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Power, Politics, and Government

Society, Government, and the Military

Military-Industrial Complex

The military-industrial complex refers to the conjunction of federal funding, the military, and businesses that work with and supply the military.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916–62) recognized the importance of military leaders in the U.S. power elite. A precursor to Mills's concept of the power elite (a small group of corporate, military, and government leaders) was the concept of the military-industrial complex, an alliance in U.S. society composed of a powerful military and businesses that supply or work with the military, funded by the federal government. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) coined this term in his 1961 farewell address. He argued that the combination of a huge military and a large, specialized defense industry had the potential to displace power, taking it away from citizens, democratic institutions, and democratic processes. A former general who led the Allied forces in Europe in World War II, Eisenhower described the military-industrial complex as a new phenomenon that had developed in the United States in the mid-20th century. Technological advances meant that general industry could no longer create the weapons and other materials needed for defense. A new, permanent industry of businesses that specialized in defense had thus emerged. Eisenhower noted the massive federal spending that is directed to the defense industry. This contributes to the enormous influence of the military-industrial complex on society as a whole. Eisenhower warned that the military-industrial complex was a threat to democracy and liberty. The concentration of power in the hands of military officials and defense industry leaders makes it hard, he argued, for civilian policy makers to lead on vital issues such as foreign policy. Resources are poured into military projects and defense capabilities. This leaves fewer resources for other areas of society, such as education. Because so much money goes to the military and the defense industry, people are less likely to spend their time and talents in other areas. In his speech, Eisenhower warned Americans that the military-industrial complex should not be allowed undue influence over legislation, the economy, and society at large.

The massive federal funding of the military and defense is a key driver of the military-industrial complex. One reason for the increased power of the defense industry is that the goals of military leaders and the defense industry are aligned, since increased military spending is profitable for businesses in the defense industry. Following World War II, the United States had become a superpower on the world stage. It was confronting another superpower, the Soviet Union. Eisenhower's discussion of the military-industrial complex was shaped by this context. This confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union (and the associated countries that aligned themselves with each side) led to an arms race—a competition to develop and maintain strong military capability, including the development of more powerful nuclear weapons. Military leaders wanted more weapons, including increasingly powerful weapons, as well as other defense-related materials. The defense industry found itself in a prestigious and powerful position because it was at the forefront of developing and producing these weapons and materials. This demand for defense-industry products brought huge profits to these businesses. Sales of weapons and materials to other countries was also lucrative. During the Cold War, weapons were sold around the world to proxy countries, countries fighting as stand-ins for U.S. or Soviet interests in the Cold War. For example, in Indochina (Vietnam), the Middle East, Central America, Congo, and many other areas, both the United States and the Soviet Union armed groups that fought one another. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, major defense contractors continued to sell weapons, materials, and services to both the U.S. government and others around the world. Sociologists examine how the military-industrial complex continues to play a role in the United States and other nations. For example, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States declared a "war on terror" to respond to the threat of terrorism. Federal spending on defense contractors is very profitable work for these businesses. Critics argue that the defense industry has undue influence over policy decisions, such as where and how often to provide military intervention in conflicts around the globe. Furthermore, declaration of war on an idea, rather than on a particular nation, serves to perpetuate conflict. This supports the interest of businesses and individuals who make a profit by responding to this conflict. Thus, many scholars and researchers continue to use the concept of the military-industrial complex, expanding beyond Eisenhower's argument to consider its role in the 21st century and linking the military-industrial complex to the concept of the power elite.
President Eisenhower coined the term military-industrial complex in 1961 in a speech warning that the alliance of a powerful defense industry and a large, influential military was a threat to democracy. High levels of federal spending support the military-industrial complex.

Investment in the Military

Policies that favor investment in the military can impact investment in other areas, such as education and health care.

War is expensive, both in terms of lives lost and resources used. It is perhaps the most expensive activity a society can engage in. In modern industrial societies, such as the United States, this cost is maintained outside of wartime. Modern nations have standing armies that are maintained and made ready for war even during peacetime. Modern warfare relies on high-tech equipment supplied by the defense industry. Soldiers who use this equipment require expensive training to make use of it. Countries with powerful militaries often intervene in conflicts outside their own borders. Since the end of World War II, the United States has continually deployed troops to conflicts around the globe and maintains a network of military bases worldwide. Given these circumstances, a state of peace never truly exists.

Maintaining the military is an enormous expense. It is costly not just in monetary terms. For instance, highly skilled workers must be attracted to work in the defense industry rather than other sectors. Diverting resources to the military means other needs of a society may suffer a shortfall in attention and funding. Critics of the defense industry and the military-industrial complex point out that money spent on weapons and armies could be put to better use improving society, for instance by funding schools, hospitals, and eldercare. They further criticize the extent to which the military-industrial establishment is able to influence decisions about military spending and foreign policy, whereas advocates for social spending find it harder to change policies because they have relatively little power to influence policy makers.

U.S. Budget, Major Areas of Spending, 2015

Military spending accounts for a huge portion of the U.S. budget. Sociologists look at this kind of data to analyze social, cultural, political, and economic facets of a country.

Social Values and Military Intervention

Social and cultural beliefs, values, and traditions shape policies on military intervention.

When and how a society goes to war or engages in other forms of conflict reflects values within society and the structure of the society. In the United States, the military establishment and the defense industry have a major say in how much money is spent on the military, as well as when and how the military is used. The United States uses its military power frequently in pursuit of its objectives around the world. This is linked to the American cultural tendency to see the United States as occupying a position of global power and having a responsibility to advance causes such as democracy and market economies (free-market systems with little or no government regulation).

