Power and peril: profile of the US military-industrial complex

The Pathology of Power, by Norman Cousins. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 228 pp. $15.95. In 1949, Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review, visited Hiroshima, where four years earlier the age of nuclear warfare had begun. What he found, he writes here, was ``the triumph of mind over matter in the ultimate and most frightening sense.''

The other day, on a train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, I read Cousins's account of that visit. It was a sobering introduction to a city that stands as a lesson to the world.

Nowadays, of course, Hiroshima is a wholly rebuilt city. The marks of history are mental rather than physical. Yet the sense of forgiveness and progress is almost palpable: The latest signs of American influence are not leveled lots and blackened bricks but a McDonald's.

Cousins is right when, remembering the people he met and watched during his visit 38 years ago, he concludes that ``the greatest force on earth - greater than any war device or explosive - is the will to live and the capacity for hope.'' It is this sense of hope that undergirds what otherwise could be a cynical and depressing book. His subject is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called ``the military-industrial complex'' - and what the whistle-blowing Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (R) has identified as the $435 hammer and the $7,600 coffeemaker.

Cousins's goal is to cast a harsh light on what he describes as ``the open channel between the weaponsmakers and the US Treasury.'' His argument, richly supported by the comments of a number of military figures, is, he asserts, not antimilitary. He admits that a free society needs military protection.

In fact, however, the book delivers a blistering attack against ``the Pentagon-Congress-Contractor troika'' that is making the American economy ``dependent on defense megadollars.'' It begins by charting the relation between weaponsmakers and the warring nations to which they sell. It ends by asserting that, in a nuclear age, absolute national sovereignty is ``unworkable.''

True to his reputation for sober rationality, historical understanding, and an uncluttered journalistic style, Cousins builds his case slowly. He begins with five chapters that retell the sad tale of ``misperceptions'' that led to the use of atomic weapons. It is a convincing account, made all the more so because Cousins, checking back into his notes, recalls his own conversations with such principals as Eisenhower and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Next, recalling two influential books published in the 1930s - H.C. Englebrecht and F.C. Hanighen's ``Merchants of Death'' and Philip Noel-Baker's ``The Private Manufacture of Arms'' - Cousins recounts the profiteering in weapons and the subversion of peace initiatives carried on by such great armament firms as Krupp, Du Pont, Vickers, and Bethlehem Steel in the run-up to World War I.

Then, bringing his case to the present, he profiles several whistle-blowers who were privy to the vast scope of military waste and have sought to publicize the scandals. He rounds out the book with chapters on the ``malignancy'' of the weaponsmaking firm of General Dynamics, the potential for boondoggling in the ``star wars'' program, and the nature of power.

The heart of the book, however, lies in two central chapters that discuss the nature of present-day military-industrial greed and folly. Here one can find the sorry tales of defense contractors charging the taxpayers for executive golf fees, company barber-shop losses, kennel rentals, and baby-sitting payments. Here, in cameo, are the gross miscalculations that led to spending $1.8 billion on the Sergeant York antiaircraft gun (abandoned in 1985) and $13.7 billion on the Bradley M-2 Fighting Vehicle (still, apparently, a dud). Here, more tragically, is the tale of the M-16 rifle - a weapon so prone to jamming that the Viet Cong, after stripping dead American soldiers of boots, grenades, and rations, left the rifles behind as worthless. Here is the tale of the Apache attack helicopter, so susceptible to rifle and machine-gun fire that 4,900 were officially shot down in the Vietnam war. The real number, says Cousins, is closer to 10,000 - because of the habit of retrieving the crashed helicopter's tail (complete with service number), returning it to the US where a new machine could be built around the old tail, and sending the new helicopter back into battle ``repaired.''

Taken by itself, any one of these cases might simply indicate a well-meaning blunder. By the sheer weight of detail, however, Cousins builds a compelling case that military spending has developed a life of its own - and that, in the process, American military effectiveness has been severely compromised. His concern is not simply that vast sums have been spent, but that the weapons purchased have given the nation the illusion of security while not in fact being capable of performing the task at hand. ``It is fair to ask,'' he says, ``whether people who have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to safeguard the wealth and resources of the American people should be trusted to safeguard the national security.''

There are those, no doubt, who will point to extenuating circumstances in each of the cases that Cousins cites. But few can overlook the convincing congeries of facts assembled here. Less convincing, however, is Cousins's conclusion: that the nation-state, no longer able to defend its inhabitants in an age where an all-out war would be suicidal, has outlived its usefulness. Cousins, president of the World Federalists Association, argues that the solution lies in some form of world government.

He may be right. But these pages may not be the best forum for making that argument. The value of this book lies in its more modest task: to awaken readers to the perils of the military-industrial complex and the need for ``a safer and more responsible world.''

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