Feeding the demands of American military's insatiable maw - LAURA MARLOWE IN IRISH TIMES 220111

Feeding the demands of American military's insatiable maw

AMERICA: Defence secretary Robert Gates admires Eisenhower, who understood the human and material waste of war, writes LARA MARLOWE

AMID THE glamour and euphoria of John F Kennedy’s inauguration, 50 years ago this week, the departing president Dwight D “Ike” Eisenhower sounded a sombre note, a warning that is arguably more relevant today than Kennedy’s exaltation to “ask what you can do for your country”.

Eisenhower’s farewell address was 20 months in the writing, and it coined one of the most emblematic phrases of the past half century: “the military-industrial complex”.

It is one of the ironies of modern history that a five-star general, the liberator of Europe, gave Vietnam war protesters and pacifists of all time such a potent verbal weapon. Eisenhower was a soldier’s soldier who preferred the title “general” to “president” in retirement. Americans remember him better in uniform than in a suit.

But with great lucidity, Eisenhower had understood that no matter how much money you fed into the military’s insatiable maw, it would always clamour for more.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Ike said on January 17th, 1961.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

The rise of this “complex” was the direct result of the war Eisenhower had won.

“Until the last of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry,” he noted.

“American makers of ploughshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defence. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”

Eisenhower understood the human and material waste of war in a way that only an officer who has sent men into battle can. Speaking to US newspaper editors eight years earlier, he said the diversion of resources to the arms industry constituted theft.

“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 . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Like Eisenhower, the US defence secretary Robert Gates is a conservative from Kansas. Gates admires Ike so much that he keeps a portrait of him in his office. In a speech celebrating the 65th anniversary of the allied victory in Europe last year, delivered at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Gates warned: “The attacks of September 11th, 2001, opened a gusher of defence spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Like Eisenhower, Gates pointed out the futility of such overkill.

“Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the US battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which are our partners and allies?” he asked.

“Is it a dire threat, that if by 2020 the US will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”

But as Eisenhower feared, US defence spending has attained unassailable permanence. This month, Gates announced plans to cut $78 billion from the Pentagon’s $700 billion annual budget. Congress and the arms industry pushed back hard.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to cancel an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, manufactured by General Electric and Rolls Royce, on the grounds the US does not need two engines for the same aircraft.

The companies have stepped up campaign contributions, and congressmen from Connecticut and Ohio, where the engines are built, have ensured that funding continues.

The costliest weapons programme in US history, the F-35 has already run up a $382 billion tab.

Another example is the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which was meant to be a tank that swims. The 38-tonne landing craft, built by General Dynamics, comes with a $14.4 billion price tag.

It doesn’t work, and Gates wants to cancel it.

On January 13th, Todd Akin, the new chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and expeditionary forces – who has a General Dynamics plant in his district – announced that he and his colleagues “are going to be opposing the secretary and his decision”.

A peek at General Dynamics’s website illustrates another reason why the military-industrial complex has armour more impregnable than a battle tank: at least five of its 10 board members are former admirals and generals.

Eisenhower deplored this revolving door between the military and the arms industry. A draft of his famous speech contained this section, which was cut from the final version: “Officers retiring at an early age take positions in [the] war-based industrial complex . . . We must be very careful to insure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate national policy.”