The ability of powerful actors to use the war in Ukraine to dramatically increase the size of the U.S. military budget is a quintessential example of an increasingly powerful Military Industrial Complex (MIC). The MIC is that often overlooked phenomenon that U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned about as he was leaving office in 1961. The former World War II general and commander of allied forces in Europe warned U.S. citizens that after the war the country had created “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” that had accumulated unprecedented “economic, political, even spiritual” influence over nearly every aspect of public and private life. The president warned about the “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” and the need to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address,” Washington, DC, January 17, 1961, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/eisenhower001.asp
Consider, too, the deaths and harm that could have been prevented if U.S. leaders chose other ways to invest around $1 trillion a year than in the MIC. The Complex has systematically diverted money, labor, and energy away from pressing human needs such as building green infrastructure to stop global warming, pandemic preparedness, ending hunger and homelessness, and eradicating poverty.
As catastrophic as the damage has been, the MIC now may be helping lead the world down a path toward even greater destructions. Members of the MIC and related elites in the United States and among its European and Asian allies are leading the world toward direct confrontations—not just new Cold Wars—with Russia and China, aided by Putin’s war and Russian and Chinese leaders’ own escalatory, reckless language, weapons development, and military provocations. Most frightening of all is the rapidly increasing risk of a nuclear war, accidental or otherwise, between the United States and its allies and Russia or China—or both. Such a war is more likely now than at any point since the end of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, the year Eisenhower issued his original warning about the MIC. Any single nuclear attack could easily spiral out of control into a full-scale nuclear war that could kill billions of people and potentially end the species.  Witze, A. (2022), “Nuclear war between two nations could spark global famine,” Nature, August 15, available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-02219-4; Wellerstein, A. (2012-2022), Nukemap, available at https://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/
Ike—as Eisenhower was known—was right about the threat of the MIC. And to confront this threat, the MIC must be dismantled.
Dismantling the Military Industrial Complex will sound unrealistic to some. It is not. While money and profit will remain a part of war until humans abolish war completely, the MIC is a relatively new, post-World War II phenomenon that formed through a political and economic process that unfolded over time. As a phenomenon formed through a process, that process can be reversed. The interlocking political and economic power structures of the Complex can—and must—be broken. Like empires, the MIC is neither inevitable nor forever.
We must dismantle the MIC. The question, of course, is how?
The Emergence of a Monster
Since World War II weapons manufacturers and other parts of the war system have accumulated quantitatively and qualitatively greater levels of economic, political, and ideological power, as well as immense profits. This accumulation of power emerged out of a permanent war economy that the United States and the Soviet Union created during the so-called Cold War (that was not at all cold for millions). While the Soviet permanent war economy shrank dramatically after the dissolution of the USSR (Russian military spending is currently around one-twelfth that of the United States),  SIPRI, “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021,” fact sheet, April 2022. Available at https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/fs_2204_milex_2021_0.pdf the U.S. war machine has expanded in power, influence, and control over U.S. resources, especially since the George W. Bush administration launched a “War on Terror” in 2001.
Prior to World War II, the United States had a relatively small military and weapons industry. The U.S. war machine was a substantial one that helped change the course of WWI, but after the war, the country largely demobilized, shutting down arms manufacturing factories and dramatically shrinking the size of its military.
While most wealthy industrialized nations created social welfare states after World War II—investing in universal health care, education, childcare, housing, and other social benefits—U.S. leaders created a warfare state revolving around an increasingly powerful Military Industrial Congressional Complex (as scholars believe Eisenhower initially and more accurately named it).
What emerged from this military spending and the economic and political relationships it created was the Military Industrial Complex that President Eisenhower first warned about in his 1961 farewell address. Despite Eisenhower’s warnings, the MIC only grew in power and influence after he left the office to John F. Kennedy. The Complex made military spending what scholar Catherine Lutz has called the United States’ “largest public works project” from the early Cold War to today. While most wealthy industrialized nations created social welfare states after World War II—investing in universal health care, education, childcare, housing, and other social benefits—U.S. leaders created a warfare state revolving around an increasingly powerful Military Industrial Congressional Complex (as scholars believe Eisenhower initially and more accurately named it).
