The United States Military Machine

by Joel Kovel

(Dr. Joel Kovel is the Alger Hiss Professor of Social Studies at Bard College. His books include White Racism: A Psychohistory; A Complete Guide to Therapy; The Age of Desire; Against the State of Nuclear Terror; In Nicaragua; The Radical Spirit; History and Spirit; Red Hunting in the Promised Land; and most recently The Enemy of Nature. He is also an editor of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. Kovel has been active with the Green Party and ran for the United States Senate from New York in 1998. In 2000, he challenged Ralph Nader for the Green Party presidential nomination in that year. Dr. Kovel is one of the region’s most prolific speakers in the Hudson Valley, educating people about the dangers of the Bush Administration’s war machine. This article is based on a lecture given by Dr. Kovel at State University of New York November 21, 2002).

NOTE: The reader will qujickly discover that Kovel uses the lower case for many abbreviations, as “us” for US, “mic“ for military-industrial complex, “du” for depleted uranium, “ussr” for USSR, etc.

I want to talk to you this evening about war—not the immediate threat of us war against Iraq, but about how this conflict is an instance of a larger tendency toward war-making endemic to our society. In other words, the phrase from the folksong, “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” should be rethought. I think we do have to study war. Not to make war, but to understand more deeply how it is put together and about the awful choices that are now being thrust upon us.

These remarks have been stimulated by recent events, which have ancient roots, but have taken on a new shape since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the second Bush administration, and the inception of the so-called “War on Terror.” The shape is that of permanent warfare—war-making that has no particular strategic goal except total us dominance over global society. Hence, a war without end and whose internal logic is to perpetuate itself.

We are, in other words, well into World War III, which will go on whether or not any other state such as Iraq is involved. It is quite probable that this administration will go to war in Iraq, inasmuch as certain very powerful people crave it. But it is not necessarily the case, given the fact that the war against Iraq is such a lunatic proposal that many other people in high places are against it—and too many people are marching against it. And while war against Iraq is a very serious matter that needs to be checked by massive popular resistance, equally serious are the structures now in place in the United States dictating that whether or not the war in Iraq takes place, there will be another war to replace it, and others after that, unless some very basic changes take place.

America Has Become a War-Making Machine

The United States has always been a bellicose and expansive country, built on violent conquest and expropriation of native peoples. Since the forming of the American republic, military interventions have occurred at the rate of about once a year. Consider the case of Nicaragua, a country utterly incapable of being any kind of a threat to its giant northern neighbor. Yet prior to the Sandinista revolution in 1979 (which was eventually crushed by us proxy forces a decade later), our country had invaded Nicaragua no fewer than 14 times in the pursuit of its imperial interests.

A considerable number of contemporary states, such as Britain, South Africa, Russia, and Israel, have been formed in just such a way. But one of the special conditions of the formation of America, despite its aggressivity, was an inhibition against a military machine as such. If you remember, no less a figure than George Washington warned us against having a standing army, and indeed the great bulk of us interventions prior to World War II were done without very much in the way of fixed military institutions. However, after WWII a basic change set in. War-weary America longed for demobilization, yet after a brief beginning in this direction, the process was halted and the permanent warfare state started to take shape.

In part, this was because policy planners knew quite well that massive wartime mobilization had been the one measure that finally lifted America out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. One of the lessons of that time was that propounded by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that capitalist societies could ameliorate chronic [economic] crises by infusions of government spending. The Great War had certified this wisdom, and permanent military expenditure readily became the received wisdom. This was greatly reinforced by the drastic realignment of capitalist power as a result of the war. America was essentially the only capitalist power in 1945 that did not lay in ruins and/or have its empire shattered. The world had been realigned and the United States had assumed a global imperial role.

Policy planners like George Kennan lucidly realized that this meant safeguarding extreme inequalities in wealth, which implied a permanent garrison to preserve the order of things. The notion was especially compelling given that one other state, the Soviet Union, had emerged a great power from the war and was the bellwether of those forces that sought to break down the prevailing distribution of wealth. The final foundation stone for the new military order was the emergence of frightful weapons of mass destruction, dominance over which became an essential element for world hegemony.

The Iron Triangle

These factors crystallized into the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and, domestically, into those structures that gave institutional stability and permanence to the system: the military-industrial complex (mic). Previously the us had used militarism to secure economic advantage. Now, two developments greatly transformed our militarism: the exigencies of global hegemony and the fact that militarism became a direct source of economic advantage, through the triangular relations of the mic—with the great armament industries comprising one leg, the military establishment another, and the state apparatus the third, profits, power, and personnel could flow through the system and from the system.

