Military America

Pentagon Capitalism: The Political Economy of War

by Seymour Melman
McGraw-Hill, 290 pp., $8.50

United States Military
United States Military; drawing by David Levine

The thesis of Seymour Melman’s terrifying book can be briefly stated. There exists within the democratic capitalist political economy of the United States a second political economy that is neither capitalist nor democratic. Technically subordinate to the larger entity, this second political economy has in fact become the acknowledged master of the industrial core of the primary economic system, and the silent master of crucial areas of its political life. Each year the directorship of this inner state, through appeals of mixed fear and patriotism, renews its control over the richest portion of the nation’s resources, which it then disburses to its industrial satrapies.

In the process of rewarding its vassals, the central management casts an indulgent eye on the excesses of its supporters, and takes care to shore up weaker members lest by their disappearance the boundaries of the inner state shrink. Finally, and most important, the state within a state has a double significance for the society in which it is entrenched. Presumptively the inner state serves as a mighty striking force whose purpose is to make invincible the nation’s will. In fact, however, the inner state is the Achilles’ heel of the outer, not only robbing it of energies and creativity that cannot be pried loose from the insatiable demands of the military, but threatening by its very presence to invite the total destruction that even its immense striking force cannot prevent.

So much for rhetoric. Now a few facts. The system of military production and distribution managed by the Department of Defense (DOD) is the largest planned economy outside the Soviet Union. Its property—plant and equipment, land and inventories of war commodities—amounts to some $202 billion, or about 10 percent of the assets of the entire American economy. It owns 39 million acres of land; rules a population of 4.7 million direct employees or soldiers; and spends over $80 billion a year. This makes it richer than any small nation in the world, and of course incomparably more powerful. That part of its assets which is represented by nuclear explosives alone gives the DOD the equivalent of six tons of TNT for every inhabitant on the globe, to which must be added a “conventional” military capability of gargantuan proportions: the explosives dropped on South and North Vietnam so far amount to 3 million tons, or 50 percent more than the total bomb tonnage dropped in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II.

The DOD system embraces both men and industry. The men include, first, 3.5 million soldiers deployed in 2,257 bases or locations abroad and in numerous camps at home and 1.2 million civilian employees located both at home and abroad. No less important is an industrial army of at least 3 million workers who are directly employed on war production, in addition to a considerably larger number employed as the secondary…

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