In his last few days in office, our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, gave his historic farewell address from the White House. It was mid-evening as most Americans turned on their televisions to settle in after dinner on January 17, 1961. The one final issue that he chose to leave in the minds of the American people during his speech was, in his own words, “the unwarranted influence … of the military industrial complex.” At the time, Eisenhower was especially worried about the costs of an arms race with the Soviet Union, and the resources it would take from other areas, such as building hospitals and schools.
So what is the military-industrial complex (MIC), and why, 50 years ago, did the President warn of its threat to our democracy and to our country? More importantly, why is it increasingly seen as a problem in our society today? The MIC, is a somewhat secretive alliance between weapons-manufacturing companies in the defense industry and a number of US congressmen and legislators. This alliance works so that both sides benefit, yet the American people end up losing out. Because of this, it’s in both groups’ interest to conceal their relationship from the public, so as not to spark public outrage over deals that are made behind closed doors.
In politics, a helpful way to understand the dynamic of the MIC and why it may be problematic is through a popular diagram called the “Iron Triangle.” The first corner of the triangle is the defense industry, which lobbies and uses campaign contributions to influence the next corner of the triangle, which is Congress. From there, Congress dictates public policy and has the power to declare war, effectively controlling the third and final corner of the triangle: the Pentagon and American military. Finally, the Pentagon flows back into the defense industry, because it must now fund armed conflicts and will do so through the purchase of weapons from large military contractors. Through this cycle, weapons makers “donate” to politicians, making those politicians more likely to get elected with the support and funding of powerful military corporations. Eventually, with their bought-off politicians advocating for war in certain countries, those same military companies can sell truckloads of missiles and other equipment to the US military because our army needs supplies and equipment with which to intervene in another country.
It may now seem clear why this is a problem. If, in the American MIC, politicians are taking money from military corporations that influence their policy-making decisions, they repress democracy and the ability for the public to make their voices heard through elected officials.
We are supposed to live in a representative democracy, yet nowadays, with some state senators doing the bidding of special interest groups, the direct line of power that politicians receive from the electorate is simply broken. Even worse, American citizens are afraid to speak up against the slow deterioration of our democracy. As Martin Luther King once put it, “Millions of citizens are deeply disturbed that the military-industrial complex too often shapes national policy, but they don’t speak out against it because they don’t want to be considered unpatriotic.”