In 1832, Carl Von Clausewitz published his influential tome called “On War” in which he described war as “politics by other means.” History has certainly proven that to be true, but in more modern times, we might add a qualifier — “war is financially motivated politics by other means.” This is a broader version of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning when he said, “Beware of the military-industrial complex.” Today, he might update that warning to the “congressional-military-industrial complex.”
The system works like this:
Some of the largest companies in the United States sell or support military weapons. Our Congress awarded Department of Defense contractors more than $655 billion in 2012. Of the 30 highest-paid contractors, only six of them are not suppliers of weapons or weapon systems support, and they have averaged more than $100 million per year of contributions to Congress over the past 15 years while receiving an average of $450 billion in contracts per year.
The amount of these bribes to Congress has increased markedly since the Citizens United Supreme Court case that made corporations into people. This case actually made real people into second-class citizens. When you want to affect a congressional election, you vote; however, you are limited to voting for or against the candidates in only your own state. If a corporation wants to have an effect on a congressional election, it can spend money on any candidate, in any state it wants. Congressmen average 79 percent of their fundraising from sources outside their own districts. This gives corporations the power to affect multiple elections and alter the balance of power in Congress in their favor.
Above all else, these military contractors want to make money. They justify this by claiming that it is their legal obligation to their stockholders. So they buy influence with politicians and persuade Congress that their products are desperately needed by our military — even when the military itself says it doesn’t want them. The contractors give members of Congress plausible arguments to repeat that allow them to justify their contract awards to the companies that have paid them the most. There are hundreds of examples — just go to www.opensecrets.org for a sampling of the latest.
There is one more important aspect of this congressional-military-industrial system. Within the military, the honorable ideals of doing what is right and honest fade as a person advances in rank — particularly after they earn their first star — as a general or admiral. The higher they go, the more they have significant influence over large expenditures while also beginning to look forward to retirement from the military. This is when the big Department of Defense contractors start offering these senior ranking officers jobs at six-figure salaries plus bonuses. There are certainly exceptions to this monetary corruption of senior officers, but enough of them do it that they call it the revolving door — out of the military one day and back into the same program on the contractor’s side the next day. While these senior ranking officers are still on active duty, they also exert a lot of influence in politics related to military actions.
So what do you suppose happens when traditional politics fails and our government is looking for “politics by other means” to meet our political goals? Congress and the president have a vested monetary interest in listening to the war lobby of military contractors. What will they hear from the senior-most ranking officers who are sold on the exaggerated capabilities of the weapons and services that they will soon be selling or representing?
When this happens, we enter a civil war in Southeast Asia in which the president is advised we can easily win by “bombing them back to the Stone Age.” We jump into wars in central Europe and the Middle East completely blind to the historical, cultural and ethnic implications and complications. In these and many other cases, the best and loudest advisers to our politicians were voices that advocated superior war-winning weapon capabilities without regard to those other nasty little details like sovereignty, U.N. mandates, justification, collateral damage and post-conflict commitments.
Now we come to the common soldier and sailor and Marine (including the National Guard) — in the ranks below that first star and especially the enlisted ranks. These men and women are truly the pawns in this game of power. If they do not obey their orders, they can be sent to prison or even executed. Most have been indoctrinated to believe that whatever they are told, it is the right thing to do and it is their duty to do it. Doubt and hesitation are not tolerated, and open dissent is flat-out illegal.
We, the civilian population, who ultimately pay the bills, and the military, which must do what it is told, must rely on the good judgment and honest assessment of the political environment by our politicians. Those same politicians who have received millions of dollars from companies that sell weapons and who are also receiving advice from senior ranking military officers who have political aspirations or are about to go to work for those same weapons suppliers.
Don’t blame the rank and file of the military when those politicians make bad or biased decisions. It’s just the way our system works.
Tom Watkins is a retired Navy officer and former business consultant. He lives in Montpelier.
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