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As President Eisenhower’s feared, do we have anything to fear from our current military industrial complex?

The military-industrial complex, while politically formidable, does not threaten the American public. Militaries are inherently expensive, especially in democratic countries with all-volunteer armies that want their uniformed people to have the best equipment and training available. The U.S. defense industrial base shrank a lot following the end of the Cold War, as did the size of the military.

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The American public need only fear the current military-industrial complex to the extent that it ignores such concerns in deference to economic needs.

When outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower warned against complacency with respect to the nation’s military-industrial complex, he was referencing the prospects of a dangerous shift in what is called the “guns versus butter” balance within the United States and to the threat such a relationship between the military and means of production posed to democracy. The relationships between the military and the businesses that provide them with the weapons and equipment they need is fraught with potentials for collusion. Add into the equation the role of Congress and its relationship to industry, which can be more pernicious than that between the Department of Defense and industry, and the seeds of wasted billions are definitely present. Whether a threat to democracy exists when that relationship grows too large, however, is an entirely different matter.

The Constitution of the United States, specifically Article I, vests with Congress the power over the purse. It is Congress that determines where and in what quantities tax dollars are allocated. Presidents submit budget proposals to Congress that reflect their respective priorities, but it is Congress that takes those budget proposals and shifts money around according to its preferences. Congress also earmarks money to specific projects and constituencies that help the people in their districts and statesearmarks that, depending upon how one measures such matters, equal many billions of dollars every year. This money was not requested by the Department of Defense but is added to budgets by members of Congress in order to help businesses and organizations in their districts.

The military-industrial complex is not so formidable that it poses a threat to democracy. In fact, when the Berlin Wall was knocked down and the end of the Cold War was in sight, the defense industrial basethose industries that collectively design, build, and maintain weapons systems and other equipment (e.g., uniforms, night-vision goggles, bullets, food, and thousands of other essential items) vital to the ability of the uniformed services to execute their missionsshrank rapidly and excessively. With defense budgets scheduled to make a dramatic down-turn, the size of the military was due to shrink, and it did, with the numbers of Army divisions, Air Force fighter wings, and Navy ships and submarines being cut considerably from their Cold War-era numbers. With a much smaller military, there was less business for companies that built the equipment that the military used. Consequently, the defense industrial base contracted to the point that many businesses closed and others merged with each other in order to survive. None of this would have occurred had the military-industrial complex represented a threat to democracy.

The nation’s military and defense industry reflect the people they defend and employ. As noted above, a lot of defense budget dollars are allocated for purposes that the military opposes, like favored activities in particular congressional districts, while important military needs...

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(like spare parts and training hours) often suffer, a trend that invariably results in what is called “a hollow force”in effect, military units that can’t deploy due to lack of spare parts and insufficient numbers of adequately trained personnel. When fighter pilots lack the training hours needed to maintain their skill levels and the aircraft are grounded due to a lack of spare engine parts, and when ships are tied up at pier due to a shortage of trained personnel or maintenance dollars, then it is hard to suggest that democracy is in danger due to the military-industrial complex.

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