Clearly, this arrangement had the potential to greatly undermine American democracy. It was a “national security state” within the state but also extended beyond it into the economy and society at large, virtually insulated from popular input, and had the power to direct events and generate threats. Another conservative war hero-become-president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned the nation in a speech in 1961 against the emerging permanent war machine, but this time, the admonitions were not heeded.*

The machine made a kind of war against the Soviet system for 35 years. Although actual guns were not fired between the two adversaries, as many as 10 million people died in its varied peripheral conflicts, from Korea to Vietnam, Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. The Cold War divided the world into bipolar imperial camps, directed by gigantic superpowers that lived off each other’s hostility. It was a terrible war whose immense suffering took place largely outside the view of the American people, but it also brought about an uneasy kind of stability in the world order, in part through the standoff in nuclear weapons.

During the Ford and Carter administrations, another great crisis seized the world capitalist economy. Having matured past the rebuilding that followed the world war, a period of stagnation set in, which still has the global economy in its grip despite episodic flashes of vigor. Predictably, a spate of militarism was central to the response. A “Second Cold War” took place under Reagan, featuring an accelerated nuclear arms race, which was deliberately waged so as to encourage Soviet countermeasures in the hope that this would cause breakdown in the much weaker, bloated, and corrupt Russian system. The plan worked splendidly: by 1989-91, the mighty Soviet empire collapsed, and the bipolar world order became unipolar, setting a stage for the current phase.

The fall of the Soviet Union was widely expected to bring a “peace dividend.” This would have been the case according to the official us line, parroted throughout the media and academe, that our military apparatus was purely defensive (after all, we have no Department of War, only one of “Defense”) and reactive to Soviet expansionism and military/nuclear threat. As this was no longer a factor, so the reasoning went—indeed, as the us now stood bestride the world militarily as had no power since the Roman Empire—conventional logic predicted a general diminution in American militarism after 1991, with corresponding benefits to society. The last decade has at least settled this question, for the effect on us aggression, interventionism, and the militarization of society has been precisely the opposite. In other words, instead of braking, the machine accelerated. Removal of Soviet power did not diminish America’s imperial appetite: it removed inhibitions on its internally driven expansiveness. As a result, enhanced war-making has replaced the peace dividend.

The object of this machine has passed from dealing with Soviet Communism to a more complex and dispersed set of oil wars (Iraq I and now II), police actions against international miscreants (Kosovo), and now the ubiquitous War Against Terror, aimed variously at Islamic fundamentalists, Islam as a whole, or anybody irritated enough with the ruling order to take up some kind of arms against it. The comparison with the Roman Empire is here very exact. As the eminent economist and sociologist Joseph Schumpeter described Rome in 1919: “There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies. And if Rome had no allies that existed, allies would be invented. The fight was always invested with the order of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors.”

The logic of constant threat meshes with that of ruthless expansion, which we see everywhere in this epoch of unipolar world dominion. Currently, the military budget of the us is 334 billion dollars. The budget for the next fiscal year is 379 billion dollars—an increase of more than 10 percent. By 2007, the projected military budget of the us is to be an astounding 451 billion dollars: almost half a trillion dollars, without the presence of anything resembling a conventional war. The present military budget is greater than the sum of all other military budgets. In fact, it is greater than the entire federal budget of Russia, once America’s immortal adversary, and comprises more than half—52 percent—of all discretionary spending by the us government. (By comparison, education accounts for 8 percent of the federal budget.)

A considerable portion of this is given over to “military Keynesianism,” according to the well-established paths of the mic. Thus, although in the first years after the fall of the ussr certain firms like General Dynamics, which had played a large role in the nuclear arms race, suffered setbacks, that problem has been largely reversed for the entire class of firms fattening at the trough of militarism. It is fair to say, though, that the largesse is distributed over a wider scale, in accordance with the changing pattern of armaments.

US Armies Taking Root Everywhere

From having scarcely any standing army in 1940, American armies now stand everywhere. One feature of us military policy since WWII is to make war and then stay where war was made, rooting itself in foreign territory. Currently, the us has military bases in 113 countries, with 11 new ones formed since the beginning of the War Against Terror. The us now has bases in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kurdistan, encircling China and creating new sources of military tension. On these bases, the us military has erected some 800,000 buildings. Imagine that: 800,000 buildings in foreign countries that are now occupied by us military establishments.

