Bob Herbert: The War Machine

Keep the wars coming. They help make the rich get richer.

Ike Saw It Coming
Published: February 27, 2006

Early in the documentary film “Why We Fight,” Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City police officer whose son was killed in the World Trade Center attack, describes his personal feelings in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.

“Somebody had to pay for this,” he says. “Somebody had to pay for 9/11. … I wanna see their bodies stacked up for what they did. For taking my son.”

Lost in the agony of his grief, Mr. Sekzer wanted revenge. He wanted the government to go after the bad guys, and when the government said the bad guys were in Iraq, he didn’t argue.

For most of his life Mr. Sekzer was a patriot straight out of central casting. His view was always “If the bugle calls, you go.” When he was 21 he was a gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam. He didn’t question his country’s motives. He was more than willing to place his trust in the leadership of the nation he loved.

“Why We Fight,” a thoughtful, first-rate movie directed by Eugene Jarecki, is largely about how misplaced that trust has become. The central figure in the film is not Mr. Jarecki, but Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president who had been the supreme Allied commander in Europe in World War II, and who famously warned us at the end of his second term about the profound danger inherent in the rise of the military-industrial complex.

Ike warned us, but we didn’t listen. That’s the theme the movie explores.

Eisenhower delivered his farewell address to a national television and radio audience in January 1961. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” he said. He recognized that this development was essential to the defense of the nation. But he warned that “we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” he said. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” It was as if this president, who understood war as well or better than any American who ever lived, were somehow able to peer into the future and see the tail of the military-industrial complex wagging the dog of American life, with inevitably disastrous consequences.

The endless billions to be reaped from the horrors of war are a perennial incentive to invest in the war machine and to keep those wars a-coming. “His words have unfortunately come true,” says Senator John McCain in the film. “He was worried that priorities are set by what benefits corporations as opposed to what benefits the country.”

The way you keep the wars coming is to keep the populace in a state of perpetual fear. That allows you to continue the insane feeding of the military-industrial complex at the expense of the rest of the nation’s needs. “Before long,” said Mr. Jarecki in an interview, “the military ends up so overempowered that the rest of your national life has been allowed to atrophy.”

In one of the great deceptive maneuvers in U.S. history, the military-industrial complex (with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as chairman and C.E.O., respectively) took its eye off the real enemy in Afghanistan and launched the pointless but far more remunerative war in Iraq.

If you want to get a chill, just consider the tragic chaos in present-day Iraq (seven G.I.’s were killed on the day I went to see “Why We Fight”) and then listen to Susan Eisenhower in the film recalling a quotation attributed to her grandfather: “God help this country when somebody sits at this desk who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.”

The military-industrial complex has become so pervasive that it is now, as one of the figures in the movie notes, all but invisible. Its missions and priorities are poorly understood by most Americans, and frequently counter to their interests.

Near the end of the movie, Mr. Sekzer, the New York cop who lost his son on Sept. 11, describes his reaction to President Bush’s belated acknowledgment that “we’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved” in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“What the hell did we go in there for?” Mr. Sekzer asks.

Unable to hide his bitterness, he says: “The government exploited my feelings of patriotism, of a deep desire for revenge for what happened to my son. But I was so insane with wanting to get even, I was willing to believe anything.”

The Discussion: 3 Comments

As sympathetic as I am to Mr. Sekezer, his last sentence jars. Rather than admit and accept his weakness and diminished responsibility,he refuses to take any responsibilty at all for his acceptance of war.

February 27, 2006 @ 4:13 am | Comment

Actually, the military-industrial complex is just a natural outgrowth of nation-state based capitalism. Every historical economic system has ultimately fused with the political hiearchy to create a politico-economic system.

For example, imperial Roman patricians lobbied the emperor to start wars for the purposes of gaining more and more slaves to work on their plantations. The Roman system depended on increasing labor, not efficiency, to improve their economy.

Before that, you had the Persian Empire, whose landowners rapidly exhausted the existing land on the Iranian plateau and consequently urged the empire to wage war for acquiring new land. That was because the whole Persian economy was based on ever increasing amounts of land to exploit.

Now, you have the American system, which is based on ever increasing capital generation. You don’t increase the economy by increasing land, labor, or entrepreneurship; you do it by increasing the raw access to capital (monetary expansion, etc.) Everything in our government today, from pork projects to the Fed to B-52s cluster-bombing Iraqi tank columns, is built on that principle. The military-industrial complex’s addiction to war is merely a manifestation of this historical trend of politico-economic union.

