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.

Guns and Money!

W.J. Astore

Remember in the 1930s how Americans referred to arms dealers, especially those who profited from war, as “merchants of death”? Yes, that was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Nowadays, it’s weapons ‘r’ us, and America’s leading sounds of freedom are blam-blam-blam and ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Cash registers for weapons makers are truly ka-chinging wildly as America continues to dominate the global trade in war weapons, notes William Hartung at TomDispatch.com. Hartung’s title, “Selling Death,” puts it succinctly. Here’s an excerpt:

When it comes to trade in the tools of death and destruction, no one tops the United States of America.

In April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual analysis of trends in global arms sales and the winner — as always — was the U.S. of A. Between 2016 and 2020, this country accounted for 37% of total international weapons deliveries, nearly twice the level of its closest rival, Russia, and more than six times that of Washington’s threat du jour, China. 

Sadly, this was no surprise to arms-trade analysts.  The U.S. has held that top spot for 28 of the past 30 years, posting massive sales numbers regardless of which party held power in the White House or Congress.  This is, of course, the definition of good news for weapons contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, even if it’s bad news for so many of the rest of us, especially those who suffer from the use of those arms by militaries in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates.  The recent bombing and leveling of Gaza by the U.S.-financed and supplied Israeli military is just the latest example of the devastating toll exacted by American weapons transfers in these years.

When it comes to weapons sales, America truly is Number One! Which, in that faraway galaxy ,was once nothing to celebrate. In fact, it was something to deplore and denounce.

Why is this? Christian Sorensen at Consortium News has some answers. In a five-part series, he’s tackling the military-industrial-congressional complex and detailing its reach and power across American society. In “A People’s Guide to the War Industry,” Sorensen has this to say about America’s “solutions”-based war industry:

War corporations market their goods and services as “solutions.” A Raytheon executive, John Harris, explained to the Defense & Aerospace Report in 2018 that engaging “with senior members of government” is just “providing solutions to our customers,” providing “integrated solutions to meet our customers’ needs,” and even “figuring out how we can solve our customers’ problems using a dispassionate system approach.”

The solutions trick works well when selling to the U.S. military. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton offers digital solutions, CACI offers information solutions, and Leidos offers innovative solutions. Through its inherently harmful, anti-democratic activities, the war industry helps create the miserable conditions for which it then offers “solutions,” of course without ever taking responsibility for the dismal state of affairs (i.e. nonstop war) that it helped create.

“Providing solutions” sounds prettier and more generous than “making money off death and destruction.” MIC officials also regularly couch Washington’s imperialism, weapon sales, and war-first foreign policy as giving the troops the “tools they need.” A similar phrase (“We’ve listened to the warfighter”) is utilized when selling goods and services, particularly upgrades and technological insertions.

I’d add that, not only do war corporations market “solutions” to the warfighter, but the Pentagon sells these to the American people as “investments” in peace.

And who can be against “solutions” and “investments”?

I had the pleasure to be at a Warren Zevon concert in the early 1980s when he sang one of his signature songs, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” How right he was! Between a rock and a hard place, America knows how to send lawyers, guns, and money.

I urge you to read Hartung and Sorensen and then reflect on the words of MLK about a nation that spends so much on weaponry and exports so much violence as one that is as a result approaching spiritual death.

Atlanta, Georgia, USA — Martin Luther King Jr. listens at a meeting of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at a restaurant in Atlanta. The SCLC is a civil rights organization formed by Martin Luther King after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. — Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS

Divesting from Weapons

W.J. Astore

There’s a bill before the Rhode Island State Legislature (House Bill 6026) that aims to divest state pension funds from military contractors. I wrote a short letter in favor of this bill and submitted it, as follows:

I served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2005.  There are many of us within the military who recognize the wisdom of General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor.  Butler wrote that the best way to end war is to take the profit out of it.  Butler wrote in the 1930s, when our country believed that weapons makers were “merchants of death.”  They were called that because of the vast killing fields of World War I, a war that killed more than 100,000 Americans, together with millions of other troops from Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere.

Joining Smedley Butler was another great American, General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower.  In his famous “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953, Ike wrote that unnecessary spending on weaponry would lead to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron.  Here are his words:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

In 1961, President Eisenhower warned all Americans against the dangers of the military-industrial complex.  Sixty years later, in 2021, America dominates the world in selling weapons across the globe.  We have become the “merchants of death” that Generals Butler and Eisenhower warned us about.

Weapons kill.  Weapons make wars more likely.  And as Eisenhower said in 1946, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

It’s time for us to hate war again.  It’s time for us to beat our swords into ploughshares, as the Bible tells us.  It’s time for us to pursue more peaceful activities.

Rhode Island can set a strong example – a shining example – in the pursuit of peace and sanity.  I urge you to vote “for” House Bill 6026.

Let us beat our swords into ploughshares …

*****

The “Divestment Fact Sheet” for the bill explains its purpose, as follows:

  1. Allows us to redirect our investment dollars toward socially productive corporations addressing important social assets like climate resilience, health, and education, which aid economic growth;
  2. Seeks to move money away from corporations whose output foments violence, death, destruction, and social chaos.
  3. Educates the general public about the role of weapons manufacturers in the cycle of tax breaks, lobbying largesse, increasing military budgets and weapon sales.
  4. Reduces the flow of scarce economic resources to military weapons manufacturers by reducing public investment;
  5. Sends a message to the US Congress that we need to sharply reduce investment in military weapons where the costs are increasingly public (ever increasing health bills for traumatized and injured vets of the endless wars, reconstruction bills in foreign lands, ever increasing maintenance bills and graft on weapons systems) and the benefits are private (lobbying firm profits, huge weapons manufacturer bonuses and excessive CEO pay packages).

In America, money talks. As Smedley Butler said, ending the madness of war will most likely come when we can take the profit out of it. Here’s hoping Rhode Island’s effort succeeds — and sets an example for others across our nation.