Part of an ongoing series that repurposes different ideas I explored as part of my graduate studies in the Environmental Humanities.
Untangling the Roots:
Precursors, Contours, and Futures of America's Military Industrial Complex
In Tom Vanderbilt's, Survival City the author takes his readers on a journey through the newly emergent world of nuclear tourism. Whether its the doomed Nike missile silo's of the 1950's that were almost immediately made obsolete by the growth of the American suburb or the haunting landscape of the Nevada Test Site each of these destinations tell a part of the story of our nations flirtation with oblivion. As Vanderbilt puts it, “the Cold War landscape promised security from an invisible threat with a range of deterrent forces that also could not be seen.” (16). Born in the long breath of America's Cold War with the Soviet Union these points on the landscape are vested with the importance of a singular moment in human history when the world stood on the brink of destruction. This was an age when diplomatic breakdowns could have fostered the most lethal war in human history. Their existence is evidence of this haunting reality, as well as the infrastructure and culture that provided the fertile bed for such a worldview to take root and grow. This was the historical moment in which the military industrial complex (MIC) emerged and extended its pervasive reach into daily life for citizens both in the United States, and all across the globe.
However, for as much currency as the phrase “military industrial complex” holds in the cultural lexicon, actually ascribing clear and precise definitions proves exceedingly difficult. Taken in its breadth it is hard to unblur the lines of intersection that have grown between the public and private worlds that collide within America's MIC. This paper will attempt to show how the MIC has relied on a particular set of environmental and cultural circumstances on the North American continent that facilitated its rise. Each of these circumstances played a central part in developing the MIC in the immediate moments after World War II, an event in itself that is seen as a crucible event out of which the modern America (and its ultra-modern MIC) fully emerged. With this historical background I will then build on several critiques that have been leveled at the MIC over time in an attempt to better understand who diverse and widespread its reach is in a global context. Finally this paper will explore a new method of analysis focused around the exploration of the MIC through the quasi-organic ecosystem that has sprouted up around it. I end on the question of what is necessary to shift thinking on the role of the MIC in our lives, an important point given the fact that those with the most power to enact change in the future will be those born well outside the Cold-War context of fear and paranoia which was crucial in underwriting so much of the MIC project.
Precursors to MIC: Grids and Frontier
A crucial precursor underpinning the eventual MIC that would emerge in mid-20th century America centers on the large, ecologically diverse North American continent and the massive attempt to rationalize nature and bring under human control. This nation building project was initiated with American independence from England in 1776. Massive land acquisitions over time (like the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848), coupled with the Land Ordinance of 1785 helped produced a frontier myth ethos that has been pivotal to the American identify.
It was the vision of Thomas Jefferson that helped drive the Land Ordinance that was to be carried across the North American landscape. Jefferson's goal was to create regions in which the small, yeomen farmers pivotal to the Jeffersonian vision could sustain themselves. In theory this system would allow for the spread of democracy across multiple agents (thus, preventing the acquisition of power by any one person or group). The federal government would be kept small and in-check, and without the powerful standing army that has become a hallmark of the modern day MIC. Obviously, the translation of Jefferson's goals into tangible reality didn't generate the desired outcomes he idealized. And yet the pervasive grid remains, placing an artificial construct over natural world environments (no matter how readily features of topography and environment may attempt to subvert it).
The grid is an important component piece in understanding the circumstances that helped facilitate the modern day MIC in America. The grid has provided a means to parcel and designate pieces of the continent. It has provided a means to shuffle these parcels under any number of federal bureaucracies (in effect helping to grow the size of government). This became particularly true in the early 20th century as the Progressive era flourished and a spirit of human engineering to improve nature took deep root.
