There’s No Business Like War Business

W.J. Astore

Among my many weak spots is economics and business. I took exactly one course in college on macroeconomics. I took dozens of courses in math and engineering like calculus, statics, dynamics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, biomechanics, you name it. Then I switched academic specialties and became a historian of science, technology, and religion. Again I took dozens of courses in various branches of history, but again my one economics course remains my brief exposure to that world. And I took it as a freshman forty years ago!

Economics has been on my mind lately because so much of what passes for national military (a redundant phrase) strategy in the U.S. is really about making money. Profit. Capitalism, pure and simple. Moving products, expanding markets, diversifying portfolios, and so on. There’s no business like war business. It’s a capitalist’s dream.

In this rich vein of greed-war, I urge you to read Christian Sorensen’s 5-part series on the military-industrial-congressional complex at Consortium News. (Here’s a link to part 5, which also includes links to the previous four parts.) I really like the way he begins Part 5:

Without looking at military adventurism through the lens of the corporation, analysts are bound to produce error-filled studies. For example, one analyst contended in an interview on The Real News Network, “Military force is almost never going to achieve your political aims. The Americans learned this in Vietnam. They’re learning it in Afghanistan. They’re learning it in Syria… So [President Barack] Obama supporting the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen is a sign really of incoherence on the part of the United States.”

Far from incoherence, the behavior actually is quite rational. A variety of conflicts, disparate and some seemingly futile, is precisely the aim. Conflict itself — producing untold mountains of profit for war corporations and Wall Street — is the goal.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You can’t look at U.S. military-national “strategy” today through a purely strategic lens or one informed solely by military history (as I’m tempted to do). Clausewitz, Jomini, and other classical military theorists won’t help you much. You need to look to Wall Street, to economics, to how capitalism works. You have to look to business cycles, profit, markets, portfolios, diversification, and similar concepts. You have to recognize war is a special kind of business, one that America is very good at because we specialize in it. War and weaponry may well be our leading exports.

Again, I’m tempted as a former engineer and as a professional historian who’s studied strategy (at Oxford no less) to try to make sense of U.S. national-military strategy in logical terms informed by history, Wrong approach! The right approach is to follow the money. Think not of “war as a continuation of politics” but of war as a continuation of capitalism, a special kind of disaster or death capitalism. Remember too to think in terms of portfolios and diversification of the same, after which U.S. policies make all the sense in the world.  More conflict means more weapons sales means more money.  The same is true of arms races in the false cause of deterrence.

An early example from my life. When I was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, circa 1985, I wrote a paper on the B-1 bomber and the strategy of “manned penetrating bombers.” In plain speak (plane speak?), the Air Force was spending loads of money on a high-tech swing-wing plane loaded with avionics which would in theory enable it to penetrate Soviet airspace and bomb targets directly. This made little sense to me, nor did it make sense to President Jimmy Carter, who had cancelled the plane as unneeded. After all, B-52s could carry highly accurate cruise missiles and launch them from outside of Soviet airspace, and for much less money.

But the B-1, like any major weapon system, had powerful friends in Congress, since Rockwell International had spread production of the plane and its components to as many Congressional districts as possible. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he quickly reversed Carter’s decision. It wasn’t about strategy. It was about business and profit justified in the name of sending a tough message to the “Evil Empire.” Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later and the U.S. was stuck with 100 B-1 bombers it didn’t need. Time has proven it to be an expensive plane to maintain, and one that’s never been used (fortunately) on the mission for which it was designed.

The U.S. has a lot of weapons like the B-1 bomber: expensive, unreliable, redundant strategically, and ultimately unneeded. It doesn’t make much sense, until you realize it’s all about making money, moving product, inflating threats, and keeping the cycle going, again and again, wars and weapons without end, Amen.

