The War Economy
The warfare state took shape in the decades following World War II, but it has deeper origins in U.S. history, the extension of a proud tradition of military power going back to the revolutionary war. Perpetual military engagements signaled a convergence of economic and armed forces interests as the business sector stood to profit immensely from the heightened demand for base constructions and supports, munitions, equipment, vehicles, and other combat-related material. Referring to World War I—a rather brief intervention in terms of the American experience—retired Marine general Smedley Butler could write, in War is a Racket, that warfare is nothing but a bloody profit-making enterprise conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many,” adding, “Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few—the self-same few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.”26 Although the United States annexed no new land during the Great War (as it had done earlier), the mobilization did result in a new generation of millionaires and billionaires profiting from steel production, mining, and shipbuilding as well as financial speculation, at a time when President Woodrow Wilson was justifying U.S. intervention to “make the world safe for democracy.” Federal wartime spending of $52 billion netted some $16 billion in profits for such corporations as U.S. Steel, DuPont, Anaconda Copper, and of course the sprawling Rockefeller interests, all dressed up in noble patriotic and democratic ideals.
The World War I splurge prefigured a more full-blown expansion of Pentagon capitalism that, during the Cold War, gained much of its momentum from four years of state-engineered war mobilization during World War II. As is well known, the much-anticipated postwar demobilization never occurred—the fascist enemy having been quickly replaced by an even more sinister Communist menace that rationalized exorbitant levels of military and intelligence spending augmented by a rapidly growing nuclear force. Fear of new external threats helped legitimate the war economy, given full and equal backing by Democrats and Republicans, who routinely and happily passed military expenditures dwarfing those of the Soviet Union, China, or any other country. War had indeed become the racket of all rackets in Washington D.C., feeding the profits of literally thousands of arms contractors and subcontractors located in every state. Eventually trillions of dollars would be spent to subsidize a vast global network of armed-forces bases—in the year 2010 more than 700 in roughly 130 countries. Seymour Melman, the first theorist of Pentagon capitalism, would observe that the war economy was simply “part of the industrial system where goods are sold before they are produced, where profitability is assured, and where the prime and subcontracting firms are subordinate to the world’s largest central managerial office.”27 Melman noted that the huge labor force (usually millions at any given time, including military personnel), resources, managers, administrators, corporations, technology, and global deployments were part of a massive state-planning apparatus—a dynamic economic system integral to, and not separate from, the larger capitalist edifice. From this standpoint, the war economy fed directly into the trend toward statism, concentrated economic power, and lopsided investment priorities working to the disadvantage of the public infrastructure and social programs.
Melman’s conclusions paralleled those of Mills, for whom the war economy was a driving force behind state-capitalism, a set of interests crucial to the merging of governmental and corporate power. In The Power Elite, Mills observed that “the structural clue to the power elite today lies in the enlarged and military state . . . The warlords have gained decisive political relevance, and the military structure of America is now in considerable part a political structure. The seemingly permanent military threat places a premium on the military and upon their control of the men, materiel, money, and power; virtually all political and economic actions are now judged in terms of military definitions of reality.”28 What both Melman and Mills observed several decades ago was just a glimpse of the much larger historical trajectory.
Crucial to maintenance of the American state-capitalism has been the growth of U.S. imperial power and its requisite war system, situated within a framework of economic, cultural, and political relations so pervasive as to be seemingly invisible. A nation long driven by ambitions of international supremacy—what the Pentagon would eventually call full-spectrum dominance—has erected a behemoth rooted in authoritarian controls, economic coercion, and military force, both domestically and abroad. While predictably denied by government and Pentagon officials, militarism has become a pervasive ideology ritually given legitimacy by politicians, the media, corporate elites, and academia, its essential imperial premises sacrosanct within the established public sphere. The historical turning point associated with what Sheldon Wolin calls a new “power imaginary” grew out of war mobilization and military Keynesianism during and after World War II.29 As James Cypher notes, “In the U.S. militarism is and has been since the late 1940s a hegemonic societal perception—the prism though which global political events and U.S. foreign policy are interpreted.”30 The outlook, it should be emphasized, is hardly the product of a few neocon extremists or the result of a Bush-Cheney coup to push the United States along the path of a more adventurous foreign policy, but rather should be viewed as an extension of American traditions rooted in national exceptionalism, conquest, and expansion.
