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War Profiteering, Past and Present

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On St. Patrick's Day, some of my friends and I watched a DVD of the film "Iraq for Sale," with its disturbing accounts of profiteering on the part of Halliburton and Blackwater. We saw how Halliburton charged U.S. soldiers exorbitant prices for Middle-Eastern Coca Colas as well as $100 to wash every bag of laundry (submission of which was compulsory, even though the laundry came back even dirtier). We saw graphs depicting the tremendous increase in the value of Halliburton stock since the beginning of the war.

During the course of our spirited discussion, I remembered reading about a case of war profiteering during the American Revolution.

In October of 1778 the editor of the New York Journal received a letter from someone offering to write a series of editorials exposing corruption in high places.

The letter began: "There are abuses in the State which demand an immediate remedy. Important political characters must be brought upon the stage and animadverted [harshly criticized] with freedom. The opinion I have of the independence of your spirit convinces me that you will be a faithful guardian of liberty of the press."

He would not, the writer declared, ever impugn the dignity of government, but neither would he respect his superiors: "I shall not conceive myself bound to use any extraordinary ceremony with the characters of corrupt individuals, however exalted their stations."

The writer was a 23-year-old colonel in the Continental Army named Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804). The target of his outrage was Samuel Chase (1741-1811) , who represented Maryland in the Continental Congress. Chase had learned of a secret plan to purchase flour for the French navy, crucial allies of the Americans. He spread the word to his associates: buy up the flour and we can sell it at a profit.

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Colonel Hamilton, Washington's most valued aide-de-camp, had written too many letters begging for supplies from the Continental Congress to tolerate such bad behavior. He attacked Chase as a member of a "criminal class" who, "taking advantage of the times, have carried the spirit of monopoly and extortion to an excess, which scarcely admits of a parallel ... The exorbitant price of every article, and the depreciation of our currency, are evils, derived essentially from this source."

"When avarice takes the lead in a state," Hamilton declared, "it is commonly a forerunner of its fall. How shocking it is to discover among ourselves, even at this early period, the strongest symptoms of this fatal disease!"

Probably as a result of Hamilton's articles, Chase lost his seat in the Continental Congress for two years.

Bill Maher likes to say that Dick Cheney used to run the White House out of Halliburton; now he runs Halliburton out of the White House.

Samuel Chase's unpatriotic machinations in respect to flour are dwarfed by the crimes of an administration that puts the interests of oil companies above those of the American people. If only someone prominent would attack them as sharply as Hamilton attacked Chase in the final paragraph of his final essay:

"It is a mark of compassion, to which you are not entitled, to advise you by a timely and voluntary retreat, to avoid the ignominy of a formal dismissal. Your career has held out as long as you could have hoped. It is time that you should cease to personate the fictitious character you have assumed, and appear what you really are--lay aside the mask of patriotism, and assert your character among the honorable tribe of speculators."

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Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She also writes for History News Network (hnn.us) and CommonDreams.org.

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