Of course, not all land is created equal and the stark contrast between federal land policy in the western and eastern United States bears this out. Much of the eastern U.S. was brought into the national project during an era of government transfer when the fed was looking to move land into private control quickly. Much of the rugged western U.S. was brought into the nation at a different time and under a completely different policy and vision that looked to the federal government as manager of public resources. Couple this with the arid region that exists in the west and the stage was set for the formation of public land policies that still generate controversy to this day. An obvious failing of the grid is the fact that it indiscriminately covers regions that are not ecologically the same, or as William Fox states in The Void, the Grid, and the Sign, “national grid propagate[s] across the terrain regardless of topology, tribal reservations, or the patterns of traditional landownership” (95). It can be argued that the MIC has benefited tremendously from this situation, however, as these huge areas of gridded landscape under government control became available for use. Often these western places have been discussed using the rhetoric of “wasteland,” which in turn positions these places as appropriate for military abuse. This is done in spite of the fact that these places often hold deep cultural and spiritual significance to any number of displaced indigenous populations.
The eventual expansion of the MIC relied heavily on access to available landscape onto which the assorted projects of military and industry could be writ. The history of nation building in North America and the grid transcribed on the landscape are crucial components in helping bear this to fruition. Of course, these lands the have come under MIC control (both in the east and west) are clearly not worthless, and in fact it is through their geological complexity and richness that the next chapter of MIC will be explored.
Precursor: Energy and Extracting the Landscape
Another crucial area to consider in assessing the roots that gave rise to the modern American MIC is the way in which the North American continent itself has provided ample energy for the cause. The story of nation building is a complex, violent and often depressing one as white Europeans slowly moved across the continent, displacing both native populations as well as completely changing landscapes in a process that Alfred Crosby has labeled “ecological imperialism.” It was this march west that set in motion processes that completely changed landscapes like that of the Midwest, through which settlement and agriculture transformed the landscape from grassland to cornfield. This story of the move west also involves the discovery of vast energy resources that, when coupled with advances in technology, have led to the rise of a fully industrialized nation. In this way the abundant wealth of nature on the North American continent has been crucial in helping fuel MIC growth.
One region where this was clearly manifest was on the eastern slopes of the Colorado Rockies. With the rise of industry in the latter 19th century the Front Range of Colorado become pivotal in supplying that nation with the stored energy of carbon found in the coal deeply embedded in the mountains. This resource was built slowly over eons, with the death of organic life that was then buried and compacted deeply within the changing geologies of earthen bedrock. Bringing it out and into the homes of a burgeoning nation of consumers proved remarkably faster than the crawl of time that placed it there, and these Colorado coal fields became one of many birthplaces dotting the nation of massive energy industries that would eventually become directly linked to the MIC. These regions are pivotal in helping understand MIC because through the complex combination of growing industry and government regulation a conversation was begun that would bring the two (and their shared goals) within closer alignment. It also helps to better explain the ways in which massive amounts of capital were amassed into singular spaces, which has come to steer and guide much of our national policy and debate. These extractive industries that had their roots in the industrial revolution of the 19th century, and as we will see they have come to play a pivotal role in the very ecology of the modern-day MIC.
Another extractive industry worth investigating in light of any discussion on the MIC is that of the uranium industry that exploded onto the Colorado Plateau region of Utah and Colorado in the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's. With the Manhattan Project and push to develop the atomic bomb (a crucial event to MIC that will be discussed further) the federal government became the major customer for the highly radioactive uranium deposits that exist in relative prevalence in the canyon country of the North American southwest. Used first to fuel the atomic weapons program, this resource led to major booms and busts on the landscape. It also led to remarkably high incidence of poisoned bodies, often through a lack of proper ventilation and safety in haphazardly constructed mine sites.
