Back in 1934, the year I was born, an American book called “The Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Arms Industry” caused quite a stir. Written by H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen, this low-key treatise spotlighted how companies like Krupp, DuPont, Vickers, Bethlehem Steel and to a lesser extent Colt, Remington, and Winchester were involved in triggering World War One.
The arms industry was relatively simple back then, so documenting its machinations, while not easy, was possible. I doubt that an army of journalists could do anything like that today. The arms industry is too massive and too complex.
As we have seen from the ongoing U.S. presidential elections, journalists prefer short, simple “sound bites.” They can’t be bothered with shadowy, complex topics. So the “merchants of death” ply their bloody trade beyond the bright lights of television and the scrutiny of the press.
However, I was able to find some information on the Web. You might even own shares (at least through your 401k) in one or more of the public corporations involved. Here are some of the major companies that are listed as being involved in arms merchandising:
Lockheed Martin (US), BAE Systems (UK), Boeing (US), Raytheon (US), Northrop Grumman (US), General Dynamics (US), Thomson-CSF (France).
I found an article that said world military spending is estimated at more than $1,000 billion a year (the article didn’t say who did the estimating but I saw the figure repeated in several other articles). Also, a recent report put small arms circulation at more than 500 million around the world. That’s small arms, like rifles and pistols, not the big stuff like ground-to-air missiles and bunker busting bombs.
The figures I found don’t include nuclear weapons. That’s another story. And I couldn’t find an estimate for spending on biological warfare, either. I doubt that such an estimate exists. However, I saw evidence of trade in biological weapons, and those weapons were listed as coming from the United States. A report quoted Judith Miller in “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War,” as claiming that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq purchased “starter germs” from the American Type Culture Collection, a supply company in a Washington, D.C., suburb.
The difficulty of tracking the “merchants of death” is compounded because just about anyone with the resources can manufacture and sell arms. A manufacturer doesn’t have to be government owned or sanctioned. The industry includes private companies, which are not required by law to disclose their shareholders or business dealings as publicly owned corporations are.
Interestingly, I found a Web account tracing the Bush family fortunes back to Samuel Prescott Bush, who founded the Buckeye Steel Castings company of Ohio in 1894. In 1918 he became chief of the ordnance, small arms and ammunition section of the War Industries Board, this report stated.
As head of the Remington Arms Company, Samuel Prescott Bush made and sold arms to both sides in World War II – according to the account. The writer claimed that four generations of the Bush family have made fortunes in oil and arms. That claim seems to support other accounts I’ve found that list George Bush, senior, and others close to the current U.S. President as prominnent investors in the Carlyle Group, which is said to be involved in arms manufacture and merchandising. And I don’t see any denials from the Bush family.
Apparently, there are organizations that try to keep track of the “merchants of death.” Simon Harak, anti-militarism coordinator of the War Resisters League, says arms merchants “literally call the shots of the U.S. government’s war making policies.” Their power and influence are so great “it is … accurate to say that they are making war for profit,” Harak declared.
The “merchants of death” are huge contributors to U.S. election campaigns. And they can afford it. Consider the enormous profits American arms dealers have made from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And America is not the only country where arms are produced. The U.K, Russia – even India – are among the many other countries in which the arms industry flourishes.
I wonder at the lack of attention this segment of society receives. It seems to me that with so much money at stake and so little public accountability, the “merchants of death” in the 21st century could threaten the world’s very existence.