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Examining The Military Industrial-Cultural Complex

The United States military currently owns 8,700 M1 Abrams tanks. This tank has never been fully incapacitated on the battlefield and outclasses nearly every other model in the world. Of the world’s 8,400 attack helicopters, the United States owns 6,400. The United States operates ten aircraft carriers, dwarfing the rest of the world’s combined ten carriers, all of which are smaller than the United States’. The scope and power of the United States military are the most defining physical manifestation of American dominance throughout the 20th century. To fight against the United States military in any conventional setting is an act sure to end in defeat. This military power is not accidental by any means. Disproportionate percentages of the US budget and revenue are spent to ensure that the United States remains, by huge factors, the most militarily advanced country in the world. Tanks, bombs, fighter jets, and attack helicopters don’t seem to be able to do much other than kill people. This begs the question, why would a country spend so much money on its potential for war? Culturally, warfare is exalted. Economically, warfare is the first priority. These two joints of military influence are not disparate. Rather, they are tied together inextricably within the US military industrial complex.

So-called defense spending takes up 54 percent of all discretionary funding, totaling a whopping $598.5 billion in 2015 alone. This means that every year, the government moves over half a trillion dollars from taxpayers to the military industry. Once these tax dollars are allocated, it’s not easy to shift them to more peaceful enterprises. A quick calculation shows that over the period from 1947-2020, a total of $345 trillion was spent on the military. This astronomical figure was made possible by the most defining economic change of our time: globalization. During this period, the United States grew at explosive rates, allowing expenditures to rise in tandem. More wealth meant more money from taxes, which the government then used to justify increased military spending. Economic growth became shackled to the military, and this relationship solidified into a cultural expectation.

While expenditures aren’t inherently bad, the fields we are funding can dramatically impact the country’s future. The United States did not use increased wealth to establish the best education system known to man, for instance. Instead, our education lags behind other countries, ranking only 17th out of 34 according to the OECD-wide PISA test. The wealth created over the past 60 to 70 years was disproportionately allocated towards a military that dwarfs any other ever created. Think of it this way: In a war between the United States and the rest of the world as a whole, experts aren’t sure who would win. We are good at war, at the expense of a host of other issues. 

Recently, the political unpopularity of globalization presented this fact in near unavoidable irony. People feel that globalization has not benefitted them personally, and they’re right. Economic theory predicts that integrating economies will lead to overall benefits. This does not mean that there aren’t downsides to globalization, only that the sum of benefits and costs comes out positive. Any state wanting to make globalization work for their entire country must redistribute these benefits across its populace. In the United States, however, there have been efforts at such redistribution. Since the United States did not invest principally in areas that benefit the population as a whole, such as creating exceptional education, social programs, or developing varied national industries, many people were left out of the proceeds of globalization.

Though some Americans involved in the military industrial complex have benefited from globalization, many are left out. Perhaps it’s a surprise that there exists no serious opposition to this practice, but the lack of pushback comes from our cultural affinity for war. We believe that the United States is constantly under siege, and that the military is the only way to prevent these attacks. Using common sense, this idea seems to hold up pretty well. A strong military is a good way to prevent attacks on a country. However, the United States is far past the point of needing our military for defense. We have nearly 800 military bases around the globe. The military has become more of a tool for global control than a body dedicated to the national defense. Yet many Americans still fear large-scale attacks on the United States, not realizing that the United States has one of the strictest immigration and security policies in the world. Buried within this fear is a glaring contradiction. If we were only to use our military for defense, why fear attack? The belief that there are people simply ‘out to get’ the United States is a useful tool for creating this fear. We completely ignore the way the US actually uses its military and then can construct a national cultural narrative that preaches fear and American innocence. This narrative is used to shield the military from any reasonable criticisms. Anybody who doubts the necessity of such extravagant spending can be easily labeled unpatriotic or un-American.

While middle and lower class families experienced stagnant wages, military industry gladly soaked up the seemingly never-ending stream of government spending. This has been justified over and over again, using arguments that rarely appeal to anything beyond a primal nationalism. Investment in military ventures meant that new industries arose to meet the growing government demand for new weapons, military technologies, and personnel. The overriding focus on military spending has created a United States where military industries, through the government, have the most powerful and direct access to any newly created wealth. This de-prioritizes common institutions and protections, such as public education and benefits, each important sources of economic mobility. Citizens only are able to take advantage of military spending either by working for the military, or for a related industry, and many do. However, this means that significantly fewer resources are dedicated to developing areas that represent much better long-term investments. The nature of warfare changes quickly over the scope of time, meaning that the value of state-of-the-art killing machines rapidly depreciates. If the US had spent 50 percent less per year on the military, it would still have the best military in the world. But crucially, there would have been over $150 trillion dollars left to spend elsewhere. This money could have prevented, or at least mitigated, the unequal distribution of the benefits of globalization. In other words, the unequal effects of globalization could have been mitigated by the very wealth obtained from this same process. Since this didn’t happen, a large section of the country was disconnected from the benefits of economic growth and prosperity. The political climate today is due, at least in part, to the United States’ mismanagement of spending. Jack Ma, a prominent Chinese businessman, recently expressed this position, saying of American spending habits, “What if they had spent part of that money on building up their infrastructure, helping white-collar and blue-collar workers? You’re supposed to spend money on your own people.”

If we want to understand how to best utilize, fund, and view our military, we need to move beyond the narrative of fear and necessity. Until we can openly discuss other ways to invest money in America, our spending policy will be guided not by reason, but by the intentional weaponization of aggression and fear.



About the Author

Bastien Ibri '19 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.