New Book: ‘Military Industrial Complex’ Is Bigger Than Ever

The nation’s largest government contractor gobbles up some $260 from each and every taxpaying household, according to a new book that chronicles the history of Lockheed Martin.

In “Prophets of War,” longtime arms control expert William D. Hartung calls this “the Lockheed Martin tax” — a way of driving home just how much government contracting costs Americans.

And that’s just one company.

“Prophets of War” (Nation Books) comes out at an auspicious time. It’s been 50 years this week since President Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell speech, warned the American public “of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”

Lockheed Martin headquarters in Bethesda, Md.
Leslie E. Kossoff, AP
According to a new book chronicling the history of Lockheed Martin, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., above, the largest government contractor is involved in almost every aspect of the U.S. government.
Hartung’s history of the defense giant traces it humble roots back to the Loughead brothers (who eventually changed their name to Lockheed), to its current incarnation as the nation’s top government contractor. That route was by no means smooth — it was a path marred by bribery scandals, disastrous contracts and near-bankruptcy.

But it emerged — in large part thanks to government largess — to become the nation’s top government contractor, with more than $38 billion in contracts in 2008. Hartung’s book, in many respects, appears to document the very incarnation of Eisenhower’s warning.

But Eisenhower was no peacenik. He supported some of the very military projects that made Lockheed’s early reputation as the go-to company for advanced weapons. Indeed, Hartung gives credit to the company’s successes, including the U-2 spy plane, which was not only a technological marvel but a critical asset in proving that the United States was actually overestimating Soviet military capabilities.

It’s a shame, he points out, that this revelation did little to stem the mounting arms race.

But “Prophets of War” also sheds light on weapons-buying disasters, such as the C-5A transport aircraft, which was supposed to be a model for military procurement. He skillfully shows how both the Pentagon and Lockheed contributed to an acrimonious debate over out-of-control costs.

Does Lockheed Martin embody the behemoth that Eisenhower feared? Hartung is writing a history of one company, and not necessarily of the military industrial complex, which also includes the Pentagon, Congress and numerous other companies, so he never quite answers that question. But maybe that’s also the point.

There is no single villain in this larger history. Congress pushes defense projects — often ones the Pentagon doesn’t even want — in order to sustain jobs in their districts. The Pentagon becomes fixated on fancy technology, driving up costs and complexity beyond what the contractors envisioned. Then there’s the defense companies themselves, which employ expensive lobbyists and retired generals to keep the dollars flowing.

But Lockheed, in truth, is not just a “prophet of war”; it also is heavily involved in almost every aspect of government. In fact, Hartung’s book is at its best — and most fascinating — when it documents the reach of Lockheed Martin into almost every facet of American life. Its technology and services help the post office sort your mail, it helps the IRS send out tax notices, and it even played a role in the 2010 census.

It’s unclear whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is, perhaps, what Eisenhower was thinking when he talked about the “total influence” of the military industrial complex.

“We recognize the imperative need for this development,” he said. “Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”



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