How, I’ve often wondered, can people who have spent their lives working in an institution, particularly in the military or some other part of the national security state, retire and suddenly see that same institution in a different and far more negative light? Once outside, they become, in essence, critics of their former selves. I’ve long had a private term for this curious phenomenon: retirement syndrome.
Perhaps the most striking example of (edge-of-)retirement syndrome in modern American history was former five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower. As president, he presided over a vast expansion of the national security state and the military, including its nuclear arsenal, while a growing set of weapons makers and other defense-related outfits were embedding themselves in Washington in a big way. On January 17, 1961, just before he was to end his second term in office and leave public life forever, he gave a “farewell address” to the nation warning -- out of the blue -- of a potential loss of American liberties in part because
“we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience... In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Few could have said it better, then or now. In the process, he gave an unforgettable name -- “the military-industrial complex” -- to a growing danger in American life. The question remained, however: Why exactly had he waited until his criticisms lacked all the force that power can offer? He was, after all, president and commander-in-chief. In this, however, he would hardly prove unique. Take, for example, four-star general George Lee Butler, who from 1991 to 1994 was the last commander of the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command and commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, which, as he later explained, “controls all Navy and Air Force nuclear weapons.” In 1996 at the National Press Club in Washington, two years after he retired, he spoke out forcefully against the very weapons he had so recently overseen, pointing out that, “over the last 27 years of my military career, I was embroiled in every aspect of American nuclear policy making and force structuring, from the highest councils of government to nuclear command centers; from the arms control arena to cramped bomber cockpits and the confines of ballistic missile silos and submarines.” He then called for the “elimination” of such weapons. Ever since then, he has been a forceful anti-nuclear advocate, terming such weaponry a “scourge” to the planet and an immoral danger to humanity.
Then there’s William Perry, who spent decades inside the national security state working on nuclear issues. As undersecretary of defense for research and engineering under President Jimmy Carter and secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, he, too, oversaw a major nuclear build-up including, as California Governor Jerry Brown writes in a recent review of Perry’s new memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, helping “launch the B-2, a strategic nuclear bomber, capable of use in both nuclear and nonnuclear missions; revitalized the aging B-52 with air-launched cruise missiles; put[ting] the Trident submarine program back on track; and [making] an ill-fated attempt to bring the MX ICBM, a ten-warhead missile, into operation.” Like Butler, Perry has now gone into full-scale anti-nuclear mode, publicly speaking out against the arsenal he had such a hand in building and the sort of devastation that nuclear terrorism, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or a new Cold War with Russia might lead to.
In all these years, however, I’ve seen next to nothing written on the various forms retirement syndrome can take or why, since such sentiments must have been long brewing in the retirees, we never hear critiques from within that national security world while such figures are still active. This week, TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore remedies that, exploring what his own professional life tells him about why we hear so little criticism from those in either our military or the rest of the national security state.