Complex Living

The Military Industrial Complex—
According to Its Workers

Lewis Hine, Woman handling nine-inch shells (1900-1937). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Archives.

In a recent interview with MSNBC, Neil Degrasse Tyson answered a question about the private organization’s place in space exploration. Tyson did not consider this type of research suited to the private sector:

Because the frontier of space is expensive, it’s dangerous with unknown risks and unknown costs. That is not right for a capital market to value. Okay, the history of human exploration is on where governments take the first step. They pay for the first patents. they draw the maps. The government paid for Columbus’s voyage, and Magellan’s voyage, and Lewis and Clark’s. That’s who figures out what’s going on out there. Then private enterprise comes in afterwards. (Tyson)

Tyson is a well-known and respected astrophysicist with progressive values. To him, government initiative has been a crucial component of scientific exploration and research for the length of human history. The quote shows no differentiation between the governmental structure of monarchical Spain and modern America. This is interesting commentary, but grows more interesting when one considers the context of the United States “military industrial complex.” The growing symbiosis between the Pentagon and defense contractors raises an issue deeply entrenched in America’s national security state. Since Eisenhower warned the coming of the phenomenon in 1961, the military industrial complex has mushroomed into a complicated network of connections between the American military and private companies. As this network grew, new economic structures and ethical dilemmas developed with it. This ethical discourse includes the discussion of the welfare and warfare states, two sides of the same industrial complex coin. The welfare state includes government-regulated aid programs, such as the New Deal, that benefit the people of the state. The warfare state is the welfare state’s foil, a government system constructed on the premise of constant preparation for total war. These elements are so deeply entwined with one another that it is difficult to dissect them for analysis. Therefore, to begin understanding the vast, one must examine the specific.

This paper will present and analyze the discourse surrounding defense contracts through interviews with or about three specific individuals. One served in the military as an engineer. The other two worked for the military during two different time frames. These portraits, overlaid with commentary from academic and journalistic thinkers, create an image of the dynamic, development, and economy of defense contracts, as well as the ethical issues they present.


I. Introduction

The first interview, a conversation with late Military Engineer G’s grandson, is an indirect source. While the interview still contains relevant information for this dialogue, one must keep in mind the speculative nature with which both interviewer and subject approach Military Engineer G’s personal affairs. Military Engineer G performed two tours of duty for the United States between 1942 and 1948. He died shortly thereafter. While Military Engineer G spent years overseas in war zones, his grandson explains, “He wasn’t a “combat engineer”, like the engineers that build pontoon bridges, for example.  He would come in after the land was secure. So he didn’t see any direct combat” (Grandson). Even though Military Engineer G. wasn’t placed in immediate danger, he was still part of the military. His location was classified and he had no choice in his deployment. Military Engineer G’s experience in army employment ended a little over a decade before Eisenhower’s Military Industrial Complex speech, giving the defense contract wider recognition. This segment therefore provides insight into science’s place in the military before widespread use of government contracts for defense purposes.

Defense contractor 1worked for the military during the Vietnam War time period, not long after Eisenhower’s speech. At this point, the United States still used the draft and was at war. Contractor 1 worked at two chemical companies; Stauffer Chemical Co., where he worked to develop temperature-resistant silicone fluids for the air force and The Dow Chemical Company, where he helped set prices for napalm. While contractor 1 says he “never met or talked with any government people when working on this project, I was not at a high enough level” (Contractor 1), he did notice the presence of government oversight in his activities, admitting  “There was a lot of red tape — forms to be filled out that had nothing to do with what I was doing” (Contractor 1). Due to the amount of regulation in a lower-level position, Contractor 1 doubts he would enjoy working as a full-time contractor. Contractor 1 felt that declining the job was not an option. He explained,“Dow had a DOD (Department of Defense) ‘order’ to produce the material for the Vietnam War effort. In this case the word “order” means you must supply or go to jail or show good cause why you can’t comply” (Contractor 1).The contract was also mutually beneficial. The military acquired technologies they considered necessary and Contractor 1 was able to remain with his family rather than going abroad.

Defense contractor 2 is from the present generation of scientific defense contracts. He currently works at SciTec developing advanced technologies for the military. Unlike Contractor 1, who considered contract work cumbersome, Contractor 2 says, “I feel perfectly normal working for one. I think it is just like working for any research company or the research division of a company” (Contractor 2). The contractor research system in which Contractor 2 works is more like a regular company than a military project. There is no order to comply or risk of drafting to push Contractor 2. This does not mean his employment is devoid of government contact. A private investigation firm (contracted by the FBI) conducted a thorough background check before granting him security clearance. To Contractor 2, the competition the system of defense contracts cultivates works like the market economy, “The reason that the government doesn’t do its own research for defense is that the United States believes that capitalism works better than government run organizations. With capitalism, you can leverage competition between companies in a way that you could not if it were government run” (Contractor 2). Overall, he considers his experience with the defense contract system positive for both the private organization and the military. He also asserts, “If there were only one government-run organization then there is much less incentive to work efficiently” (Contractor 2).