The U.S. military achieved a postwar global reach without historical parallel, based in a permanent war economy that Melman linked to a byzantine web of political, bureaucratic, cultural, and international as well as economic processes. The economic sphere calls attention to a system of production and consumption within the war machine, including budgetary allocations and taxation, stimulus to corporate power, R&D, technology, labor relations, and the larger ramifications of a militarized society central to U.S. imperial power covering the world’s land, seas, air, outer space, and even cyberspace. Elevated military preparedness and planning, a legacy of World War II, has rarely slackened, reaching peak levels during the Bush-Cheney years. The wartime threat of Nazis and fascists was soon enough transferred to the new menace of international communism, which justified the kind of Pentagon expansion that President Eisenhower in 1961 would famously label the “military- industrial complex.” The United States gladly took on the role of world’s leading superpower, steadily widening its lead over rival USSR as the Pentagon budget would soon exceed the entire gross domestic product of all but a few industrialized nations. In the mid- 1950s Mills could write: “It is not only within the higher political, economic, scientific, and educational circles that the military ascendancy is apparent. The warlords, along with fellow travelers and spokesmen, are attempting to plant their metaphysics firmly among the population at large.”31 Looking to the future, he added: “American militarism in fully developed form would mean the triumph in all areas of life of the military metaphysic, and hence the subordination to it of all other ways of life.”32
Writing only a few years after Mills, Fred Cook, in his seminal The Warfare State (1962), projected this military trajectory with similar clarity, identifying a radical growth of Pentagon influence throughout American society that would forever reshape American politics, economic life, and culture, not to mention foreign policy. Observed Cook: “The crutch of the Warfare State is propaganda. We must be taught to fear and to hate or we will not agree to regiment our lives, to bear the enormous burdens of ever heavier taxation to pay for ever more costly military hardware—and to do this at the expense of domestic programs like medical care and education and healthy urban development.”33 According to Cook, the 1946 elections signaled the first real triumph of a military-corporate-government alliance that would be embellished by Democrats and Republicans equally across the decades. It marked a gradual movement away from FDR’s liberal emphasis (before the war) on social Keynesianism toward a military Keynesianism that would quickly become institutionalized. As Pentagon agendas helped shape the “American way of life,” Cold War bipartisan consensus meant that dissent would be treated as unAmerican, even treasonous. As the arms race with the USSR intensified, Cook wrote: “The picture that emerges is the picture of a nation whose entire economic welfare is tied to warfare,”34 a theme later emphasized in the work of Melman.35 Anticipating destructive trends that would take decades to fully unfold, Cook reflected: “The time has come when we can see clearly and unmistakably before us our chosen destiny. The Pied Pipers of the military and big business, who have been drumming into our ears the siren song of ‘peace through strength,’ can no longer quite conceal the brink toward which they lead us.”36 Like Mills, Cook was convinced that the increasing militarization of American society would spell the eclipse of what remained of democratic politics.
Postwar U.S. development followed a process of structural and ideological integration as corporate, government, and military interests converged to sustain authoritarian power. Military Keynesianism reinforced U.S. imperial designs as well as domestic elite power, boosting profits and helping open the terrain for global investments and markets. The great staying-power of the war economy depended on numerous factors: corporate lobbying, bureaucratic power, scientific and technological work, armed-services jockeying for advantage, the entwined ideological priorities of the dominant parties. Every postwar American president, from Truman to Obama, has given full blessings to a Pentagon behemoth that has over time achieved a dynamic life of its own. Some of the most aggressive military interventions—Korea, Vietnam, Central America, and the Balkans—were launched by Democrats, the reputed party of peace, diplomacy, and cooperation. A highly institutionalized power structure would permit few significant elite differences at the summits of governance.
The permanent war apparatus today amounts to a global network of more than a thousand military facilities spread across 40 states and more than 70 nations, from Latin America to Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and scattered islands across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Its sophisticated arms, intelligence, and surveillance webs of power extend to every corner of the Earth and into outer space, fueled by a production and distribution system of several thousand industrial companies and subsidiaries. It is intimately connected to such powerful, and typically secretive, institutions as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its ideological influence on the mass media, think tanks, universities, popular culture, and the Internet goes largely unchallenged, legitimated as it is by deep patriotic attitudes. The Pentagon labyrinth itself, located in Washington D.C., lies at the hub of this activity, the symbol of American global power since 1947, with 28,000 employees, 30 acres of offices and meeting rooms, and 17.5 miles of hallways. It is a nerve center of communications, transportation, social life, and political maneuvering while functioning as the National Military Command Center, which collects information from around the globe. It is the bureaucratic center of a sprawling network employing 1.6 million armed-services personnel, 800,000 reserves, and some 2 million workers in the industrial sector. In providing far-flung support for troops, logistical operations, and civilian employees, the Pentagon manages vast numbers of information sites, entertainment centers, hospitals, schools, family dwellings, officers’ and enlisted clubs, churches, restaurants, sports facilities, and transportation systems.
