6/29/2017 Caitlin M. Brust

The Rise of the Military-Industrial Complex

This magazine article is part of Spring/Summer 2017 / Issue 89
  • habits of mind military industrial complex

On April 9, the White House announced that an American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, was steaming toward the Sea of Japan to send a message to North Korea: We are not intimidated, and we are poised to counter aggression.

Amid rising tensions between the two nations, the announcement seemed like a bold, strategic gesture from the U.S. military, but one that ultimately misfired – since, in fact, the Carl Vinson was sailing in the opposite direction to participate in routine joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean.

How – and why – could the U.S. government release such misleading information?

Days after the international confusion, Associate Professor of Government Jennifer Kibbe’s “Foreign Policy Analysis” class in the Keiper Liberal Arts Building traced the communication between U.S. officials for answers:

The White House blamed the Department of Defense. Pentagon leaders pointed to unclear statements from the defense secretary. The media depicted the executive branch in disarray, with poor communication across many offices and agencies.

As the students cite coverage in The Atlantic and The New York Times, Kibbe points out that in the ongoing feud between the Trump administration and the media, Foreign Affairs has just issued an unprecedented editorial statement: “Covering the Trump administration is difficult because it requires disentangling three strands of its behavior: the normal, the incompetent and the dangerous.”

  • habits of mind kibbe 1

One reason for the confusion and conflict, the class discusses, is the number of vacancies at the Pentagon in jobs ordinarily filled by midlevel bureaucrats who manage decisions and report to top officials.

“The ways institutions interact are complex and sometimes messy because authority over certain areas of responsibility is shared by different organizations,” said Sheldon Ruby ’17, a government major from Everett, Pa. “That’s something this class has definitely taught me.” Inspired by Kibbe’s “passion and experience” in foreign policy, Ruby intends to study foreign affairs in graduate school and then serve as a diplomat supported by a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship.

These complexities are present in every era of American foreign policy, particularly in matters of defense strategy and investment. Kibbe then shifts the discussion to the scheduled topic for the day, the debate about the "military-industrial complex” that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address to the American people in 1961.

Three days before he left office, Eisenhower told the nation, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government.” He envisioned a growing economic dependence between the military and the arms industry with the potential to influence American policy and national identity.

Eisenhower continued, “We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

The class examines the economic and political costs of a growing military-industrial complex – and what it means to pervade the very spirit of America and “structure of our society.” Over time, America’s military strength and global reach have developed with the support of a vast industrial network. “If this is what Eisenhower warned us about,” Kibbe asks, “how would we measure it?”

Students deliberate: Look at where budget increases and cuts from other programs have been made. Count the number of government employees with defense-related responsibilities. Notice what local representatives are voting for.

Karsten Bratt-Pfotenhauer ’17, a government major from Montgomery Village, Md., says to look at America’s defense spending as a percent of its GDP.

“Professor Kibbe showed us just how interconnected various angles of foreign policy are, specifically focusing on lobbying, the role of media, and the military-industrial complex,” said Bratt-Pfotenhauer, who will be teaching English in South Carolina through Teach For America this fall. “She gave us a toolkit to analyze future foreign policy events and read between the lines, perceiving the various nuances that are often ignored by the public.”

Like Ruby, Bratt-Pfotenhauer searches for these nuances within the complex structures of our society, which, as Eisenhower envisioned, influence the lives of every American—across this generation and the next.

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