Ideas

Massive military spending is turning America into a 'warfare state,' warns ex U.S. Army Colonel

When critiques are made of the military-industrial complex in the U.S., they usually come from left-wing thinkers. But Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a lifelong Republican and career army officer, believes that military spending has become an ideological article of faith on the political Right. And it's both bankrupting America and making the world a dangerous place.

'We are the merchants of death for seven billion people,' says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

The Pentagon’s ever-expanding military budget ruins creativity and pollutes good leadership, argues retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson — a fierce critic of the 'military-industrial complex.' (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower cautioned the United States against "unwarranted influence" — what he saw as an alarming alignment of corporate interests with military operations, a relationship he famously called: "the military-industrial complex."

Since then, the term has largely been taken up by the political left in its critique of America's militarism, and how vast military expenditures end up creating conflicts they're supposed to resolve.

But Col. Lawrence Wilkerson is firmly on the political right. He spent over 30 years in the U.S. Army, was chief of staff for former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, and is a lifelong Republican. 

Today we have become what Eisenhower's worst nightmare predicted in his farewell address.- Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

He believes that Eisenhower was right, and is a fierce critic of the military-industrial complex. Or what he calls "the warfare state," an obvious play on "welfare state." He believes military spending has become an ideological article of faith on the political right —and it is ruining America.

"Today we have become what Eisenhower's worst nightmare predicted in his farewell address. We've become beholden to that complex, that this year [2019] marked its greatest year in history. It sold more weapons than anybody else in the world, at a greater total billion dollar figure than ever before," says Wilkerson in conversation with host, Nahlah Ayed.

"We are the merchants of death for seven billion people."

'As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow.’ From former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Col. Wilkerson has seen firsthand how military expenditures create a devastating feedback loop with politics.

"The country marches on to yet another war, another trillion dollar fiasco, another bloodbath for young men and women who are signed up because they were bribed to do so," says Col. Wilkerson.

He says "bribed" unapologetically, as the U.S. military relies disproportionately on personnel from have-not states to fill its ranks.

The expenditures, however, don't benefit the troops.

"The divorce rate: off the charts in the services now. Suicide rate: off the charts in the services now. More post-traumatic stress then you'd ever imagine," Col. Wilkerson explains, adding that the expenditures end up benefiting the warfare state.

"We had never had a standing industrial base for war.  Now it eats us alive. Not only does it produce F-35 strike fighters, that cost $135 million, a million dollars for the helmet the pilot wears, but they don't work."

Militarism hurts the military

Col. Wilkerson notes that many Americans believe that the U.S. is under perpetual threat. The result is that massive military spending gets justified publicly "on the backs of the soldiers, and the sailors, Marines, and airmen and so forth." 

"That's why you see presidents array military tapestries behind themselves all the time … they like to have the military prop behind them."

But the astronomical costs aren't simply fiscal, according to Col. Wilkerson. They're also political. 

"We are almost $22 trillion in debt right now. We've not been this far in debt since the last year of World War Two. We have printed trillions of dollars that have absolutely nothing behind them but the might of the U.S. military and our willingness to bash people who might object to buying our treasury bonds" Col. Wilkerson remarks.

"This is a comeuppance that is brewing."

Col. Wilkerson has become a vocal critic of the Iraq War since his own involvement working on the pro-war presentation at the U.N. with former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, pictured. ( Mario Tama/Getty Images)

He predicts massive reductions in the Defense Department's budget. Reports from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that by 2030, the defense budget will seriously impede expenditures for other fixed spending in the federal budget — like Medicare and Social Security — and that the impact will be catastrophic.

"By 2030, we'll have no federal dollars for anything other than the military and entitlements. That's a very foreboding future, fiscally."

A reforming Republican

As a lifelong member of the Republican party, just like his father, Col. Wilkerson has been criticized by fellow party members and Pentagon generals. But his hope for the future of the party lies in the growing number of younger Republicans he's met.

"That demographic is going to be most loudly heard in this coming election, for the first time in our history," Col. Wilkerson tells Ayed.

"We have the greatest maldistribution of wealth in America right now that we've ever had, worse than 1929. So this is an awakening within the Republican party. It's nascent right now."

The challenge is waking Americans up. We are losing our democracy, if we haven't already lost it.- Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

The former aide to Colin Powell believes that political reform is needed across the board. Getting rid of the Electoral College. Overhauling Congress. And just as he'd like to see the future of the Republican party empowered by younger people, he suggests the same for the Democrats.

"I'd get rid of [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. I'd get rid of [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer. I'd get rid of Mitch McConnell. I'd get rid of all the people who have been around far too long, garnered far too much power, have too much influence over their own parties."

But he's under no illusion how tough it will be to do all this.

"The challenge is waking Americans up. We are losing our democracy, if we haven't already lost it."

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson teaches government and public policy at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. This episode was based on a public talk he gave at the Peace Action Maine Spring Gathering in 2019.

* This episode was produced by Danielle Duval and Greg Kelly.

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