By Adam Sanders
It is no secret that many people employed by the defense sector are not combat soldiers. To be sure, it is ultimately combat soldiers at the front. However, soldiers possess and are trained to use numerous weapons and equipment, and soldiers do not make or purchase them on their own. Additionally, soldiers must live somewhere while deployed. Someone builds the bases, someone cleans the bases, someone cooks the meals, someone manages payroll, and so on and so forth. These may seem like obvious points, but it is important to give a sense of the spiderweb of responsibilities and roles involved in military operations apart from the obvious troops. In this way, we can examine U.S. defense spending and the military-industrial complex that enables it (in both senses of the term).
To be clear, the military-industrial complex is not in itself an inherently problematic phenomenon. No country can fight a military conflict without such an institution in place, and this has been true since the 19th century. However, a plethora of problems can arise from a military-industrial complex. The root issue of these problems is the seemingly innocuous fact that military spending creates jobs, including for civilians. This has been true since the dawn of time, as demonstrated by the fact that numerous European cities started as Roman legionary headquarters and bases.
Nevertheless, in a modern multiparty democracy, such an economic phenomenon creates groups of voters who will vote for candidates that promise defense spending in order to keep their jobs in existence. This statement is not meant to be a judgment on those who work in defense jobs; we certainly need them, and we all have the right to vote for whomever will put food on our tables. The reason that large groups of people voting for which politicians spend the most on defense can be problematic is that it intersects with lobbying. Any organization or institution seeks to perpetuate its own existence once created, even if it was initially created to fulfill a narrow purpose. That eternal law of institutions is what gives birth to lobbying efforts. When defense corporations, lobbyists, voters, the Pentagon, and lawmakers with defense employees as constituents all cross-connect with each other, it creates such a powerful gestalt effect that it can influence U.S. foreign policy.
The Iraq War was the perfect example of this influence. In a magical fairy tale land, where foreign policy can be determined through purely strategic concerns without reference to domestic politics, the U.S. would never have conceived of removing Saddam Hussein from power. Sure, he was a monster, but he was our monster. After all, the U.S. coddled Hussein all throughout the 1980s. Washington supported his regime during the Iran-Iraq War. This support came in spite of the fact that it was an Iraqi war of aggression against an innocent state. U.S. support was due entirely to hostility toward the Ayatollah’s regime. Additionally, Hussein was hardly the first dictator with whom the U.S. has allied itself. Auguste Pinochet, Fulgencio Batista, Chiang Kai-Shek, and Joseph Stalin are just a few brutal strongmen with whom the United States has broken bread in the past. As for Hussein’s horrid human rights abuses, we continually trade with China, which has been committing genocide against the Uyghurs not seen since the Holocaust.
The point made here with these historical examples is to illustrate how many of the arguments in favor of toppling Hussein’s regime, irrespective of weapons of mass destruction, were incongruous with U.S. foreign policy patterns throughout the past century. With a hostile government in Tehran that has been actively developing nuclear capabilities, Saddam Hussein’s strategic role for the U.S. was to intimidate Iran by virtue of Baghdad’s affiliation with America. However, back in the real world, where domestic politics influence foreign policy, the toppling of Hussein’s regime made a great deal of sense to individual bureaucratic, corporate, and political elites within the United States.
The Iraq War was a field day for defense contractors. These included mercenaries like Blackwater (now known as Academi). Additionally, civilian firms such as the energy company Halliburton made windfall profits from no-bid government contracts while operating in Iraq, an oil-rich nation. All of the aforementioned firms, and many others like them, had and continue to have extensive links to lawmakers and former government officials (such as Dick Cheney’s ongoing links to Halliburton during his vice-presidency).
One of the major problems with defense contractors is the difficulty in holding them accountable for legal and moral transgressions, such as was the case especially with Blackwater and its killing of Iraqi civilians. Private military contractors are privately owned, so taxpayers and voters cannot directly hold them accountable. They cannot be prosecuted by the U.S. government, as they are not in the U.S. nor part of the military chain of command. Private military contractors also cannot be prosecuted by the nations in which they are operating, since they are there on behalf of a foreign (and in the case of the Iraq War, a much stronger) government.
In addition to influencing U.S. foreign policy, the military-industrial complex and its accompanying revolving door can lead to defense spending for its own sake. Part of this is due to the nature of the contracting process. As touched on earlier, in spite of arguments that privatization encourages competition, many contracts are no-bid. As a result, cost overruns, inefficiency, and outright corruption can be disturbingly common in the defense contracting world. But the lion’s share of the size of U.S. defense spending is due to Congressional decisions that help constituents (and related interest groups) who work in, for, and with the defense sector. To be clear, defense spending spikes in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have largely correlated with major national security crises, be they the world wars or 9/11.
However, when it comes to defense spending, what goes up does not necessarily come down. The spending spikes have created massive amounts of combat, supporting, construction, infrastructure, engineering, research, and bureaucratic jobs in their time. Once the threats have faded, it is often difficult to scale back funding because it would mean shuttering hundreds of thousands, or even millions of jobs. That is akin to a major industry, or multiple major industries, collapsing more or less overnight. The Second World War finished the economic job that the New Deal started in the 1930s. However, this economic expansion is also the reason why demobilizing all the way back down to early 20th century defense spending was unthinkable even in 1945.
A decade ago, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates himself issued a warning. Gates explained that that the manner in which spending, congressional allocation of resources, and bureaucratic lobbying operated was not financially sustainable. furthermore, Gates warned that the interplay of such institutional processes was increasingly incongruous with the actual contemporary strategic and national security threats arrayed against the United States. This means the Pentagon itself is aware of the problems inherent in the modern-day American military-industrial complex. The government and the broader public need to listen and vote with those concerns in mind.
In conclusion, the biggest problems America faces with the conjoined twins of defense spending and its military-industrial complex are ironically similar to the problems faced by the late U.S.S.R. Within the creaky, dripping bowels of the late Soviet Union’s institutions, a similarly incestuous relationship between the defense sector and heavy industry had developed. The Soviet military-industrial complex lobbied (yes, the Soviet Union had lobbying too, albeit in a much clubbier and informal sense) for constant increases in defense spending irrespective of national security concerns. To be sure, the Cold War weighed heavily on the minds of Soviet policymakers. However, much like U.S. foreign policy with regard to the Iraq War, Soviet foreign policy could not germinate in total separation from domestic Soviet politics. It would be a humiliating tragedy for the U.S. to vanquish the Soviet Union, in part due to the flaws in the latter’s military-industrial complex, only for America to make the same mistakes just decades later.
 Corbin, Jane. “BBC Uncovers Lost Iraq Billions,” British Broadcasting Corporation June 10th, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7444083.stm
 “Iraq Urges Blackwater Prosecution,” British Broadcasting Corporation October 8th, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7033048.stm
 Tawfeeq, Mohammed. “Iraq: Blackwater Staff to Face Charges,” CNN September 23rd, 2007. http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/09/23/blackwater.probe/index.html
 Garamone, Jim. “Gates Reveals Budget Efficiencies, Reinvestment Possibilities,” American Foreign Press Service January 6th, 2011. http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=62351