After the federal government (through the nuclear bureaucracy of the Atomic Energy Commission) had procured enough uranium reserves to accelerate the nuclear weapons program (itself like the MIC a response to the U.S.S.R. And Cold War) the next boom cycle came with the purported industrial use of nuclear power. Opening the uranium industry to nuclear power interests further helps solidify the complex links between government, military, and industry that have become such a hallmark of a society increasingly dependent on the MIC. And another issue waits on the horizon, namely what to do with the massive amounts of nuclear waste that have been created by both military and industry as part of our nuclear stockpiling. As Valerie Kueletz points out in Tainted Desert this is the dark secret of trafficking in nuclear technologies, as we currently sit on approximately 138 million pounds of radioactive material that has no permanent home. And in our quest to keep other countries from stockpiling their own supplies of the weapons-grade enriched uranium that is created as a byproduct of nuclear energy, we are actively engaged in shipping toxic materials to our shores. The controversy over the proposed long-term storage site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain helps reveal this intricate web of problems the have no readily available solutions. Our nuclear waste crisis and its impact on local communities and ecosystems point out one of the potential dangers that come with orienting a society and military towards expensive technologies (a hallmark of MIC thinking and action).
Precursor: West, Water, Engineering and Big Government
Of all of the precursors to the MIC, perhaps the most telling in its foreshadowing the deep marriage and partnership that can emerge between government and industry comes in the guise of Western reclamation. Again, a long and complex history falls within a historical moment and set of circumstances in the early 20th century when the role of the federal government was radically shifting. Central to this shift was the move away from rapidly transferring pieces of public land into private control, and instead focusing on the federal management and conservation of public domain and shared resources. This outlook coupled with an inexhaustible faith in the wonders of engineering and science to bend nature to better serve humanity helps set the stage for the story of western reclamation which has come to thoroughly dominate the history of the arid western states.
As Donald Worster explains in Rivers of Empire, the federal story of reclamation has three distinct phases, each building on one another. It is the last phase, when industrial interests were successfully able to harness federal government resources to help guide massive reclamation projects that a clearly identifiable precursor to the MIC manifests. This prolific age ran contemporary with the massive public works projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The transformations seen during this era help explain the changes in mindset and activity that have made government such an active agent in modern day America. This was the moment that brought monumental construction achievements such as Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee, testaments to both the human will to rationalize natural processes as well as human hubris in not fully understanding the environmental consequences of our actions.
Interestingly, as Marc Reisner clearly shows in Cadillac Desert, the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam has direct ties to the war economy that emerged with America's entrance into WWII. The massive energy harnessed from the Columbia River was pivotal to helping America emerge victorious from the war, while also setting precedence that are directly tied to the emergence of a powerful post-war MIC. The Grand Coulee Dam was controversial from the outset as many divisive voices came to bear on debating its need. However, a powerful Bureau of Reclamation was able to maneuver the political channels and begin work on constructing the massive edifice, which was completed between 1933 and 1942. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entrance into the war the hydroelectricity produced at Grand Coulee became crucial for two reasons. The first was the energy it supplied allowed the U.S. to intensify aluminum manufacturing at an unprecedented pace. This was symptomatic of the larger war effort to turn the economy towards war production, but in this case it allowed for the fabrication of what had previously been a rare material. This new resource was readily used to help construct armaments and airplanes that gave the Allied forces a decided tactical advantage. As Reisner notes, the U.S. “didn’t so much outmaneuver, outman, or outfight the Axis as simply out produce it.” (164). But perhaps even more important was how the power of the Columbia River was indirectly transformed into the electricity that helped power the small town of Hanford, Washington. Along with Los Alamos and the Oak Ridge site in Tennessee, Hanford was a critical area for the super secret Manhattan Project. It was at Hanford that engineers from DuPont were able to refine the same uranium mined from the Colorado Plateau into the radioactive element plutonium. This “Godzilla” of radioactive elements (both the longest lasting and most toxic) became the critical component in unlocking the secret of nuclear power. By bombarding the unstable nucleus of uranium and plutonium with neutrons a chain reaction could occur that would split the atom and simultaneously release the massive amounts of stored energy holding those particles together. Moving this theory into practice unlocked a new door in human history and created the circumstances for a Cold War and MIC that had the political capital to grow suddenly on the landscape, not unlike the violent mushroom cloud produced with an atomic blast. It is to the dramatic changes brought on by the World War II moment that we now turn.
