Milo Minderbinder in Afghanistan
1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder
"We're gonna come out of this war rich!"
"You're gonna come out rich. We're gonna come out dead."
-From the Buck Henry screenplay of Catch 22
No one has captured the absurd spirit of US war-making better than Joseph Heller in Catch 22. Here’s one of the greatest literary symbols for capitalism, Milo Minderbinder, on the future of US warfare:
"In a democracy, the government is the people," Milo explained. "We’re people, aren’t we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman. Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry."
Milo Minderbinder is the squadron mess officer who works the angles and makes deals until he is a major political figure in the European theater. The corrupt Colonel Cathcart keeps him from flying deadly combat missions so he can pursue his talent for business deals and profits--profits that Cathcart then shares in. At one point, Milo figures money can be made by contracting with the Germans for US bombers to bomb their own squadron headquarters.
Milo Minderbinder’s loyalty to the streams of capitalism and profit over the literal shooting sides of war is a fiction based on real fact.
In the years before the US entered WW II, Fortune magazine ran cover stories on the Nazi economic miracle in Germany, while Henry Ford was deeply sympathetic to the Nazis and some say influenced Hitler’s efforts to produce the Volkswagen.
The most interesting case, of course, is Prescott Bush, George W’s grandfather, who managed or was involved in several financial investments in Germany from the 1930s well into the war. In 1942, his company's assets were seized under the Trading With The Enemy Act. Since then, Prescott Bush’s loyalty has been resurrected, as it was in Milo’s case. Here's how Heller describes it:
“Decent people everywhere were affronted, and Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made. … his stock had never been higher.”
Milo is the perfect nightmare stand-in for the military-industrial complex that General and President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation of in his final days in office in 1961, the same year Catch 22 was published.
The Eisenhower speech is an incredible cry from the heart from a man who had worked at the center of the beast and witnessed all its dark possibilities for decades. Pretty much on every score – the rise of the military-industrial complex, the need for honest and realistic government, world peace and the alleviation of poverty – Eisenhower’s vision of the future has come up short. And many of the causes are rooted in his own administration.
Still, it’s a magnificent speech that highlights the struggle between human dignity and power. Here’s the most famous quote:
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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.