By fiscal year 2010 Pentagon spending had reached nearly $1 trillion (including veterans’ funding), nearly three times what all potential U.S. adversaries were investing together (with Russia and China combined at less than $200 billion). The United States and its (mostly European) allies were spending roughly 75 percent of total global military allocations in 2009, with Washington alone counting for about half the total. This amount does not include money for intelligence agencies (nearly $100 billion in known resources for 2009), for homeland security (another $50 billion), or for the occupation of Iraq (untold tens of billions more)—and these numbers are bound to increase with new military ventures in the future. These national commitments, without parallel in history, reflect the ethos of something akin to a garrison state, its voracious needs routinely oiled by lobbies, politicians of both parties, think tanks, the media, universities, and of course hundreds of military contractors. Arms producers yearly donate several million dollars in campaign funding: Lockheed- Martin, Raytheon, TRW, and Boeing gave more than $6 million to both Democrats and Republicans during the 2000 elections. Such corporations, obviously, benefit hugely from new weapons contracts as well as lucrative overseas arms sales, which totaled a staggering $156 billion between 2001 and 2008 (41 percent of world sales). As the ideological apparatus holds out the familiar threat of new enemies (real or imagined), profit-driven corporations seek aggressive military overtures to fight rogue states, terrorists, drug traffickers, and other fears. Leading military contractors were anxious to see NATO’s push eastward culminating in the 1990s Balkans interventions for both geostrategic and economic reasons. Lockheed-Martin, among others, secured billions in arms sales to Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Croatia starting in 1999, just after the U.S./NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.
The war economy thrives on a confluence of several factors: a deeply embedded military culture, bureaucratic leverage, political conservatism, worship of technology, equation of corporate (and military) power with “freedom” and “democracy”—all underwritten by national exceptionalism and imperial hubris. Helen Caldicott observes that “one could readily diagnose the attitudes of the Pentagon as clinically sick and suggest that all people who subscribe to those theories
[e.g., about world domination] need urgent counseling and therapy.”37 Of course, the seductive power, material, and status rewards derived from an immense web of contracts, jobs, and deployments could help ameliorate the need for psychological assistance. A more accurate rending of Pentagon power lies in its business-as-usual trajectory within militarized state capitalism, where elites are viewed as pursuing mostly rational objectives. The warfare system thrives on a corporate oligopoly, fully at conflict with norms of free enterprise insofar as the contractors’ profitability from sales to government alone is routinely ensured. By 2000 the leading military corporations had been reduced in number to just five: Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop-Grumman. In 2003 the largest of these remained Lockheed-Martin, the result of 1990s mergers involving Lockheed and Martin Murietta, Loral Defense, General Dynamics, and scores of smaller companies forming a $36 billion empire that tirelessly champions aggressive U.S. military policies. After 9/11 these corporations adapted their modus operandi to accommodate new demands for space militarization, homeland security, and the war on terrorism, entailing a shift toward high-tech production to fit the (more expensive) Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld emphasis on technowar. In 2006 it cost more than $1 million to dispatch a Tomahawk missile, about $2,500 an hour to operate a single M-12A tank, more than $3,000 an hour to fly an F-16 fighter plane, and roughly $40,000 an hour to keep a navy destroyer active. With everything taken into account, moreover, by 2009 it cost more than $1 million to deploy and equip a single first-line soldier to Iraq or Afghanistan for a year.
Military Keynesianism has long relied on science and technology: since World War II upwards of 70 percent of all resources devoted to R&D has been Pentagon-sponsored. With emphasis on remote aerial warfare, robotics, and elaborate communications systems, technowar has been a durable U.S. military tradition at least since the Vietnam War. By the 1990s, however, Pentagon technology, refined by computerized systems, made quantitative leaps forward, a paradigm shift that would be labeled a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). Military resources favored high-tech weapons systems, surveillance, space operations, information networks, and lighter, more mobile combat units for all branches of the armed services. A high-tech military would presumably give the United States improved full-spectrum dominance, wedding flexibility, mobility, and computerized responses to an already massive weapons arsenal. A champion of RMA, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, envisioned a new phase of military development, pushed forward by the Bush-Cheney administration. In fact RMA had been vigorously set in motion during the Desert Storm, with the Pentagon relying heavily on high-tech communications and weapons systems to create an integrated electronic battlefield. While technowar permits quicker, more flexible, often more deadly use of armed force, it is also extremely costly and limited in the context of asymmetric warfare like that faced by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. RMA innovations include pilotless aircraft like the Global Hawk and Predator, used in Afghanistan and Pakistan against dispersed and hard-t o-reach military targets like Al Qaeda base camps. In December 2009, the United States escalated its drone strikes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as Obama revealed his preference for high-tech assaults (risking few if any American lives) that in this case extended to targets in densely populated urban areas like Quetta, Pakistan. Such risky and costly operations—run mostly by the CIA—coincided with the 2009 U.S. “surge” strategy in Afghanistan involving significant escalation of military commitment.