And America still maintains large forces in Germany, Japan, and Korea, with tens of thousands of troops permanently on duty (and making mischief, as two us servicemen recently ran over and killed two Korean girls, provoking massive demonstrations). After the first Gulf War the us military became installed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, in which latter place it currently occupies one quarter of the country—750 square miles devoted to military activity. This huge investment is no doubt determined by proximity to Iraq. Again, after going to war in Kosovo, the us left behind an enormous base in a place called Bondsteel.

These self-expanding sites of militarism are permanent goads to terrorist organizations. Recall that one of Osama bin Laden’s professed motivations for al-Qaeda’s attacks on American facilities was the presence of us bases in his home country of Saudi Arabia. The bases are also permanent hazards to the environment—indeed, the us, with some 800,000 buildings on these military sites, is the world’s largest polluter and the largest consumer of fossil fuels.

With territorial expansion of the us military apparatus, there is a corresponding expansion of mission. For instance, in Colombia, where billions of us dollars are spent in the “War on Drugs,” us troops are now being asked to take care of pipelines through which vital oil reserves are passing. In addition, the War on Drugs is now subsumed into the War Against Terror. The signifier of Terror has virtually unlimited elasticity, for once an apparatus reaches the size of the us military machine, threats can be seen anywhere. With the inauguration of the new hard-line president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, the us authorized the use of 1.7 billion dollars in military aid hitherto limited to anti-drug operations for direct attacks on deeply entrenched farc guerrillas. This redirection of aid came after Colombian officials and their American supporters in the Congress and Bush administration argued that the change was needed as part of the global campaign against terrorism.

Within this overall picture, American armed forces are undergoing a qualitative shift of enormous proportion. In words read by President Bush: “Our forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, readily deployable, and must require a minimum of logistical support. We must be able to project our power over long distances in days or weeks rather than months. On land our heavy forces must be lighter, our light forces must be more lethal. All must be easier to deploy.”

Crossing Weapons Boundaries—Both Nuclear and Conventional

As a result, many boundaries and limits of the bipolar era have been breached. For example, the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons had always constituted a radical barrier. The standoff between the us and the ussr was epitomized by mind-numbing hydrogen bomb-missiles facing each other in a scenario called “Mutual Assured Destruction.” In short, a strategic condition of deterrence prevailed, which made nuclear weapons seem unthinkable. With the demise of the ussr, deterrence no longer inhibits us nuclear weaponry, and the weapons themselves have proliferated downward, becoming miniaturized and increasingly tactical rather than strategic.

Meanwhile, the genie of the weapons industries has developed ever more destructive “conventional” weapons. These include non-explosive devices of awesome power, such as laser beams, microwaves, and large-scale climate manipulation, along with a new generation of super-powerful explosive devices. Thus the strongest non-nuclear weapons are now considerably more lethal than the least powerful nuclear weapons, making the latter thinkable and eliminating a major barrier against their employment.

These so-called conventional bombs have already been used, for example, in Afghanistan, where the us employed a gigantic explosive weapon, called a “Bunker Buster” to root out al-Qaeda combatants in underground bunkers. They are based upon the “daisy cutter,” a giant bomb about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and capable of destroying everything within a square kilometer. Significantly, the model used in Afghanistan, the B61-11, already employs nuclear technology, the infamous depleted uranium warhead, capable by virtue of its extreme density, of great penetrating power.

Depleted uranium (du) is a by-product of the nuclear power industry (chiefly being U-238 created in the extraction of U-235 from naturally occurring uranium ore). Over 500,000 tons of deadly du have accumulated and 4,000 to 5,000 more tons are being produced every year. Like all products of the nuclear power industry, du poses immense challenges of disposal. It has this peculiar property of being almost twice as dense as lead and it is radioactive with a half-life of 4.5 billion years. Wherever depleted uranium is used, it has another peculiar property of exploding, vaporizing at 56 degrees centigrade, which is just like a little more than half the way to boiling water. So it is very volatile, it explodes, it forms dust and powders that are inhaled, disburses widely, and produces lethal cancers, birth defects, and so forth for 4.5 billion years.

