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"Military Metaphysics"

Today is (was?) the 50th anniversary of Dwight D. Eisenhower's Presidential farewell address, in which he coined the famous phrase "military-industrial complex" in warning of the "economic, political, even spiritual" consequences of the "total influence" of America's rapidly growing military establishment and arms industry. Frequent Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich remembers that speech in this month's Atlantic, and borrows the phrase from which I've taken this post's title. An excerpt:

Thanks to its allies and abettors, the military-industrial-legislative war complex remains stubbornly resistant to changea fact President Barack Obama himself learned during his first year in office. While reviewing his administrations policy in Afghanistan, the president repeatedly asked for a range of policy alternatives. He wanted choices. According to Bob Woodward of TheWashington Post, however, the Pentagon offered Obama a single paththe so-called McChrystal surge of additional troops. As recounted in Woodwards book Obamas Wars, the president complained: So whats my option? Youve given me only one option. The militarys own preferred option was all he was going to get. (Just months before, Woodward himself had helpfully promoted that very option, courtesy of a well-timed leak.)No doubt Dwight Eisenhower would sympathize with President Obama, having himself struggled to exercise the prerogatives ostensibly reserved to the chief executive. Yet Ike would hardly be surprised. He would reserve his surpriseand his disappointmentfor the American people. A half century after he summoned us to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship, we still refuse to do so. In Washington, military metaphysics remains sacrosanct. No wonder we continue to get our pockets picked.

The famous clip from Ike's speech is embedded below the fold.

About the Author

John Schwenkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.



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I highly recommend Bacevich's most recent book, Washington Rules. It's a short but incisive history, not only of the military-political culture inside the Beltway, but of "the American Century."Today is also the 50th anniversary of the murder of Patrice Lumumba, revolutionary leader in the former Belgian colony of the Congo. Lumumba was assassinated by CIA-funded and trained operatives, on orders from Ike's CIA chief, Allen Dulles. Four years later, Joseph Mobutu took over the country, and his bloody, plutocratic tyranny was supported by the U.S. (George H. W. Bush once referred to Mobutu as "one of our most valued friends.") Note the date, though -- Lumumba was murdered on Ike's watch. According to files released to the Church Committee in the 1970s, Eisenhower had informed Dulles that he wanted Lumumba eliminated. So even Ike can't be completely absolved of all the bloodshed and horror that's transpired as a result of the military-industrial complex. Maybe the speech is a bit of an atonement. As the wars, renditions, and military budgets indicatet, the MIC proceeds swimmingly along under President YesWeCan.

Eugene --Hasn't Secretary Gates recommended significant cut=back of the military budget and development of some new hardware?

Ann: No. Gates wants to cut back on certain items, but the new hardware more than makes up for the "cuts."

Quite depressing. Appeal to the American public? Just give me the American bishops and we can get somewhere. The bishops were strong in advocating peace after Vietnam war as were the Catholic leaders. It was fashionable to be anti-war and pro-civil rights. But as times changed the bishops and the Catholic leaders went with the trend rather than their consciences. This is why there is the picture of people like Law and Neuhaus who were strong on civil rights devolve to a more status quo position. Catholic leaders even traveled to Rome to persuade John Paul II to change his mind on the Iraqi war. It was ok those Catholics argued then and now to blow children to pieces over oil and power but not ok for a pressured family to limit its family size thru birth control. Chaplains of the armed forces come out more militarized than when they signed up. Rather than press the peace issues. There is no question about the military industrial complex. To have spiritual leaders approve it is a principal reason it is allowed to continue.

From the speech: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft. The cost of one modern, heavy bomber is this: a modern, brick school in more than 30 cities."Wow. I can't imagine hearing that today.

Given the amount of money poured into think tanks these days, it's not surprising you won't hear this today.

Bacevich seems to be a great admirer of Eisenhower (in fact, this article makes me interested in finding a good Eisenhower biography), but I take his depiction of presidents as helpless figureheads with a grain of salt. The President, as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, is supposed to supervise all those generals and admirals. Also, not a dime of government money can be spent on the military without the President approving the budget. A president could, if he wished, drive fundamental change. As Bacevich points out (and as any casual observer can confirm), Congress lacks the will to drive reform; military spending benefits too many home-district voters. If the President doesn't force change, it will never happen.

I remember many jokes, in my family and elsewhere, about Ike having to move his lips when he read, and so on. His reputation, however, has certainly grown over the years. And not just because of his military-industrial complex speech. When I was defending the honor of my country aboard a Navy ship in the Taiwan straits, during the offshore island crises of the mid-fifties, I used to laugh at my mother's worries for my safety. Not for some years did I understand how close we had come to throwing an A-bomb at the Chinese Reds, and it was Ike who, more than anyone else I think, refused to act on the advice that people like Secretary of State Dulles and Chief of Staff Admiral Radford were giving him.Imagine what the world would be like today if he had succumbed.I gave my policy-wonk daughter the Bacevich book for Christmas -- on the understanding that she read it quickly and pass it on to me.

Jim,There i sthe famous story of Harry Truman pondering in his office after Ike was elected: "Poor Ike! He is a General and is used to people obeying his demands promptly. When he comes into this office he will give orders and no one will give a damn." (Forgive the quotes as i am paraphrasing from memory. But the words and meaning are close enough.) To a certain extent President's are limited just the way pope's are by the entrenched bureaucracy.Eisenhower was prescient enough to know that a recording of the Holocaust was important to prevent all future denials. "I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.

Bill, that is a good story about Truman, and certainly rings true. I suppose it bears on what Bacevich reminds us about what Eisenhower thought: our elected officials don't have an incentive to rein in programs that are politically popular but not good for the polity. Therefore, it devolves upon a wise and disciplined electorate to insist that our elected officials do what is best for the country.

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