Civilian Worker 1 performed two tours abroad for the Department of Defense, once in Afghanistan for 11 months, and once in Iraq for 7 months. While there, he worked as a comptroller for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Civilian Worker 1 managed funds for reconstruction and infrastructure creation efforts. In Iraq, they “contracted with international companies to do things like build electric power plants for Iraq infrastructure kind of stuff the country needed” (Civilian Worker 1), while his work in Afghanistan had a focus on “training them with how to achieve a 3rd grade education, how to fight, manage bureaucracy, and training, equipping manning and sustaining them” (Civilian Worker 1). The experience of Civilian Worker 1 offers a useful balance to the experiences of Defense Contractors 1 and 2, who remain on US soil. Civilian Worker 1 dealt with a greater risk factor and directly experienced the warfare state. Even though the civilian contractors in areas of conflict stayed in safer areas, Civilian Worker 1 still experienced enemy fire. During the interview, he described situations such as, “the night that we were getting bombed for three hours. We were scared to death. The thin-skinned aluminum trailers wouldn’t protect us” (Interview) and on a Friday when “at 9 am a mortar hit close, and shrapnel shredded several of the trailers that were bathrooms” (Interview). Additionally, the case study of Civilian Worker 1 offers insight on non-research and development operations for which the military contracts civilians. In fact, most of the contracted services Civilian Worker 1 described provide humanitarian aid, which builds rather than destroys.  When asked about his opinion on the separation of the private sector and the military, Civilian Worker 1 said he felt there was a divide between the private companies and the military, almost equating it to NGOs and similar organizations.


II. Synthesis

The complexity of defense contracts is most visible in their balance between warfare and welfare state interests. The ultimate purpose of these contracts is to enhance America’s ability to wage war, but the relationship also feeds the state’s economy.While some intellectual authorities claim the arrangement of government crowds out private business, economic scholar Michael Reich disagrees. He claims that government spending aids the United States economy, saying that, “The growth and persistence of a high level of military spending is a natural outcome in an advanced capitalist society that both suffers from the problem of inadequate private aggregate demand and plays a leading role in the preservation and expansion of the international capitalist system” (Reich 296). Reich also claims that,“…autonomous investment demand has not been constrained by the claims on economic resources induced by government  expenditures” (Reich 297). From Reich’s perspective, military defense spending supports the American economy. In scientific research, Raimo Väyryne claims that the military industrial complex is now part of the technological arms race, although he ethically disapproves of the union.Väyryne claims, “The increasing significance of scientific research for military purposes was no doubt connected with the overall totalization of war; total war also implies total mobilization of scientists” (Väyryne 179). This mobilization of scientists in research and development is expensive and an economic risk. The equipment is specialized, the trained professionals require high wages, and the education of a professional requires a sizeable investment. Through defense contracts, the United States government alleviates some of the financial burden. University programs, such as Defense Contractor 2’s school, have ties many with the military and defense contractors. One corporation mentioned in Nick Turse’s book, The Complex, MITRE, is connected to elite universities, “which includes, among others, Brandeis University, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, the State University of New York-Buffalo” (Turse 38-39). The list goes on, but even this snippet demonstrates the entwinement of education and defense contractors. One of MITRE’s projects with Cornell, an evacuation system for Washington D.C., is on their website. This program is “a project aimed at improving emergency evacuation of the National Capital Region. It’s the latest result of a partnership years in the making between MITRE and Cornell and an example of the company’s efforts to mentor the next generation of engineers and bring the best of their ideas to bear for the federal government” (Woolard). The article also mentions that the company hires some of the Cornell students afterwards. The primary purpose of this project serves the military and federal government, as Turse described. But MITRE’s relationship with universities also helps the scientific field. Future scientists receive necessary training that, due to the interests of the company, tends to have a bias towards skills useful to the defense department. Sometimes this opportunity even results in later employment. Defense Contractor 2 met his employer at a Cornell career event. Like the students who worked with MITRE, he was hired before graduation. The military not only cultivates competition in the private research and development sector, but also funds training for students. These private companies in turn tailor their projects to suit military’s needs. Warfare and welfare are inseparable, and the relationship between the military and the private sector has developed into a state of symbiosis.

