The Real-Life Matrix

Think you're not part of the military-industrial complex? Think again.

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

At the beginning of Nick Turse's The Complex, we meet "Rick," an educated, antiwar, Daily Show-watching resident of the New York City suburbs. Rick wakes up to a Sony alarm clock, brushes his teeth with Crest toothpaste, and showers with Herbal Essences shampoo before catching a segment about Iraq on NBC's Today Show. If you asked him, Rick would tell you that his life has no connection to the military. But so far, everything Rick has touched has been produced by a company that does business with the Pentagon. The rest of his day will be no different.

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Whether we like it or not, we live in an America whose connections to the military are so numerous as to be virtually invisible. Like the fictional Matrix, what Turse calls the "military-corporate complex" is ubiquitous, hidden, and influences our lives in ways that we never notice. From pharmaceutical companies to furniture makers, book publishers to office supply stores, tens of thousands of corporations work with the Department of Defense. Their influence is so complete that it is close to impossible to opt out—even zealous anti-corporate types read books, and publishers Houghton Mifflin, Random House, and Warner Books are all DoD contractors. It's not just mega-corporations, either: Turse lists a number of small-town operations that also supply the Pentagon.

Turse's new book, structured as a series of short but dense snapshots of everything from the "Military-Petroleum Complex" to the "Military-Doughnut Complex" (really), is a tour of the DoD's forays into commerce, entertainment, academia, and social networking, as well as an education in what the word "support" really means. Almost every American, he writes, "is, at least passively, supporting the Complex every time he or she shops for groceries, sends a package, drives a car, or watches TV—let alone eats barbeque in Memphis or buys Christian books in Hattiesburg. And what choice do you have? What other brand of computer would you buy? Or cereal? Or boots?"

Turse spoke with Mother Jones about why the best-funded wing of the U.S. government can't pass an audit, how going to the movies encourages the Iraq war, and whether or not we can ever escape the matrix.

Mother Jones: Most people are aware that the Pentagon has a big budget. What inspired you to look deeper?

Nick Turse: It started with my investigation of the ways the military and the video game industry have become intertwined. When I began to look, I was just amazed. It was tough to figure out where one ended and the other began. After that, I began to look at the less obvious ways in which the Pentagon had invaded the civilian sphere.

MJ: What are some of the most striking things you learned while you were writing?

NT: The thing that really struck me was how many firms that we think of as strictly civilian had ties to the Pentagon. Companies like Apple, Starbucks, Oakley, the sunglasses manufacturer. Even Google, and a lot of big corporations like PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive, and Nestlé, that you don't normally think of as defense contractors.

MJ: You start the book by describing a fictional yuppie progressive who gets up in the morning and pats himself on the back for not participating in the Complex. And while I was reading, I was thinking, "there's no way that I'm part of any of this." But, obviously, that's totally wrong.

NT: Yeah, as I mention in the book, unless you're a very committed anarcho-primitivist, it's almost impossible for an American to really unplug from the complex. It's just so invasive. It pops up in so many places—Christian bookstores in Mississippi, or BBQ joints in Louisiana—and these companies don't advertise it. Unless you're combing the Pentagon's list of contractors, it's almost impossible to tell how deep the rabbit hole goes.

MJ: Let's say the DoD budget disappeared tomorrow. How would that affect the business of these companies?

NT: I imagine that a company like Lockheed Martin would be in bad financial shape. 85 percent of their business comes from the U.S. government, most of that from the Pentagon. But most firms are not dependent to that degree.

MJ: How does the state of the economy affect the Pentagon's ability to do business? Currently we're seeing trends towards less consumer spending, which has an impact on civilian businesses and causes them to lose money. That said, even consumers who spend less money are paying their taxes.

NT: Absolutely. Some people have referred to that as a form of military socialism: Tax dollars are shuttled into the Pentagon, and they dole them out to these corporations. So while I don't think a lot of these firms are so dependent on the Pentagon that they'd go under without it, I would imagine that in a challenging economic market it's helpful for them to have a steady supply of tax financing.

MJ: Some Pentagon expenditures that you detail seem so outrageous that they're not actually possible—nearly a million dollars for two 19-cent washers, for example. In your research, did you figure out how that even happens?

NT: The Pentagon has such an arcane bookkeeping system—or, I should say, systems, because there's a number of them. Because it's so vast, a lot of these things get lost in the shuffle. The DoD has never undergone an audit. In 2004 it actually pledged to undergo a full audit by 2007, but that deadline came and went, and then they moved it to 2016. No one, not even the DoD, thinks they'll actually be able to pass it in 2016. So it will be nearly a decade until the Pentagon fails an audit, and passing one—no one has any idea when that will happen. So there's a major lack of accountability. The GAO makes a noble effort to look at some of the most egregious things. In their reports you can find that the Pentagon shelled out over $400 for a genie lamp, $51,000 on cappuccino makers, or $1,000 on a "nacho cheese warmer."

MJ: You describe in the book how huge amounts of money also go to the Pentagon's research laboratories, for projects like engineering soldiers to fight without food or water. Do these projects have any real-world potential, or will they go the way of the gay bomb?