In assessing the history of the MIC the precursors and roots can be traced in various areas, but the true flowering came with the crucible moment of World War II. It was this singular historical event that serves as a crucible moment in human history. Comparing the world before and the world after reveals that in the midst of the horrors of war human life on this planet was irrevocably changed.
For the purposes of the MIC the WWII moment was crucial because it gave sanction and common cause to a reorientation of the entire economy onto a war footing. The engine of U.S. manufacturing was geared towards building an army and supplying it with the resources necessary to overcome aggression in two separate global theaters of war. The nation was well-equipped to do this in many ways because of the rich resource base it had to draw on, but the fact remains that the role of the U.S. military and defense spending would take on a completely different tone in the pre and post-war periods.
A similar story is played out with the Manhattan Project and the truly extraordinary lengths that the government made in unlocking the secret power of nuclear technology. In this context the energy and skill of America's best minds were put to the task of translating the stuff of pure speculative theory into destructive reality. Declassified records reveal that even though the project was top secret it was given all clearances to spend as much as needed to insure that the bomb come to fruition. Of course, there were no guarantees that the project would work as envisioned by the scientists at Los Alamos, and this inverse relationship of enormous expense to unclear outcome set a precedent for future planning and spending undertaken by the MIC. This is significant because of the dark doors it opens on defense thinking. With the enormous cost of the Manhattan Project one conjecture that can be made is that the bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were inevitable, as those holding the purse springs needed to see that the enormous expense was justified (particularly in the context of a potential division with tenuous WWII ally, Russia). It also reveals another important layer of the MIC which can just as easily be labeled a military-industrial-academic complex in the sheer amount of creative and analytic energy it demands.
Finally, the WWII moment is a crucial lens for reflecting on the MIC in gaining a better understanding of how the enormous local and regional economies that developed with wartime spending came to grow and rely on continued federal spending in the post-war context. With a returning generation of fighting men on the home front an entrenched MIC provided needed jobs which were often sited around another ubiquitous post-war symbol, the subdivision. Creating space, maintaining peace, and growing jobs became primary justifications for the massive increases in federal defense spending that would explode in the post-WWII context. These fears and desires were ably stoked with the fuel of a new Cold War paranoia with Russia, and it is here that the much witnessed rhetoric of “national security” gained something of the dimensions associated with it today.
WWII was global in every sense of the word, leaving few nations untouched or immune to its horrors. It is a pivotal moment in human history, and a clear line of demarcation. The United States that emerged on the other side was strikingly different from the one that had entered in many ways, and a burgeoning MIC was one telling measure of these differences. It is to this troublesomely elusive concept of an MIC (and its implications) that we now turn.
Counters of the MIC
Wrapping solid descriptions around something as nebulous and moving as the MIC proves exceeding difficult. It wasn’t born out of a specific set of policy decisions or a unified agenda from a central source. Yet, in its growth and pervasiveness it has come to leave identifiable marks on everyday life, both in the U.S. and internationally. The following sections will attempt to identify and explore contours of the modern MIC. Such an analysis will reveal that the MIC is both remarkably different from the shape of U.S. military and defense prior to WWII and that it has had significant impact on shaping the world around us. In effect the MIC has emerged organically from a number of disparate choices and circumstances and built an ecology unto itself that demands attention and understanding. This paper proposes will address the most common critiques cited against the MIC, and posit that a new method of analysis centered on the ecology of the MIC is needed in raising awareness. It is from an increase in awareness that a politically active citizenry might act in making decisions that will steer the future course of MIC development.