At the heart of the Military Industrial Complex is a long-standing three-sided “Iron Triangle” relationship between Congress, the military, and weapons manufacturers and other military contractors. Analyst Stephen Semler explains how the basic system works: Military spending “props up an entire industry chock full of tens of thousands of private companies that provide goods [including weapons] and services to the military as contractors. Big military budgets stock these private contractors’ coffers full of cash, which the firms then reinvest into the political system to keep the largesse flowing. Every year, military contractors spend hundreds of millions of dollars on political contributions, lobbying expenses, and donations to prominent think tanks”  Semler, S. (2022), How the Military-Industrial Complex Gets Its Power and Harms Workers, in 6 Graphs, Jacobin, October 13, available at https://jacobin.com/2022/10/pentagon-budget-military-contractors-lobbyists-biden, helping to shape a hypermilitarized approach to U.S. foreign policy.
Major weapons makers go farther to secure billions of dollars in annual contracts by ensuring their manufacturing processes take place in as many Congressional districts as possible. Congress members love the jobs associated with military spending (even though research shows that military spending creates far fewer jobs compared to spending on health care, education, and green infrastructure).
Over time, the more tax dollars Congress members have poured into the Complex, the more powerful the Complex has become. The more powerful the Complex has become, the more money and power it has claimed, expanding like a snowball rolling downhill. As the power of the MIC grew, it systematically diverted money, labor, and energy away from pressing human needs in the United States and globally, such as universal health care, poverty alleviation, public health, racial equity, affordable housing, public schooling, and efforts to combat global warming. In a 1953 speech, Eisenhower rightly called this diversion of funds “a theft”; he then oversaw a major military buildup throughout the rest of his presidency.
Today’s MIC has grown in power far beyond Eisenhower’s worst nightmares. Following the end of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military budget did not shrink but instead expanded by tens of billions of dollars, even before the start of the war in Ukraine. Many now acknowledge that the primary beneficiary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan was the industrial part of the Military Industrial Complex, which reaped hundreds of billions from the conflict: The title of a 2021 article in the corporate newspaper of record, The Wall Street Journal, read, “Who Won in Afghanistan? Private Contractors.”
In recent years, the Military Industrial Congressional Complex has become a “much more serious menace” than it was in Eisenhower’s time, writes journalist Gareth Porter. Today’s Complex has accumulated broader and deeper influence than it had in 1961, expanding into new societal and economic realms. Former U.S. intelligence official Ray McGovern calls it the “MICIMATT”—the “Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think-Tank Complex.” In his book The Complex, historian Nick Turse points to an even broader “military-industrial-technological-entertainment-academic-scientific-media-intelligence-homeland security-surveillance-national security-corporate complex.”
The Complex has become “the most powerful lobby of all” in shaping policy and spending in Washington, DC, says McGovern. With the help of pliant members of Congress, contractors regularly demonstrate the power to force the military to buy weapons the military does not even want. Contractors are “obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest,” Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin show in their book Top Secret America. “It just hits you like a ton of bricks when you think about it,” one high-ranking officer told them. “The Department of Defense is no longer a war-fighting organization, it’s a business enterprise.”
Between 2001 and 2021, U.S. wars alone cost U.S. taxpayers more than $8 trillion, amid total military spending of $19 trillion.  Estimate of total war costs from Costs of War Project, available at www.CostsofWar.org and State of Insecurity: The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11 (2021), L. Koshgarian, A. Siddique, and L Steichen, National Priorities Project and Institute for Policy Studies, available at span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>https://www.nationalpriorities.org/analysis/2021/state-insecurity-cost-militarization-911/ Today the Complex is responsible for a U.S. military budget that is completely out of proportion to the threats facing the United States. The budget is larger (adjusting for inflation) than at the height of the Cold War despite the absence of any threat or enemy comparable to the Soviet Union. The U.S. military budget now exceeds that of the next nine nations combined (most of whom are allies). U.S. military spending is more than 10 times Russia’s and three times China’s. Combined with the budgets of U.S. allies, the U.S. military budget is six times the size of China’s.  SIPRI, “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021,” fact sheet, April 2022. Available at https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/fs_2204_milex_2021_0.pdf
The MIC’s damage extends far beyond the financial. In the eight decades since the end of World War II, there have been exactly two years when the U.S. military has not been involved in a war or other combat. Accounting for CIA-backed coups, arms shipments to war zones, and other forms of foreign meddling, the U.S. government has likely never been at peace in the post-war period (the record is little better before World War II).  Vine, D. The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State (University of California Press, 2020).