As the war economy thrives, the marriage of government, business, and military tightens; “privatization” of military functions simply comes with the terrain, as many corporations take on greater “battlefield” responsibilities. Since the early 1980s more U.S. armed-forces operational tasks have been carried out by private firms, usually staffed by retired military personnel looking for a mix of adventure and fortunes. Enterprises like Military Professional Resources, Inc. (MPRI), Vinnell, Blackwater, DynCorp, Halliburton, and Bechtel have been hired by the Pentagon or State Department to train and assist military and police agencies in countries deemed strategically vital to the United States. These contractors perform many jobs—planning, engineering, security, infrastructure rebuilding, etc.—almost entirely beyond public or legislative oversight. Until Blackwater operatives went on a Baghdad shooting rampage in late 2007, accused of killing at least 17 Iraqi civilians, the PMCs worked largely beneath the political and media radar. Yet their strategic role in the Middle East, with reportedly more than 100,000 “contractors” in Iraq alone (as of 2009), has been crucial to both the Pentagon and State Department. Ken Silverstein, in Private Warriors (2000), wrote: “These private warriors have a financial and career interest in war and conflict, as well as the power and connections to promote continued hard-line policies. Their collective influence is one reason the United States seems incapable of making the transition to a post-Cold War world.”38 MPRI, founded in 1987 by retired Army General Vernon Lewis, has helped keep the harsh Saudi Arabian regime in power, working behind the scenes to assist its coercive military, intelligence, and police organs— vital to U.S. oil interests in the region. The company received more than $500 million in the 1990s to train similar forces in Bosnia and Croatia under equally repressive governments. Corporations like MPRI and Vinnell have received billions of dollars to protect dictatorial regimes in Central America, Indonesia, South Korea, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Joint Pentagon-corporate programs have funded and trained thousands of operatives yearly at military schools and training camps in the United States and elsewhere. PMCs in collaboration with arms contractors have reaped hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars. Such “privatization” of war and related functions, more important than ever, allows the Pentagon, working with the CIA and NSA, to more easily escape public scrutiny. Annual PMC contracts, subsidized mostly by the Pentagon and State Department, have been estimated to reach as high as $100 billion, according to Sourcewatch, thus amounting to as much as nearly $1 trillion in the period 2000 to 2010.39
The permanent war system simultaneously legitimates and reinforces state power on a grand scale, as few politicians are willing to risk opposing or seriously questioning the imperial behemoth. For most citizens, a sprawling Pentagon edifice represents American status and power in a threatening world. In a nation that consumes more than 30 percent of the world’s energy supplies and depends on a steady flow of cheap labor, markets, and resources from abroad, imperial wars will continue to underpin statist economic and political arrangements even as elites and opinion-makers loudly champion small government and free markets. Yet, while lopsided Pentagon spending helps drive economic growth, such growth (technology-intensive, top- heavy, wasteful, destructive) is increasingly detrimental to the social infrastructure, jobs, and public services. The American growth model favors the military sector, neoliberal global agendas, Wall Street investment strategies, and corporate deregulation over tax-supported civilian programs. Fred Cook’s description of a “nation whose entire economic welfare is tied to warfare”40 still resonates decades later, at a time when the cumulative Pentagon budget has reached a staggering $25 trillion. Unfortunately, such unbelievable material, human, and technological resources have produced little beyond devastation and waste, the former totaling millions of human lives since World War II. Put differently, the military sector has contributed little to useful modes of production and consumption or to the general welfare, except peripherally in the case of a few technological spin-offs. More than that, the war economy by its very logic reproduces material decay, social inequality, cultural tensions, and political hierarchy at the very moment it helps sustain an advanced industrial order. For the United States, as is well known, the end of the Cold War brought a modest and brief decline in military spending as many politicians spoke of armed services reductions, troop demobilizations, and base closings in step with the much-anticipated “peace dividend.” A modest shift in this direction did occur, but the goal was modernization: cutbacks in domestic bases and personnel along with a phasing out of older weapons systems in favor of a higher-tech military. The newer arsenals, of course, packed much greater firepower and efficiency than what they replaced. After 9/11, quite predictably, the Pentagon budget soared, fueled by interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the war on terrorism.
