Good Profits and ‘The Good War’

Leonard C. Goodman

Now in its tenth year, the war in Afghanistan is the longest in U.S. his­to­ry. And as the war drags on, the sit­u­a­tion goes from bad to worse: 2010 is the most vio­lent year on record. The Tal­iban, who were large­ly defeat­ed in Decem­ber 2001, now con­trol about 80 per­cent of the coun­try. In the mean­time, we are prop­ping up a gov­ern­ment in Kab­ul that is preda­to­ry and cor­rupt. We are spend­ing about $100 bil­lion a year to wage war in one of the poor­est coun­tries on earth. Yet our pres­i­dent, who assured us dur­ing the cam­paign that he was opposed to dumb wars,” has re-com­mit­ted Amer­i­ca to this fight for at least four more years. Afghanistan, we are told, is the good war.” The bad war” was in Iraq. 

Defense firm board members cannot legally support policies making the world safer, because those would be bad for business.

It is cer­tain­ly true that for some Amer­i­cans, Afghanistan has been a good war. My extend­ed fam­i­ly owns a share of a major defense con­trac­tor. Many times I have asked: Why can’t this great tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­ny shift gears to become a leader in high-speed rail or oth­er green tech­nolo­gies that might some day save our econ­o­my or even the plan­et? Answer: There is no busi­ness more prof­itable than war. The corporation’s board of direc­tors con­tin­ues to hire ex-gen­er­als and well-con­nect­ed lob­by­ists to make sure that the lucra­tive con­tracts keep pour­ing in. The company’s prof­its have tripled since 911.

Less well under­stood is the role of defense con­trac­tors in pro­mot­ing poli­cies that ben­e­fit their indus­try by mak­ing the world a more dan­ger­ous place. It takes more than direct polit­i­cal dona­tions and revolv­ing door lob­by­ists to gin up pub­lic sup­port for fool­ish wars. So defense con­trac­tors con­tribute to think tanks that lend the veneer of schol­ar­ship and cred­i­bil­i­ty to the bad poli­cies they push.

Cor­po­rate-fund­ed think tanks like Project for a New Amer­i­can Cen­tu­ry, the Nation­al Insti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­i­cy, the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Secu­ri­ty and the Cen­ter for Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy have helped sell us such turkeys as pre­emp­tive war, Star Wars and régime change in Iraq, while at the same time work­ing to defeat any poli­cies which might reduce the demand for new weapons sys­tems, such as the START nuclear arms reduc­tion treaty.

For the defense indus­try, dumb wars are the best ones because they cre­ate more prob­lems than they solve, assur­ing future sales of weapons and ser­vices. A great exam­ple of this bad pol­i­cy pro­pa­gan­da machine in action occurred in the win­ter of 2002, when the Tal­iban had been defeat­ed in Afghanistan and there was a chance to install a cred­i­ble gov­ern­ment. Then the defense indus­try helped fund the cam­paign to con­vince Amer­i­cans they need­ed to divert resources from Afghanistan to launch a pre­emp­tive strike against Iraq. Eight years lat­er, Afghanistan is in utter chaos, yet think tank schol­ars assure us that we can still win” the war as long as we pur­sue Gen. David Petraeus’ counter-insur­gency strategy.

When defense con­trac­tors guide defense pol­i­cy, the pub­lic inter­est is not served. Their inter­ests are anti­thet­i­cal. By law, cor­po­rate boards have a fidu­cia­ry duty to max­i­mize the returns to their share­hold­ers. Most board mem­bers of defense firms are ratio­nal and char­i­ta­ble in their per­son­al affairs. Yet, when they sit in board­rooms, they can­not legal­ly sup­port poli­cies that might make the world safer because those would be bad for business.

From the van­tage of the board­room of a defense con­trac­tor, the Afghan war is a good war. It desta­bi­lized much of the Mid­dle East and south­ern Asia, includ­ing nuclear-armed Pak­istan. It has cre­at­ed tens of thou­sands of new ene­mies for the Unit­ed States – peo­ple who had no beef with us until we invad­ed their coun­try and killed their rel­a­tives. Most of our new ene­mies are too poor to pose any imme­di­ate threat. But they will be tar­gets for recruit­ment into ter­ror groups, thus assur­ing future dan­gers, more war and unsus­tain­able lev­els of mil­i­tary spending.

Many, includ­ing George Wash­ing­ton and Dwight Eisen­how­er, have warned of the dan­ger to repub­li­can lib­er­ty posed by mas­sive stand­ing armies and unchecked mil­i­tary spend­ing. One of the most elo­quent schol­ars on this top­ic, Chalmers John­son, passed away in Novem­ber. John­son warned of the inher­ent insta­bil­i­ty of a polit­i­cal sys­tem that seeks to com­bine domes­tic democ­ra­cy and for­eign impe­ri­al­ism. The final vol­ume of his sem­i­nal trea­tise on mil­i­tarism is titled, The Last Days of the Amer­i­can Repub­lic. If his analy­sis is cor­rect, we have no time to waste. 

Leonard Good­man is a Chica­go crim­i­nal defense lawyer and Adjunct Pro­fes­sor of Law at DePaul University.
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