Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike) had it right. The military-industrial complex (MIC) is fundamentally antidemocratic The national security state has become the fourth branch of government and arguably the most powerful one. It gets the most money, more than half of the federal discretionary budget, even as the military remains America’s most trusted institution, despite a woeful record in wars since 1945.
A colleague, Christian Sorensen, says that when we look closely at the MIC we see something akin to American fascism. As he put it to me: “Our fascism certainly doesn’t look like past European movements, but it is far more durable, has killed millions and millions (SE Asia, Indonesia, Central America, Middle East), and has manifold expressions: wars abroad, wars at home, surveillance state, digital border, militarized law enforcement, economic warfare in the form of sanctions, militarization of space.”
It’s hard not to agree with him, not in the sense of Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy but in the sense of concentrated government/corporate power that draws sustenance from nationalism at home and imperialism abroad. It’s true that America doesn’t have goose-stepping soldiers in the street. There are no big military parades (though Donald Trump once wanted one). It still seems like we have contending political parties. But when we look deeper, a militant nationalism and aggressive imperialism powered by corporations and enforced by government, including notably the Supreme Court, is the salient feature of this American moment.
Consider the classic symbol of the fasces, from which the word fascism is drawn. It’s a bundle of rods bound tightly together – the idea being that while one rod may be bent or broken, a bundle of them becomes far more resistant to bending or breaking. For me, this image conjures the MICIMATT. Bundle the military with industry, add Congress, roughly 17 intelligence agencies, the media, academe, and various think tanks, then bind them with nearly a trillion dollars and enormous political and cultural authority and you create a structure that is far stronger, insidiously so, than the sum of its individual parts.
This is exactly what the MICIMATT constitutes: an imperial bundling and binding of powerful interests that possesses and commands enormous resources, including most importantly mental and emotional ones, like appeals to patriotism and the flag. Consider the mainstream media (MSM), which nowadays is pro-war, pro-military, and therefore highly critical of anti-war protests. Indeed, the MSM today in the U.S. employs retired generals, admirals, and ex-CIA and ex-FBI officials to support the establishment and attack and dismiss critics of the same as naive (at best) or as dupes or puppets of various enemies (most often of Russia).
Consider, for example, the smear in 2020 of Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran of the Iraq War who continues to serve in the Army National Guard. NBC News, together with prominent establishment figures like Hillary Clinton, portrayed Gabbard as a potential Russian asset and the favorite candidate of the Kremlin. Gabbard’s “crime” was her criticism of disastrous regime-change wars (such as Iraq) that Clinton had enthusiastically supported, along with Gabbard’s statements that echoed Ike in their criticism of the MIC.
Influential critics of war and the MIC are neutralized. For its prescient criticism of the Iraq War, Phil Donahue’s show was canceled. Reporter Ashleigh Banfield, who critiqued Iraq War coverage, was demoted. Former Governor Jesse Ventura was hired to a lucrative three-year contract, then put on ice when MSNBC discovered he was against the Iraq War. Worse is the punishment allotted to those who truly embarrass the MIC, such as Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale. Both were imprisoned for showing the American people the ugly face of the MIC’s wars. Worst of all is the persecution of Julian Assange, an Australian citizen who the US government is seeking to prosecute and jail under laws passed during World War I to deter internal dissent within America. Edward Snowden, meanwhile, remains exiled in Russia, perhaps permanently, since to allow him to return might inspire other patriotic whistleblowers to come forward – and we can’t have that in the land of the free.
But I can write my blog so I’m free, right? The MIC is not worried by my critique. If it can survive and flourish despite Ike’s warning, it can certainly ignore me. We the people have no real power unless we too can combine. Sadly, a weakness of antiwar forces in America is internal disagreements and bickering, as witnessed recently before the Rage Against the War Machine Rally in DC. The MIC, in contrast, is tightly bound by greed and power.
Bending or breaking the MICIMATT seems well-nigh impossible. It could be weakened by making substantial cuts to its budget, but Congress insists on feeding it more money, not less, despite enormous waste and five failed audits in a row for the Pentagon.
If bending and breaking it is impossible, can we light it on fire? To do that would require a powerful incendiary movement, a concentrated blast as if from a flamethrower, yet the MICIMATT is wrapped in a fire-resistant coating of patriotic cant, so even incendiary ideas and actions have their limits.
Returning to Ike, I continue to find it painfully ironic (and tragic) that his warning about the MIC has been buried even at the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. Not only buried: Ike’s warning has been downgraded to a caution and interpreted by a narrator sponsored by Boeing, a leading merchant of death in the MIC.
So, despite an article I wrote ten years ago, critiquing the idea of American fascism, I find myself coming to accept it, especially as Democrats try to outdo Republicans in embracing war, militarism, and weapons sales as the health of the state. With so-called progressives voting for massive war budgets, where is the hope and change?
I know progressives make noises about cutting the war budget, thus Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan are yet again sponsoring legislation to cut that budget by $100 billion. It’s pretty much a scam, notes David Swanson. They are allowed to do this because the MIC knows their initiative stands no hope of passing. Meanwhile, Republicans like Matt Gaetz have their own effort to cut Ukraine war funding, an effort also doomed to fail. What America truly needs is a bipartisan effort against the war machine, but instead it’s the MIC that continues to enjoy strong bipartisan support. The MIC is bound together (thus its strength); its opponents are both too disputatious and too few.
Which brings me to a sentiment attributed to Sinclair Lewis (though he didn’t use these exact words): If fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. Certainly, the MIC is wrapped in the flag. Remarkable too is how US militarism is embraced as a form of muscular Christianity, a sign of America’s righteousness, with might making right. Across Christianity in America today, one hears remarkably little criticism of war, killing, and genocidal nuclear weapons. The vision of Christ as a peacemaker was long ago replaced by “Peacekeeper” nuclear missiles. Meanwhile, new nuclear ICBMs, bombers, and submarines are under construction today, increasing the chances of apocalyptic war (while guaranteeing large profits for the MIC).
Again, Ike warned us that the MIC is fundamentally antidemocratic And, whatever else it is, the MIC is certainly not communist or leftist. Is it America’s version of fascism? That conclusion may seem shrilly alarmist, but that is arguably what we need: a shrill alarm to awaken us from our slumber.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.