The most obvious and telling line of demarcation in tracing the growth of the MIC is in U.S. military organization and the role the nation has taken on military issues internationally in the 20th century. For much of the first half of the century American military forces remained relatively small and the country pursued different policies that reinforced an image of isolationism on the world stage. The United States was slow in joining military operations in World War I and looked to policies of financial and diplomatic support for allied forces when WWII began. However, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the nation entered into active combat and as previously discussed, the gears of economy were soon put to the task of war. The fact that the U.S. was able to draw on its rich natural environment coupled with the fact that the destruction associated with war never came to the U.S. home front help explain two of the ways in which the earliest roots of the MIC were allowed to grow. The U.S. and Soviet Union emerged from WWII as the worlds most obvious superpowers, and the subsequent Cold War that grew between them is crucial in understanding the reorientation of U.S. military thinking. This is most clearly seen in the passage of National Security Act of 1947 which acted to completely reorganize U.S. military operations under the newly created Department of Defense (DoD). This is the portal through which money and influence could be channeled to completely remake the U.S. military, placing massive public funds to both weapons development and procurement as well as towards an expansive and multi-faceted standing army. Its existence throughout eras of relative peace was unlike anything the nation had seen before. And just as important to this was the active agents of industry that the military found in advancing its multitude of agendas. These were unlikely partnerships born out of the desperate moments of war that would go on to become the crucial component of a deeply entrenched MIC
When the union of military and industry began to take deep root in the immediate post-war period a disturbing trend was observed that helps explain how the two enterprises became so mutually reinforcing in their vision and decision making. This trend has come to be labeled the “revolving door” of the MIC, and is defined by the way in which many top military officials over time have left the sphere of public service and immediately found high-level work in the private defense contracting sector. In a December 26, 2010 issue the Boston Globe ran a troubling story revealing how pervasive this revolving door MIC culture has become. According to that report, “from 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives.” Furthermore, “thirty-four out of 39 three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired in 2007 are now working in defense roles — nearly 90 percent.” The influence and insight that retiring top-level military officials bring to the private realm of defense contracting can’t be discounted, and helps underscore one of the ways in which the MIC has become so pervasively ingrained in everyday life.
Another important area in which an expansive MIC has come to hold a pervasive influence on everyday life is in both the reorientation of local economies (via acts of Congress) to facilitate MIC growth in particular regions, as well as the reconfiguration of space to accommodate MIC operations. With the massive amount of spending that can come with basing and facilitating private defense companies in local areas Congressional representatives over time have often worked actively in insuring that these industries (and their dollars) come to their locals. These projects have traditionally acted to both spur growth in regional economies (who become dependent on a particular arm of the MIC to maintain everyday life) and entrench the MIC throughout the nation.
With the military buildup that occurred after WWII and throughout the Cold War a reorientation of space has also occurred, with the operation of large scale military bases scattered across the landscape. A case study of this is seen in Hill Air Force Base in the Clearfield region of Utah (thirty miles north of Salt Lake). Opened as Hill Field in 1940 this base became a crucial strategic independent air force base for multiple military agencies throughout the latter 20th century. Hill AFB serviced as both a storage area for military equipment as well as a coordination location between multiple regional military hubs that grew up in the wake of WWII (and helped sustain the MIC) such as Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and the Tooele Proving Grounds in Dugway, Utah. Slowly over time the area around Hill AFB has been populated with suburban and commercial development (not an uncommon site around the country), further complicating the relationship between military, business, and civilians. Today much of the local regional economy of the Clearfield, Layton, and Ogden areas have become dependent on military spending and investment in Hill AFB, and the base reflects much of a larger national dynamic that is complicit with the growth of the MIC in the latter 20th century.
And as Chip Ward explains in Canaries on the Rim, many of these MIC landscapes are far from benign. Tying into a larger national rhetoric that has designated much of the Western U.S. as wasteland for military exploitation an investigation of the MIC shows how both places and people have often born the brunt of MIC activities in the West. Examples include experimentation that has taken place at Dugway, the heavy industrial efforts of MagCorp near the shores of the Great Salt Lake, and the nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) that created a generation of exposed downwinders. With their heavy reliance on civilian staff and private contractors (in addition to military personnel) these dark spaces on the landscape clearly reflect the MIC in full flower, with impacts felt both immediately in the environment and long-term writ large on the health of locally impacted communities. Of course, the MIC isn’t a brainless behemoth. Rather it is has traditionally been a highly coordinated effort that often draws on the best intellectual energy the nation has to offer, and it is to this dynamic aspect that we now turn.
