How much of the Department of Education has to do with actual education? How much of the Department of Agriculture has to do with actual agriculture? How much of the Department of Health and Human Services has to do with either actual health or human services? Most conservatives would agree that despite any arguable good they might do, these and other federal agencies epitomize the sort of inefficient, self-serving and special interest-laden mass bureaucracies characteristic of big government. Most conservatives are highly suspicious of such departments’ functions and even necessity, mocking liberals who reflexively defend them as fools whose blind faith in government knows no bounds.
But when it comes to the Department of Defense it is conservatives who are often the most foolish, exhibiting something worse than a mere blind faith in government: The Pentagon has become their church.
And apparently that department’s collection plate is never full. Today, we spend more on so-called “defense” than at any time since World War II, Pentagon spending accounts for nearly half of the entire federal budget and the United States spends more on military-related matters than every other nation on earth combined. Still, many conservatives have illogically accused President Obama of trying to “weaken” national defense. In dollar terms this is entirely false, or as the Washington Post reports: “after adjusting for inflation, the most expensive defense budget in more than 60 years belongs to President Obama.”
Like virtually every other federal department, the Department of Defense has become yet another inefficient, self-serving and special interest-laden mass bureaucracy, which not only characterizes big government–but the expense of which dwarfs almost every other department conservatives regularly target. Just like most of the Department of Education’s functions have less to do with actually educating America’s children and more to do with serving teachers unions and other special interests, most of the Defense Department’s functions have less to do with actual defense and more to do with serving special government, corporate or ideological interests.
Fifty years ago this week, President Dwight Eisenhower warned about this trend, something he saw coming to fruition in his own time. Said Eisenhower to the nation in his televised farewell address, January 17, 1961:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry … We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions … We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.
A new experience indeed. Many Americans today can’t imagine how our school system existed before the Department of Education, yet this department wasn’t created until 1979. Similarly, Americans can’t imagine a time before there was a “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” and simply assume the monstrous military bureaucracy we endure today is part of a necessary and proper defense. Not only is this not true, but it wasn’t even the case as early as 1961. Noted Eisenhower: “Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.”
Eisenhower warned: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
Of course, the military-industrial-complex is with us today in full force. If conservatives were to apply the same skepticism toward the Pentagon they do every other government department, they might ask: Is it necessary to have troops stationed at 750 bases in 170 nations around the world? Has the Iraq war been worth the cost? Is continuing to engage in Afghanistan in our best interest? Does the limited threat posed by potential terrorists justify the unlimited amount we currently spend? Does invading and occupying nations for decades do anything to actually reduce this threat? Does this do much to encourage the threat? How much of our military spending even targets the threat? Reports the Washington Post: “The challenges posed by terrorism, cyber-threats and military buildups by potential adversaries clearly play a role in shaping our national security strategy and defense budget. But so do competing government priorities in the face of limited resources, political and bureaucratic interests, and the influence of the defense industry. At times, these issues overwhelm security concerns.”
So-called “defense” spending is the big government conservatives tend to love, and the degree to which they refuse to ask questions about foreign policy or wholly trust Washington leaders with such policy, is indicative of conservatives’ comfort with this particular brand of statism.
In the same way that so many on the Left consider the post-New Deal state an integral part of liberal identity, many on the Right have come to consider support for the military-industrial complex inherently conservative, often conflating the plight of “the troops” with the agenda of a military bureaucracy that regularly abuses our soldiers. Naturally, most military personnel or those who identify with that culture, need to believe the tasks they are assigned serve some greater good, particularly given the sacrifice they might be asked to make. That our government might often put America’s soldiers in harm’s way for questionable or unjustifiable reasons is tough to fathom-so conservatives simply don’t consider it.
In preferring to remain in the dark, conservatives substitute patriotic slogans and jingoism for trenchant national security analysis. In this state of willful ignorance, our foreign policy becomes sacrosanct and militarism becomes orthodoxy-giving the Department of Defense carte blanche and with it, unchallenged and unparalleled government power.
This is exactly the sort of damage Eisenhower warned about it, saying that “the total influence” of the military-industrial-complex, which was “economic, political, even spiritual” in nature, would be “felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” Ike also warned that “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.”
Sad to say, Ike was right. Sadder to say, on this issue, most conservatives remain wrong. We have failed to comprehend the military-industrial complex’s seemingly permanent and certainly grave implications-and America’s economic, political and even spiritual security, will continue to suffer for it.