President Eisenhower’s farewell address after his second term included his famous warning about the “military-industrial complex,” but his speech was not anti- military. Referring to the unprecedented post-war American ascendance, Eisenhower said:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence- economic, political, even spiritual- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet 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.”
If “We recognize the imperative need for this development” isn’t explicit enough, Eisenhower continued:
“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”
Eisenhower’s warnings were prescient in two respects: it is true that the armaments industry has become an economic and political force unto itself, and it is true that we need a strong military.
When my generation came of age in the 1960’s, you couldn’t really tell that we needed the military-industrial complex, and only Eisenhower’s caveat against it made much sense. In Vietnam, where we waged total war (short of nukes) against a peasant nation that had not attacked us, we found little of the glory of World War II, in which the U.S. was under threat from major industrial powers, which we defeated. When you consider that we lost the Vietnam War (to culture and politics, not arms) it’s no wonder so many of my generation and generations after tuned-in and out. It was not until 9/11 that the U.S. military seemed critical again for U.S. interests, though Eisenhower could not have predicted that our new enemies would not be nations, but shadowy groups funded by other shadowy groups, as no nation today could even begin to confront us militarily. Unfortunately for the 9/11 generation, the political capital of the devastating attack was squandered in the Iraq invasion, in which policy makers did not even attempt to justify our actions by connecting them to the 9/11 attack. People were left to speculate on their own. Perhaps we invaded because Iraq, according to some estimates, has the world’s largest untapped oil reserves. Who knows? Pick your reason, because no one has explained the Iraq invasion in terms of oil or anything else. The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are not wars against those countries, but against the warlike tribes that we trained and armed to oppose the Soviets, is ending in something that cannot rightly be called “victory,” as Al Qaeda and offshoots like ISIS are as strong as ever, and in fact are now mounting sizable attacks in the Middle-East and Africa. As a new generation faces military age, we still cannot exhibit victory in combat. Our wars are more like testing ranges for new weapons, like exercises to keep us in readiness.
Nevertheless, as Eisenhower said, “Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action....” The United States was born into insecurity, an upstart rival against the accumulated culture and might of Europe, and often at its mercy (one of the facts that escapes the school books: We needed France’s help to win the Revolutionary War). There has been some point to our bellicosity, including with Native Americans. During the Comanche Wars in West Texas, those on the Texas frontier had a difficult time explaining to conciliatory leaders in Washington that settler families were being kidnapped and tortured to death by Comanche raiding parties. Female hostages were turned over to Comanche women, who specialized in mutilating faces. The men were flayed alive, often while crucified on cacti. But this was not the white man’s land, many will point out. Neither was it the Comanche’s. They had come down from the north and terrorized established tribes into mass exodus. This means, in my view, that there was some point to the military presence that finally routed the Comanche. If you’re going to argue that there was no point to settling Texas and the West, that we should not have waged war anywhere against native Americans, then what are you doing in your comfortable American living room built over native-American land, watching movies and TV shows made in Hollywood (land of the Chumash)? You need to move somewhere remote and live in a shack if you believe we should not have stopped the Comanche from putting a halt to American western expansion (which they did for over two-hundred years).
Just so, the perpetrators of 9/11 were homicidal maniacs in the thrall of extreme interpretations of existential threats to their culture, and regardless of the screw-ups in our past, we have to fight them. The Taliban, one of the fleeting incarnations of the new enemy, is a retrograde, blindly violent and ignorant gang of male chauvinists, and they should be dealt with accordingly.
But here’s the problem. Our military-industrial complex has become used to not winning, to the endless cycle of U.S. strikes, followed by regrouping of the foe, followed by more war forever. We take out an Al Qaeda leader, then launch a drone strike against a Pakistani wedding party, killing the bride and groom and most of their two families, not a militant among them, then, maybe, someone says “Oops,” (though usually not). Is that how wars are won? That is how wars are prolonged.
We live in a critical time in the evolution of the United States. We have needed our toughness, our warlike talents, and continue to need them, but what do we do now that we are the world’s greatest military power? What is our power for? How can we maintain it when there are no wars to test us and keep us in readiness?
Such questions are a subtext of the current struggle over gun rights. Do American civilian populations need to be armed against each other, or the government? The National Rifle Association (NRA) switched from support of basic gun control measures, like background checks, to opposition to any and all gun regulation shortly after Malcom X’s 1964 speech urging blacks to arm themselves against the white oppressor, per the Second Amendment, which (Malcom X’s words, now parroted by the NRA), ” …provides you and me the right to own a rifle or shotgun.” No respectable interest-group would claim that we must arm the population in preparation for urban, racial warfare, yet that is what people are thinking. They are also thinking that the population should be armed against a potentially tyrannical U.S. government, though the NRA doesn’t seem to be upset at the collapse of the Fourth Amendment and the end of communication privacy in the NSA/internet age, maybe because in that battle, now already lost, our domestic weaponry did no good at all.
Each American individual must deal with America’s success, its surplus, its confusion. Each of us is a microcosm of the nation. Should we be aggressive in life, protecting our fiefdoms in a dog-eat-dog world? Should we try to see the perspective of the other? Should we love poetry? Should we love guns? Should we go on severe diets in rejection of our surplus? Should we live a Spartan existence in the mountains in reaction to our comfort? No one knows what we should do, because it is very difficult to determine when you are the top dog. The challenge the United States faces in the modern world is the challenge of success. Not all successful individuals are up to this challenge, and not all nations are. The first step is recognizing the problem.