Deaths and injuries from U.S. warfare reach into the tens of millions. In the last 20 years, alone, the MIC has helped drive a so-called war on terror that has killed an estimated 4.5 million, injured tens of millions, and displaced 38 million. The total cost of these wars extends to the U.S. military’s carbon footprint, which is larger than that of any organization on earth: Between 2001 and 2021, the military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases—more than twice the annual emissions of the nearly 300 million cars in the United States.  Most estimates derive from reports available at www.CostsofWar.org. I explain my death estimate at https://twitter.com/davidsvine/status/1436387989609857027?s=20&t=hVo8AbPzOx6a_eJxoMsyCQ
A Global Problem
While the Complex is a distinct problem rooted in the emergence of the United States as the world’s most powerful country after World War II, other countries have developed their own military industrial complexes. The Soviet Union had one before its collapse. Russia, China, Britain, and France have their own versions. Yet each pales in comparison to the original MIC given the far larger sums the U.S. government has invested in its war machine. The United States represents around 40 percent of global military spending.  SIPRI, “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021,” fact sheet, April 2022. Available at https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/fs_2204_milex_2021_0.pdf At the height of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. military spending represented around half of all military spending worldwide.
The original MIC also has grown increasingly transnational over time, expanding far beyond U.S. borders. Foreign weapons makers regularly bid on and win major arms contracts with the U.S. Pentagon. Some major U.S. military contractors are no longer U.S. corporations, having moved their headquarters outside the United States to evade taxes. A recent Washington Post expose shows how retired U.S. generals and admirals frequently earn lucrative salaries working for foreign militaries, especially those in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At times these contracts and the relationships involved appear to have influenced major weapons sales and U.S. foreign policy.
For decades NATO has been an economic alliance revolving around arms sales as much as it has been a military alliance. The U.S. government’s emphasis on the “interoperability” of militaries across NATO has a military function to coordinate military forces; it also has an economic function in ensuring that NATO allies remain deeply dependent on future purchases from U.S. arms manufacturers, while also integrating other nations’ arms industries into the U.S. war machine. Major weapons systems frequently involve joint partnerships between multiple corporations across multiple countries allied with the U.S. The F-35 fighter jet, the most expensive weapons system in history, involves more than 1,900 companies from 14 countries, according to prime contractor Lockheed-Martin.
Dismantling the Military Industrial Complex(es)
The MIC has been the largely hidden, often overlooked force obstructing the efforts of movements worldwide struggling to stop U.S.-led wars, oppose U.S. imperialism, cut military spending, prevent nuclear annihilation, and promote peace. The Complex is a major reason why, despite some encouraging work and signs of progress, our efforts have been largely ineffective. Anti-war, pro-peace activists must admit that we currently lack effective strategies to successfully challenge this entrenched node of power. We’re pretty good at pointing out the nature of the problem, but what would it take to fix the problem itself?
Recognizing that I do not know how to dismantle the MIC, I have been speaking recently with a wide range of MIC experts—activists, academics, analysts, veterans, Congressional staffers, journalists, and others—about that question: What would it take to undermine the power of and ultimately dismantle the MIC?
Across dozens of conversations, there has been broad agreement that we need:
1.To take on the MIC directly;
2.To better coordinate the diverse people and groups who are too often pursuing anti-war, anti-imperialist, pro-peace work isolated from each other;
3.To develop far better strategies and tactics if we are going to reduce the power of the MIC;
4.To scale up our best existing strategies that may require far more labor and funding to be effective;
5.To raise far more money—tens of millions of dollars more—if we want to seriously challenge a Complex involving some of the world’s wealthiest corporations and their army of extravagantly-funded lobbyists, retired generals and admirals, advertisers, think tank spokespeople, and paid-off politicians. While raising tens of millions of dollars may seem daunting and laughable, there are people with the desire to dramatically improve living conditions for billions for whom $10 million is a small fraction of their wealth.