With the American people asked to endure burdensome costs and sacrifices for war and preparation for war, mechanisms of legitimation take on new meaning. Empire, a bloated war economy, recurrent armed interventions, hardships on the home front—all these must be made to appear “natural,” routine, even desirable if not noble. The historical myth of national exceptionalism, recycled as hubris derived from economic, technological, and military supremacy, satisfies this ideological role. To translate this ideological syndrome into popular language and daily life, to incorporate it into the political culture, is the task not so much of classical state-run propaganda as forms of ideological hegemony reliant on education, the media, and popular culture. In the United States, media culture is an outgrowth of megacorporate power that lies at the core of the most far- reaching ideological and cultural apparatus in history. Hollywood films alone have for many decades performed crucial services for imperial legitimation.41 The endlessly repetitive fantasies, illusions, myths, images, and storylines of Hollywood movies (along with TV and other outlets) influence mass audiences in rather predictable ways, in the fashion of advertising and public relations. One popular response to the flood of violent combat, action-adventure, sci-fi, and horror films—and their companion video games—is readiness to support U.S. military ventures, except where American casualties are deemed excessive. Without such ideological legitimation even the most authoritarian corporate, military, and government structures are destined to crumble.
Despite its command of institutional power, tools of violence, and material resources, therefore, the imperial system cannot long survive without a pervasive culture of militarism. Across the postwar years U.S. military power has been elevated into an ideology reproduced through media culture, political communication, academic discourses, and patriotic indoctrination. If the linkage between militarism and social life has a long history, it has tightened with the remarkable expansion of corporate media and popular culture over the past few decades. If strong popular belief in the efficacy of military power lends warfare a deeper sense of meaning and purpose,42 it also keeps intact a hegemonic fagade behind which elites can more freely operate. Decay of the American public realm cannot be grasped apart from this destructive cycle—bound to worsen as the rulers strive to maintain empire against potentially explosive challenges. By the early twenty-first century it seemed that war, and orientation to war, had become a way of life in the United States, a society apparently growing addicted to war. If the United States does not yet reach the level of a full-fledged “warrior society” in the mode of ancient Sparta, Nazi Germany, interwar Japan, or even Israel today, the consequences of military power could be in some ways even more far-reaching owing to the mere scope of American global reach.
Who could expect otherwise at a time when the Pentagon runs its own vast propaganda network with scores of newspapers, magazines, and documents, invests in hundreds of movies and TV programs, has a vast repertoire of state-of-the-art video games, exerts influence on many academic disciplines, and remains by far the largest sponsor of R&D. What might be called the militarization of American higher education is reflected in the capacity of the Pentagon to shape research at such respectable universities as University of California at Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, Johns-Hopkins, Penn State, and Carnegie-Mellon—a few of the more than 350 institutions routinely obtaining military contracts. Within the familiar umbrella of national security, a convergence of military, corporate, and academic interests have converged around U.S. imperial agendas.43 Tens of billions are targeted annually for high-tech warfare agendas: urban-assault counterinsurgency methods, satellite technology, nuclear modernization, robotics and other forms of remote combat, laser-guided weapons, war-gaming, and data-base collections among others.44
The high-tech U.S. military has pursued new openings— cyberspace—in the wake of revelations that Google and other technology corporations have been targeted by hackers. The spread of cyber-espionage after 2006 especially bolstered prospects for large military contractors to intensify their focus on defending computer systems and networks, at the very moment weapons production has entered into something of a decline. According to Loren Thompson, policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, “Cyber security is shaping up to be a major growth opportunity for the defense industry. We’ve spent the last 20 years putting all of our information onto computers. Now we don’t have any choice but to defend ourselves against foreign intrusion.”45 Many Pentagon contractors, having already done extensive work protecting corporate and government computers, are well-positioned to exploit this new market, which could exceed $100 billion in revenue in the decade after 2010. Thompson noted that “each of these companies recognizes the growing demand for cyber skills could help cover any shortfall in revenues.”46 According to deputy secretary of defense, William J. Lynn, some 90,000 people were already hired to administer, monitor, and defend no less than 15,000 networks connecting 7 million computers. Cyber-security efforts were expected to increase 8 percent after 2010. To this end, Northrop acquired Essex Corporation, specializing in encryption technology used by the NSA and other intelligence agencies. Northrop also created a cyber-security research consortium involving MIT, Carnegie- Mellon, and Purdue University. Meanwhile, Lockheed-Martin, not to be outdone, assembled a cyber-security alliance involving Microsoft, Dell, and Cisco Systems to develop measures to fight hackers. The largest military contractor also established a 5000 square-foot facility in Maryland dedicated to cyber research.
