Military in Society

The “Founding Fathers” worried a lot about the effect a large standing army could have on their young democracy. They had just endured occupation by English and Hanoverian troops and fought a revolution to throw them out. And history had shown that a large standing army was as likely to be used to oppress its own people as against foreign invaders. To ensure that this did not happen here, the Constitution envisioned a system of state militias that could be called into federal service to meet a common threat. In case of an impending major threat or for continuous needs, such as manning frontier posts, Congress could authorize an army, but could fund it only for a period of two years. We don’t worry much today about military coups in the United States, and rightfully so. Yet, even after post-Cold War downsizing, our defense establishment numbers about 3.5 million personnel, including 1.4 million on active duty and over 2 million civilians and reservists/guardsmen. Other groups with a stake in defense include the millions more retirees (who rely on military installations for various services) and employees of companies who derive their income directly or indirectly from the Department of Defense. Like any other group in our society, these people organize to influence the political system. [Data from DefenseLink.]

Eisenhower’s famous caution is worth repeating:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. Farewell Address, 1961.

This section of Defense and the National Interest examines the effects of the defense community on the larger society and the methods the various players use to help determine political outcomes in their favor.

Grand Strategy, a brief introduction by the editor of Defense and the National Interest.