Semi-Persuasive Pentagon Paranoia

By Nick Turse
Metropolitan, 271 pages, $23

Give Nick Turse credit: It’s not every would-be polemicist who has enough faith in the message to irrevocably—and hilariously—undermine himself two pages into his first book. Yet there they are, in the first sentence of the fourth paragraph of the introduction to The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, three words embalmed parenthetically in a text that (the reader will soon discover) rather persistently confuses parentheses for exclamation points.

“Rick drags himself to the bathroom (fixtures by Pentagon contractor Kohler, purchased at defense contractor Home Depot).”

Pentagon contractor Kohler. For sake of critical charity—and to save you from having to read the section later in the introduction that waxes interminable on the real-life resonances of The Matrix—let me say that Mr. Turse’s thesis is not an unpersuasive (or unfamiliar) one. His claim? That the military-industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower warned against has, over the intervening decades, colonized the entirety of American economic and cultural life, to the point where we risk becoming parties to total war every time we roll out of bed. “Rick” is (aside from a bludgeon of a narrative device) a yuppie everyman whose imagined “day in the life”—his tooth paste is by “defense contractor” Proctor & Gamble; his beer by “Pentagon contractor” Budweiser—exposes, beginning on page one, just how compromised we all are.

Mr. Turse proceeds to spew number ($23,000,000,000!) after infernal number ($137,000-plus!), and proper noun (GM!) after proper noun (Butt Construction Company of Springfield, Ohio!). Blink too many times and you may hallucinate the ghost-image of a coherent argument supported by relevant facts; keep your eyes at least half-open, however, and the commotion is revealed as just the noisy death-march of utter non sequiturs.

Yes, The Complex quite literally employs a kitchen-sink rhetorical strategy: The revelation that Kohler is a “Pentagon contractor” is supposed to fill us with dread; Mr. Turse means to shock us with the news that an ostensibly innocuous provider of plumbing products is not what it seems, that it’s actually entirely imbricated within American militarism, that, right under our unsuspecting noses, it … Well, what exactly? Kohler sells plumbing supplies to the defense department!

Shock—or simple surprise, really—is the Cro-Magnon impulse Mr. Turse’s numbers and names appeal to most. Like the smuggest undergraduate in a seminar room, he deals in bite-size factoids that are, at first blush, vaguely counterintuitive and thus vaguely suggestive of unique insight or enterprising muckraking. “[C]onsider the range of today’s military-corporate bedfellows,” Mr. Turse implores. “Sure, there are old, all-American favorites, like telecom giant AT&T, but there are also plenty of hip foreign companies—like Toyota (more than $1.6 million from the DoD in 2006) and Volkswagen (over $1.9 million)—and younger U.S. civilian firms, like Google ($137,000-plus in 2006), as well as Starbucks and computer maker Apple, that you might never guess were between the sheets with the Pentagon.” Oh, dear, not the hip companies, too!

As with Kohler, there’s a troublesome slipperiness to “contractor” here. The word conjures up images of midcentury Boeing and Raytheon getting fat on Cold War proliferation; are we supposed to believe Starbucks has a vested interest in Mr. Bush’s Middle East belligerence because it runs cafés on military bases? (Do soldiers not drink lattes in peacetime?) Put another way, I suspect it wouldn’t make much of a difference to Mr. Turse if the Pentagon gave up its mutually compromising corporate ties and started to produce its own beverages. In fact, I’m pretty certain of it, since he’s also scandalized by that fact that “until relatively recently, the U.S. Navy operated its own dairy, complete with its own herd of Holsteins.”

Perhaps the scale of entanglement alone justifies The Complex’s manic, apoplectic tone. Or perhaps not. The most striking thing about the big values claimed in the book—Mr. Turse suffers from the unfortunate compulsion to italicize billion, as if such a thing were barely conceivable—is how ridiculously small they turn out to be. Go ahead and consider those hip “bedfellows”: In 2006, Toyota made $14 billion. Volkswagen’s most expensive model, the Bugatti Veyron, retails for around $1.4 million. (Blame the euro.) For $137,000, you can get 300 shares, give or take, of Google common stock.

It gets slighter and more aimless from there. Inexplicably, Mr. Turse even has trouble sticking to the corporate enablers; he’s horrified, for instance, that “in 2004, the Pentagon handed over $154,000 to the Secret Garden Café in Loma Linda, California”—“handed over” in this case meaning “paid for food for soldiers.” By the time he dramatically uncovers the “military-doughnut complex”—it turns out Dunkin Donuts is owned by the Carlyle Group, and a California Krispy Kreme once donated 240 glazed specimens to troops in Iraq—this reader found himself pondering more pressing concerns: Like why, in a book with such nigh-unreadable phrases as the “entertainment-sports-high tech-pop culture dimension of the twenty-first-century Complex,” couldn’t the copy editors have helped us out with those hyphens?


MR. TURSE’S VAINGLORIOUS, scattershot whistle-blowing ultimately signifies a fundamental, perhaps even willful, misreading of the Eisenhower critique. The real scandal meant by the old military-industrial-academic-etc. complex is not that transactions occur between the domains, but rather that the preponderance of such relations serve to turn transacting, self-interested parties into a single indissoluble mass of enmeshed motivations, values and pathologies. The distinction should be quite obvious to any sentient adult: We should certainly think long and hard about a situation in which massive Pentagon funds materially direct the course of basic science research at places like M.I.T. or Johns Hopkins; and we should question the osmotic membrane between DoD war rooms and Halliburton or Exxon corporate suites. But to insist that the military is “invading” my life because the company that made my MP3 player also sold a few million dollars’ worth of computers to the army? It’s a distraction, and an artlessly insipid one.

I wish I could dismiss The Complex as simple hysteria, destined for the indie bookstore bargain bin. But there’s something more insidious about it, in its jejune “liberalism” and deluded insistence that it’s somehow pulling the wool from our eyes. Which is to say, I fear that Mr. Turse is right: The “complex”—the transmutation of military mores into the basis of civil society—may in fact be more tenacious and expansive today than ever before.

Indeed, to read The Complex is to see, writ small, the very moral and intellectual turpitude that’s delivered us headlong into our recent geopolitical disasters. It’s a document directed at an audience hungry for easy, comfortable dissent. What a morbid joke that its true allegiance is to the Rumsfeldian heresy, the Cheney canard, that a fact is simply something that sounds like a fact, that caring about distinctions in scale and kind is the pastime of the weak, that evidence should be regarded less as genuine appeals to truth than munitions to be indiscriminately lobbed at the recalcitrant until one explodes with enough damage that there becomes no choice but to submit to the “conclusion” that was your starting point.

No doubt the author believes himself a noble character, doing whatever it takes to reclaim a culture hijacked by the engorgements of permanent war. But I suspect this culture—this complex—is enabled less by doughnuts and iPods (or even fighter jets) than a more general ambivalence towards rigor, a more pervasive laxity of thought.

Here’s a note I’d like to stick on Nick Turse’s bathroom mirror: It takes more to wash your hands of all this than just disavowing the faucet.

Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Queens, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at Semi-Persuasive Pentagon Paranoia