The Business of America Is War

W.J. Astore

War is the business of the state. That can be read in more than one way. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, many wars were the work of mercenaries and mercenary-captains, often serving, more or less, nobility who thought they could supplant the king or queen, or expand their own turf and power, pursuing plunder all the while. People gave their support to strong leaders and nation-states partly because they were tired of constant warfare and being the victims of mercenaries. In the 18th century, war was said to be “enlightened” because it largely didn’t impact the people directly; warfare was “limited” to otherwise under-employed nobility and the so-called dregs of society. And nation-states profited from being able to control warfare.

The French Revolution and Napoleon unleashed a new phase of increasingly unlimited war inspired by ideology (Liberty! Fraternity! Equality!). Nationalism was heavily tapped. Soldiers were told it was an honor to die for the nation-state rather than for plunder or in the service of some minor nobleman. Sweet and fitting it seemed to die for one’s country, so soldiers were told — and are still told to this day.

Nowadays, war is the business of the state may be taken literally with war as business. The U.S. federal government spends more than half of its discretionary budget on the military, weaponry, and war, though it’s disguised as a “defense” budget. As long as war remains a business for the U.S., and as long as people are profiting from it, not just in monetary terms but in terms of power, war will remain supreme in U.S. foreign policy.

I remember reading a newspaper from the 1930s that stated clearly that the way to end war was to remove the profit motive. That same decade, the U.S. Senate held hearings to expose the “merchants of death,” the military contractors that had profited so greatly from wholesale death and destruction during World War I. Since the U.S. in those days didn’t have a large standing military and a vast array of private military contractors, those hearings could go ahead in a nation that sought to avoid another world war, especially yet another one in Europe.

Today, the U.S. routinely wages war couched as ever in terms of peace or, if not peace, then security for America. How America is made more secure by troops in Syria helping to facilitate the seizing of oil, or troops in Africa engaging in the latest scramble for that continent’s natural resources, is left undefined. Or perhaps there is a tacit definition: if war is business, America needs (and deserves) access to the best markets, to vital natural resources, to oil and lithium and similar strategic materials, and the way to secure those is militarily, using force.

One thing that amazes me, though it shouldn’t, is the almost complete lack of emphasis in the U.S. on conservation, on limiting resource extraction by cutting demand. Oil companies are bragging how they’re boosting fossil fuel production in the U.S. The message is clear: keep consuming! No need to cut back on your use of fossil fuels. Your overlords will secure — and sell at inflated prices — the fuel you need and want. Just don’t ask any uncomfortable questions.

I suppose it’s all quite simple (and depressing) in its obviousness:

War is the business of the state.

The business of America is business.

The business of America is war.

The nation-state was supposed to corral war, to control it, to “enlighten” it by keeping it limited, a sideshow. Yet war in America has become unlimited, the main show, and very much unenlightened as well. Corralling and controlling it is out of favor. Planning for the next big war is all the rage, perhaps most clearly with China, though Russia factors in as well. A new cold war wins nods of approval from America’s national security state because it most certainly means job security and more power for those who are part of that state.

What is to be done? America needs to remember that war is not the health of any democracy, and that no democracy can survive when it’s constantly engaged in war and preparations for the same. Yet we know America isn’t a democracy, so that argument is effectively moot. Perhaps homespun wisdom can help: those who live by the sword (or the gun) die by the same, though the American response would seem to be: I’ll just buy more swords (or guns), so take that. Or maybe an appeal to Christianity and how blessed the peacemakers are, and how Christ was the prince of peace, except Americans prefer a warrior-Christ who favors his chosen with lawyers, guns, and money.

Perhaps that’s enough musings for this Monday.

War and Weapons Are Strictly Business

W.J. Astore

“Strictly Business”

In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone, played brilliantly by Al Pacino, says that killing a rival mobster and crooked police captain who conspired to kill his father is nothing personal — it’s strictly business. Something similar can be said of America’s wars and weapons trade today. As retired General Smedley Butler said in the 1930s, U.S. military actions often take the form of gangster capitalism. Want to know what’s really going on? Follow the muscle and the money!

America has “invested” itself in the Russia-Ukraine war, and I use that word deliberately. U.S. weapons makers like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are making a killing, literally and figuratively, on the ongoing war, whether by sending arms to Ukraine or in the major boost forthcoming to Pentagon spending supported by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. (Who said bipartisanship is dead?) For all the blue-and-yellow flags that America is flying in symbolic solidarity with Ukraine, the true colors of this war, as with most wars, is red for blood and green for money.

Economic sanctions against Russia, meanwhile, are meant to damage the financial wellbeing of that country, possibly leading to instability and even collapse. And who would profit from such a collapse? And who is profiting now from restricting fossil fuel exports from Russia? As war drags on in Ukraine, disaster piles on disaster, and capitalism has a way of profiting from war-driven disasters. Why do you think America’s disastrous Afghan War lasted for two decades?

Curiously, investment-speak in the U.S. military is quite common. Generals and admirals talk of “investing” in new nuclear missiles and immense ships. They further talk of “divesting” in certain weapons that have proven to be disasters in their own way, like the F-22 fighter. What’s with all this “investing” and “divesting” in the U.S. military? One thing is certain: Generals won’t have to change their language as they retire and move through the revolving door to join corporate boards at major weapons contractors.

Today’s generals and politicians never display the honesty of President Dwight Eisenhower, who explained nearly seventy years ago that weapons represent a theft from the people and their needs, not an “investment.” Those who say there’s no business like show business may be right, but Hollywood’s a piker compared to the Pentagon, where there’s truly no business like war business.