War! What Is It Good For? Profit and Power

Boeing B-52 bomber over Vietnam
Boeing B-52 bomber over Vietnam

I started writing for TomDispatch, a remarkable contrarian site founded and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fine editor/writer and even finer gentleman, in October 2007.  My first article was on the Petraeus surge and how President Bush and his administration were hiding behind the absurdly bemedaled and beribboned uniform of that general.

Tom Engelhardt’s generous and consistent support of my writing opened new possibilities for me.  More importantly, Tom helped me to think for myself.  I’ve also met some great people through my writing, including the co-founder of The Contrary Perspective, b. traven.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the six years I’ve written for TomDispatch.  What follows is my 33rd original article (or “Tomgram,” as we like to call them) — and yes, it’s hard for me to believe that number, since I really thought I’d write only one or two.  Thanks so much Tom, Nick, and all the other editors and writers at TomDispatch.  It’s been a fun and enlightening ride.

From TomDispatch this evening:  Winners and losers in the business of war American-style — William J. Astore, “The Business of America Is War, Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom” http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175762/

The Business of America Is War
Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom
By William J. Astore

There is a new normal in America: our government may shut down, but our wars continue.  Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the “empire” back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa,” but with the U.S. and China doing the scrambling this time around), and the military-industrial complex can still dominate the world’s arms trade.

In the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, it’s business as usual, if your definition of “business” is the power and profits you get from constantly preparing for and prosecuting wars around the world.  “War is a racket,” General Smedley Butler famously declared in 1935, and even now it’s hard to disagree with a man who had two Congressional Medals of Honor to his credit and was intimately familiar with American imperialism.

War Is Politics, Right?

Once upon a time, as a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, I was taught that Carl von Clausewitz had defined war as a continuation of politics by other means.  This definition is, in fact, a simplification of his classic and complex book, On War, written after his experiences fighting Napoleon in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of war as a continuation of politics is both moderately interesting and dangerously misleading: interesting because it connects war to political processes and suggests that they should be fought for political goals; misleading because it suggests that war is essentially rational and so controllable.  The fault here is not Clausewitz’s, but the American military’s for misreading and oversimplifying him.

Perhaps another “Carl” might lend a hand when it comes to helping Americans understand what war is really all about.  I’m referring to Karl Marx, who admired Clausewitz, notably for his idea that combat is to war what a cash payment is to commerce.  However seldom combat (or such payments) may happen, they are the culmination and so the ultimate arbiters of the process.

War, in other words, is settled by killing, a bloody transaction that echoes the exploitative exchanges of capitalism.  Marx found this idea to be both suggestive and pregnant with meaning. So should we all.

Following Marx, Americans ought to think about war not just as an extreme exercise of politics, but also as a continuation of exploitative commerce by other means.  Combat as commerce: there’s more in that than simple alliteration.

In the history of war, such commercial transactions took many forms, whether as territory conquered, spoils carted away, raw materials appropriated, or market share gained.  Consider American wars.  The War of 1812 is sometimes portrayed as a minor dust-up with Britain, involving the temporary occupation and burning of our capital, but it really was about crushing Indians on the frontier and grabbing their land.  The Mexican-American War was another land grab, this time for the benefit of slaveholders.  The Spanish-American War was a land grab for those seeking an American empire overseas, while World War I was for making the world “safe for democracy” — and for American business interests globally.

Even World War II, a war necessary to stop Hitler and Imperial Japan, witnessed the emergence of the U.S. as the arsenal of democracy, the world’s dominant power, and the new imperial stand-in for a bankrupt British Empire.

Korea?  Vietnam?  Lots of profit for the military-industrial complex and plenty of power for the Pentagon establishment.  Iraq, the Middle East, current adventures in Africa?  Oil, markets, natural resources, global dominance.

In societal calamities like war, there will always be winners and losers.  But the clearest winners are often companies like Boeing and Dow Chemical, which provided B-52 bombers and Agent Orange, respectively, to the U.S. military in Vietnam.  Such “arms merchants” — an older, more honest term than today’s “defense contractor” — don’t have to pursue the hard sell, not when war and preparations for it have become so permanently, inseparably intertwined with the American economy, foreign policy, and our nation’s identity as a rugged land of “warriors” and “heroes” (more on that in a moment).

War as Disaster Capitalism

Consider one more definition of war: not as politics or even as commerce, but as societal catastrophe.  Thinking this way, we can apply Naomi Klein’s concepts of the “shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism” to it.  When such disasters occur, there are always those who seek to turn a profit.

Most Americans are, however, discouraged from thinking about war this way thanks to the power of what we call “patriotism” or, at an extreme, “superpatriotism” when it applies to us, and the significantly more negative “nationalism” or “ultra-nationalism” when it appears in other countries.  During wars, we’re told to “support our troops,” to wave the flag, to put country first, to respect the patriotic ideal of selfless service and redemptive sacrifice (even if all but 1% of us are never expected to serve or sacrifice).

