The Anatomy of the Military-Industrial Complex

Review of State of War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1945-2011, by Paul A. C. Koistinen (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2012)

What concerns Paul Koistinen in his new book State of War can be summed up in the following data point: twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Pentagon budgets today are higher than they were at any point between 1946 and 1992. And those budgets don't include the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (p. 8).

It is Koistinen's purpose to explain what he calls the political economy of war. By "political economy" Koistinen means how the interplay of four factors - economics, politics, military, and technology – work to create the conditions of military mobilization. The focus of this book, therefore, is how these four factors developed and reinforced each other during the period of the Cold War and in the 20 years since it concluded.

In 1961 outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower recognized that something significant had changed in American life, and in his farewell address to the nation he coined the phrase "military-industrial complex." Eisenhower used that address to issue a warning to Americans about the dangers of a permanent state of wartime readiness – one, it must be said, that he himself had helped to create – not simply on the economy or on our foreign policy but on the American spirit as well.

In this book, Koistinen explains how that complex (he abbreviates it MIC) came to be and how it has grown since – a thorough-going demonstration that Americans have ignored Eisenhower's warning entirely.

The anatomy lesson begins with the institutions of government: a chapter on the presidency, one on Congress, and one looking at the expansion of the armed services themselves. He then moves outward from Washington. Chapter 4 considers the growth of the defense industry, reminding us of the extent to which many of the nation's high-tech and aerospace companies exist on Department of Defense contracts. The next two chapters examine the role the DOD played in promoting and funding "big science" as well as the deep connections between the Pentagon and think-tanks, universities and other non-government centers of research.  Call it the "military-intellectual complex."

Chapter 7 explores the development of military technology, especially high-tech weaponry, the purchase of which Koistinen believes "was driven more by political, economic, and power considerations than by those of national security" (p. 168). In the next chapter Koistinen looks at the effect the MIC has had on the economy as a whole, drawing on the work of economists like Seymour Melman and others who have studied the question. He juxtaposes the growth of military spending with the deindustrialization of the American economy, suggesting that part of the support the MIC enjoys stems from the fact that the defense industry "is one of the few remaining industries that provides blue-collar employment that pays well" (p. 227). The nation's industrial heartland devolved into the "rustbelt" even as Pentagon spending produced a new "gunbelt" in sections of the south and west.

If, as Koistinen observes, all this military spending has not been good for the larger economy, he also insists that it hasn't been good for the military either. Because so many decisions about spending have been, in a sense, forced upon the Pentagon by legislators acting on behalf of large corporations, basic military readiness has suffered.

This is especially true as military technology has grown more and more sophisticated, and thus expensive. Koistinen notes that the United States has spent roughly $7.5 trillion on nuclear weapons, but when he takes us to visit warehouses full of mothballed tanks, Koistinen points out that of roughly 11,000 tanks the Army owns, only 2100 are operational with combat divisions (p. 173).

Likewise, the MIC now drives much of our foreign policy. Koistinen charts the extent to which sale of military equipment to foreign governments now constitutes a major revenue stream for American firms. Those sales, of course, are brokered by the United States government: when Congress approves a military aid package to some country, that package usually stipulates that the money be used to buy American products. So the Federal government subsidizes the defense industry directly through generous contracts (and lax oversight, something else Koistinen notes) and indirectly through our foreign aid.

This is a quiet, measured history, but it is not without a point of view, one which becomes increasingly apparent as the book goes on. Koistinen clearly sees the growth of the MIC as an enormous problem in American life. He believes that it has created a permanent security state, whose economy has been distorted by gargantuan military expenditures. He is also deeply skeptical that the rest of the nation has truly benefited from the expansion of the MIC.  He thinks, in other words, that Eisenhower was right.

Sometimes writing history is about charting change over time. Sometimes it is about exploring the continuities that run under the surface of epiphenomenal events.  State of War stresses the latter. Congress changes hands, administrations come and go, wars begin and end but the MIC stays the same, only more so. In this sense, State of War joins several other recent titles, including Andrew Bacevich's Washington Rules, in highlighting the MIC as the most important continuity in American life.

With the publication of State of War, Paul Koistinen has completed an extraordinary life's work. This book is the fifth and final volume in his examination of the political economy of American warfare from 1606 to the present. Taken together, Koistinen's work reminds us uncomfortably that as much as we have professed to be a nation of peace-lovers, underneath that rhetoric has been a political economy geared toward war.