In a militarized society the armed forces naturally touch the lives of tens of millions of people, often extensively, and often outside the military orbit itself. In her study of the American “homefront,” Catherine Lutz comments: “In an important sense . . . we all inhabit an army camp, mobilized to lend support to the permanent state of war readiness that has been with us since World War II. No matter where we live, we have raised war taxes at work, and future soldiers at home, lived with the cultural atmosphere of racism and belligerence that war mobilization often uses or creates, and nourished the public opinion that helps send soldiers off to war . . . All experience the problems bred by war’s glorification of violent masculinity and the inequalities created by its redistribution of wealth to the already privileged.” Lutz adds that “we all have lived with the consequences of the reinvigorated idea that we prove and regenerate ourselves through violence.”47 This experience is even more all-consuming for military personnel and civilian residents of towns like Fayetteville, North Carolina—home of the sprawling Fort Bragg army base—that Lutz selected for her research. It is here that the many contradictions of U.S. militarism come home to roost—a “dumping ground for the problems of the American century of war and empire.” It is here that we find exaggerated problems of poverty, crime, child abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, homelessness, and a wide range of physical and mental injuries.48 These are the fruits of a permanent war system that transfigures daily life for those within and close to the “homefront” of the empire.
This is unquestionably a world geared to warfare, preparation for warfare, killing, and the refinement of instruments for killing. In her classic work Military Brats (1991), Mary Edwards Wertsch brilliantly weaves together narratives of life in the military, focusing on two lingering motifs—the warrior ethos and authoritarian social relations. She writes: “Growing up inside the fortress [as she did] is like being drafted into a gigantic theater company. The role of the warrior society, even in peacetime, is to exist in a state of perpetual ‘readiness’: one continuous dress rehearsal for war. The principal actors are immaculately costumed, carefully scripted, and supplied with a vast array of props. They practice elaborate large-scale stage move- ments—land, air, sea exercises simulating attacks and defenses.”49 Everything revolves around a pervasive socialization process that Wertsch expertly unravels. Well before 9/11 and subsequent wars, she remarks that “this is a society prepared to wage war with the same relentless attention to detail it brings to every moment of every day.”50 In such a culture hierarchical norms inevitably prevail: “The Fortress, in short, is an authoritarian society. The masks worn there are authoritarian masks, each exactly like the others of its rank, each subservient to those of high rungs. The notions of conformity, order, and obedience reign supreme.”51 She adds: “The great paradox of the military is that its members, the self-appointed front-line guardians of our cherished American democratic values, do not live in a democracy themselves. Not only is individuality not valued in the military, it is discouraged. There is no freedom of speech, save on the most innocuous level. There is no freedom of assembly for anything that is not authorized. There is not even a concept of privacy . . .”52 God, community, family, nation—the entire ideological panorama is glorified through mediations of warfare, violence, hierarchy, and aggression.
In this as in other ways the permanent war system erodes democratic politics at every level. A military culture reinforces not only the warrior attitudes mentioned by Wertsch but also hierarchy, discipline, secrecy, surveillance, lopsided budgetary allocations, and narrowing of political debate. In broader terms, Richard Falk perceives an epic shift toward fascism in the global order that, he argues, likewise permeates American domestic society as concentrate power and wealth come to dominate the field of decision-making.53 An imperial arrogance that dwells on U.S. exceptionalism and subverts universal legality while embracing full-spectrum dominance ultimately nourishes an atmosphere of lawlessness and violence at home. A Hobbesian milieu, after all, recognizes no political boundaries. Falk notes that such a drastic authoritarian turn will be momentarily disguised as an urgent security imperative to fight global terrorism.54 While this scenario has gained momentum since 9/11, the pattern was actually set solidified during World War II, when the war economy and security state first gained ascendancy. Further, as discussed in earlier chapters, the United States has throughout much of its history worked tenaciously against democratic possibilities outside its own borders. The neocons, as we have seen, uphold the primacy of American power (while preaching “democracy promotion”) said to be driven by superior U.S. values and traditions. Falk argues: “ . . . I consider it reasonable to think of something one might call global fascism as the mentality of those seeking to regulate the world, from either above or below, according to their extremist beliefs.”55 In both cases—home and abroad—the rules and laws of political behavior are set and constrained by the most powerful and wealthy forces in society.
