Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness

Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness

by Joshua O. Reno

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World War III has yet to happen, and yet material evidence of this conflict is strewn everywhere: resting at the bottom of the ocean, rusting in deserts, and floating in near-Earth orbit.

In Military Waste, Joshua O. Reno offers a unique analysis of the costs of American war preparation through an examination of the lives and stories of American civilians confronted with what is left over and cast aside when a society is permanently ready for war. Using ethnographic and archival research, Reno demonstrates how obsolete military junk in its various incarnations affects people and places far from the battlegrounds that are ordinarily associated with warfare. Using a broad swath of examples—from excess planes, ships, and space debris that fall into civilian hands, to the dispossessed and polluted island territories once occupied by military bases, to the militarized masculinities of mass shooters—Military Waste reveals the unexpected and open-ended relationships that non-combatants on the home front form with a nation permanently ready for war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520316027
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Joshua O. Reno is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University. He is also the author of Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill and the coeditor, with Catherine Alexander, of Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values, and Social Relations.

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Worth the Waste

Waste features prominently in discussions of the US military, offering one way of reckoning with the impact of permanent war preparation, bridging the virtual gap that appears to separate civilians from the costly and destructive military assembled in their name. In a 1968 issue of the Washington Post, an article on military procurement reported that "much of the $45 billion spending buys nothing" (quoted in Melman 1970b, 181). Half a century later, it is still routine to read about the Pentagon wasting billions of dollars on unnecessary or overpriced materials. Many accusations of wasteful spending circulated during the startling military buildup of the Reagan years, especially surrounding the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars"). But criticism of these practices also continued afterward (Turse 2008, 83).

Lockheed Martin leads all military manufacturers in profits from arms sales, with over $53 billion in net sales in 2018 alone (Lockheed Martin 2019). It is also the recent beneficiary of some of the largest military contracts ever, contracts that have been heavily criticized by prominent politicians, from across the political spectrum, as enormous wastes of money. These criticisms suggest that military waste is a result of pure greed, that is, the self-interest of politicians, members of the armed services, and corporations. Worse, it is greed that hides behind the perceived need for a strong national defense. While this can explain a lot about what has happened in the United States over the last century, things are more complicated if one examines the functioning of military contracts in practice. Drawing inspiration from the history of critical military studies, this chapter asks to what extent people who work within the defense industry think of and anticipate the problem of waste.

It is important to understand the worlds and lives of people who make the world's weapons, because criticisms of military waste that fail to do so have proven ineffective. In the last ten years there has been an ongoing national debate about controversial government contracts for the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning, incredibly expensive fighter jets whose utility for the War on Terror has been called into question by both politicians and military analysts. Both planes were developed by Lockheed and have cost the Department of Defense (DoD) record amounts (Soar 2017). In part the planes are so costly because their production is distributed throughout congressional districts, and this is what makes it difficult for the likes of Barack Obama or Donald Trump to succeed in eliminating them entirely. During the budget cuts of Obama's first term, the F-22 was criticized as the most expensive fighter jet in the nation's history, costing as much as $350 million dollars per plane yet useless for the new kinds of wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, in the month following September 11th, the Bush administration had awarded Lockheed Martin what would amount to an even larger contract for the F-35. The Obama administration did not scrap either program completely, but claimed that the F-35 made the F22 redundant and capped production of the latter at 187 planes. Given that forty-four states benefited from producing parts for the F-22, however, even this decision was bitterly fought within Congress and required the threat of a presidential veto. Obama was partly successful in placing spending caps on military expenditures, enacted in 2010 as a product of debt ceiling negotiations with House Republicans. More recent politicians have criticized these caps, as have members of the military establishment. Early in his first term, Trump began criticizing the F-35 program as wasteful in public addresses, promising to renegotiate the contract with Lockheed. When the price subsequently went down by $700 million, Trump took credit (despite the fact that this reduction in price had already been arranged).

Obama and Trump are only continuing a tradition in American political discourse about the risks of wastefulness from war spending. Concerns about complicity between the DoD, politicians, and military manufacturers are often traced to former general and president Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his farewell address in 1961, Eisenhower echoed concerns, expressed by C. Wright Mills five years earlier, that an emerging military industrial complex was beginning to dictate foreign and domestic policy and hijack American democracy for its own ends. According to the military industrial complex thesis, a permanent war economy can lead to a mutually beneficial relationship between politicians, the military and industry as a result of each group pursuing its own interests. In effect, what is normally perceived as a public good, defense and security, becomes instead tethered to the abstract law of competition that is meant to characterize the market. Eisenhower sought a way to render legible new forms of power and corruption that threatened American society. Put differently, Eisenhower's reference to the complex was calling for the public to hold the power elite to democratic account. Throughout the Cold War, it was debated whether military buildup could be ultimately converted to civilian use or, as some argued, represented a disruptive and parasitical influence on the economy.

