The Military Industrial Complex

by Conor Friedersdorf

Kudos to The Boston Globe for highlighting a problem that's worse than ever:

The Globe analyzed the career paths of 750 of the highest ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades and found that, for most, moving into what many in Washington call the “rent-a-general’’ business is all but irresistible. From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives, according to the Globe analysis. That compares with less than 50 percent who followed that path a decade earlier, from 1994 to 1998.

In some years, the move from general staff to industry is a virtual clean sweep. Thirty-four out of 39 three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired in 2007 are now working in defense roles nearly 90 percent. And in many cases there is nothing subtle about what the generals have to sell Martin’s firm is called The Four Star Group, for example. The revolving-door culture of Capitol Hill where former lawmakers and staffers commonly market their insider knowledge to lobbying firms is now pervasive at the senior rungs of the military leadership.

James Fallows tries to explain why we hear about this so rarely:

So a problem that's been recognized for at least half a century seems to have become worse than ever -- and yet it's not discussed at all by politicians and rarely in the press. I think this has something to do with the distortions of the "narrow sliver of the population" era of the American military.

As SecDef Gates and countless others have pointed out, the whole American nation is in no sense "at war," but the minority who serve (again and again) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere most definitely have been, for years. Some background sense of unease or guilt may make it harder for politicians to do more than compete in saying that they "support the troops."

Here's a summary of the Globe's findings:

? Dozens of retired generals employed by defense firms maintain Pentagon advisory roles, giving them unparalleled levels of influence and access to inside information on Department of Defense procurement plans.

? The generals are, in many cases, recruited for private sector roles well before they retire, raising questions about their independence and judgment while still in uniform. The Pentagon is aware and even supports this practice.

? The feeder system from some commands to certain defense firms is so powerful that successive generations of commanders have been hired by the same firms or into the same field. For example, the last seven generals and admirals who worked as Department of Defense gatekeepers for international arms sales are now helping military contractors sell weapons and defense technology overseas.

? When a general-turned-businessman arrives at the Pentagon, he is often treated with extraordinary deference as if still in uniform which can greatly increase his effectiveness as a rainmaker for industry. The military even has name for it the “bobblehead effect.’’

Every time I see a general testifying before Congress about the merits of some purchase from private industry, I am going to think of this story.