14 thoughts on “There’s No Business Like War Business

  1. Very interesting and insightful take on the “logic” behind the military decisions.

    I might add that the same perspective applies in healthcare. The purpose of healthcare in America is not to increase health or even take care of health care providers, but rather to suck as much money as possible from the public and funnel it into the pockets of a relatively few corporations and owners. Here is one small example:

    I think it was Upton Sinclair who pointed out that it is difficult to get someone to acknowledge a fact when his income depends on denying it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Now bow your heads and ask for the- The Bombs are away, Hallelujah, Hallelujah blessing- The World has ended go in Peace! Thanks be to the Bomb…! With apologies— I just went to my first Mass in over a Year! So there! :/ :o)


  3. Speaking of business as usual, I saw this in my New York Times feed:

    “C.I.A. Scrambles for New Approach in Afghanistan

    By Mark Mazzetti and Julian E. Barnes

    The rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops has left the agency seeking ways to maintain its intelligence-gathering, war-fighting and counterterrorism operations in the country.”

    What’s really changing in Afghanistan? Sure, some troops are leaving, even as the CIA “scrambles” to maintain the war. And this is somehow a “new approach”?


  4. Excellent post by Caitlin Johnstone that I just read. Here’s the link and an excerpt:

    “That small group [that runs America] is the plutocratic class whose legalized bribery and propaganda machine has immense influence over US politics, as well as the imperial war machine and special interest groups with whom the plutocratic class is allied. It is necessary to form coalitions of support within that power cluster if one wants to become president in the managed democracy that is the United States, and no part of that power cluster is going to support a president who won’t reliably advance the interests of the oligarchic empire.

    From this point of view, the oligarchic power cluster is essentially running its own employees against each other and having them promise to end the injustices which are inextricably baked in to the oligarchic empire. Americans live in a totalitarian state whose most important elections are rigged from top to bottom, and they’re fed news stories about Evil Dictators in other countries rigging their elections to remain in power.

    Politicians cannot change the status quo to one which benefits ordinary people instead of their oligarchic owners, because the oligarchic empire is built upon the need for endless war, poverty, and oppression. You cannot have a unipolar global empire without using violent force (and the threat of it) to uphold that world order, and you cannot have a plutocracy without ensuring that a few rulers have far more wealth control than the rank-and-file citizenry.”


  5. Economics is not a science because any experiment in it can not be reproduced. The same circumstances in two different societies can result in two very different economic outcomes. Basic economics is close to a science such as balancing your check book or how much of a house your can buy given your current income. Complex economics as we have seen in the last 15 years is like playing the tables in Las Vegas.

    Having laws that regulate banks and businesses do not work as seen in the crash of 2008. The laws were either repealed, ignored, or not up to date to prevent the speculation that occurred.

    The most successful economy now is that of China. True it has come at great environmental and human costs. Also true is that the Chinese have come a long way from where they were 70 years ago. It may be instructive to look at the way China manages its economy. Yes, heads will roll because they do not tolerate corruption or law breaking. Consider, no heads rolled after 2008, and the same people are at it again!


    1. That’s precisely why Wall Street supported Obama in 2008. They knew no heads would roll under his administration. Obama was a sellout who led directly to Trump.


  6. While I agree wholeheartedly that the Pentagon’s decisions are money-based, I think assertion made by the analyst who Sorensen quotes is also correct: war does not achieve political aims. It’s just that the public is convinced that such political objectives are actually the goals of military intervention on the part of the U.S. In other words, it’s not about drawing incorrect conclusions from given situations; rather, it’s about not apprehending the situations correctly in the first place.


  7. Face Book gave me notice only Today, one of my comments on Trump and US Global Activity, posted so far back I don’t remember when, violate their Community Standards and removed it.
    I don’t even remember the News article I shared with the intro comment Face Book deleted.
    So ironic when Face Book banned Trump for the next 2 years.

    Here Thug Trump Threatens another Sovereign Nation with Economic collapse as he’s doing with Iran, threatening to do the same with any other Nation or Corporation that does Business with Iran, in violation of US Law.
    The gall of it all!

