When the War Machine Was Young

If you’re into quaint, you can visit a historic village, restore some antique furniture, or for far less trouble pick up a mainstream analysis of the U.S. military from 40 years ago or so.

I just happened to read a 1973 book called Military Force and American Society, edited by Bruce M. Russett and Alfred Stepan — both of whom have presumably updated their views somewhat, or — more likely — veered off into other interests. The problems and trends described in their book have been worsening ever since, while interest in them has been lessening. You could write a similar book now, with the numbers all larger and the analysis more definitive, but who would buy it?

The only point of re-writing it now would be to scream at the end “. . . AND THIS IS ACTUALLY A MAJOR PROBLEM TO DEAL WITH URGENTLY!” Who wants to read that? Much more pleasant to read this 1973 book as it was written, with its attitude of “Welp, it looks like we’re all going to hell. Carry on.” Here is an actual quote from near the end of the book: “To understand military expansion is not necessarily to arrest it. America’s ideology could involve beliefs which are quite true and values which are quite genuine.” This was from Douglas Rosenberg, who led up to that statement with 50 pages on the dangerously delusional myths driving U.S. military policy.

An earlier chapter by Clarence Abercrombie and Raoul Alcalá ended thus: “None of this should be taken as an indictment . . . . What we do suggest is that . . . social and political effects . . . must be carefully evaluated.” Another chapter by James Dickey concluded: “This article has not been a call for relieving the army entirely of roles with a political context.” Of course, it had been just that. Didn’t these people realize that humanity just might survive for additional decades, and that copies of this book might survive as well, and that someone might read one? You can’t just document a problem and then waive it off — unless you’re Exxon.

The heart of the book is data on the rise of the permanent war economy and global U.S. empire and arms sales with World War II, and the failure to ever return to anything like what preceded World War II. The authors worry, rather quaintly, that the military might begin influencing public policy or conducting foreign policy, that — for example — some officers’ training was going to include studying politics with a possible eye toward engaging with politicians.

The warnings, quaint or not, are quite serious matters: the military’s new domestic uses to handle “civil disturbances,” the military’s spying, the possibility that an all-volunteer military might separate the military from the rest of society, etc. Careful empirical studies documented in the book found that higher military spending produced more wars, rather than foreign dangers producing higher spending, that the higher spending was economically damaging, not beneficial, and that higher military spending usually if not always produced lower spending on social needs. These findings have by now of course been reproduced enough times to persuade a climate change denier, if a climate change denier were to hear about them.

The real quaintness, however, comes when this group of authors in 1973 tries to explain militaristic votes by Congress members. Possible explanations they study include constituent pressure, race and sex of the Congress member, ideology of the Congress member, and the “Military Industrial Complex,” by which author Wayne Moyer seems to mean the Congress member’s affiliation with the military and the level of military spending in the member’s district or state. That any of these factors would better explain or predict a Congress member’s vote on something militaristic, than a glance at the war profiteering funding used to legally bribe the member in recent election “contributions” seems absurd in 2015.

Yet, there is of course a great deal of truth to the idea that Congress members, to one degree or another, adopt an ideology that fits with, and allows self-respect to coexist with, what they’ve been paid to do. Campaign “contributors” do not just buy votes; they buy minds — or they select the minds that have already been bought and help them stay that way.

To understand all of this is not necessarily to arrest it, but it damn well should be.

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