The former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a searing indictment of the US national security state to more than 100 people gathered for the Mass. Peace Action Annual Meeting at the Harvard- Epworth Methodist Church on March 9th.
In a wide-ranging and refreshingly candid speech, retired US Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson described the ways in which the military-industrial complex has become ubiquitous and all-powerful in US government policy-making, posing a fundamental threat to our democracy.
As a high-level Republican staffer who served for years within the national security state, Wilkerson has an insider’s knowledge of its workings.
He traced the origins of that state to the 1947 National Security Act, which codified the existence of a perpetual war machine, even in peacetime. It took a leap forward under President Reagan, who justified a massive military build-up by demanding an assessment from CIA director Bill Casey that the Soviet Union was a threat, a claim which many in the CIA knew to be untrue. Reagan paid for the build-up by draining funds from the “welfare state” meaning all the civilian programs designed to meet human needs.
What does a national security state mean? Wilkerson asked. It means that your reason for being is war. It means the military plays an enormous role in foreign policy, in diplomacy, in domestic politics, in the economy. The gargantuan military budget devours the majority of the federal government’s discretionary spending, he noted. At its current rate of increase, including inflation and payment on the debt, it could consume the entire discretionary budget by 2030.
The military has created a Unified Command that divides the world into fiefdoms, each ruled by a four-star general. The US maintains 809 military bases circling the globe, whereas all other countries in the world combined, including Russia and China, have 77. In many cases, the very existence of those US bases incites wars.
Wilkerson stressed that leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties were responsible for, and complicit in, the national security state. “Anyone who thinks the [leading] Democrats are different is smoking some pretty cheap stuff,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell, war is on their agenda. Support of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and Boeing is on their agenda. Taking money from these people for their PACs is on their agenda.”
But Wilkerson said he finds hope in the young people who are being elected to Congress today. “They’re a different breed of cat. I hope to heck they mean what they say…and that they’re not contaminated by this state before they get to the point where they can make a difference,” he said to enthusiastic applause. “And I hope there’s a whole lot more of them to come.”
—Jacqueline King is editor of the Mass. Peace Action newsletter.