The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to break up the military-industrial complex

The Pentagon in April 2017. (Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

Two days after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, the House Armed Services Committee voted to set the Pentagon’s 2022 budget. Given that U.S. officials claim to be winding down decades-long wars, even maintaining current levels of military spending would seem a mystifying choice. But the committee didn’t just vote to maintain current spending levels. It voted to increase them by a whopping $24 billion.

Which begs the question: Are we spending this money because we need to, even though our military budget is already higher than those of the next 11 largest countries combined? Or are there other incentives at play?

Ties between the government and the private sector — what President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously called the “military-industrial complex” — form the foundations of our national defense. Since 9/11, between one-third and half of the nearly $14 trillion the Pentagon has spent went to for-profit defense contractors. Dozens of members of Congress and their spouses own millions of dollars’ worth of stock in those companies.

And Pentagon officials regularly leave their government posts to serve on corporate boards or lobby on behalf of — you guessed it — defense contractors. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that, between 2014 and 2019, 1,718 former Defense Department senior and acquisition officials went to work for many of the country’s largest defense contractors. Generals have made fortunes joining corporate boards to hock their experience leading a conflict that lasted 20 years, cost taxpayers trillions, and claimed the lives of 176,000 people — only to fail in its primary objective. As columnist Eric Alterman writes, the question of who won the war on terrorism has a clear answer: “the ex-generals and admirals and other defense contractors who made millions off of it.”

The result is that decisions about whether to engage in military conflicts are shaped by people who have a vested interest in perpetuating these conflicts. Media outlets regularly invite former military and public officials to comment on U.S. defense policies — without disclosing their financial interests in these policies. Over the course of just 10 days in August, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane appeared 16 times on Fox News; retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey appeared 13 times on MSNBC; and retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus appeared six times on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News. Keane chairs a military-vehicle manufacturer, McCaffrey has a long history of not disclosing conflicts of interest and Petraeus serves on the boards of two firms with interests in the defense sector.

The military-industrial complex’s sheer breadth of influence — to the point where it might more accurately be called the military-industrial-congressional-media complex — can make dismantling the system seem hopeless. But history offers a solution.

Nearly 80 years ago, then-Sen. Harry S. Truman chaired the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, a commission to eliminate waste and prevent war profiteering. In just seven years, it saved the country an estimated $113 billion to $170 billion in today’s dollars. We need something similar — and even bolder — today: an independent commission to disrupt the insidiously symbiotic relationship between the Pentagon and the private sector.

But a commission is just the first step. In 2019, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed a plan that would ban defense officials from owning stock in defense contracting companies and make them wait at least four years after exiting government to join those firms. Her plan would also require contractors to specifically disclose their lobbying activities, and prevent contractors who take government jobs from working on projects that could affect their former employers.

As for addressing congressional conflicts of interest, there’s rare potential for transpartisanship: In March, more than a dozen lawmakers from both sides of the aisle introduced a bill prohibiting members of Congress and senior staffers from buying or selling stocks while in office.

These proposals legislate what should be common sense: The people influencing decisions about whether our country engages in foreign conflicts should not have a clear personal financial incentive to do so. If these proposals even moderately reined in out-of-control military spending, they would free up funding to address different, but no less urgent, concerns. With just the proposed $24 billion in new Pentagon funds, the federal government could support almost 14 million Americans behind on rent, or help rural and urban communities rebuild from Hurricane Ida, or finance nearly 8 billion covid-19 vaccination doses.

But we shouldn’t settle for just blocking further increases in military spending; we should redirect a significant portion of Pentagon spending to measures that will truly make us safer — addressing climate change, preventing future pandemics and reducing racial and economic injustice. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), for example, has proposed an amendment that would cut the overall Pentagon budget by 10 percent, excluding any reductions in military personnel or the defense health program.

When Eisenhower first cautioned the world about the influence of the military-industrial complex, he warned of “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.” The past two decades of war have fueled that disastrous rise. As we wind down foreign conflicts, our country faces a choice. We can double down on the war-profit cycle — or we can cut it off, and give priority to our citizens, our economy and our integrity on the global stage.