The trouble with these states’ entwinement is whether the existence of the welfare state is worth upholding the warfare state. For some, the defense contract system’s contribution to the welfare aspect cannot compensate for its foundation in war.To them, the economic advantages of the military industrial complex cannot reciprocate for the warfare state’s destructive nature.This debate is as complicated as the phenomenon of the defense contract itself, and it is in this environment that employees rationalize their work. In the past,most young men had the pressure of draft risk to motivate their decisions, causing a different set of ethics to entangle individuals of the past. Presently,individual rationalization centers on how the contracts aid society; yet one must remember that the function of defense contracts is to serve military interests. Part of a defense contract’s ethical spectrum also depends on the nature of the conflict and the public’s attitude towards it. While individual contractors are responsible for their participation, the government controls the conflict and carries a greater portion of the ethical responsibility. Additionally, some Department of Defense civilian funds go towards humanitarian projects. Civilian Worker 1 describes how the United States repairs and improves the infrastructure of war zones, saying, “The US comes there and literally creates a city out of nothing” (Civilian 1).  These humanitarian organizations appear under the context of war, which complicates the issue.

And yet, at the inception of the institutional military industrial complex, welfare and warfare states became a binary. Eisenhower did not simply observe the start of the phenomenon, he warned the United States against being consumed and permanently altered by it, saying, “It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology — global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration” (Eisenhower). The military industrial complex has grown into a web of connections between private and public. From it, the concepts of the welfare and warfare state gained shape. As journalistic works such as Turse’s book describe, defense contracts reach deep into the American economic infrastructure. Even commonplace companies have connections. The fifth page of The Complex includes a chart listing businesses with no apparent military benefit, companies like Kellog’s and Sara Lee. The meshing between military and private companies is magnified by the trend of military officers retiring from the government, only to be hired by defense contractors. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to pass judgment on the system’s totality, the interviews do illustrate the difficult ethical issues defense contract employees face every day. To discuss the military industrial complex without addressing the individuals who live in it is to ignore an intricacy of the issue. None of the people interviewed for this piece actively work to uphold its system. They joined to support their families and do work they feel makes a difference. While the complex employs them, the subjects of this paper view their work through the lens of the welfare state, as work progressing science or serving humanitarian good.

Without the government support of the US warfare state, it is unlikely that either research and development or humanitarian aid would be as convenient in the US private sector. The symbiosis of private and public coupled with the duality of the warfare and welfare state makes the issue more tangled than commentary easily expresses. Another issue not often discussed is the fluidity under its ethics. Few argued when the United States rebuilt Europe after World War II. That conflict had a stronger motivation, containment of the Soviet Union, and a more “noble” cause, rebuilding war-torn lands. According to the grandson of Military Engineer G, “The focus seemed to be on everyone doing what they were supposed to do” (Grandson of Military Engineer G). There was an ethical unity not present in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and there is often conflict over the ethics of scientific research, whether it be funding of stem cell research or a Large Hadron Collider. Perhaps this collaboration between private contractors and the government only grew controversial as the state of total war fractured. When contracts no longer provided an opportunity to avoid the draft, like Defense Contractor 1’s job did, the dialogue changed. It was no longer people acting out of necessity. Defense Contractor 2 enjoys his job, and doesn’t consider it a patriotic mission. And yet, these modern contractors perform their jobs under the blanket of war. But even this minute sample suggests each contractor’s individual reasons for taking the jobs vary. While the Industrial Complex itself may be flawed by nature, it is a fixture of the American political system. Therefore, due to these muddled circumstances on both the micro and macro level of analysis, rationalization the system requires both consideration of the ethics of the structure in general and the conflicts to which it is applied. It is in this context that contractors must reach an understanding of their work, and form their opinion of it.

Defense contracts are a confusing element in the discussion of the military industrial complex. Many academic writers theorize on their purpose and meaning in the US national security state. Some even pass ethical judgment. While these works provide valuable insight into the nature of defense contracts, they miss the individual level. By approaching the phenomenon of defense contracts on this individual level, one learns about the experience of the worker, and how they approach their jobs. These people work for logical reasons in a moral grey zone, a fixture of the modern national security state.


Works Cited

“Civil Contractor 1.” Interview. 14 Apr. 2012.

“Defense Contractor 1.” E-mail interview. 7 Apr. 2012.

“Defense Contractor 2.” E-mail interview. 6 Apr. 2012.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, Wikisource.

“Grandson of Military Engineer G.” E-mail interview. 5 Apr. 2012

Reich, Michael. “Does the US Economy Require Military Spending?.” American Economic Review. 62.1/2 (1972): 296-303. Print.

Turse, Nick. The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. New York: Metropolitan, 2008. Print.

Väyrynen, Raimo. “Military R&D as an Aspect of the Arms Race.” Current Research on Peace and Violence. 1.3/4 (1978): 177-190. Print.

Woolard, Russell. “MITRE and Cornell are Engineering Ideas for the National Capital Region.” MITRE, 13/Oct/2010. Web. 20 April 2012.