What Would Ike Think of PMSC?

01/25/2011 12:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Isenberg Author, 'Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq'

My apologies for not writing this earlier but I was on travel.

Last week, January 17 to be precise, saw the fiftieth anniversary of Dwight D. Eisenhower's famed speech, which was both prescient and prophetic, on the "military-industrial complex."

Since then, that complex has grown far greater in scope and influence; vastly larger than Eisenhower might have imagined in his worst nightmare.

If he were alive today I imagine he would be using phrases like the national security complex or the permanent war economy as the academic Seymour Melman wrote about in his classic book, The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline back in the seventies.

Anyway, I've been wondering what Eisenhower would think of the current private military and security contracting (PMSC) industry.

On the one hand Eisenhower would not be surprised to see contractors working with and for the military. After all, as PMSC advocates always note, contractors have been part of the history of the U.S. since before America was a country. Certainly contractors were part of World War II, although not anything like the proportion of contractors to military forces on today's battlefields. Eisenhower would likely recognize that the sale of PMSC today is far different from anything in the past and would acknowledge without any pleasure the truth of Joseph Stalin's saying, "Quantity has a quality all its own."

As the U.S. president Eisenhower might have even approved, in certain circumstances, the use of contractors, given that he was the man who invented the phrase "bigger bang for the buck," and PMSC advocates always argue that the government gets greater value for its money by using contractors for temporary periods of time, rather than maintaining large standing force. Note: for the purpose of this post I'll ignore the fact that Eisenhower was referring to the New Look policy of depending on nuclear weapons, rather than a large regular army, to keep the Soviet Union in check.

And, as PMSC advocates would doubtlessly point out, Eisenhower was not against outsourcing. In 1955, President Eisenhower said that the federal government would not start or carry out any commercial activity to provide a service or product that can be procured from private enterprise through ordinary business channels. In short, the business of government is not business. In 1966, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a groundbreaking document, Circular A-76 that spelled out the methods and processes needed to divest the government of all but its core competencies.

And, despite all the hype about PMSCs, where firms like Blackwater, now Xe Services, are somehow transformed via pop culture into international security giants, they don't have nearly the influence or clout of their traditional military-industrial brethren, like today's Lockheed Martin, for example. (for more on LM, see William Hartung's new book Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. Although we should note that over the past decade or two more and more traditional military industrial contractors have acquired the new PMC or PSC. As Hartung noted in an interview on Democracy Now.

But they also have branched out. They work for the CIA, the FBI. They work for the IRS, the Census Bureau. So they've become this full-service government contractor, which really is involved in every aspect of our lives. Every time we interact with the government, Lockheed Martin is likely to be there.

Still, when Blackwater, Triple Canopy, or Dyncorp, for example, land a contract, no matter how big it is, they are not spreading the work across hundreds of congressional districts, providing thousands of jobs for constituents. Remember, they are providing services, not hardware, and many of the people they hire aren't even American. Eisenhower's vision of a military-industrial complex did not take into account a globalized world. So in that sense PMSC, as a source of unwarranted influence by the military complex hardly registers.

On the other hand, as a former military career military professional, who had been a five-star general, and had commandeered what was probably the largest military force amassed in the history of mankind to win World War II, Eisenhower was steeped to the bone in traditional military concepts like command authority and unity of command. The idea of private security contractors on the battlefield not under the strict control of a battlefield commander and not subject to military authority, like a court martial, would certainly have been anathema to him.

And the idea the PMSCs are used to maintain what is at least a quasi-empire overseas because the public is unwilling to supply the bodies necessary to maintain that empire via regular military forces would likely have offended his sense of patriotism.

We should note that when you have a country which arrogates unto itself the self-proclaimed right to police the rest of the world via military means and yet less and less of the population has any actual military experience it is small wonder you have a thriving PMSC industry. Remember that Eisenhower often worried aloud about how a future president who lacked military experience would be able to withstand the blandishments of the brass, the contractors, and Congress on the subject of military spending. The short answer, as the Obama administration shows, is that it doesn't.

Given how often PMSC advocates, more than a few of which have never been in the military, tout the presumed advantage of having former military personnel both working for and running PMC firms I find it likely that Eisenhower would be more than a little disgusted by the current PMSC phenomenon. While Eisenhower was certainly for promoting the free market he was also suspicious, to say the least, of firms whose raison d'être was to serve as hand maidens to and facilitators for the military, and in today's national security state, the State and Homeland Security departments as well as the intelligence community.

Andrew Bacevich, himself a retired Army officer, who now teaches international relations at Boston University, writes in the current issue of the Atlantic Magazine:

If anything, Eisenhower's characterization of the cozy relations between the military and corporate worlds understates the contemporary reality. C. Wright Mills came closer to the mark when he wrote of "a coalition of generals in the roles of corporation executives, of politicians masquerading as admirals, of corporation executives acting like politicians." Add to that list the retired senior officers passing as pundits (often while simultaneously cashing the checks of weapons manufacturers), policy wonks pretending to be field marshals, and journalists eagerly competing to carry water for heroic field commanders. Throw in the former members of Congress who lobby their successors on behalf of defense contractors, and the serving members who vote in favor of any defense appropriations that send money to their districts, and one begins to get a sense of the true topog¬raphy.


Certain enterprises flourish, notably private security firms such as DynCorp, MPRI, and, of course, the notorious Blackwater (now known as Xe). At MPRI, they like to say "We've got more generals per square foot here than in the Pentagon." But even if those generals are doing fine, the grandchildren of Ozzie and Harriet, coping with 9.8 percent unemployment and contemplating the implications of trillion-dollar deficits, see little benefit from our exorbitant Pentagon outlays. If paying Pashtun drivers to truck fuel from Pakistan into Afghanistan is producing any positive economic side effects, the American worker is not among the beneficiaries.

In short, the guns-and-butter trade-off that Eisenhower foresaw in 1953 has become reality. To train, equip, and maintain one American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan for just one year costs a cool million dollars. Meanwhile, according to 2010 census figures, the number of Americans falling below the poverty line has swollen to one in every seven.