In the case of depleted uranium, the challenge of disposal was met by incorporating the refuse from the “peaceful” branch of nuclear technology into the war-making branch. Already used in anti-tank projectiles in the first Iraq war (approximately 300 tons worth) and again in Yugoslavia (approximately 10-15 tons were used in each of the various Yugoslav wars), it is presumed, although the defense department coyly denies it, that this material was also used in the Afghanistan war. Depleted uranium has spread a plague of radioactivity and further rationalized the use of nuclear weapons as such. Consequently, the B61-11 is about to be replaced with the BLU113, where the bunker buster will now be a small nuclear weapon, almost certainly spear-tipped with du.

Pollutants to Earth and Space

To the boundaries crossed between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, and between the peaceful and militaristic uses of atomic technology, we need to add those between earth and its lower atmosphere on the one hand, and space on the other.

In November 2002, Bush proposed that nato allies build missile defense systems, with components purchased, needless to add, from Boeing, Raytheon, etc, even as Congress was approving a fiscal 2003 defense budget containing $7.8 billion authorization for missile defense research and procurement, as part of the $238 billion set aside for Star Wars over the next 20 years. The administration now is poised to realize the crackpot and deadly schemes of the Reagan administration to militarize space and to draw the rest of the world into the scheme, as client and victim. A new missile defense system bureaucracy has risen. It is currently developing such wild items as something called “brilliant pebbles” which involves the release of endless numbers of mini satellites into outer space.

All of this was to protect the world against the threat of rogue states such as North Korea. As the Seattle Times reported, the us expects the final declaration to, “express the need to examine options to protect allied forces, territories, and population centers against the full range of missile threats.”

As an official put it, “This will establish the framework within which nato allies could work cooperatively toward fielding the required capabilities. With the us withdrawal this year from the anti-ballistic treaty with Russia, it is no longer a question of whether missile defenses will be deployed. The relevant questions are now what, how, and when. The train is about to pull out of the station; we invite our friends, allies, and the Russian Federation to climb on board.”

The destination of this train is defensive only in the Orwellian sense, as the missiles will be used to defend us troops in the field. In other words, they will be used to defend armies engaged in offensive activities. What is being “defended” by the Strategic Defense Initiative (sdi), therefore, is the initiative to make war everywhere.

Space has now become the ultimate battlefield. And not just with use of these missiles. The High Frequency Active Aural Research Program (haarp) is also part of sdi. This amounts to weather warfare: deliberately manipulating climate to harm and destroy adversaries. A very dubious enterprise, to say the least, in an age when global warming and climate instability are already looming as two of the greatest problems facing civilization. The chief feature is a network of powerful antennas capable of creating controlled local modifications of the ionosphere and hence producing weather disturbances and so forth.

All of these technical interventions are accompanied by many kinds of institutional and political changes. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, nasa, for instance, is now a partner in the development of this strategic defense initiative. The very way in which the United Nations was drawn into the resolution in the war against Iraq is a breach and a violation of the original un Charter, which is to never make war, never to threaten to make war on any member state. The un was a peacemaking institution, but now the superpower has forced it into its orbit.

The scrapping of the abm and other elements of the treaty structure (non-proliferation, test-ban) that had organized the world of the Cold War is one part of a process of shedding whatever might inhibit the cancerous growth of militarism. It also creates an atmosphere of general lawlessness in the world. This is felt at all levels—from the rise of an ultra-militarist clique in the White House to the formal renunciation of no-first-use nuclear strategy, the flouting of numerous un regulations, the doctrine of pre-emptive war, and, as the logical outcome of all these developments, the condition of Permanent War and its accompaniment of general lawlessness, media slavishness, and a wave of repression for whose parallel we have to go back to the Alien and Sedition acts of the 1790s, or Truman’s loyalty oaths of 1947.

Militarism cannot be reduced to politics, economics, technology, culture, or psychology. All these are parts of the machine, make the machine go around, and are themselves produced by the actions of the machine. There is no doubt, in this regard, that the machine runs on natural resources (which have to be secured by economic, political, and military action), and that it is deeply embedded in the ruling corporate order. There is no contradiction here, but a set of meshing parts, driven by an insensate demand for fossil fuel energy. As a man from Amarillo, Texas put it when interviewed by npr as to the correctness of Bush’s plan to go to war in Iraq: “I agree with the president, because how else are we going to get the oil to fly the F-16s?”

We go to war, in other words, to get the oil needed to go to war.

