The Evil of a Permanent War Economy

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There is no daylight between presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the permanent war economy. Both tout the weapons industry as a source of jobs, jobs, jobs for Americans, never mentioning that the billions of government dollars flushed through the military-industrial complex could go for other things. Think universal health care, free higher education or maybe just the green economy – if money spent on what Politico called Bombenomics went to producing solar panels and wind turbines, we’d have jobs AND a planet not heating up at warp speed. Sadly, our two presidential contenders never met a weapon system they didn’t like. And as recent history repeats – if you spend all your cash building tanks, guns and bombs, they’re gonna get used.

Even worse, the U.S. MIC compels other countries to beef up their militaries. Take Russia. Before invading Ukraine, Moscow’s weapons industry puttered along, as did military conscription, but as soon as the Kremlin realized that it had no peace partners in the west or in Ukraine – a revelation that dawned on Moscow when then British prime minister Boris Johnson sabotaged peace talks between the two opponents in spring 2022 – things changed. Russia put itself on a war footing, so that now its industrial military base hums along, churning out tanks, hypersonic missiles (which the West lacks), rockets, guns and don’t forget nuclear bombs. Russia also placed tactical nukes in Belarus.

China, too, threatened by the U.S. over Beijing’s long-standing and very public intention peacefully to absorb Taiwan, has beefed up every aspect of its war machine. As military expert Will Schryver recently tweeted: “The U.S. is currently incapable of putting to sea more than four carriers at any given time – and no more than ~60 warships of all types. China currently has 3 carriers, almost 800 vessels and mountains of missiles.”

Meanwhile, there’s Iran – now using the Chinese satellite navigation system Beidou, which means, to quote the Sirius Report, “Iranian missiles are able to use a positioning system that the U.S. has no control over.” And Tehran could soon have nukes, thanks to Trump trashing the West’s nuclear pact with Iran and Biden inexplicably refusing to fix that bubblehead move. In other words, all these fiascos could have been avoided, seriatim, had Washington controlled its aggression and exerted its stupendous influence to promote peace. Even more critically, a worsening situation can still be avoided, if Beltway insiders pivot from sanctions, expanding foreign military bases to surround perceived enemies, fomenting color revolutions and generally behaving ruthlessly. Instead, the Empire might try the good neighbor approach, though after so many decades of violence, it might take the non-Western world a while to believe such a sea change.

And then there’s the blatant immorality of a war economy, one that depends for its health on bloodshed. Yet weapons production is one of the few manufacturing industries in the U.S. that hasn’t been entirely off-shored. This is a bad look. “What does your country make? Oh, guns, tanks and bombs, not much else.” That sends a message to the world, and it’s one, apparently, with which our rulers are not dissatisfied. After all, monomaniacal Washington’s chief carrot, (which is also its chief stick) over many decades, for recalcitrant foreign governments, has been, to rephrase renowned economist Michael Hudson: “Do what we want and we won’t bomb and obliterate you.” The fact that a principal U.S. industrial product is weaponry, helps concentrate the rest of the world’s mind on that threat.

Indeed, Biden “is supersizing the defense industry,” reports Responsible Statecraft February 23. This new National Defense Industrial Strategy would “catalyze generational change” of the U.S. defense industry. No surprise there, at a time when we recently learned that since 2014, during Biden’s stint as vice president with the Ukraine portfolio, the CIA beefed up its operations in Ukraine so that that nation essentially became the biggest CIA project in the agency’s history, bristling with agency bases and bunkers. That news appeared boastfully in the New York Times, right about the moment when it became clear that the west’s whole military project in Ukraine had flopped. (Right after the Times bragged about all these CIA bases on the Russia/Ukraine frontier, Russia used its artillery to liquidate one, thereby killing who knows how many Americans. Nothing like a fawning press so eager to flaunt intelligence “achievements” that it sends some of those achievers to their graves.)

And there’s no reason to suppose this new defense industry push won’t flop as well. The Biden gang “is proposing a generation of investment to expand an arms industry that, overall, fails to meet cost, schedule and performance standards,” Responsible Statecraft reports. In other words, President Eisenhower’s warnings about the military-industrial complex are being worse than ignored. Biden breathes new life into the MIC’s evils, and so, could truly be said to be Ike’s nemesis.

Arms makers are a powerful lobby in Washington, who “have solidified their economic influence to stave off the political potential for future national security cuts, regardless of their performance or the geopolitical environment.” They can produce lemons or systems so finicky they need constant attention – Exhibit A is the F-35 – and still sell them abroad for billions. That’s because contractors carefully situate their plants in multiple states, so they can play the jobs card with Congress. The end result is an economy that demands war and more war, to keep a huge and deathly vigorous industry purring along. Meanwhile, Responsible Statecraft asks, “What is the military really getting from more and more national security spending? Less for more. Fewer weapons than it asked for, usually late and over budget, and much of the time dysfunctional.”

That’s actually not so bad. Weapons that don’t work could mean lives saved, but they also mean other things don’t get built. Instead of a massive EV base, an expanding textile industry or a big boost to solar panel manufacturing or shoe production or assembling any of the thousands of items stamped “made in China,” we get Patriot missiles and Abrams tanks, both, by the way, not all they’re cracked up to be, judging on reports from the Ukraine War.

Biden’s all in on the twisted notion that showering dollars on armaments benefits the economy, gushing about “equipment that defends America and is made in America: Patriot missiles for the air defense batteries made in Arizona; artillery shells manufactured in 12 states across the country – in Pennsylvania, Ohio Texas…” According to Truthout February 26, Arizona and Pennsylvania “are swing states crucial to his re-election bid, while the other two are red states with Republican senators he’s been trying to win over to vote for another round of military aid to Ukraine.”

More ghoulishly, “lobbyists for the administration even handed out a map, purporting to show how much money such assistance to Ukraine would distribute to each of the 50 states.” What a profitably blood-soaked investment our Ukraine proxy war is! Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men get to die fighting for the U.S., which doesn’t have to risk any soldiers, while back home armaments makers fatten on the carnage, and the politicians promoting this gory fiasco have the nerve to try to get re-elected! For the U.S., the Ukraine War has truly been a win/win business enterprise. Which has something to do with Washington never facing reality and admitting defeat. When the going gets rough, Washington gets going, like it did from Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and so forth. The trick is never fighting a peer competitor directly, but to bomb indiscriminately around the world, while keeping the cult of death flush with money. Eisenhower must be spinning in his grave.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.