Have you heard of Enterprise, Alabama? If you have never heard of it, I won’t blame you. It is neither bustling city, nor a tourist destination, unless you are an agriculture enthusiast. If so, you will be attracted to a most unique statue of lady liberty holding up a golden boll weevil in the middle of town, a tribute to the legendary cotton pest that forced the deep south to diversify its agricultural economy. Spending part of my childhood here as a 10 year old, my grandmother would take me to the Winn Dixie for the groceries on the way to watch the trains heading to bigger cities like Atlanta to distribute agricultural goods. When we did not eat a mean of apricot salad, potatoes, roast beef and other forms of southern cuisine, we ate at Cutts, a barbecue buffet restaurant for dinner. Church on Sundays was about both worshipping God and celebrating our heritage as Americans, a lifestyle befitting of the Bible Belt’s heart.
So how does this small city have anything to do with American foreign policy (other than the author reading the histories of western warfare and China)? If you head down the road, you will eventually pass a large military base known as Fort Rucker, an old Civilian Conservation Corp base camp that was converted to train GIs and house German prisoners of war during World War II. Today, it is the Army Aviation Center for training helicopter pilots. Not only did Enterprise and the surrounding towns become transit points for younger officers and soldiers serving the country, it brought retirees and their families, along with economic growth to small town Alabama. As the Winn Dixie went out of businesses, newer businesses like Publix, Cheeburger Cheeburger, and small department stores you might find in larger cities like Montgomery or Birmingham came to replace it. With them came the jobs and opportunities that we often talk about in Washington, the mainstay of every elected official’s desire to appease an economy-obsessed electorate. In this microcosm of the American South, Enterprise is an instructive example of how the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) has shaped our conversations about jobs and foreign policy, for negative and dangerous reasons.
Elected representatives continue to have a vested stake in supporting the growth of American defense spending because of jobs and ideological support for the armed services.
The network of military bases are not a self-contained system in our national security state, but has become part of the everyday lives of some Americans. In the most simplistic description, the military-industrial complex is the network of businesses, factories, and machine shops that develop weapons for the military, which are then shipped to military bases across the United States. In the case of $1 billion spent on guided missiles in the United States, 9,000 jobs are created, scattered across 435 congressional districts and 48 states. If you translate that into a helicopter, the jobs in production outside of Enterprise, plus the ones maintaining the supply chain around one helicopter, that is several thousand voters. Furthermore, multiply those by 800 helicopters, the base builds a community of staff to support the Aviation center, who also bring international visitors and support staff to the area. The discretionary spending locally in the nearby towns they generate economic growth and development in the form of new subdivisions, malls, and office parks. In total, it’s a congressman’s dream come true, as he or she is sure to remind voters of the good work they have done for the district, and earn another comfortable term in Congress.
Incentives for congressional members to support the system are based both on a public policy’s success measured by job creation and the ideological background of the constituency. Congresswoman Martha Roby who represents Enterprise, Dothan, and Montgomery, serves on the Appropriations Committee, and the Subcommittee on Base Construction and Veterans Affairs. Her assignment helps ensure her district continues to get the funding for Fort Rucker and other military installations, and for veterans benefits for the growing retiree population in Enterprise. As more jobs are created through Fort Rucker and more people from military backgrounds come to live in the area, the district becomes more conservative. Based on research by Kathleen Fawley, constituents with strong ideological leanings towards national security are more likely to perpetuate the system by holding representatives to policies reflective of it. Because members of the military generally vote for conservative candidates tough on security, representatives like Roby will be more responsive to that base constituency. A positive feedback loop results, as a “defense for jobs” policy with ideological reinforcement of Washington norms creates a militarized local economy.
Support for the Military Industrial Complex fits into a Cold War narrative and persisting ideology of absolute security (at the expense of all other institutions)
The deep relationships between industry, military and political leaders in this southeastern Alabama city is a beating vein of the post-World War II American consensus on defense and foreign policy that has persisted since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Even as America stands as the sole superpower guaranteeing a system resting on American values, the political establishment in Washington is politically incentivised to pursue absolute defense. According to David Unger in Emergency State, Washington is constantly finding adversaries that may or may not threaten the nation’s security. The result is the gradual erosion of a sustainable future beyond large defense budgets and continuous American war abroad. Despite his warnings of such an influence on our democracy more than 60 years ago, students in our schools rarely read or listen to Dwight D. Eisenhower 1960 Farewell Address. Eisenhower claimed we were signing on to a policy of unlimited war, where the constant deference to the military and a community of contractors to carry out the nation’s foreign policy would crowd out all other options of leadership.
Enterprise’s growth is a product of an unspoken consensus among Americans: the military knows better, and we should support them at the expense of all other parties that contribute to foreign policy conversations. People who live there have a higher rate of contact with service members, and even my time spent there has exposed me to service members. Yet, 1 in 3 Americans have a military family member and many will have few direct relationships with the active service. When constantly exposed to Washington’s public reverence in the military and political disparaging at negotiating members of Congress acting tough on the nation’s enemies. A reflection of Eisenhower’s warning has played out in the rise of militarism in American society. Stephen Glain, author of State v. Defense, discusses the historical decline of American diplomacy, first from George Kennan’s proposal of Containment of Communism to former State Department official Paul Nitze’s declaration of war on Communism through NSC-68. The institutions of American diplomacy and grand strategy have been sidelined by the Pentagon and the network of contractors, and businesses that support it.
Contributes to a moral dilemma of sacrificing “butter for guns” in national conversations about American Foreign Policy
With questions of scarce resources and the lack of funds to sustain economic growth and absolute security, we run a terrible risk never trading our jobs in defense industries to those in school, clean energy, and the economy of the future. The example of the the F-35 Lightning fighter jet is a cold example of military expenditures gone awry, and long-term growth being sacrificed for short-term economic gains. As of 2016, Senator John McCain was criticizing the program for costing $400 billion, twice initial estimates to order 2,763 aircraft , costing $144,770,177 per plane. If you question how if the cost was worth it, you are asking too soon. The plan is not scheduled for delivery until 2019 at the earliest. So why don’t they cancel the project? A politician sacrificing American jobs in a climate heavily focused on job creation as a barometer of success would be booted out in the next election. Not even the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party can apply it’s spending-reduction measures without serious political blowback from voters.
The economic cost over time is measured in the trade offs we have made to produce the F-35, along with all other military projects and investments in bases. Eisenhower described these tradeoffs when describing how 1 B-52 bomber as the equal of 2 brick high schools, and affordable for five thousand Americans. Driving by Enterprise High School, I think how new books, hiring teaching assistants, and investing in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and the arts would help spur innovation among young people. Placing investments in Enterprise now, like other small towns with military communities, have opportunities to grow local businesses, creating horizontal growth in the economy. While not discounting the benefits of jobs brought to Enterprise by Fort Rucker and spending in national defense, it is directly tied to our ability to maintain massive defense budgets, rather than spreading the work between more than two programs. So in our own little way, we are contributing to a short-term, high risk proposition of losing economic growth and sacrificing a prosperous future for a policies made out of fear nearly 60 years ago.