The notion that the American military budget is bloated and inefficiently spent is over a century old. Thorstein Veblen — often credited as the first major critic of conspicuous consumption — defined all militaries as wasteful, not because they are immediately harmful economically, but "because these expenditures directly, in their first incidence, merely withdraw and dissipate wealth and work from the industrial process, and unproductively consume the products of industry" (1904, 90). In 1918, at the conclusion of World War I, Veblen's concerns were realized as congressional investigations accused newly developed airplane manufacturers of being wasteful war profiteers. Lockheed was among those accused.

At the onset of the Cold War, America's contemporary war economy and security apparatus were established. At this time, military lobbyists successfully argued that domestic military industry might stagnate without permanent state investment, which would allow the United States to fall behind its global competitors. As government spending went down in the late '60s, in response to the high cost of the Vietnam War, so did the profits of armaments manufacturers. This hit airplane manufacturers especially hard and, in 1971, Lockheed pleaded for a loan from the government in order to avoid bankruptcy. The Nixon Doctrine was partly a solution to this crisis, encouraging the sale of US arms to allies abroad in order to offset the cost of permanent war preparation (Custers 2007, 327). Not long after Eisenhower's warning, the complex appeared to be beyond the control of politicians and voters, partly because the United States became the world's weapons manufacturer. Even after Trump's criticisms of the company, for example, Lockheed still recorded higher profits than expected in 2017, credited to the sale of F-35s to England and elsewhere. This also has its origins in the Cold War. From one point of view, military spending is a wasteful use of taxpayer money. In the case of nuclear weapons, Peter Custers argues, the polluting by-products, the wasted money, and the wasteful destructiveness of the weapon itself mean that their production amounts to a net loss of valuable capital, labor, and life, whether or not they are ever used in warfare. From another point of view, what Custers calls the "social waste" of military products helps to productively sustain armament corporations and national economies through the "substitution orders" of arms exports, largely by making use of unequal and disparate exchange with poorer nations (Custers 2007, 381). This more global focus on circuits of capital is what makes Custers's Marxian-inspired critique different from the more statist criticisms of Eisenhower, Obama, and Trump, despite their shared focus on waste.

Though the military industrial complex is most closely associated with Eisenhower, Marxian theorists have been the most consistent critics of this arrangement, beginning with the connection Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin (1917) made between imperialism and capital accumulation. At the start of the Cold War, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy developed Luxemburg and Veblen's ideas; they argue that state military expenditures are more attractive for manufacturers because, unlike investment in public infrastructure, for example, they require endless innovation and "include a generous margin for a mythical risk factor" (1966, 208). It was easier for industry to make these demands during the Cold War, which involved a shift, in the United States and other militarized democracies, from mass conscription to greater military capitalization, including investment in expensive ships, bases, submarines, bombs, satellites, and aircraft (Holley 1971, 18). According to Baran and Sweezy:

It is a commonplace that warfare is becoming more and more a matter of science and technology, less and less a matter of masses of men and weapons. Rockets and missiles are replacing bombers and rendering fighter planes largely purposeless; huge fleets of surface vessels are obsolete; massed armies are giving way to highly specialized troops wielding an array of fantastically destructive weapons (1966, 214).

They go on to argue that, with more money spent on outlays for research and development and less for mass production, far fewer people are employed by military spending than once were. Processes like research and development, which will be considered below, would be among the wasted and unrecouped expenditures associated with military production. This is so because a product that is tested and not procured by the defense establishment is a loss of capital investment rather than a source of new capital in the form of profit (Custers 2007, 67–69).

One thing that criticisms from presidents and social critics leave out, however, is that military manufacturers have their own methods of conceptualizing and eliminating waste as part of product design, development, and maintaining customer ties. The people who make the permanent war economy possible live by certain values and typically believe that what they do contributes to the public welfare. Strange and alien as the complex can seem, it requires actual people to make it possible, negotiating contracts, changing designs, testing products, and sometimes maintaining them after they've been sold. Each step along the way can lead to waste: wastes of money, of time, of effort, and of lives.

Waste can be thought of in at least three senses, all of which I consider. First, waste can be associated with wastefulness or profligacy and lead to accusations of moral wrongdoing from others. As we have seen, this way of talking about waste has been common in discussions of the US military over the course of its history. Furthermore, avoiding this kind of waste, or accusing others of it, can be ethical acts that help a person identify as part of a like-minded community: in the case of military manufacturers, this might include being a good engineer or project manager. Second, waste in a more strictly economic sense can be considered as including any externality or byproduct of value accumulation, anything unnecessary that results from the creation of something else. This is more closely tied to the Marxian critique of militarization already discussed. In my analysis, this includes places like the tri-city area of the Southern Tier of New York that have suffered from deindustrialization as circuits of capital leave material and human waste in their wake. Finally, waste can be considered more ontologically as the inevitability of entropic change, which means that no form lasts forever and all will eventually cease to be. This last sense of waste tends to be absent from public critiques of the permanent war economy, but it is very evident in conversations with military manufacturers.

