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Warfare and corporate welfare: Meet General Warbucks

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BRYAN BENDER's must-read report in the Boston Globe on the growing practice of high-ranking military officers taking jobs as glorified pitchmen for private-sector munitions and security firms is sobering, to say the least. According to Mr Bender, in America's thriving military-industrial complex "conflicts are a routine fact of life at the lucrative nexus between the defense procurement system, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and the industry that feasts on those riches. And almost nothing is ever done about it." Read the numbers and weep: 

The Globe analyzed the career paths of 750 of the highest ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades and found that, for most, moving into what many in Washington call the “rent-a-general’’ business is all but irresistible.

From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives, according to the Globe analysis. That compares with less than 50 percent who followed that path a decade earlier, from 1994 to 1998.

In some years, the move from general staff to industry is a virtual clean sweep. Thirty-four out of 39 three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired in 2007 are now working in defense roles — nearly 90 percent.

If you're worried America teeters on the brink of banana-republican decadence, worry about this. These days, old soldiers never fade away, they just pull down seven-figure salaries from General Dynamics. Reading this piece—and please do read it—the outrageousness of ex-generals raking in ungodly sums hawking war machines to their junior ex-colleagues becomes so vivid, one naturally wonders why it is so little remarked upon by the guardians of the public interest. James Fallows takes a crack at it:

So a problem that's been recognized for at least half a century seems to have become worse than ever—and yet it's not discussed at all by politicians and rarely in the press. I think this has something to do with the distortions of the "narrow sliver of the population" era of the American military. As SecDef Gates and countless others have pointed out, the whole American nation is in no sense "at war," but the minority who serve (again and again) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere most definitely have been, for years. Some background sense of unease or guilt may make it harder for politicians to do more than compete in saying that they "support the troops."

I think there much to be said for this, but there's got to be more to the story. America's drawn-out wars abroad are stupendously expensive. The stupendous expense of course attracts profit-seeking firms rather like sharks to blood. And the wars are so drawn out in part because, as Mr Fallows and Robert Gates suggest, there's nothing concrete at stake for most Americans. Like the hum of an air conditioner, after a while, one simply stops noticing the wars are there, much less that many billions of taxpayer dollars are thereby making some private citizens immensely rich.

However, I don't think we ought to overlook the extent to which the rise of military corporatism (or is it corporatist militarism?) has been helped by the public-relations victories of the ideological advocates of American supremacy at Fox News, the Weekly Standard, and the Washington Post op-ed page. Among those victories is the close connection in the public mind between support for America's wars—for American military might in general—and American patriotism. That's why we don't much see putatively limited-government tea partiers decrying the relationship of symbiotic parasitism between arms makers and the war-making state. As the first of Glenn Beck's nine principles puts it, "America is good". So America's wars are ipso facto good wars. And, heck, if we need new armoured ground vehicles to win our good wars, don't we want experienced men—old soldiers who really know what they're talking about—levelling the sales pitch to the officers who rose to fill their vacated combat boots?

Of course, patriotism is practically made to be co-opted in this way, which is why I'm against it. It tends toward a potent and inescapable form of political correctness that subtly and not-so-subtly discourages journalists and other opinion-makers from taking up the muck-rake against past and present "heroes" in uniform. That's why articles such as Mr Bender's are so rare, and deserve to be read and praised, even when they emerge only in our unwon wars' unpopular latter days.


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