military review by Josiah Bunting III

Two books on military-industrial complex

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The history of the Victorian age, wrote Lytton Strachey, can never be written: We know too much about it. The wise historian ought rather to examine specimens characteristic of an age and its culture. For example, if a 22nd-century citizen were to puzzle over the phrase "military-industrial complex," which recurs in virtually all political and military histories of the 20th and early 21st centuries, he would be well-advised to examine one of the largest and most powerful participants in this "complex," Lockheed Martin, subject of William D. Hartung's careful, meticulously documented book "Prophets of War."

President Dwight Eisenhower, not one celebrated for memorable phrases, coined this one. It refers, of course, to the production of armaments - missiles, drones, submarines, etc. - regardless of whether they may be needed. Those who favor their production are likely to do so for reasons that may not have anything to do with their efficacy. And, as Eisenhower recognized, challenging any of these new weapons systems is guaranteed to stir rancorous debate. No subject lends itself more easily to demagoguery.

In "Prophets of War," Hartung examines several of Lockheed Martin's major projects and how the company has - usually - succeeded in persuading various agencies to fund them. Only rarely has the company been thwarted in getting what it wants, most recently in its failure to persuade the Senate to continue support of the F-22 Raptor fighter. In 1999 the "plan was to buy 339 planes for a projected cost of over $62 billion - up from an initial proposal to buy 750 planes for a total price of $25 billion." Hartung explores the escalation of this project. He shows how 9/11 boosted military spending and was the salvation of many prospective military systems. Overnight the temper of congressional debates changed. "To give a sense of the magnitude of the shift, the increase in American military spending from 2001 through 2003 was more than the entire military budget of most countries, including major powers like the United Kingdom and China. In this new climate, no major weapon system was likely to be cut, no matter how irrelevant it may have been to fighting Al Qaeda." Jobs were paramount, particularly in congressional districts represented by powerful lawmakers who, unhinged from their regular affiliations and ideologies, made gross arguments on behalf of weapons systems they would ordinarily have opposed.

The phrase "military-industrial complex" has stuck. Eisenhower himself remains indistinct in the public memory, framed at different times in his life by the photographer Richard Avedon as an amiable, distrait old duffer and by biographers who portray him as a clever politician. His campaigns and policies represented a form of Republicanism no longer recognizable to his successors: There was a fierce independent streak in him, as James Ledbetter demonstrates in "Unwarranted Influence." He had always been something of a stealth thinker, even in the Army, when he kept his own counsel on opinions that his superiors might have regarded as unorthodox.

Few commentators on the 34th president's mind and methods have more rigorously considered the evolution of Eisenhower's preoccupations than Ledbetter has. The author describes Eisenhower's unlikely relationship with Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, who passionately opposed a defense policy founded on the threat of nuclear war. "The two men maintained a serious and respectful, if occasionally contentious, correspondence," Ledbetter writes. In today's politically polarized climate, "the idea of a meaningful connection between a leftist advocate of nuclear disarmament and a Republican military president might seem preposterous," the author adds. But it was Eisenhower, after all, who told Secretary of War Henry Stimson that he feared that use of the atomic bomb could erode America's moral authority.

Yet he had agreed to the new strategic rationale of the mid 1950s: a lower-cost, more efficient military - bolstered by the bomb - that could withstand a $5 billion cut in the 1955 defense budget. The threat of "massive retaliation" would discourage communist military ventures that threatened American interests and would allow a cut of half a million troops.

Soon after Stalin's death, when the Soviet leadership talked of "peaceful coexistence," Eisenhower denounced the wasteful, protracted costs of the Cold War to a national audience: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." And he raged against a Defense Department culture that imputed the basest motives to anyone who disagreed with the military establishment. No one, it seemed to Eisenhower, a retired five-star general, was capable of independent, disinterested consideration of proposed weapons.

In more recent days, Hartung writes, the effort to save the Raptor, which proved unsuccessful, verged, according to a former congressional staffer, on "an ugly food fight."

Eisenhower's advice to his countrymen shortly before leaving the White House in 1961 seems just as relevant today: "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."

Josiah Bunting III is president of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation in New York.


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