NT: A lot of these projects are funded through DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Most DARPA projects actually do fail to meet all their goals, but there are a lot of projects that still make it out there. One I talk about briefly in the book is their cyborg insect project. They call it MEMS, microelectric mechanical systems. They implant computer chips into moths while they're still developing in the cocoon, and when they hatch, the moths can be remotely controlled. The idea is that eventually you'll have remote control moths with video and audio surveillance. Who would think that would really ever happen? But I just read a report that the scientists have overcome some of the major sticking points – the moths now live into adulthood, and they're able to control them at least while they're tethered. So it isn't out of the question that something like that, that sounds like science fiction, could be fact in a few short years.

MJ: Another area you discuss is research universities that receive Pentagon funding. Did you come across any examples of the Pentagon dictating research topics at civilian institutions, or shutting down research they didn't like?

NT: It's not so much that they can shut down research as the fact that they account for such a large percentage of federal funding for a number of critical fields. For example, The Pentagon provides over 60 percent of available funding for electrical engineering research. Over 50 percent for computer science. 40 percent for metallurgy and metal engineering. Over 30 percent for oceanography. In fields like that, where they control that much of the research budget, researchers naturally have to tailor what they study around the dollars that are available. Conversely, maybe there's something you want to look into, but there's no federal money for it.

MJ: If all the money, all the research, all the technology, and all the amenities are concentrated and available only within the Pentagon, and everyone else is fighting over what resources remain, could that actually divide society along military and non-military lines?

NT: I think there would be a social division, of who gets access to these types of technologies and who doesn't. DARPA spends $3 billion a year on 200 projects ranging from human performance enhancement to unmanned aerial vehicles. The Environmental Protection Agency's DARPA-like arm gets only a fraction of that. They spent only about $2 million in state innovation grants last year. So civilians with problems resulting from environmental hazards get very little in the way of government-funded aid, whereas troops involved in war reap the benefits of the government's research.

MJ: You reference Eisenhower a lot in the book. How did things move so far from his vision of the military-industrial complex?

NT: In Eisenhower's day, the military-industrial complex didn't extend much beyond the Lockheed factory floor. Today, Lockheed, Boeing, GM and the big oil companies still form the core of the complex, but they're dwarfed by the tens of thousands of smaller contractors that you wouldn't necessarily guess were wrapped up with the military.

MJ: According to the book, you can't even go to the movies without supporting the complex.

NT: The military has a very long relationship with Hollywood, that dates back to the silent film era. In recent years they've developed a more sophisticated relationship. It used to be done on an ad hoc basis, and now the military's set up a one-stop shop in Hollywood. This office has liaisons for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So if you have a script, you bring it into them if you're seeking military hardware like planes and helicopters, or want to film on a base. The military is also a good source for large numbers of movie extras. They'll review your script, and if they like it, they'll let you use their machinery, and their bases, and their people. If they find parts objectionable, they'll note them and give it back to you, and if you make the changes they recommend, they'll give you the equipment you're requesting.

MJ: Did you come across any instances where the military was involved in a non-war film?

NT: Generally the films that go to them are the ones that want something from them. Last year, the film Transformers was a big summer blockbuster, really popular with kids. It received a tremendous amount of military support. In fact, the film's producers said it would have been a totally different film had they not received military support. But it would seem that it wouldn't be necessary to have the military involved in that project. It's a film about giant robots. It's not a war film.

MJ: How big a presence does the military have on the Web?

NT: I couldn't give you a number, but the military operates a tremendous number of websites. They have their own sites, but they're also operating sites that look like civilian sites. They have recruiting sites that look like they're designed to give career advice to teenagers, and they mention asking a guidance counselor to take a certain type of test. What they don't tell you is that it's the armed forces entrance exam. They operate some websites for overseas audiences that look like news portals, but are actually DoD propaganda sites. You have to search the fine print in one portion of the site to find that it's created by the Pentagon.

MJ: Do you see this trajectory continuing?

NT: I don't see it stopping without a huge public outcry.

MJ: Do you think there will be one?

NT: I don't, unfortunately.

MJ: Why not?

NT: For one, there isn't widespread recognition of how invasive the military has become, how far it stretches into the civilian sphere in America. I think that while there might be a lively antiwar movement in this country, it's not huge or particularly militant. If the war doesn't drum up that type of support, I don't imagine that this would.

MJ: What would you suggest people do, since opting out is so difficult?

NT: I've been asked before if people could comfortably live without supporting the complex, and while everyone has different comfort levels, I don't think it's likely that everyone would be able to unplug totally. But they could curtail their support for the most egregious offenders. Or, conversely, target the smallest companies, or those who take a relatively small percentage of their profits from the military. They'd be most susceptible to boycotts, letter writing campaigns, or whatever other type of protest people want to mount.

MJ: Did you cover everything you wanted to in The Complex, or is there more to find?

NT: I think the book could have gone on forever. I talk about things in there that are sort of tongue in cheek, like the Military-Doughnut complex. But you can find these discrete corporate complexes. You could cover one a day for the next several years and not run out of topics.