“The days of giving defense contractors a blank check are over.” That proclamation by President Barack Obama could herald a new day for a dark and bloody industry. If you investigate the causes of war, sooner or later you will come across the tentacles of “the merchants of death,” wealthy and powerful arms manufacturers and defense contractors who make billions from bloodshed. For decades, some of these global corporations have covertly conspired to create armed conflict in order to profit from sales of their deadly products – often to both sides in a dispute. With the resulting profits, they have bought politicians and corrupted governments, gaining even more power and becoming even wealthier.
The Iraq War, for example, has been a source of often-fraudulent profiteering. The defense industry has profited from no-bid contracts, outrageous overcharging for materials and services, and military outsourcing to firms such as the infamous Blackwater, which recently changed its name to Xe in an attempt to hide its shameful past. And while these abuses were unprecedented in their scope, they were part of a pattern that has prevailed for a long time. You might be old enough to recall sporadic news reports of the U.S. military paying something like $1,500 for a hammer and so on. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Gross and blatant overspending has become accepted practice in the American defense industry.
Writing in the Washington Independent this week, Spencer Ackerman reports:
Defense bloat has stunned auditors. A report last year from the Government Accountability Office found that 95 ongoing major defense programs exceeded their budgets, providing an accumulated excess cost of $295 billion to taxpayers. The programs include big-ticket items beloved by the military services, including the Army’s Future Combat System, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship and the Air Force’s Joint Strike Fighter, which are built by defense-industry giants like Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., and Raytheon Company, all of which have aggressive lobbying arms and excellent relationships with defense barons on Capitol Hill. According to the government’s Federal Procurement Database, which tracks federal contracts, the Defense Department reported over $394 billion worth of business with private contractors in fiscal 2008 alone.
The new President is promising to put a stop to these abuses. But you can bet defense contractors and their political allies will not mend their ways without a struggle. You can expect them to use their considerable influence with politicians and bureaucrats to subvert the President’s fiscal crusade.
Back in 1960, President Eisenhower warned Americans to beware of “the military industrial complex.” Here’s what he said:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Obviously, Eisenhower’s warning has gone unheeded. Now, half a century later a new President has emerged who is willing to take on such entrenched special interests. In this struggle of Titans, the stakes are enormous. On the one hand are the billions of dollars to be made from war; on the other is the great benefits that would accrue to society if the Merchants of Death are defeated – or at least reined in.
This is a struggle of life-and-death importance because if the arms merchants no longer make obscene profits, their ability to buy politicians and bureaucrats will be diminished. And maybe – just maybe – with diminished returns from inciting warfare, they might lose their zest for this repugnant practice.