The Militarization of America

“What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?”

–The Riddle of the Sphinx

A necessary aspect of armies–or even of a military style police force–is that they carry weapons. Even in Great Britain, except for the local “Bobbie” on the beat, it seems as if more and more special police armed units are being created to fight criminal enterprises. Meeting the need for compact, powerful pistols and other small arms is a vast industry, one that, in the United States, started in the three decades prior to the U.S. Civil War.

So it was no great surprise, seven years after the U.S. defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan and five years after Saddam Hussein’s army dissolved in Iraq, to find in the Fiscal Year 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (Public Law 110-181) some congressional action to procure small arms to help rebuild the armies of these countries. The relevant Section is 892 of P.L. 110-181 titled “Competition for Procurement of Small Arms Supplied to Iraq and Afghanistan.” This section specifies that the procurement of small arms of less than .50 caliber cannot be sole source. Specifically, it enjoins the Secretary of Defense to ensure that the competition is “full and open,” that no U.S. manufacturer is excluded, and that no “product” manufactured in the United States is excluded even if the parent company is incorporated or has its base of operations in another country.

What was surprising was Section 882 of the same public law. This section is titled “Authority to License Certain Military Designations and Likenesses of Weapons Systems to Toy and Hobby Manufacturers.”

That’s right: the Secretary of the Army, Navy, or Air Force, under a new subsection, is empowered to “license trademarks, service marks, certification marks, and collective marks owned or controlled by the Secretary relating to military designations and likenesses of military weapons systems to any qualifying company upon receipt of a request from the company.”

For the real small arms mentioned in Section 892, the Secretary of the Army (who oversees the procurement of all small arms for the entire U.S. military) is obliged only to ensure that the competitive process is observed–i.e., that no company is excluded arbitrarily. When it comes to toys and hobbies, however, the Service Secretaries are enjoined to make sure that each company “qualifies.” Specifically, each company must be a “United States company,” be a toy or hobby manufacturer, and meet other criteria set by the Secretary of Defense. Unfortunately, nowhere is there a clue as to what these other criteria might be, which leaves open the possibility that one toy or hobby company might end up being unduly favored–just like in the real world.

Had the section ended there, one could envision the Defense Department making some money for the treasury from the licensing process, which would have been a turn-about from its usual multi-billion dollar annual appropriation. Alas, it is not fated to be.

Subsection (3) provides that “the fee for a license under this subsection shall not exceed by more than a nominal amount the amount needed to recover all costs of the Department of Defense in processing the request for the license and supplying the license.” (Of course, if your annual appropriation is more than half a trillion dollars and with “nominal” a relative term, the possibilities are legion–one or more of which would involve Senator Everett Dirksen’s definition of “real money.)

Also strange is the last subsection of Section 882. It gives the Secretary of Defense a deadline of 180 days from the date the legislation becomes law to implement Section 882. It suggests that someone is going to leave government service and go into a new line of figures and toy weapons, perhaps based on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars,

Consider also the following: toys are for children; real weapons are for real soldiers and real armies and real wars; and hobbies are often taken up when work no longer absorbs most of a person’s time.

Sections 882 and 892 of P. L. 110-181 address the three stages of life in terms of a military context of weaponry–infant, adult, old age. These three stages also constitute the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx. And when Oedipus provided the correct answer, the sphinx destroyed itself–an apt metaphor for the fate that awaits all militarized societies, no matter how powerful.

Col. DAN SMITH is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at