Foreign Policy Driven by “Perverse Incentive” to Wage War

Arnie Alpert on April 25, 2015

Pentagon reliance on private contractors creates an incentive for war, Lawrence Wilkerson told several New Hampshire audiences on a recent speaking tour.  Wilkerson, a retired US Army Colonel who served as Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said the military-industrial-complex has become "the principal influence on national security and ultimately on foreign policy decision-making." 

“If it’s going to change, it’s going to require you,” Wilkerson said.  “It’s going to require the American people getting sick and tired of their republic getting stolen by the few, by the wealthy few, by the plutocracy.“

Lawrence Wilkerson

Former State Department Insider Speaks Out on NH Tour

When I was a little kid growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, the community’s principal employer was the Springfield Armory, a massive industrial complex that sprawled across the city, and the place where my Aunt Dorothy worked.  The Armory was the nation’s principal location for manufacture of military firearms from 1777 until it was shuttered in 1968. 

Now the Pentagon’s weapons come from private companies, which introduce “a perverse incentive” to wage war, according to Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired US Army colonel and the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.  

Reliance on private corporations to supply the US military is not what George Washington had in mind, Wilkerson said on a recent New Hampshire speaking tour.

Prior to World War Two, “we had not had defense contractors, ever, in our history,” Wilkerson told participants at this year’s conference on “Building a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence,” held April 18 at Plymouth State University (PSU).  “George Washington said, ‘not on my watch will any Navy ship be built in a so-called defense contractor yard.’  He didn’t use that term, but he meant, it will not be built in a private yard.”

If the Pentagon still sourced its weapons from government-owned factories, Col. Wilkerson continued, “there would not be a Lockheed Martin, there would not be a Raytheon, there would not be a Boeing with a defense arm.  And we maintained that posture by law and by preference for over 150 years,” until World War Two, when President Roosevelt took advantage of US private industrial capacity to arm the US and its allies for war in Europe and the Pacific. 

As the war transitioned to a “cold war” between the USA and the Soviet Union, the private arms industry continued to grow.  By the 1950s, the weapons business had grown so large that President Eisenhower saw it as a spiritual threat to the country.   “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” cautioned the former five-star general.  

The military-industrial-complex is not so new anymore.

“We have let it grow like topsy,” said Col. Wilkerson.  “We have let it become the principal influence on national security and ultimately on foreign policy decision-making.”  As the top aide to Colin Powell during the build-up to the Iraq war, the retired colonel has seen it from the inside.

Wilkerson recently completed a three-day speaking tour, organized by AFSC’s “Governing under the Influence” project.  He shared his insider perspective with NHPR and WNHN listeners, the Concord Monitor editorial board, and audiences in Durham, Portsmouth, Nashua, and Concord, in addition to the PSU conference. 

The problem isn’t bad people, Wilkerson said, it’s systemic.  “A lot of my friends work for Raytheon, Grumman, Boeing Lockheed-Martin, and so forth.”

“They’re good people,” he said, but they are functioning inside a system that is “insidious, pernicious, and acting in the background.”  It’s not just the makers of missiles, planes, and warships.  K Street in Washington has people who “lobby for longer sentences in order to keep their prisons full and their profits growing.”  And as for the National Rifle Association, defending the rights to bear arms is not its central purpose; it’s “keeping the arms merchants of the world selling their arms.”

Eisenhower was not the only president to warn the nation about the pernicious influence of a too-large military establishment, noted Wilkerson, who teaches at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.  James Madison, an architect of the Constitution and the nation’s fourth president, cautioned, “In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate...A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.”

“Madison wrote that the surest route to tyranny was interminable war, and we’ve been at war for 14 years,” Wilkerson emphasized.  “Lockheed’s share price at one point went from $26 to $118.  As long as war is that profitable for powerful entities you won’t see the end of it.” 

When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tried to halt production of the F-22 fighter plane, he failed, Wilkerson recalled.  “Lockheed Martin could marshal far more power on Capitol Hill than Secretary Gates could,” Wilkerson told an audience at Heritage Heights in Concord.  “That’s how powerful they are.”

“We are governed under the influence,” Wilkerson said, and the fact that weapons makers profit so greatly from war creates “a perverse incentive” to make it happen.  

“If it’s going to change, it’s going to require you,” Wilkerson told the PSU audience.  “It’s going to require the American people getting sick and tired of their republic getting stolen by the few, by the wealthy few, by the plutocracy.“


Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program, which he has led since 1981.  In that time he has been involved in movements for economic justice and affordable housing, civil and worker rights, peace and disarmament, abolition of the death penalty, and an end to racism and homophobia.