We’re discouraged from reflecting on the uncomfortable fact that, as “our” troops sacrifice and suffer, others in society are profiting big time.  Such thoughts are considered unseemly and unpatriotic.  Pay no attention to the war profiteers, who pass as perfectly respectable companies.  After all, any price is worth paying (or profits worth offering up) to contain the enemy — not so long ago, the red menace, but in the twenty-first century, the murderous terrorist.

Forever war is forever profitable.  Think of the Lockheed Martins of the world.  In their commerce with the Pentagon, as well as the militaries of other nations, they ultimately seek cash payment for their weapons and a world in which such weaponry will be eternally needed.  In the pursuit of security or victory, political leaders willingly pay their price.

Call it a Clausewitzian/Marxian feedback loop or the dialectic of Carl and Karl.  It also represents the eternal marriage of combat and commerce.  If it doesn’t catch all of what war is about, it should at least remind us of the degree to which war as disaster capitalism is driven by profit and power.

For a synthesis, we need only turn from Carl or Karl to Cal — President Calvin Coolidge, that is.  “The business of America is business,” he declared in the Roaring Twenties.  Almost a century later, the business of America is war, even if today’s presidents are too polite to mention that the business is booming.

America’s War Heroes as Commodities

Many young people today are, in fact, looking for a release from consumerism.  In seeking new identities, quite a few turn to the military.  And it provides.  Recruits are hailed as warriors and warfighters, as heroes, and not just within the military either, but by society at large.

Yet in joining the military and being celebrated for that act, our troops paradoxically become yet another commodity, another consumable of the state.  Indeed, they become consumed by war and its violence.  Their compensation?  To be packaged and marketed as the heroes of our militarized moment. Steven Gardiner, a cultural anthropologist and U.S. Army veteran, has written eloquently about what he calls the “heroic masochism” of militarized settings and their allure for America’s youth.  Put succinctly, in seeking to escape a consumerism that has lost its meaning and find a release from dead-end jobs, many volunteers are transformed into celebrants of violence, seekers and givers of pain, a harsh reality Americans ignore as long as that violence is acted out overseas against our enemies and local populations.

Such “heroic” identities, tied so closely to violence in war, often prove poorly suited to peacetime settings.  Frustration and demoralization devolve into domestic violence and suicide.  In an American society with ever fewer meaningful peacetime jobs, exhibiting greater and greater polarization of wealth and opportunity, the decisions of some veterans to turn to or return to mind-numbing drugs of various sorts and soul-stirring violence is tragically predictable.  That it stems from their exploitative commodification as so many heroic inflictors of violence in our name is a reality most Americans are content to forget.

You May Not Be Interested in War, but War Is Interested in You

As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky pithily observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  If war is combat and commerce, calamity and commodity, it cannot be left to our political leaders alone — and certainly not to our generals.  When it comes to war, however far from it we may seem to be, we’re all in our own ways customers and consumers.  Some pay a high price.  Many pay a little.  A few gain a lot.  Keep an eye on those few and you’ll end up with a keener appreciation of what war is actually all about.

No wonder our leaders tell us not to worry our little heads about our wars — just support those troops, go shopping, and keep waving that flag.  If patriotism is famously the last refuge of the scoundrel, it’s also the first recourse of those seeking to mobilize customers for the latest bloodletting exercise in combat as commerce.

Just remember: in the grand bargain that is war, it’s their product and their profit.  And that’s no bargain for America, or for that matter for the world.

William Astore, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF).  He edits the blog contraryperspective.com and may be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 William J. Astore.

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3 thoughts on “War! What Is It Good For? Profit and Power

  1. Hi William: Thanks for writing this article. I must say it ‘packed a punch’ for me. I had read “War Is A Racket” and this follows along the same lines, but from a present day perspective. I come from a conservative military family and have an immediate family member who serves. There are merits and harms from being in the military. Ideals of selfless service, loyalty to the death, teamwork, cooperation and discipline are very positive, as is genuine democracy. Since I was a child I’ve reflected upon war a great deal, at first thinking it was simply ‘stupid’ and unnecessary.

    War as we now it is really not that old…just a mere 10-11k years..when there was first evidence of mass graves at the dawn of agriculture, when resources and people were concentrated.
    When you look in human evolutionary development, cooperation and inter-dependence as well as group violence is evident in our closest living primate relations.

    Yes, the motives you speak to about the basis of war started by the US military industrial complex surely hold much weight. Karl Marlantes, in “What It Is Like To Go To War,” speaks also to very primal motives, even more fundamental than monetary gain that are present regarding roots of war.