When it comes to the actual making of U.S. foreign policy, therefore, even pretenses of democratic participation quickly vanish into thin air as American global initiatives are framed, justified, and carried out at the summits of state capitalist power. Only a tiny minority of Americans has shown much interest in foreign policy, the vast majority routinely bombarded by patriotic, elitist warnings to leave grave issues of war and peace to the (mostly white-male) “experts.” Most people uncritically follow the dictates of U.S. imperial strategy as set by the rulers. The Constitution, an antiquated document that formally endows Congress with warmaking powers, rarely enters the decision-making process: virtually every U.S. military intervention, from Mexico to Iraq to Afghanistan, has been framed, decided, and implemented by executive power. Support is readily generated on a foundation of “national security” threats marketed by huge military lobbies, think tanks, and the media. The long U.S. history of national expansion, conquest, and war has moved along this markedly undemocratic trajectory. The imperial presidency, already well- established in the nineteenth century, has only grown in scope and legitimacy across the postwar era. Genuine debates over U.S. global objectives have been rare, whether on TV, talk radio, Congressional deliberations, “expert” testimony, or presidential debates. Elites possess great autonomy when it comes to the pressing issues: military, the budget, arms sales abroad, foreign interventions, support for Israel, covert operations, surveillance, space militarization. One departure came during final years of the Vietnam War, when a few sectors of the dominant class (joined by disillusioned elements of the media) grew disgusted with a costly military disaster that was also leading to widespread civic unrest. Even here, however, disagreements with official policy revolved mainly around the failure of that policy to bear results; the ends were taken as just and honorable.
Postwar examples of executive-driven interventions abound, from Korea to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Central America, the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all launched by the White House with minimal if any Congressional involvement, and all justified by a similar litany of distortions, myths, and deceptions. Enough has already been written about the unprovoked and illegal Iraq War, here and elsewhere, to reveal an totally manipulative process despite Bush administration (belated) claims of purely democratic motives. We know that Bush and the neocons were determined to launch the war, confident it would be fully endorsed by politicians of both parties. In December
- 2001 the House voted 393 to 12 to brand any Iraqi rejection of new arms inspections (after the Hussein regime had long been disarmed) an “increasing threat” to U.S. security—although few politicians or media outlets questioned how a small, distant nation weakened by years of harsh sanctions, covert actions, and bombings could be a threat to the world’s leading superpower, or indeed to anyone. By late
- 2002 the fashionable discourse of regime change (a clear violation of international law) had become something of an obsession among elites and media pundits. The famous 1998 PNAC statement made it clear that no evidence of terrorist links or WMD possession was needed to justify U.S. military action; only later, for public edification, did the propaganda machine arrive at such outrageously flimsy pretexts. By mid-2002 the war drums had picked up momentum, with Congress voting overwhelmingly in November to support military force against Iraq—the Senate by 77 to 23, the House by 296 to 133, all “debates” confined to questions of timing, logistics, and strategy. By the end of 2002, therefore, despite mounting antiwar sentiment across the country, Democrats were eagerly subscribing to an imperial Republican foreign policy scheme destined to profoundly influence global and domestic politics for years if not decades into the future.
At a critical turning point in U.S. history, therefore, Democrats were able to produce no alternative responses, perhaps fearful they would be branded unpatriotic or soft on terrorism; bipartisan consensus once again prevailed. The bankruptcy of Bush’s rationale for war went scarcely contested within the political arena, where fear and uncertainty ruled the day. House majority leader Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) loudly proclaimed: “We must not let evil triumph!”, and Democrats quickly took up the rhetoric. Representative Tom Lantos (D-Calif) spoke for many Democrats when he said: “Just as leaders and diplomats who appeased Hitler at Munich in 1938 stand humiliated before history, so will we if we appease Saddam Hussein today.”56 The silly equation of Hitler’s war machine with Hussein’s weak, beaten, surrounded, impoverished nation of 23 million was never made an issue in Congress or the media. However, Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) would say: “I’m in my 50th year in Congress and I never thought I would find a Senate which lacks the backbone to stand up against the stampede, this rush to war.”57 That the United States could launch bloody warfare against Iraq, without UN Security Council approval and in violation of international law—in the absence of mainstream dissent—speaks volumes about the stifling narrowness of American politics.
James Bamford has thoroughly documented the shameful trail of propaganda that paved the way toward a war Bush and the neocons had decided to carry out months and even years before the March 2003 invasion. The Pentagon, CIA, and White House utilized the sprawling public relations network of the John Rendon Group to wage “perception management” of epic proportions, helping establish the ideological terrain for intervention in the absence of any credible Iraqi threat. The campaign succeeded through large-scale saturation of the media with false reports, misleading intelligence “data,” distorted alarms (visions of “mushroom clouds”), and a variety of contrived prowar narratives from writers like Judith Miller of the New York Times. Bamford writes that “never before in history had such an extensive secret network been established to shape the entire world’s perception of a war.”58 That is not all: with U.S. military occupation solidly in place by late 2003, it was revealed that Pentagon contractors regularly paid Iraqi newspapers to publish glowing stories about the war and the role of U.S. troops as benevolent “liberators,” a propaganda enterprise hidden from the American public. The Washington D.C.-based Lincoln Group was awarded tens of millions of dollars to infiltrate Iraqi media over a period of nearly two years.59 The war unfolded within a cynical framework of sustained domestic and international media manipulation, the success of which, at least on the home front, cannot be discounted in the face of enormous material and human costs on both sides.
