My name is Bill Astore and I’m a card-carrying member of the military-industrial complex (MIC). Sure, I hung up my military uniform for the last time in 2005. Since 2007, I’ve been writing articles for TomDispatch focused largely on critiquing that same MIC and America’s permanent war economy.
I’ve written against this country’s wasteful and unwise wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its costly and disastrous weapons systems, and its undemocratic embrace of warriors and militarism.
Nevertheless, I remain a lieutenant colonel, if a retired one. I still have my military ID card, if only to get on bases, and I still tend to say “we” when I talk about my fellow soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen (and our “guardians,” too, now that we have a Space Force).
So, when I talk to organisations that are anti-war, that seek to downsize, dismantle or otherwise weaken the MIC, I’m upfront about my military biases even as I add my own voice to their critiques. Of course, you don’t have to be anti-war to be highly suspicious of the US military.
Senior leaders in “my” military have lied so often, whether in the Vietnam War era of the last century or in this one about “progress” in Iraq and Afghanistan, that you’d have to be asleep at the wheel or ignorant not to have suspected the official story.
Yet I also urge anti-war forces to see more than mendacity or malice in “our” military. It was retired general and then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after all, who first warned Americans of the profound dangers of the military-industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address.
Not enough Americans heeded Ike’s warning then and, judging by our near-constant state of warfare since that time, not to speak of our ever-ballooning “defence” budgets, very few have heeded his warning to this day. How to explain that?
Well, give the MIC credit. Its tenacity has been amazing. You might compare it to an invasive weed, a parasitic cowbird (an image I’ve used before), or even a metastasising cancer. As a weed, it’s choking democracy; as a cowbird, it’s gobbling up most of the “food” (at least half of the federal discretionary budget) with no end in sight; as a cancer, it continues to spread, weakening our individual freedoms and liberty.
Call it what you will. The question is: How do we stop it? I’ve offered suggestions in the past; so, too, have writers for TomDispatch like retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich and retired Army Major Danny Sjursen, as well as William Hartung, Julia Gledhill and Alfred McCoy among others.
Despite our critiques, the MIC grows ever stronger. If Ike’s warning wasn’t eye-opening enough, enhanced by an even more powerful speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” by Martin Luther King Jr, in 1967, what could I and my fellow TomDispatch writers possibly say or do to make a difference?
Maybe nothing, but that won’t stop me from trying. Since I am the MIC, so to speak, maybe I can look within for a few lessons that came to me the hard way (in the sense that I had to live them). So, what have l learned of value?
In the 1930s, Smedley Butler, a Marine general twice decorated with the Medal of Honour, wrote a book titled War Is a Racket. He knew better than most since, as he confessed in that volume, when he wore a military uniform, he served as “a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.” And the corporate-driven racket he helped enable almost a century ago by busting heads from the Caribbean to China was small-scale indeed compared to today’s thoroughly global one.
There’s an obvious lesson to be drawn from its striking endurance, never-ending enlargement and distinct engorgement in our moment (even after all those lost wars it fought): the system will not reform itself. It will always demand and take more – more money, more authority, more power. It will never be geared for peace.
By its nature, it’s authoritarian and distinctly less than honourable, replacing patriotism with service loyalty and victory with triumphant budgetary authority. And it always favours the darkest of scenarios, including at present a new cold war with China and Russia, because that’s the best and most expedient way for it to thrive.
Within the military-industrial complex, there are no incentives to do the right thing. Those few who have a conscience and speak out honourably are punished, including truth-tellers in the enlisted ranks like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale. Even being an officer doesn’t make you immune. For his temerity in resisting the Vietnam War, David M. Shoup, a retired Marine Corps general and Medal of Honour recipient, was typically dismissed by his peers as unbalanced and of questionable sanity.
For all the talk of “mavericks,” whether in Top Gun or elsewhere, we – there’s that “we” again (I can’t help myself!) – in the military are a hotbed of go-along-to-get-along conformity.
Recently, I was talking with a senior enlisted colleague about why so few top-ranking officers are willing to speak truth to the powerless (that’s you and me) even after they retire. He mentioned credibility. To question the system, to criticise it, to air dirty laundry in public is to risk losing credibility within the club and so to be rejected as a malcontent, disloyal, even “unbalanced.”
Then, of course, that infamous revolving door between the military and giant weapons makers like Boeing and Raytheon simply won’t spin for you. Seven-figure compensation packages, like the one current Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin gained from Raytheon after his retirement as an Army general, won’t be an option. And in America, who doesn’t want to cash in while gaining more power within the system?
Quite simply, it pays so much better to mouth untruths, or at least distinctly less-than-full-truths, in service to the powerful. And with that in mind, here, at least as I see it, are a few full truths about my old service, the Air Force, that I guarantee you I won’t be applauded for mentioning.
How about this as a start: that the production of F-35s – an overpriced “Ferrari” of a fighter jet that’s both too complex and remarkably successful as an underperformer – should be cancelled (savings: as much as $1 trillion over time); that the much-touted new B-21 nuclear bomber isn’t needed (savings: at least $200 billion) and neither is the new Sentinel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (savings: another $200 billion and possibly the entire Earth from doomsday); that the KC-46 tanker is seriously flawed and should be cancelled (savings: another $50 billion).
Now, tote it up. By cancelling the F-35, the B-21, the Sentinel, and the KC-46, I singlehandedly saved the American taxpayer roughly $1.5 trillion without hurting America’s national defence in the least. But I’ve also just lost all credibility (assuming I had any left) with my old service.
- A TomDispatch report / By William J. Astore – retired officer in the US army