I first contacted Simon, a retired resident of Binghamton, New York, because his neighbor told me that he was an avid amateur astronomer and I was interested in orbital space debris (the topic of chapter 4). But when we finally sat down together in his modestly decorated living room, we ended up talking mostly about his career at Lockheed Martin. Within a few minutes, Simon began describing his life as an engineer for the world's leading weapons manufacturer and the difficulty of disposing of military technology. Crouching forward and speaking in his high, nasal voice, he spoke of the Seahawk helicopter, which he had worked on for several years:

[It] has certain equipment on board that is classified, not top secret, it's classified secret or other classifications. ... So even if the aircraft is lost in battle, you have to dispose of the pieces, sometimes by bombing the carcass. If it goes down in Afghanistan, you bomb it in Afghanistan. ... Sometimes it's too hard to destroy, or sometimes it's radioactive, or sometimes it's an emitter.

He went on like that and, much to my surprise, we talked less about astronomy that day than I had expected. Simon was the first person to make clear to me just how much military manufacturers think about the subject of waste in that third sense, that is, about how all products eventually fall into disuse. Even during its initial design, manufacturers are thinking about the end of a product's life. This is an altogether different way of conceiving of waste, as the inevitability of entropic loss rather than the by-product of inessential and self-interested human decisions. And, as I will argue, it is important for casting or avoiding blame for moral wrongdoing, or waste in the first sense.

Military manufacturers like Simon also spoke about wasted time and money, but these were also typically interpreted in a way that not only differed from the military industrial complex critique, but anticipated and deflected such blame. Based on interviews with current and former military industry insiders, I argue that some forms of waste are meant to build relations of trust between military manufacturers and the defense establishment, while others are incorporated into design and testing production processes, as with the Seahawk helicopter. Far from an irresolvable contradiction within circuits of capital, waste is actively managed and imagined within military industries as they endeavor to build enduring customer relations and durable machines. I do not accuse military manufacturers of being wasteful, in the first, moralizing sense, per se; rather, I review the ways in which they knowingly produce or avoid waste while pursuing other ends, including but not limited to private self-interest.

Drawing on interviews conducted with current and former employees of the US DoD and Lockheed Martin, I focus on the reflexive practices of military producers themselves, that is, what they know and how they talk about what it is they do. As Collier and Ong characterize it, reflexive practices are "modern practices" that "subject themselves to critical questioning" (2005, 7). Critical questions possess political, technological, and ethical dimensions that test normative assumptions about how things are built. The three sections of this chapter focus on these dimensions in turn. Rather than pure, impersonal greed or corruption, the actions of arms manufacturing insiders appear governed by a variety of personal motives and social values. Rather than conceive of military waste exclusively in terms of money, moreover, they tend to frame waste in terms of engineering practices, which — far from being purely technical — may alternatively depoliticize and de-moralize the waste of the American military, or identify altogether new targets for public scorn.

My goal is not to trivialize the very real dangers that the military industrial complex poses, but rather to make it easier to relate to the permanent war economy, which can otherwise appear governed by impersonal entities (the DoD, Lockheed) and irresistible forces (greed, corruption). Talking about human stories and motivation scales such phenomena down to size and makes the abstract complex a matter of ordinary people struggling for themselves and their communities. The point is not only to make it easier to understand those making a living off of an entrenched system, in this case the permanent war economy, but also to sharpen our ability to critique and rethink that system in response.


The Owego Lockheed Martin plant began as an IBM facility, and locals still refer to all those who work or worked there as "IBMers." The plant supplied high-end electronic equipment to the US military since the time of the Second World War. IBM was especially critical in the development of the Cold War continental surveillance system, Semi-Atomic Ground Environment (SAGE), "the single most important computer project of the postwar decade" (Edwards 1997, 75). IBM gained its reputation for computing as a result of its work on SAGE for the Air Force and would continue this relationship with the military for the rest of the twentieth century. The IBM facility in Owego was built as part of a general shift toward high-tech military weaponry. Part of IBM's Federal Systems Division, the Owego plant helped to develop technology for government censuses, satellite programs, and other high-tech equipment. IBM was attracted to the area because of the existing manufacturing base, established by the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company (known as EJ), which had flourished from its own military contracts, producing boots for infantry until as late as the Vietnam War. EJ is credited with building up the tri-city area, from parks and carousels to residential areas and large factories.


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Copyright © 2019 Joshua O. Reno.
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Table of Contents



1. Worth the Waste

2. Flight or Fight
Coauthored with Priscilla Bennett

3. Sunk Cost
Coauthored with Priscilla Bennett

4. The Wrong Stuff

5. Domestic Blowback

6. Island Erasure


Reference List

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