Military Educational Complex
While the main currency fueling the Cold War were ideological divides the true fuel in spurring it forward was the sheer amount of intellectual energy and capital in both the U.S. and Soviet Russia. In America the MIC at its earliest inception had a deep connection with the world of higher education, namely through the Manhattan Project initiative. Through marshaling the best scientific minds the nation had to offer rapid advances were made. With the explosion of the first atomic bomb over the Jornada Del Muerto desert of New Mexico on July 16, 1945, the risk/reward of investment to return on utilizing academia in this way was given precedent. Over the ensuing decades the MIC would draw on the nation’s intellectual reserves in a myriad of ways, entrenching the MIC in yet another important part of American life.
Perhaps the most obvious place to see this relationship in action is through the creation of both the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and the Livermore Lab in Berkeley. Both of these institutions were backed by government spending while simultaneously managed by the University of California at Berkeley. Leadership and oversight in this schematic is difficult to separate, but what is clear is that the advances made at both laboratories in the post-WWII era were crucial in helping build and maintain U.S. atomic weapons program (and facilitate the stockpiling of nuclear weapons in the Cold War with Russia). This current of MIC coupling with academia is still readily observable today in the form of grants that are made available to colleges and universities. Often the most desirable and competitive of these are in fields that have some passing interest to military research and development.
But at the same time a compelling case can be made that while this relationship has the potential to be highly suspect it has also produced benefits to society. These benefits may be purely reactionary, for example the gaining of a better understanding of radiation and how to monitor and detect its presence based on the use of dangerous nuclear technologies. But others are more complex. Take for example the massive reaction that took place after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The immediate reaction from U.S. military strategists was that the real motivation for Sputnik wasn’t to probe the mysteries of space, but rather to initiate an effective intercontinental ballistic missile program. Reactions to the event effectively produced the NASA program, and helped fuel a “space race” that had definite ties to the MIC. The same rockets developed to lift space ships past Earth’s gravitational pull could also be used to rapidly deliver thermonuclear warheads to any point on the planet. However, for as terrifying as the byproduct of space exploration might be the benefits it has had for society cannot easily be discounted. The moon landing in 1969 was a galvanizing moment in the nation’s history, at a moment of deep social unrest. And if the esteemed physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson is to be believed, it was the wonder and excitement produced by the national space program that helped fuel a generation of inquisitive scientists, doctors and engineers, each of whom have helped transform the world around us in meaningful and positive ways.
Of course, the MIC wasn’t solely reliant on NASA for developing theoretical approaches and experiments that could be co-opted for military use. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under the Department of Defense is among the most compelling component parts of the MIC. DARPA has been tasked with the assignment of creatively thinking about ways to improve MIC efficiencies and weaknesses. It has produced a list of failures that read like events from a science fiction novel (such as the events popularized in the film Men Who Stare at Goats), while simultaneously producing groundbreaking advances like the prototype upon which the Internet has been constructed. Any analysis of the MIC needs to eventually turn to its expansive R&D arm and the ways in which advances in that arena have been put into civilian culture, transforming it in dramatic ways. It is into this world of a rapidly technologically advancing culture fueled by MIC advances that we now tread.
Military R&D Complex
The most compelling piece of evidence of both the growth of America’s MIC and its spread into all facets of modern living is witnessed in the sheer breadth and diversity of private companies who draw on Department of Defense dollars in the name of research and development. Such a list reveals major MIC players like Lockheed Martin and DuPont sitting alongside other well known brands as disparate as Apple, Sony, and Proctor and Gamble. Granted, the funds distributed by military spending may not have gone directly into the development of products that were then marketed for consumer demand. The larger point however is that these companies have grown from an influx of public money, hopelessly complicating and blurring the lines between the private sector and government.
