President Eisenhower was, of course, prophetic when he warned 50 years ago about the "grave implications" of the military-industrial complex. But while he was certainly dead-on about the big picture, we can imagine even he might be surprised by the dirty details of how that "complex" has evolved since his farewell speech January 17, 1961, and the role that many esteemed retired generals now play in it.
A real culture shift seems to have occurred among some in the military elite, and it mirrors my (Janine's) findings in Shadow Elite, which show a decline in loyalty to institutions such as government. Even in a place like the military, where devotion to the institution is paramount, many of the top players are focused on turning themselves into one-man defense industry moguls, some of them angling for personal rewards even before official retirement. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island -- a West Point grad -- said this to Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe:
When I was an officer in the 1970s, most general officers went off to some sunny place and retired....Now the definition of success ... is to move on and become successful in the business world.
Bender's must-read investigation just after Christmas examines the activities of the staggering numbers of top generals who "retire" to highly lucrative consulting or defense industry work. (This tracks alongside the trend in which more and more governing is outside of formal government and, where, for instance, three-quarters of people working for federal government are private contractors.) Lest one think the "rent-a-general" phenomenon is old news, Bender shows that this longtime trend seems to be accelerating:
From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives...[also known as] the 'rent-a-general' business...That compares with less than 50 percent who followed that path a decade earlier, from 1994 to 1998. [In 2007,] thirty-four out of 39 three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired...are now working in defense roles -- nearly 90 percent.
Not only do these generals and admirals profit from their years of privileged access to vital information and connections, but they also receive the deference accorded to them because of their service and those stars. Bender says this automatic deference continues after retirement, with generals often treated in advisory meetings as if they are still holding official roles.
Bender's work comes a year after USA Today broke the story of so-called "senior military mentors," retired officers who are then brought in to advise their former colleagues on services to buy, even when they might also have financial ties to the company peddling the services.
Amplifying their power, these generals are also in hot demand as media analysts. And according to a 2008 New York Times report, "[m]ost of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air." Journalist David Barstow later that year painted an indelible portrait in the Times of retired four-star Army General Barry McCaffrey, his swirl of defense consulting activities, and his success in promoting his interests on television: Barstow called it "One Man's Military-Industrial-Media Complex."
The influence of McCaffrey and his peers derives from their overlapping, mutually influencing, and perhaps not fully disclosed, roles in pursuit of their own agendas. As they carve out "coincidences of interest," their roles morph and blur into one another and ambiguity swirls around their activities.
What is not ambiguous is that all these military players highlighted above intertwine state and private power--and this practice is hardly confined to the military. As Janine has documented, these twisted arrangements and resulting lapses in accountability are rife in nearly every corner of government.
But there are reasons why the military-industrial complex is perhaps the most disturbing case (neck-and-neck with the privatization of intelligence work.) The process of vetting defense projects should be, at least in theory, unimpeachable. First and foremost, the lives of U.S. servicemen and women are on the line, not to mention the many contractors who now do much of the military's work these days and the overseas civilians who might find themselves in the crosshairs. Second, defense projects carry staggering price-tags, and can last for decades. This kind of investment of taxpayer dollars and time means that the process of allocating these precious public resources must be as fair and free of corruption as possible. That is hardly the system we have now. And these retired generals aren't sneaking around. The reporting (from the Globe, the Times, USA Today and others) finds that the Pentagon either ignores their behavior, accepts that this is how business is done these days, or, at times, actively encourages it.
Some of these retired officers seem to think that we should just take it as a given that they will behave with the purest of motives and the utmost of integrity. As the Globe's Bender puts it:
The generals who navigate these ethical minefields said they are capable of managing potential conflicts without oversight....'You have to have a firewall in your head,' said industry consultant and former Vice Admiral Justin D. McCarthy.
With all due respect to the Vice Admiral, we would prefer the firewall to be on paper for all of us to see. And while it seems anachronistic, one would hope and expect that whatever roles and relationships these generals accept do not undermine the integrity of the institution and the public interest. We're guessing that a certain 5-star General named Eisenhower would agree.