James McCartney spent his career covering defense and foreign policy issues, and throughout that time he was keenly aware of the impact that the machinations of the military-industrial complex (MIC) had on these areas of U.S. policy. As a young reporter, McCartney covered President Dwight D. Eisenhower's historic speech in which he warned the country of the dangers to our democratic system posed by "undue influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."
McCartney was so taken with the topic that he wrote a five-part series on it for the Chicago Daily News. He remained mindful of its influence from then forward. When he retired after spending decades as a Washington correspondent, he decided to write a book summarizing what he had learned about the operations of the MIC while viewing it up close in his decades of reporting from Washington. Unfortunately, James McCartney passed away in 2011, with the first nine chapters of the book under his belt. But his wife Molly Sinclair McCartney, an accomplished journalist in her own right, has finished the book, America's War Machine: Vested Interests, Endless Conflict, which was released in late October.
The McCartneys' book provides a crisp, clear analysis of the state of the MIC more than 50 years after Eisenhower and his advisors coined the term. The authors deploy dozens of examples to make their case that unfortunately, the MIC is alive and well, with an outsized role in determining not only how much to spend on the Pentagon, but also on whether the country is at war or at peace.
For example, it is fascinating to note that even Dick Cheney, the hawk's hawk, was unable to terminate the C-17 transport plane. He tried to end the program in the early 1990s, when he was George H.W. Bush's secretary of defense. But McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing) and its allies in Congress wouldn't stand for it, and ultimately 223 planes were built, nearly double the original proposed buy. And, of course, the McCartneys' review the role of Cheney in promoting the Iraq war, even as his former firm, Halliburton, was the primary beneficiary of U.S. spending on the conflict.
Cheney's journey from secretary of defense to CEO of Halliburton to vice-president is a prime example of the revolving door, the process by which officials move back and forth between jobs in government and industry, helping promote the narrow interests of their corporate employers in the process. But Cheney is just the most visible example of a process that has involved thousands of military and Pentagon personnel going to work for the weapons industry over the past three decades. And the revolving door is just one of many tools of influence that the MIC can bring to bear to get what it wants in Washington, when it wants it.
The McCartneys take a comprehensive view of what they call the "war machine," noting for example that "think tank hawks are an integral part." They give extensive coverage to the role of the Project for the New American Century, a collection of hardliners that included among its number Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. Its members advocated going to war with Iraq and then were architects of the war itself once they entered the George W. Bush administration. But the authors also cover the role of groups like the Heritage Foundation in lobbying for ineffective and vastly expensive missile defense programs, and profile "two of Washington's most successful think tank hawks.. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan." The Kagans embedded for a year with David Petraeus in Afghanistan and then used the inside information they received to press for a "harder edge" to the U.S. intervention there. Conveniently, Kimberly Kagan's think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, benefited from contributions from corporations like DynCorps and CACI, both of which reaped major revenues from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The book takes a particularly hard look at the role of the media in issues of war and peace, describing much of the mainstream media as "cheerleaders for war" that "have too often been a mouthpiece for politically motivated government propaganda." They include historical examples like uncritical press coverage of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that was used as a rationale to escalate U.S. war in Vietnam. They also review the more familiar role of the press in dropping the ball on exposing the myths that were used by the Bush administration to pave the path to the 2003 intervention in Iraq.
It's impossible to address all of the topics touched on by America's War Machine in this essay, but suffice it to say that it is the most complete treatment of the topic I have read in many years, and an excellent starting point for policymakers, activists, and citizens concerned about the hijacking of our foreign and military policies by special interests more concerned about their bottom lines than about the safety and security of the country and the world. The book ends with a dozen brief suggestions on how to get the war machine under control, ranging from building a larger movement to combat militarism, to ending the secrecy surrounding U.S. drone strikes, to forcing the Pentagon to get its books in order so citizens can see where their tax dollars are going, and push back against waste, fraud, abuse and misguided spending priorities. These are all easier said then done. But they must be done if citizens and the Congress are to receive meaningful input into how much is spent on the Pentagon, and on when and whether the United States goes to war.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.