In addition to the pervasive ways in which public money has aided various industry and corporate interests, another frame of analysis for how pervasive the MIC has become in shaping culture comes through an assessment of the complex public relations effort that the Department of Defense has made to improve public perception of the military. This includes both the obvious advertising efforts that glorify soldiers and the virtues presumably imparted by military service, as well as more subtle means. For example, massive amounts of DoD money have been spent on developing war simulation games, designed by private software design firms who then take the game engines and retrofit them for public consumption. Helped by incredible advances in technology these games have become a pervasive part of American culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the impact they have had on public perception of the military is worth considering. Similarly the DoD has also partnered over time with major movie production studios, offering money, locations, and equipment to tell stories that again play an important role in shaping public awareness of the military and its role in everyday life. Films such as Top Gun, Navy Seals, and Transformers have benefited heavily from the availability of resources that can be directly linked to an MIC apparatus, and their widespread success should give pause in determining the popular culture perception of the government and military in everyday life.
The Ecology of the MIC: New Methods for Analysis
Scholarship focused on analyzing and critiquing the MIC has tended to focus on particular arguments against its ongoing existence. These have tended to include an argument that the MIC is fundamentally grounded on a “merchants of death” premise and that as long as the pivotal figures involved are making money on the fear, suffering, and death of others the MIC will remain devastating, intractable, and war-driven. Another common critique of the MIC is that it has become hopelessly large and bloated, consistently drawing on a resource base of public funding to the detriment of other policies and programs. Evidence for both of these claims comes in many forms, but I propose that perhaps another way of approaching analysis and critique of an MIC that this paper has posited as deeply rooted in U.S. historical circumstance and wide-ranging in influence is to analyze the ecosystem that has grown up around the MIC. In this way we can better understand the fruits of MIC (both positive and negative) as well as untangle the ways in which it is intimately linked to a society that reflects its basic unsustainability.
One place to begin is in grappling with the flora and fauna of MIC, namely the products and advances that have been born of its R&D. Parsing these out is extremely difficult but the point remains that while most efforts have resulted in growing the apparatus, several have had crucial significance in transforming the everyday life of global citizens. The most obvious example of this is the Internet which grew out of early work on creating a decentralized network under DARPA. In assessing the “fruits and branches” of MIC in this way it becomes easier to trace its deep influence on daily living as well as make informed decisions on what products born of the MIC have enduring value (and should be built upon with future grants and capital resources).
Another means of assessing and attempting to parcel out the complex webs slung by the MIC on all parts of culture involves framing the web of interconnected MIC networks as the trophic cascades readily seen in the natural world. A most obvious place to see this is in the power exchanges and interactions between regional locations that have become dependent on MIC spending and the ways in which political interests move to insure and protect these exchanges. Such a method of analysis would help better understand the ways in which decisions can have large scale impacts that are felt throughout the connected web of MIC and its constantly flowing energies.
Ultimately a strong argument can be made that the ecosystem of the MIC is wholly unsustainable, and that in fact it has grown in direct proportion to the (perhaps unconscious) fact that the way of life it protects as currently constituted is likewise unsustainably geared. One can argue that the ecology of the MIC is a terminal one, with vivid examples that show antithesis to the regulating systems one would expect to see in any other ecology. In 2012 the National Journal published an article citing the ramifications of the DoD utilizing public money to help bail-out various defense industries who haven't kept pace with the changing circumstance of a post-Cold War world. In effect the DoD has helped foster an MIC apparatus in which certain component parts have become too big to fail (to the detriment of the whole).
Similarly another ongoing critique of the MIC is the ways in which it creates and fosters a culture of waste and want. This is seen in both unnecessary expenditures for which the Pentagon is often chastised, as well as the fact that the DoD has managed to remain autonomous and powerful enough to avoid the types of internal auditing procedures that are routinely placed on all other parts of the government bureaucracy. Again, so often charges directed in this way are met up against the rhetoric of national security and secrecy which have become a form of passable currency for MIC proponents and defenders.