What is less known is that, in the buildup to regime change, Washington had for years carried out numerous programs and schemes—mostly secret and illegal—to complement deadly economic sanctions between 1991 and 2003 that killed upwards of 500,000 Iraqi civilians. Dilip Hiro, in his revealing book Iraq (2002), describes ongoing covert actions, sabotage, arming of opposition groups, and even a coup attempt, often under cover of the UN inspections regime, undertaken by the CIA and other clandestine agencies.60 American operatives, posing as weapons inspectors, collected intelligence data that would be used for later military operations. Hiro details aborted CIA coup efforts in June 1996 after the “White House [Clinton] decided to accelerate its plan to overthrow Saddam and replace him with a small group of generals”—a plan that collapsed when Hussein learned about the conspirators.61 All these unlawful activities took place fully outside any public debate or scrutiny in the United States.
Other episodes of virtually autocratic U.S. foreign policy interventions are much too numerous to be catalogued here, even if restricted to the postwar years. Lawrence Davidson, in his Foreign Policy, Inc. (2009), chronicles in some detail several noteworthy cases, revolving around the powerful Cuba and Israel lobbies that for decades have decisively impacted key areas of American global behavior, once again beneath the public radar.62 Since the early 1960s strong anti-Castro lobbyists, based mainly in Florida, have worked tirelessly to isolate Cuba—through diplomatic maneuvers, propaganda, embargoes, and cultural boycotts, although the island regime posed no recognizable threat to the United States or anyone else, and the stated goal of democracy promotion had little resonance. Congress continued to pass harsh anti-Cuban resolutions even though American public opinion reflected indifference.63 The power of the much-larger Israel lobby, comprised of several wealthy and influential organizations, has been more far- reaching in its tenacious and largely successful campaigns to discredit even tepid opposition to Israeli treatment of Palestinians (much of it against universal human rights and legal norms), as “anti-Semitic” and harmful to U.S. interests in the Middle East. As Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer convincingly show in The Israel Lobby (2007), American elite consensus behind Israeli oppression of Palestinians typically conflicts with U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East, not to mention international rules and norms.64 Open discussion of these policies has long been taboo within mainstream political and media venues. Any elected member of the U.S. Congress publicly opposing Israeli policies will be quickly rebuked and driven from office— witness the example of Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) in 2006. Powerful and wealthy lobbies with perhaps tens of thousands of members have thus managed to engineer U.S. foreign policy well beyond the reach of any political mechanisms. Such lobbies, moreover, have enjoyed a long symbiotic relationship with think tanks, foundations, and universities as well as the mass media.
Still another instance of corporate-military agendas subverting democracy is what has been called “the secret U.S. war in Pakistan,” where the CIA, Special Forces units, and private military contractors have combined, inside and just outside the borders of Pakistan, to carry out intelligence-gathering, covert actions, and drone bombing campaigns directed against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The drone strikes were actually increased after Obama took office, often with extensive civilian casualties. Though fraught with potentially disastrous outcomes for the region, such initiatives never received official Congressional approval. As Jeremy Scahill, writing in The Nation, observes: “The use of private companies like Blackwater for sensitive operations such as drone strikes or other covert work undoubtedly comes with the benefit of plausible deni- ability that places an additional barrier in an already deeply flawed system of accountability.”65 And of course this kind of “secret” warfare scarcely departs from U.S. historical precedents.
The American imperial Leviathan has only grown more powerful and audacious over time. If Manifest Destiny called for conquest of the frontier, the American Century—symbolic of more global aspirations—meant that the United States had the duty, and right, to liberate and transform the world. The result has been an international military presence, accompanied by perpetual interventions, far beyond anything needed for national defense. On the contrary, insofar as imperial ventures are sure to produce blowback, they wind up counterproductive to the requirements of territorial security. The problem is that military power—and global projection of that power—has become increasingly central to national identity, a mark of strength and progress that the vast majority of Americans take for granted. Andrew Bacevich notes that “the citizens of the United States have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.”66 Foreign policy consensus is so overwhelming that even mild criticisms of U.S. behavior—not to mention out-of-control Pentagon spending—appear within the establishment political system and media as wacky, irrational, off-limits. The warfare state, solidified throughout the postwar decades, has become firmly embedded in the political culture, immune to messy public deliberations.