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Tomgram: William Astore, War! What Is It Good For? Profit and Power

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here .

It's no news (and in fact rarely makes it off the inside pages of our newspapers) that the U.S. dominates -- one might almost say monopolizes -- the global arms market.  In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, U.S. weapons makers tripled their sales to $66.3 billion and were expected to remain in that range for 2012 as well.  In other words, they took 78% of the market that year, with Russia coming in a vanishingly distant second at $4.8 billion in sales.

This country has long had a special propensity for exporting things that go boom in the night: the products of both the military-industrial complex and Hollywood, each a near-monopoly in its particular market.  As it happened, on the very eve of a government shutdown, the Pentagon caught the spirit of the times by dumping $5 billion into the coffers of defense contractors for future weaponry and equipment of all sorts.  As TomDispatch regular Bill Astore writes today, the business of America has increasingly become war, so no one should be surprised that, even with the government officially shut down, the Obama administration didn't turn off the lights in the offices where arms deals are a major focus of attention.  As Cora Currier of ProPublica recently reported, in those shutdown weeks, the administration, in fact, lent an especially helping hand to American arms dealers.  It loosened controls over military exports by moving the licensing process for foreign sales on "whole categories" of military equipment from the State Department (which, at least theoretically, has to consider the human rights records of countries slated to receive arms packages) to the Commerce Department, where, it seems, just about anything goes.  The big weapons firms have been lobbying for this for quite a while.

As Currier writes, "The switch from State to Commerce represents a big win for defense manufacturers, who have long lobbied in favor of relaxing U.S. export rules, which they say put a damper on international trade. Among the companies that recently lobbied on the issue: Lockheed, which manufactures C-130 transport planes, Textron, which makes Kiowa Warrior helicopters, and Honeywell, which outfits military choppers."

So while the government may have been closed for you, if you were a child in need of government-funded meals or an abused woman in need of a shelter or a rancher whose cattle just died in a massive snowstorm, the government remained open and hard at work for the major weapons companies.  Oh, and if you were a reporter wanting to know more about the recent arms sales decision, then the shutdown got in your way, too.  As Currier adds, "An interview with Commerce Department officials was canceled due to the government shutdown, and the State Department did not respond to questions." Let William Astore take it from there. Tom

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The Business of America Is War
Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom
By William J. Astore

There is a new normal in America: our government may shut down, but our wars continue.  Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the "empire" back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century "scramble for Africa," but with the U.S. and China doing the scrambling this time around), and the military-industrial complex can still dominate the world's arms trade.

In the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, it's business as usual, if your definition of "business" is the power and profits you get from constantly preparing for and prosecuting wars around the world.  "War is a racket," General Smedley Butler famously declared in 1935, and even now it's hard to disagree with a man who had two Congressional Medals of Honor to his credit and was intimately familiar with American imperialism.

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War Is Politics, Right?

Once upon a time, as a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, I was taught that Carl von Clausewitz had defined war as a continuation of politics by other means.  This definition is, in fact, a simplification of his classic and complex book, On War, written after his experiences fighting Napoleon in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of war as a continuation of politics is both moderately interesting and dangerously misleading: interesting because it connects war to political processes and suggests that they should be fought for political goals; misleading because it suggests that war is essentially rational and so controllable.  The fault here is not Clausewitz's, but the American military's for misreading and oversimplifying him. 

Perhaps another "Carl" might lend a hand when it comes to helping Americans understand what war is really all about.  I'm referring to Karl Marx, who admired Clausewitz, notably for his idea that combat is to war what a cash payment is to commerce.  However seldom combat (or such payments) may happen, they are the culmination and so the ultimate arbiters of the process.

War, in other words, is settled by killing, a bloody transaction that echoes the exploitative exchanges of capitalism.  Marx found this idea to be both suggestive and pregnant with meaning. So should we all.

Following Marx, Americans ought to think about war not just as an extreme exercise of politics, but also as a continuation of exploitative commerce by other means.  Combat as commerce: there's more in that than simple alliteration.

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In the history of war, such commercial transactions took many forms, whether as territory conquered, spoils carted away, raw materials appropriated, or market share gained.  Consider American wars.  The War of 1812 is sometimes portrayed as a minor dust-up with Britain, involving the temporary occupation and burning of our capital, but it really was about crushing Indians on the frontier and grabbing their land.  The Mexican-American War was another land grab, this time for the benefit of slaveholders.  The Spanish-American War was a land grab for those seeking an American empire overseas, while World War I was for making the world "safe for democracy" -- and for American business interests globally.

Even World War II, a war necessary to stop Hitler and Imperial Japan, witnessed the emergence of the U.S. as the arsenal of democracy, the world's dominant power, and the new imperial stand-in for a bankrupt British Empire.

Korea?  Vietnam?  Lots of profit for the military-industrial complex and plenty of power for the Pentagon establishment.  Iraq, the Middle East, current adventures in Africa?  Oil, markets, natural resources, global dominance.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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