In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans during his farewell address: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” The movie “Iron Man 2” is about an America that never heeded Ike’s warning.
In the second installment of the superhero series, actor Robert Downey, Jr. is playboy industrialist Tony Stark whose “Iron Man” suit is nothing less than a weapon of mass destruction. When he’s not getting drunk and using his contraption to shoot down watermelons and dinner plates, skeet shoot-style, Iron Man is a one-man military who uses his power for genuinely benevolent reasons, albeit enjoying an enormous ego trip along the way. When the government tries to confiscate Iron Man, Stark rejects their request, bragging “I have successfully privatized world peace.” The government is not pleased.
Neither is defense contractor Justin Hammer (played by Sam Rockwell), who is more interested in acquiring power and bolstering his own ego than world peace, stating bluntly his primary goal of wanting to be “in the Pentagon for the next 25 years.” Hammer’s company “Hammer Industries” works closely with Congress and top military brass, all of whom join forces to discredit Iron Man and his monopoly on maintaining world balance. Without global conflict or even being able to get in on Iron Man’s action, the defense industry, Congress and the military establishment’s influence and power is diminished, much to their chagrin.
The conservative website RedCounty.com published a review of Iron Man 2 featuring the headline “An Unbridled Attack on our Military-Industrial Complex?” But is Iron Man such an attack?
It would seem that the “truth hurts” only to the extent that we accept or reject it. The truth today is that America has an unprecedented policy of preventive war, has the largest military budget in the history of the world and larger than every other nation on earth combined. In 2007, MSNBC reported that the US had 163,000 troops stationed in Iraq, but 180,000 private contractors. Calling for an investigation of defense contractor Halliburton, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) said in 2007 “there is a natural tendency toward corporate excess… It is a national problem that raises serious concerns about war profiteering.” Could it be possible that those who profit from war are in bed with politicians and lobbyists who help define our foreign policy accordingly, curiously finding new global “threats” in the same manner a shady mechanic finds more “problems” with your car than you would have imagined?
It is important to note that the monstrous bureaucracy many Americans today consider basic “defense” is relatively new in our history. In 1961, Eisenhower was describing the military-industrial complex still in its early stages: “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. The end of World War II gave rise to the Cold War, and Eisenhower wasn’t the only man of his generation to recognize that new global dynamics might require a newer military approach. But Ike was one of the few leaders warning that such a permanent “armaments industry” could set dangerous precedent, creating an entrenched collusion between government and industry, which might come to see “defense” as something beyond the traditional definition. Said Eisenhower, “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” In Iron Man, such misplaced power is represented by Hammer Industries’ dubious relationship with Congress and the military establishment. In real life, such misplaced power undoubtedly exists and often in the same quarters—and it’s too bad we don’t have a real Tony Stark to help keep the bad guys in check.
That capitalism continues to give us new and necessary weaponry is not in question. But that a “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” might trend toward corruption or exhibit “misplaced power” is something patriots should always question—and fear—as President Eisenhower did in his farewell address in 1961. Today, talk of a “military industrial complex” is considered leftist rhetoric by many, and yet the phrase was made popular by a Republican president who also the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, further reflecting the extent to which that complex’s influence dictates our public discourse—something Ike also predicted.
Eisenhower said during the last days of his presidency, “God help any man who sits behind this desk who doesn’t know the military like I do,” and ever since there really haven’t been any men behind that desk with the iron will to reign in the military industrial complex—mostly because each president since has been an integral part of it. Iron Man shows just how right Ike was through a work of fiction that contains more truth than many Americans would like to admit.