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William Astore: Confessions of a Recovering Weapons Addict

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

The twenty-first century hasn't exactly been America's greatest moment.  Still, there remain winners, along with all the losers you might care to mention.  If, in fact, you were to sum up the first decade-plus of the next "American Century" in manufacturing terms, you might say that -- Steve Jobs aside -- this country has mainly been successful at making things that go boom in the night.  Start with Hollywood.  Its action and superhero films -- the very definition of what goes boom in the night -- continue to capture eyeballs and dominate global markets in ways that should impress and that have left national movie industries elsewhere in the proverbial dust.  And then, of course, there's that other group of winners, the arms-makers of the military-industrial-homeland-security complex.  They've had the time of their lives these last boom years (so to speak), with national security budgets soaring annually beyond all imagination.

Even now, in the toughest of tough times and despite the headlines about gigantic Defense Department spending cuts, President Obama recently reassured arms-makers (and the rest of us) that the Pentagon budget would, in his words, "still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership.  In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration."  In response, his Republican opponents lambasted him as weak on defense for promising so little.  Which tells you just who the winners of the last decade were and who the winners of the next one are likely to be.

Of course, in any situation there are always winners and losers, but it is striking that our losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven a gold mine for a small set of crony corporations and weapon-makers, producing a group of real winners at home with names like Lockheed Martin, KBR, and General Dynamics.

TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore points, for instance, to the end results of our debacle in Iraq: the new Iraqi government is planning to purchase $11 billion in American weapons (and training), including F-16 fighter jets.  A little history of American dreams for the Iraqi Air Force might be in order.  When the Bush administration launched its invasion in 2003, it imagined an American-garrisoned Iraq for decades to come and a reconstituted Iraqi military "lite," a force of perhaps 40,000 lightly armed troops "without an air force," who would patrol the borders of their part of an American-dominated Middle East.  In those halcyon days, there were no plans to recreate an Iraqi Air Force (though Saddam Hussein's had once been one of the biggest in the world).  Or rather, U.S. planners saw no need to do so because the "Iraqi Air Force" already existed and was settling into Balad Air Base north of Baghdad.  It was, of course, the U.S. Air Force. 

Consider it now a sign of defeat that almost the last military link between Iraq and the U.S. military will be the delivery of those new weapons and the years of training and support that will go with them.  We didn't win in Iraq, but someone here did!  Let Astore tell you all about it. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Astore discusses the thrill of weaponry in pop culture and how it faded for him, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Weapons "R' Us
Making Warbirds Instead of Thunderbirds

By William J. Astore

Perhaps you've heard of "Makin' Thunderbirds," a hard-bitten rock & roll song by Bob Seger that I listened to 30 years ago while in college.  It's about auto workers back in 1955 who were "young and proud" to be making Ford Thunderbirds.  But in the early 1980s, Seger sings, "the plants have changed and you're lucky if you work."  Seger caught the reality of an American manufacturing infrastructure that was seriously eroding as skilled and good-paying union jobs were cut or sent overseas, rarely to be seen again in these parts.

If the U.S. auto industry has recently shown sparks of new life (though we're not making T-Birds or Mercuries or Oldsmobiles or Pontiacs or Saturns anymore), there is one form of manufacturing in which America is still dominant.  When it comes to weaponry, to paraphrase Seger, we're still young and proud and makin' Predators and Reapers (as in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones) and Eagles and Fighting Falcons (as in F-15 and F-16 combat jets), and outfitting them with the deadliest of weapons.  In this market niche, we're still the envy of the world.

Yes, we're the world's foremost "merchants of death," the title of a best-selling exposà of the international arms trade published to acclaim in the U.S. in 1934.  Back then, most Americans saw themselves as war-avoiders rather than as war-profiteers.  The evil war-profiteers were mainly European arms makers like Germany's Krupp, France's Schneider, or Britain's Vickers. 

Not that America didn't have its own arms merchants.  As the authors of Merchants of Death noted, early on our country demonstrated a "Yankee propensity for extracting novel death-dealing knickknacks from [our] peddler's pack."  Amazingly, the Nye Committee in the U.S. Senate devoted 93 hearings from 1934 to 1936 to exposing America's own "greedy munitions interests."  Even in those desperate depression days, a desire for profit and jobs was balanced by a strong sense of unease at this deadly trade, an unease reinforced by the horrors of and hecatombs of dead from the First World War.

We are uneasy no more.  Today we take great pride (or at least have no shame) in being by far the world's number one arms-exporting nation.  A few statistics bear this out.  From 2006 to 2010, the U.S. accounted for nearly one-third of the world's arms exports, easily surpassing a resurgent Russia in the "Lords of War" race.  Despite a decline in global arms sales in 2010 due to recessionary pressures, the U.S. increased its market share, accounting for a whopping 53% of the trade that year.  Last year saw the U.S. on pace to deliver more than $46 billion in foreign arms sales.  Who says America isn't number one anymore?

For a shopping list of our arms trades, try searching the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database for arms exports and imports.  It reveals that, in 2010, the U.S. exported "major conventional weapons" to 62 countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen, and weapons platforms ranging from F-15, F-16, and F-18 combat jets to M1 Abrams main battle tanks to Cobra attack helicopters (sent to our Pakistani comrades) to guided missiles in all flavors, colors, and sizes: AAMs, PGMs, SAMs, TOWs -- a veritable alphabet soup of missile acronyms.  Never mind their specific meaning: they're all designed to blow things up; they're all designed to kill.

Rarely debated in Congress or in U.S. media outlets is the wisdom or morality of these arms deals.  During the quiet last days of December 2011, in separate announcements whose timing could not have been accidental, the Obama Administration expressed its intent to sell nearly $11 billion in arms to Iraq, including Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter-bombers, and nearly $30 billion in F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, part of a larger, $60 billion arms package for the Saudis.  Few in Congress oppose such arms deals since defense contractors provide jobs in their districts -- and ready donations to Congressional campaigns.

Let's pause to consider what such a weapons deal implies for Iraq.   Firstly, Iraq only "needs" advanced tanks and fighter jets because we destroyed their previous generation of the same, whether in 1991 during Desert Shield/Storm or in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Secondly, Iraq "needs" such powerful conventional weaponry ostensibly to deter an invasion by Iran, yet the current government in Baghdad is closely aligned with Iran, courtesy of our invasion in 2003 and the botched occupation that followed.  Thirdly, despite its "needs," the Iraqi military is nowhere near ready to field and maintain such advanced weaponry, at least without sustained training and logistical support provided by the U.S. military.

As one U.S. Air Force officer who served as an advisor to the fledging Iraqi Air Force, or IqAF, recently worried:

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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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