Who do we hold accountable for the random and often changing strategic mistakes that have damaged our strength and our reputation? How do we move forward in the way we articulate and implement our national strategy here at home? How do we regain our respect in the international community, both among our friends who need us, and from potential adversaries who pray every day that America will lose its willpower, that we would be so overcome by military failures abroad and turbulence at home that the nation itself will atrophy and descend into the ranks of an also-ran, second-rate power?
We should begin with a vigorous and open discussion about the makeup, power, and influence of America’s massive defense establishment. And here I’m talking about the highest levels of our uniformed military, the civilian government officials, the powerful defense corporations, the numerous think tanks funded heavily by the defense industry, the hugely influential lobbying organizations, and—if not at the bottom, certainly in the bullseye of the efforts of all of these entities—the authorizing and appropriating committees in the Senate and House of Representatives. Couple that with the media of all sorts, particularly the huge growth of the internet and social media, and one can see how complicated the debate over any controversial issue can become.
We were warned about this, sixty years ago, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his well-remembered speech about the “military / industrial complex.” The speech was the president’s carefully placed farewell message to the American people, made just three days before he left office. His words resonate, symbolic in their timing as his final shot across the bow, and coming as they did from this former five-star general who knew the military with a completeness that no other American president could ever match.
After commenting that in the aftermath of World War Two the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” Eisenhower expressed his concern about the “total influence – economic, political, even spiritual” of this new reality “in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”
The outgoing, immensely popular President then bluntly called out the members of his own professional culture—the military itself—and the bond its top leaders were increasingly forming with America’s defense corporations. “In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military / industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Looking at the decades following his speech and particularly the past twenty years, I believe President Eisenhower would be amazed at how massively this military-industrial complex has grown, how entangled the relationships between the military and the industrial complex have become, and how much it has affected the career paths of civilian “experts,” as well as the positions taken by many senior flag officers facing retirement.
Lucrative civilian careers have been made through the “revolving doors” of serving for a few years in appointed posts in the Departments of Defense and State, or by working on committee staffs in the Congress, then rotating over the space of many years in and out of government into the defense-oriented industry and in the ever more influential think tanks, some of them heavily funded by corporations with major financial interests in defense contracts. The number of people involved in such revolving doors and the amount of money flowing back and forth would have stunned the understanding of people in Eisenhower’s era.
Likewise, many military officers have made similar career moves, taking advantage of skills and relationships that were developed while on active duty. Those in uniform and others who work in the area of national defense regularly comment about the potential for conflicts of interest among the most senior flag officers as they carry out their final active duty positions before retiring and prepare for their next career in the civilian world. Critical issues ranging from the procurement of weapons systems to carrying out politically sensitive military operations often comprise the way in which potential civilian employers decide on the next chapter in their lives. A hand played well can bring large financial benefits. A hand played poorly can result in media stigma or even being relieved of their duties, and a beach house in Tarpon Springs.
As with other areas of public service, it would be useful for Congress to examine the firewalls in place in order to maintain the vitally important separation of the military, on the one side, and the industrial complex on the other, just as President Dwight Eisenhower so prophetically pointed out sixty years ago.
Dwight Eisenhower would have liked General Robert Barrow, the twenty-seventh commandant of the Marine Corps. His leadership example personally inspired me, both during and after my service in the Corps. We had many personal discussions over the years, until he passed away in 2008. He was a great combat leader. He mastered guerrilla warfare while fighting Japanese units alongside Chinese soldiers in World War Two. In the Korean War, he received the Navy Cross, our country’s second-highest award, for extraordinary heroism as a company commander during the historic breakout from the Chosin Reservoir. And in Vietnam, he was known as one of the war’s finest regimental commanders. He knew war, he knew loyalty, and he knew his Marines.
General Barrow was fond of emphasizing that moral courage was often harder, and more exemplary, than physical courage. On matters of principle, he would not bend. During one difficult period when he was dealing with serious issues in the political process, the four-star Commandant calmly pointed out to me that his obligation was to run the Marine Corps “the same way a good company commander runs his rifle company: I’ll do the best job I know how to do, and if you don’t like what I’m doing, then fire me.”
It is rare these days to see such leaders wearing the stars of a general or an admiral. And thinking of President Eisenhower’s prescient warnings about what he termed the “the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals,” I have no doubt that he and General Barrow shared the same concerns. General Barrow held another firm belief. Having served as Commandant of the Marine Corps, he believed it would soil the dignity of that office by trading on its credibility for financial gain through banging on doors in Washington as a lobbyist or serving as a board member giving a defense-related corporation his prized insider’s advice on how to sell their product.
The Japanese have a saying that “life is a generation, but reputation is forever.” And General Barrow’s pristine motivation will forever preserve his honor.
I grew up in the military. I know the price that families must pay when their fathers or now even their mothers are continuously deployed, because I lived it as a very young boy. My father, a pilot who flew B-17s and B-29s in World War Two and cargo planes in the Berlin Airlift, was continually deployed either overseas or on bases with no family housing, at one point for more than three years. I know the demands and yet the honor of leading infantry Marines in combat and then spending years in and out of the hospital after being wounded. I know what it is like to be a father with a son deployed in a very bad place as an enlisted infantry Marine. And most of all I know the pride that comes from being able to say for the rest of my life that when my country called, I was there, and I took care of my people.
My other major point today is that our top leaders in all sectors of national defense need to get going and develop a clearly articulated foreign policy. We have lost twenty years, unfortunately fulfilling the prediction that I made in the Washington Post five months before the invasion of Iraq that “Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall.” And for China, indeed it was.
It’s ironic that we are now hearing frantic warnings from our uniformed leaders about China’s determined expansionism, both military and economic, and particularly about how recent reports of Chinese technological leaps might be something of a new “Sputnik” moment where America has been caught off-guard and now must rush to catch up. Too bad they weren’t following this as these policies and technological improvements were developed by the Chinese over at least the past two decades, while our focus remained intently on the never-ending and never-resolved brawls in the Middle East.