Elites tend to dominate the military policy and decisions of a society, but social and cultural values also shape why, when, and how military action occurs. Wider society can turn against the use of force or the structure of the military and, through social movements, affect policy. In the 1960s and 1970s, social movements in the United States opposed both military action and the military itself. The institution of a draft—required military service based on a lottery system—in the Vietnam War made opposition to the draft, and the war itself, major forces in American society. The anti-war movement also argued that the war was both unjust and wasteful. This movement helped lead to the end of the war. Since this time, U.S. policy makers have generally been careful to frame military intervention as justified by humanitarian concerns and democratic ideals. Efforts are made to minimize direct civilian casualties and to provide humanitarian assistance in war zones. Elected officials gauge public support for military action when deciding whether or not to support it and to what degree. Congress holds the power to declare war but has not done so since World War II. Since that time, Congress has authorized some specific uses of force and passed resolutions supporting unspecified actions to protect U.S. interests or to engage in wide-ranging military assistance programs abroad. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress gave the president wide latitude to use force in situations that might be linked in some way to terrorism or to prevent possible terrorism. These policies reflect to some degree major currents of American culture, such as a tradition of strong support for the military, a sense that the United States has a special role in the world, and an enduring anti-war sentiment among some groups.

In some societies, the decision-making power to wage military conflict is more generally distributed than in the United States. This is often a result of a central government having a limited ability to control wider society or to control militants within its borders. Social and cultural values can also dampen a country's tendency to take military action. For example, support for military action is frequently less strong in European and Commonwealth countries (those linked to Great Britain) than in the United States. In many societies, military action often coincides with a general catastrophe such as an invasion, resource scarcity, or an uprising against the government. These circumstances are viewed by the society as requiring or justifying military action.


Terrorism is violence linked to political ideas and goals.

Terrorism is a form of conflict involving violence, generally waged by nonstate actors (individuals and groups rather than governments) for political ends. The aim of terrorism is to commit shocking and violent acts to produce a political outcome by using terror to maximize the ability of an individual or a relatively small group to affect policy. Theorists offer many views about how and why terrorism develops, and what actually constitutes terrorism. Parts of society may feel themselves to be under threat. A group may believe their leaders have abandoned or harmed them. People may feel they lack the power to challenge nations and forces that affect their lives otherwise. Most societies condemn civilian casualties, and terrorists rarely find popular support. However, some communities support attacks by nonstate actors when they believe the ends ultimately justify the means. One issue of concern to sociologists is what constitutes terrorism. For example, the United States has worked to combat terrorism since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Almost all nations and groups agree that these attacks constitute terrorism. In response to the attacks, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invoked Article 5, the central tenet of the treaty that calls for the collective defense of all member states, defining an attack on any NATO country as an attack on all member countries. Since that time, the United States has engaged in numerous military actions in the name of defending itself from terrorism. However, the communities at the receiving end of U.S. airstrikes are terrorized by these acts. One issue of debate is whether or not it is useful or accurate to restrict the notion of terrorism to nonstate actors or if a broader understanding of the concept is needed.

Almost everyone condemns terrorism, but a key issue is who defines terrorism and how it is defined. Countries, groups, and individuals tend to define their own actions as justified; those who suffer from repeated attacks tend to define them as terrorism. Groups that define themselves as freedom fighters are often defined as terrorists or insurgents by those they act against. In the 21st century, Palestinians who take action against the state of Israel see themselves as fighting against occupation and oppression, while Israelis see them as terrorists. Similarly, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a group that engaged in bombings and violence against Great Britain in the 20th century (and to some extent in the 21st century), was seen by some Irish as fighting for freedom and seen by others as terrorists. When members of the French Resistance blew up railroad tracks and trained in guerrilla warfare during World War II, they were considered terrorists by the Germans and by the French government that collaborated with the Germans. Often, whether or not violent action is considered terrorism is linked to how a community or society views the goals of the group that commits the act.


A country's level of militarism is highly correlated with its tendency to exert power in multiple spheres on the global stage.

Militarism is the degree to which a society believes in the use of military force to advance its goals. Militarism is correlated with a strong desire to use the military to solve problems, veneration of military leaders and members of the military, a central place for military themes in popular media, and a high social status afforded to members of the military. A leading cause of militarism is a position of power in international affairs. The United States after World War II evolved into a more militaristic society than it had been previously. The United States had gone from an isolationist stance to a superpower challenging a major rival, the Soviet Union, in the Cold War. This conflict, and the rise of the military-industrial complex—the alliance of a powerful military and a large defense industry, both supported by federal funding—helped make American society more militaristic. However, this militarism met stern opposition from some parts of American society during the Vietnam War.

With the U.S. war on terror that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, observers noticed a new growth of militarism in American society, culture, and politics. The United States has engaged in several conflicts around the world as part of the war on terror. These conflicts are linked to geopolitical issues such as international politics and international relations. However, the continual engagement of the military is functionally important to the U.S. military-industrial complex. The military-industrial complex needs conflict to stay in power. Weapons manufacturers and defense contractors need conflict in order to make a profit. These issues help to motivate the war on terror and militarism. Mass media also contribute to militarism. Following the September 11 attacks, popular media, especially TV and movies, became more concerned with military themes. The producers of these media consulted with military officials at the Department of Defense. This allowed military officials to influence the cultural products consumed by many Americans. For example, a 2017 report showed that the Department of Defense had provided thousands of approvals and rewrites of scripts for movies, including films in the Transformers series, and television shows, such as Homeland. The United States's goal of defeating terrorism worldwide has contributed to increased militarism in its culture and society. As during the Vietnam era, however, this militarism has met opposition from those who oppose the effects of militarism both in society and in foreign policy.