A final method offered by this ecological analysis of the MIC again shows how deeply it is rooted in a particular way of human living that has been short-lived on the Earth and is ultimately unsustainable. This is the heavy reliance on fossil fuel and extractive resources that fuel and drive MIC actions, whether it is weapons and technology development or the massive moving of infrastructure, troops, and the like when the war-making arm of the MIC is engaged. Currently the U.S. military stands as the world's largest single user of petrochemical resources. In effect a massive amount of resource is being utilized to protect a way of living almost entirely dependent on the continued massive use of resources. Analyzing the MIC apparatus from this ecologically driven perspective again provides an insight and critique of the MIC that has often been lacking in other modes of analysis. But ultimately while the ecology of the MIC has grown rapidly over the 20th century, it is a human driven system capable of change and possible improvement.
Conclusion: Symbols on the Landscape
Twenty-five miles outside of Tucson, Arizona, buried beneath sand and saguaro lays the ruins of a Titan II Missile silo. Between 1962 and 1982 this site was one in a constellation of similar structures, each solely engineered to incite potential apocalypse. Today tourists can wander these Cold War ruins and see firsthand the massive efforts that a Cold War fueled MIC carved into desert bedrock. The structures themselves are antiquated. The complex computer systems that used to drive this place could now exist in a smart phone. Again, the products of MIC color an experience, providing witness to an unceasing drive to create and improve on creation (in this case making technology smarter, smaller, and faster). This and other sites like it across the country will serve as the long-term evidence of America's MIC, as well as a grim psychological reminder of the psychic costs that the greatest conflict never fought had on our society. For today, as Richard Slotkin notes, “we are in the process of giving up a myth/ideology that no longer helps us see our way through the modern world, but lack a comparably authoritative system of beliefs to replace what we have lost” (654).
To the west winds blow across the Nevada Test Site, the primary proving grounds for the nuclear program that did more to impact human existence on this planet than any other military endeavor to date. With the national moratorium on weapons testing that came in 1993 this is a space in transition. Because of the toxic byproducts lacing the earth here it is unsuitable for commercial or residential transition. Instead, in true MIC fashion the land is once again being recalibrated to fit a need that exists somewhere between the blurred nexus of military and industry. Today the government leases portions of the NTS to private companies who can test any number of rockets and explosions under the relentless Nevada sun. It is a transition that has gone mostly unnoticed by the public at large, but aids tremendously in fueling the continued growth and stability of America's MIC.
In his January 17, 1961 farewell speech to the nation, outgoing president Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first to articulate the phrase “military industrial complex” and it is his phrasing that has been popularized into cultural thought. Of course, his warning about an MIC is at almost complete odds with his presidency which saw the largest buildup of military in country up to that point, in effect incubating the burgeoning MIC which would only strengthen and deepen over the 20th century. However, the fact that Eisenhower could see the potentially negative aspects of a powerful MIC is apparent in another part of his speech which offers a prescription for the perils of MIC. Chief among these is the need for an active and engaged citizenry who refuses to give their government a blank check or underwrite nefarious actions through willful ignorance. Of course, it might be argued that one of the great ironies of the MIC is that it has helped fuel the kinds of technological innovations and global connection that overwhelm the senses and make ignorance and/or passivity the safest response.
The need for an MIC can be debated ad naseum, but the truth of the matter is that in a global community, and with the unique circumstances seen in America, something like the MIC might have been potentially inevitable. America was born in war and that symbology has colored thinking of what this country means ever since. What isn't inevitable is its ongoing growth. What currently walks the landscape is a system out of balance. The symbolic bald eagle that marks U.S. currency today carries more spears than olive branches and in doing so helps to create circumstances in the global community that will ensure that we will continue to need a strong military. But as noted before, the MIC is human driven and subject to directed change. What if the system were brought into better harmony with capital and resources directed away from the exclusive MIC drain they currently flow into and put into other more humanitarian efforts. Would the need for the kind of MIC ecology we see today still exist? It begins with an engaged and active citizenry, one capable of understanding the MIC, its deep roots, and the potential for something better.
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