A Who’s Who List of MIC Beneficiaries

The fact that our government is front-loaded with oil magnates is another part of the machine. It is of interest, therefore, that Unocal, for example, celebrated Condoleezza Rice’s ascendancy to the post of National Security Advisor by naming an oil tanker after her. Or that Dick Cheney, originally a poor boy, became a rich man after the first Gulf War, when he switched from being Secretary of Defense, in charge of destroying the Kuwait oil fields, to ceo of a then-smallish company, Halliburton, in charge of rebuilding the same oil fields. Or that G.W. Bush himself, aside from his failed venture with Harken Oil, is scion of a family and a dynasty that controls the Carlyle Group, founded in 1987 by a former Carter administration official. Carlyle is now worth over $13 billion and its high officials include President Bush I, his Secretary of State (and fixer of the coup that put Bush II in power) James Baker, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, former British Prime Minister John Major, and former Phillipine President Fidel Ramos, among others.

The Carlyle Group has its fingers everywhere, including “defense”, where it controls firms making vertical missile launch systems currently in use on us Navy ships in the Arabian sea, as well as a range of other weapons delivery systems and combat vehicles. And as a final touch which the world’s people would be much better off for knowing, there are very definite connections between Carlyle and the family of Osama bin Laden—a Saudi power whose fortunes have been fused with those of the United States since the end of World War II.

Thus the military-industrial complex lives, breathes, and takes on new dimensions.

There is a deep structural reason for the present explosion of us militarism, most clearly traceable in the activities of Vice President Cheney, made clear in the energy report that he introduced with the generous assistance of Enron executives in May 2001. According to the report, American reliance on imported oil will rise by from about 52 percent of total consumption in 2001 to an estimated 66 percent in 2020. The reason for this is that world production, in general, and domestic production in particular are going to remain flat (and, although the report does not discuss this, begin dropping within the next 20 years). Meanwhile consumption—which is a direct function of the relentless drive of capitalism to expand commodity production is to grow by some two-thirds.

Because the usage of oil must rise in the worldview of a Cheney, the us will actually have to import 60 percent more oil in 2020 to keep itself going than it does today. This means that imports will have to rise from their current rate of about 10.4 million barrels per day to about 16.7 million barrels per day. In the words of the report: “The only way to do this is persuade foreign suppliers to increase their production to sell more of their output to the us.” The meaning of these words depends of course on the interpretation of “persuade”, which in the us lexicon is to be read, I should think, as requiring a sufficient military machine to coerce foreign suppliers. At that point they might not even have to sell their output to the us, as it would already be possessed by the superpower. Here we locate the root material fact underlying recent us expansionism.

This may seem an extravagant conclusion. However an explicit connection to militarism—and Iraq—had been supplied the month before, in April 2001, in another report prepared by James Baker and submitted to the Bush cabinet. This document, called “Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century,” concludes with refreshing candor that “the us remains a prisoner of its energy dilemma, Iraq remains a destabilizing influence to the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East, Saddam Hussein has also demonstrated a willingness to threaten to use the oil weapon and to use his own export program to manipulate oil markets, therefore the us should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq, including military, energy, economic, and political diplomatic assessments.” Note the absence of reference to “weapons of mass destruction,” or aid to terrorism, convenient rationalizations that can be filled in later.

Clearly, however things turn out with Iraq, the fundamental structural dilemma driving the military machine pertains to the contradictions of an empire that drives toward the invasion of all social space and the total control over nature. Since the former goal meets up with unending resistance and the latter crashes against the finitude of the material world, there is no recourse except the ever-widening resort to force. But this, the military monster itself, ever seeking threats to feed upon, becomes a fresh source of danger, whether of nuclear war, terror, or ecological breakdown.

The situation is plainly unsustainable, a series of disasters waiting to happen. It can only be checked and brought to rationality by a global uprising of people who demand an end to the regime of endless war. This is the only possible path by which we can pull ourselves away from the abyss into which the military machine is about to plunge, dragging us all down with it.


*Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial
Complex Speech can be read in its entirety at:

Joel Kovel’s speech may still be available on the internet at -- or through Google. His latest book is The End of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? It does for ecology what the article here does for the militarization of the American mind -- a stunning and brilliant expos?- a tour de force for those who dare -- essential reading, difficult as it is, for anyone compelled to be meaningfully serious about “the predicament of modern man” (apologies to D. Elton Trueblood).
-- T. Walker