    I am very curious, you served in the military. Did you enter by choice or by draft? When you entered, were you motivated by ‘patriotic’ reasons, did you hold beliefs & ideals about serving that changed over time? What influenced your thought? In your article you focus exclusively on US capitalism, yet there are other countries who initiate war that aren’t based on a capitalistic system. Have you done in-debt study/research/thought about core motives for war in non-capitalistic countries and compared this to US involvement in war?

    Your writing is very definitive about US war motives. If there was not significant corporate and ‘oil’ profit motive for wars do think all US wars would cease to exist? Would the ‘balloon’ of war then be punctured and completely deflate?

    In your article you didn’t mention solutions. My own personal interest is more on solutions, yet being clear about the ‘origins’ of problems is also important. Now that ‘the problem’ has been articulated, what do you think is the ‘game plan’ for constructive path to take?
    Have you given thought to solutions for creating a constructive society/culture/humanity that profits from cooperation and the specifics of what this looks like?

    Spending time in the forest. inter-relationship and interdependence of everything is obvious. Nature holds solutions for problems you articulate so well.

    Also, when I see girls like Malala who was shot in the head. yet fearlessly continues to speak for education for all girls, through her body and the strength of her words and being she provides a living embodiment of solution for war and conflict. She is a living example of ‘solution.’ The Taliban who shot her unknowingly by his very ignorant bullet set fire to a tinder of human liberation so dry that the whole world is now burning with it. I see the burn and smile. My heart is happy. There is no stopping this fire.

    Like

    1. Hi Melissa: Thanks for the great letter. I joined the Air Force through ROTC. Like most young people, I joined for many reasons: I’d had a lifelong interest in the military, I was hoping to be an aeronautical engineer, and the ROTC scholarship helped to pay my way through college. I was also proud to serve my country; still am. You articulate very well the positives of being in the military: loyalty, service, commitment. I also joined during the Cold War and the Reagan buildup; tensions were high with the Soviet Union, and I believed we had to stand up for the “free world” against the police states of the USSR and its satellites.

      After we “won” the Cold War, I truly believed we could return to being a “normal” state, cashing in our peace dividend. But it didn’t happen. We proceeded to get involved in wars of choice, continued to build our military and our weapons industry, while underfunding education, infrastructure, health care, and other “soft” elements of society. We seemed to be morphing into a country in which military strength and toughness took priority over almost everything else.

      Then 9/11 came along, and the administration that so badly botched counterterrorism before 9/11 eagerly and proudly embraced “the dark side,” to include torture and, most of all, an unnecessary war against Iraq (and a prolonged campaign in Afghanistan that shows no signs of ending on any terms favorable to the U.S. or to the Afghan people). Meanwhile, we’ve witnessed the emergence of private mercenary armies as well as the decline of the citizen-soldier ideal in the U.S. (replaced by “warriors” as “heroes” to be celebrated without question).

      I’ve written a few articles on possible solutions, a way ahead. One is “Six Vows to Support Our Troops” at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175357. Another one is “Fresh Thinking on U.S. National Security Policy” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/william-astore/fresh-thinking-in-us-nati_b_3464377.html.

      More than anything, we need fresh thinking. Malala is a great example. If she can be a strong witness for peace from a weak position, why can’t the U.S. be a strong witness for peace from a strong position?

      Like

  2. Interesting article. I’m not an American and to be honest I truly can’t fathom what appears to be the current US hero-worship of American Soldier. Recently I was between flights in the Los Angeles airport. A group of soldiers walked as they were disembarking from their flight and they received a spontaneous standing ovation. I could only speechlessly wonder how much of the “kool-aid” those people had been drinking.

    Not that I am any kind of authority on this, but from what I see countries have interests and they pursue these interests at what appears to be all costs.

    Julius Caesar invaded Gaul in the name of Rome primarily for political gain.

    The British sent their gunboats into China to force the opium trade on the Chinese. All to help the tea merchants bring their product to market and in the process established Hong Kong as a drug smuggling capital. And this was all done in the name of the Queen.

    This list goes on. And America is simply the current major player in the world. I don’t believe it’s doing anything which hasn’t already been done before. And, like all empires, it’s turn will eventually end. But sadly, millions will die in this process while the rest of us stand by and shrug our shoulders.

    I have no idea what the answer to all this is. Maybe it’s in our DNA and we can’t help ourselves. But I do think the key is we need to bring these issues to light. We can’t allow ourselves to be caught up in the machine and stop thinking for ourselves. And that is one thing that I’ve always admired about the USA. No country is perfect and notwithstanding the many things which can be pointed out as bad or wrong, people there do have the right to speak out. They have the right to think for themselves and voice their opinions. I believe that’s valuable and needs to be cherished as that one thing could be the difference maker.

    Let’s hope these discussions continue.

    Like

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