Given the threats facing us, this is a time to think as boldly as possible about strategies, tactics, and campaigns to roll back the MIC’s power and to build the world we want to see. We must discard ideas about what’s “realistic,” which so often constrain our thinking unnecessarily. We should look for strategies, tactics, and inspiration from movements that have successfully challenged comparable entrenched nodes of power such as Big Oil, Big Tech, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Agriculture, racism and white supremacy, and the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex.
Some major U.S. military contractors are no longer U.S. corporations, having moved their headquarters outside the United States to evade taxes. A recent Washington Post expose shows how retired U.S. generals and admirals frequently earn lucrative salaries working for foreign militaries, especially those in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Among many other approaches, we should consider lawsuits and divestment campaigns; a sophisticated multi-million-dollar advertising and social media campaign; nationalization of weapons manufacturers to remove the profit motive from arms manufacturing; the conversion of arms merchants into not-for-profit corporations; and the conversion of large parts of the military into an unarmed disaster relief, public health, and infrastructure construction force. We should consider recruiting allies from industries that are losing out when every year the U.S. Congress gives half of the U.S. government’s annual budget to the military and the arms industry. We should seriously consider whether making progress against the MIC and the other major social justice struggles of our time will require creating a movement of movements on the left—at national and international levels—to collaboratively challenge racism and the MIC, global warming and poverty, patriarchy and Indigenous land theft, and more.
When we succeed in diminishing the power of the MIC’s power, we will make the world safer, healthier, and more secure. Decreasing the power and influence of the MIC can help turn the United States and its allies away from a pattern of permanent war and growing momentum toward a potentially species-ending nuclear war with China, Russia, or both. A substantially diminished MIC would have fewer weapons systems, fewer U.S. military bases globally, fewer nuclear weapons, fewer lobbyists, and less power in Congress and the media to advance the militaristic, imperialist foreign policy that has defined the U.S. role in the world since 1945.
Success in reducing the MIC’s power would almost surely involve a significant decrease in the size of the annual military budget in the United States and beyond. While I have called for a halving of the U.S. military budget, even a 30 percent decrease—comparable to after the Cold War’s end—would free hundreds of billions of dollars annually and still leave the United States with a military budget larger than that of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea combined.
Hundreds of billions of dollars would be available to meet pressing human and environmental needs, including the development of green energy infrastructure, pandemic preparedness and vaccine development, global poverty alleviation, affordable housing, improved public education, and a deepened commitment to international diplomacy. Downsizing the MIC, and thus the entire military machine, on its own would help reduce US carbon emissions and slow global warming given that the US military is the world’s largest institutional carbon polluter.
Some will object that the MIC is what’s keeping Ukrainians’ alive in the face of Putin’s imperialist invasion. While U.S. and allied weaponry certainly has aided Ukrainian self-defense, the weapons manufacturers are far from altruists. If they truly cared about Ukrainians, they would forgo any profit, leaving more money for humanitarian aid for Ukraine (or saving U.S. taxpayer money). Of course they don’t. The Complex has used the war cynically to inflate profits and stock prices dramatically.
While more modest objectives have failed, some will continue to believe that dismantling the MIC is unrealistic. Given the stakes, we cannot afford self-fulfilling forms of pessimism or foreclosing our sense of what is possible. To do so will be to accept defeat and a perpetuation of a status quo that harms billions.
We need a sense of urgency that if we do not dismantle the MIC, new catastrophe looms for the United States and the world: If we are collectively to avoid squandering trillions of taxpayer dollars on a permanent war; if we are to save ourselves from the worst effects of global warming by building green infrastructure; if we are to address the world’s other most urgent problems like pandemics, poverty, and inequality; if we are to prevent war between the United States and its allies and Russia or China; if we are to avoid nuclear annihilation, we must build a transnational movement to dismantle an increasingly transnational MIC.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: If we want to save the planet, we must build a movement to dismantle one of Earth’s most harmful but ignored forces: the Military Industrial Complex.