I’m not saying this is good; I’m just saying that–just as water flows downhill–politico-economic systems have a tendency to devolve into such oligarchical beasts (regardless of the source of wealth) unless the entire citizenry of the country remain ever vigilant (which is highly improbable.)

February 27, 2006 @ 12:01 pm | Comment

Whether or not we are prisoner to the invisible hand of the arms industry is a good question. I think not – I don’t look at the world that way. But there are defintely too many scary things to do with it for my liking. Moving beyond the purely j’accuse flavor of a Mr. Moore 9/11 docu-probe (forgive him that though, he needs a target), the fact that the defence/arms industries are increasingly private sector and de-regulated is — for certain — a worrying trend: there is less and less liberal/particpatory political oversight of these industries (which I believe there should be more of, although I am not an advocate of state ownership or intervention, but I do believe in scrutiny and transparency, even if this is never in fashion).

I come from a place in East Lancashire, UK, which was a traditional hub for the RAF supply industry. This military-industrial complex now serves “wider markets” as the 80’s privatization jargon would term it — Rolls-Royce still makes jet engines/parts in Barnoldswick; there is a whole offshoot precision castings industry for military customers in the area, and while the BAE manufacturing site at Salisbury has been wound down over 20 years from the early 80s it is far from dead…there are scores of ‘consultancies’ and spin-outs from that complex doing very good international trade in everything from helicopter to missle tech –- many from units and with tech services they now sublet from the BAE estate….(such is outsourcing); the Far East (espec. ZG) is one of their favorite markets.

So the arms ind./terror business thing is close to me in a funny way — you know friends and guys from school are part of it in the most direct of ways and yet think nothing of it. To them it is a just a job –- designing and running death machines. Take any flight back to the UK via Dubai and the back-to-UK-leg is full of BAE contractors and the like (…the leftovers of that Thatcher-Saudi arms deal which John Snow picks up on his White House hack memoirs).

This passes us all by as part and parcel of ordinairy life, but just as the ‘evil’ ‘terrorists’ are ‘wickedly’ making and exploding bombs, so are we but not so ‘wickedly’ from our home point of view…there are more than a few country-gent-come-rocket-makers that go to Church with little old ladies in my neck of the woods…good upstading pillars of the community and all that…

They’re all as bad or as holy as each other, whichever way you look at it and what strikes me about the 9/11 thing is there is just too much pot-calling-kettle-black, glass houses blah blah. If really pressed on the issue my Mum and Dad would both have to admit to complacently harboring makers of WMD in their neighbourhood. I’ll not even bother going in the investment trust/pension fund management direction.

So are they (the arms biz) controlling our lives/our governments? I don’t think so. It is not the arms industry per se, but our global imperial capitalist culture: colonialism, empires — war — the old ditty from my days at Uni goes something like “states make war and war makes states” (who said that first in print?).

But what would the world be like without a powerful hegemon like the US is now, with the capital and technology to take out whoever they feel like they need to? Maybe not so nice. I for one am glad it is the liberally constrained US and not some crazy Hitler/theocracy that calls the shots. A good angle on this is ‘Colussus’ about the relucant American ‘Empire’ (histrorian, a Neil or Nigel? forget) — which proposes that Empires are a good thing, although ‘Nigel’ is puzzled with America’s reluctance to be a ‘proper’ Empire.

Whether you agree with hegemony or not, for sure the arms industry is powerful — too powerful. But I don’t think they control our world…which is far too crazy. They are just a very powerful and neccesary special interest that exists, because it suits the needs of governments and aspiring politcal (power) causes.

What worries me is the looseness of the oversight in our increasingly-only money-run world…in the past nobody had the levers except governments to raise the cash for mass destruction (in modern times in Britain, our complicity in this as a captalist-society kicked-in with Pitt’s Naopleanic income tax, although even then undertaking naval/miltray construction was something only the government could order, even if the Merchant bankers were writing the cheques).

Now the death machine industry is best characterized by its “alternative service providers” doing their best to give “value for money” for their “wider markets”. I am a free market person but there should be limits…unfortunately business is about taking in other people’s dirty washing…and death being a dirty business there’s plenty of bucks in it…Chllling thought for us softees!

February 27, 2006 @ 12:46 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.