    America may be in denial, but the World knows, the US went to the United Nations Security Council, the only Legal World Body that could give it, using FAKE Intelligence, asking for UN approved Authorization to invade Iraq and change the Saddam regime. That Legal Authority was denied.
    In the Vain Delusion of it’s self-proclaimed indispensable exceptionalism, the US invaded Iraq anyway, in violation of International Law, undermining the Global Order as Represented by the United Nations since WWII, ushering in the Law of the Jungle to the Middle East and this World.

    Threatening to steal Iraq’s oil money on deposit in the US, and having US Troops in Syria stealing Syria’s oil, is not new.
    The World shouldn’t be surprised. Before he was elected, he said he do what he is doing with the Power of the Presidency.


    1. That comment was made in January 2020 when Iraq told the US to leave, after murdering such a high Iranian government in the person of General Soleimani on Iraqi territory.

      Trump threatened to seize all Iraqi oil funds in US banks to put the final nail in the coffin after destroying Iraq with the illegal 2003 invasion.

      These search terms in Google show reports on it from many different sources,
      “trump threatens to seize iraqi oil deposits in us banks”


  8. The US has a virtual monopoly on weapons of all kinds. Unmentioned in your cogent essay is that it bonds our vassals to us. It isn’t cheap, the British have had a hard time financially supporting their tiny US made nuclear submarine fleet.

    The system works very well for the purpose you mention, it makes a great deal of money from exports and just as every business now wants you and me to sign up for monthly fees, thereby providing a dependable income into the future, Uncle Sam provides service contracts for all the weapons that are never ending in bringing in dough.

    All the money feeds back into more weapons and the sales appear to justify the large production runs that our own forces can’t possibly justify for themselves alone but are necessary to lower the per-unit cost.

    An the leverage provided! If Uncle Sam doesn’t like what country A is doing or proposing it can threaten to modify arms deals. This can be positive in that a country with our weaponry can be coerced into not using it, a huge irony but a good one in that weapons meant to destroy are kept from being used for that purpose. This reveals the multifaceted power of the US, making a killing on selling stuff and then having control over when it is used. The fact that the Saudis keep pounding helpless Yemen only shows that control of oil is, for us, more important that stopping senseless killing, but we’ve known that forever.

    I can see no end to this smooth running exercise of power but for one thing, the overthrow of the dollar as the international reserve currency or catastrophic inflation in the US. Needless to say, strong support for the dollar comes from Uncle Sam taking only dollars for weapon sales.

    But the Chinese are working on making their own currency dominant and there are plenty of other countries that are weary of the game played by US rules. For those who think the US is loved around the world, there’s going to be a rude awakening.

    A footnote: tiny Israel is a power in worldwide arms sales and the US is miffed that some of the $3 billion plus per year that we give to Israel has been used to buy its own homemade gear thereby stimulating its industry that competes with ours. 25% of our aid was allowed for that, but this is now being reduced to ultimately allow no US aid funds to be spent in Israel, all being required to come back home to support our MIC.

    For now, the system is humming right along.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Another interesting aspect of this US arm-sales economy is that it’s a classic case of ‘protectionism’, that horrible bugaboo that we were told by conservatives in the 1970’s onward that had to be expunged. As has been noted here and among all US militarism critics, the arms producers site their manufacturing facilities throughout the US in a cynical (but successful) strategy to virtually buy political support by supplying good-paying manufacturing jobs to many state constituencies. Why aren’t THOSE manufacturers & jobs subject to the same ‘free market’ economics that so many rust-belt industries were decimated by? (And if there would be concern about having it done in China because they’re our emerging ‘enemy’ du jour, then these arms could be made in Mexico or one of our other low-wage allies.) The answer is obviously that it’s always been a political ploy to elevate arms production beyond a ‘need’ basis to a ‘high-profit industry’.

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