service doesn't make all officers into paragons of virtue, but I reckon it instills these qualities far better than the private economy, which really doesn't care about them. Retired officers are typically more conservative than I would prefer on almost all issues, social, economic, environmental, and national security, but so be it. I respect and admire their integrity, rectitude, and sense of duty.

Still I don't think retired officers are immune from the blandishments of power and money in our society. Once a retired officer starts working within the private side of the military-industrial complex, his own advancement and that of others depending on getting into the defense contractors' trough, I reckon the sense of duty gets sorely tried pretty quickly. And so they become soldiers in the military-industrial complex, instead of soldiers serving their country's cause.

Barstow reports an interesting case at the end of his article. James Marks is a retired Army general, who was a military analyst for CNN from 2004 to 2007. He also pursued military and intelligence contracts as a senior executive with McNeil Technologies. Let Barstow tell it: "In the summer and fall of 2006, even as he was regularly asked to comment on conditions in Iraq, General Marks was working intensively on bidding for a $4.6 billion contract to provide thousands of translators to United States forces in Iraq. In fact, General Marks was made president of the McNeil spin-off that won the huge contract in December 2006. General Marks said his work on the contract did not affect his commentary on CNN. 'Iíve got zero challenge separating myself from a business interest,' he said."

One of life's challenges is subjecting one's own motivations to scrutiny and critical analysis. This is so difficult that nobody really succeeds very well at it, but it is so important for maintaining one's moral and ethical compass that it is imperative to try and to try hard. When you have no trouble thinking you've done it successfully, especially with millions of dollars involved, you haven't even bothered to try.

This commentary isn't about criticizing the people in the Pentagon who set up the program for military analysts or criticizing the analysts who participated in it or criticizing the news organizations that used the analysts without checking on their blatant conflict of interest, although all of these parties deserve intense scrutiny and criticism. This article is about something bigger, of which the military-analyst story is just a glimpse. It is about the pervasive influence in American life of the power and money that lies at the intersection of our military with defense contractors. Like 14th Century French society, we can't change what we do, even when it is clearly unsuccessful, because our warrior class and its economic dependents have too much invested in the present system to contemplate serious change.

How then can we ever even start to deflate the military-industrial complex? How can we start the process of devoting America's energies to effective, nonmilitary solutions and to dealing with the pressing problems that actually confront us in the 21st Century? It would help if a few of the soldiers returning from Iraq would write books as irreverent as Catch 22---heck, we won that war, and maybe that's why Heller could write the book---but even that wouldn't help much. Maybe a Joan d'Arc will come along to save us, but more likely, I fear, is that we'll stumble along like the French in the Hundred Years War, failing again and again till it becomes so clear that we must change that change will come. That's going to be a painful process, and it could be that change will come only when it's too late to save us.


In the current climate of American opinion, the views I express here are likely to be viewed as radical. To such criticism, I'll retreat behind the words in Ike's farewell address, delivered on January 17, 1961.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence---economic, political, even spiritual---is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

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. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Addendum (2008 August 9):

A recent RAND study, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki documents how almost all terrorist groups end not through military action, but through policing or political action. This study provides a convincing demonstration that our country's over-reliance on military means is actually counter-productive in terms of achieving our objectives in the war on terror. Indeed, it is a demonstration the whole notion of a war on terror is a mistake, because it prejudices us to think in terms of military responses to a problem that rarely yields to military action.

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