“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. … In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
So wrote Smedley Butler who, at the time of his death in 1940, was the most decorated Marine in US history and a veteran of various US ‘interventions’ who came to realise that America’s wars were waged not to defend national, but corporate interests.
After World War II, those interests expanded to include propping up a massive and growing armaments industry, leading President Eisenhower to deliver his 1961 ‘military-industrial complex’ speech in which he warned of the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry… [t]he total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — [of which] is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government… in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military industrial complex”.
Today we see the full and frightening fruition of Eisenhower’s prophecy, where the military-industrial complex has drastically increased its size, strength and hold on the American body politic. Today, not only is the US arms industry the biggest in the world, nearly half of the top 100 defence companies in the world are American and, in 2018, American companies alone were responsible for 57 per cent of worldwide arms sales, amounting to some $227 billion.
This provides a huge boost to the American economy, which in turns increases the political influence of the defence sector in the US and thus feeds Washington’s need to go to war on a regular basis, creating a vicious cycle of conflict. A 2019 study by Transparency International lists the ways this complex exerts influence on American politics. There is lobbying, of course, by which the defence sector influences officials in the executive and legislative branches.
Then there’s campaign finance, in which money is funnelled to politicians (especially those on key Congressional committees) who then return the favour by providing a favourable environment for the defence industry. According to the report Capitalising on Conflict: How Defence Contractors and Foreign Nations Lobby for Arms Sales, over the last two decades this amounted to $285 million in campaign contributions and over $2.5bn in lobbying efforts.
Another method is the ‘revolving door’, by which high-level government employees rotate from working for the government to working for the defence industry, and often back to government, something that isn’t illegal but certainly raises the question of conflicts of interest. In the last 30 years, over 530 Capitol Hill staffers have “both worked for a member of the armed services and foreign relations committees of both Houses of Congress or the defence appropriations subcommittees, and then as a lobbyist for defence companies”. Former defence secretary Mark Esper is the poster boy for this sort of thing, having gone from the foreign relations and armed services committees to Raytheon’s government relations office, and then to heading the Defence Department under Donald Trump.
‘Soft influence’, involves funding think tanks, media campaigns and academic work favourable to the industry which is then passed off as unbiased ‘expert’ opinion. As an example, take retired Gen Jack Keane who regularly argues for an extended military stay in Afghanistan on Fox News. What neither he nor Fox revealed is that Keane is chair of the company that makes Humvees, is on the board of a company that makes military chemical lighting and was a former board member of weapons maker General Dynamics. Why would he ever advocate for peace when war is so good for his bottom line?
Today, the MIC doesn’t just include arms manufacturers, but also military ‘contractors’ (read mercenaries) and tech companies that manufacture the surveillance devices that proved so critical in the ‘war on terror’. So, while the Afghanistan war may have ended, rest assured that the very structure of this complex dictates that future conflicts will always be found, if not manufactured, to ensure the stability of the American economy and the profitability of defence industries. War is no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself.