The Pentagon Wants Workers in Other Countries to Risk Their Lives for U.S. Arms Industry Profits

Sarah Lazare May 4, 2020

F-35 Fighter Jet flying over the clouds. (Getty)

On March 20, the Pen­ta­gon issued a guide­line stat­ing that U.S man­u­fac­tur­ers of mis­siles, war­ships and fight­er jets should stay open dur­ing the Covid-19 cri­sis. The ratio­nale is that the defense indus­tri­al base” con­sti­tutes essen­tial” crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture for the Unit­ed States. Yet we have every rea­son to believe that U.S. mil­i­tarism, propped up by the arms indus­try, is mak­ing the world far more vul­ner­a­ble to the pandemic.

Five years of dev­as­tat­ing airstrikes, pri­mar­i­ly car­ried out with U.S.-made weapons, have dec­i­mat­ed Yemen’s health sys­tem just in time for Covid-19 — and the bombs did not stop when the pan­dem­ic began. Instead of glob­al coop­er­a­tion, we’ve seen the Unit­ed States tight­en sanc­tions on Iran, one of the coun­tries hard­est hit by Covid-19, deploy ships to the caribbean to pro­voke Venezuela, and take a con­fronta­tion­al pos­ture towards Chi­na. Now, U.S. work­ers are being asked to risk their lives — or, as one union that rep­re­sents Gen­er­al Dynam­ics work­ers in Maine put it, become sac­ri­fi­cial lambs” — so that the U.S. war machine can keep hum­ming. Mean­while, far from the assem­bly lines and plant floors, the CEOs of com­pa­nies like Lock­heed Mar­tin and Raytheon are safe­guard­ing their prof­its. These are the same exec­u­tives who enjoy influ­ence in the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, whose Sec­re­tary of Defense, Mark Esper, is a for­mer lob­by­ist for Raytheon.

But now we are see­ing a new dimen­sion to this injus­tice. To pro­tect the flow of sup­plies to U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tors, the Pen­ta­gon is pres­sur­ing Mex­i­co and India to keep fac­to­ries open, at the per­il of Mex­i­can and Indi­an work­ers. How­ev­er bank­rupt the argu­ment that U.S. weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers must stay open to pro­tect Amer­i­can inter­ests, it is out­right brutish for the Pen­ta­gon to impose this stan­dard on oth­er coun­tries. Work­ers in Mex­i­co and India have no say in the actions of the U.S. gov­ern­ment or mil­i­tary, yet they are being asked to put their lives at risk for America’s nation­al security.”

Covid-19 is spread­ing rapid­ly in Mex­i­co, where fac­to­ries are sources of major out­breaks. In mid-April, Mexico’s Under­sec­re­tary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, warned that fac­to­ries that con­tin­ued to oper­ate, despite orders for non-essen­tial busi­ness­es to shut down, threat­ened to become major vec­tors of the dis­ease and unleash an out­break in north­ern bor­der states.

Yet, just days lat­er, in an April 20 press brief­ing, Under­sec­re­tary of Defense Ellen Lord said that sev­er­al pock­ets of clo­sure inter­na­tion­al­ly” are impact­ing the avi­a­tion sup­ply chain, ship-build­ing and small space launch.” She stat­ed, I spoke with our U.S. Ambas­sador to Mex­i­co on Fri­day, and today, I am writ­ing the Mex­i­can For­eign Min­is­ter to ask for help to reopen inter­na­tion­al sup­pli­ers there. These com­pa­nies are espe­cial­ly impor­tant for our U.S. air­frame pro­duc­tion.” While Lord did not spec­i­fy which U.S. com­pa­nies she was refer­ring to, sev­er­al U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tors have sub­sidiaries in Mex­i­co, includ­ing Lock­heed Mar­tin and Hon­ey­well, accord­ing to a U.S. Inter­na­tion­al Trade Com­mis­sion report from 2013. In an April 21 earn­ings call, a Lock­heed Mar­tin offi­cial indi­cat­ed that the com­pa­ny sees it as a pri­or­i­ty that vital sup­pli­ers in Mex­i­co stay open.

The Pen­ta­gon was not the only pow­er­ful U.S. enti­ty that joined in this pres­sure cam­paign. In an April 24 spe­cial brief­ing, Michael Kozak, act­ing Assis­tant Sec­re­tary at the State Depart­ment, said, Our embassy and here in Wash­ing­ton has been work­ing very close­ly with Mex­i­co, advo­cat­ing for Amer­i­can firms.” He added, And I think we’re mak­ing progress on that.” Mean­while, on April 22, more than 300 cor­po­rate pres­i­dents, chairs and CEOs wrote a let­ter to Mexico’s Pres­i­dent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to keep open man­u­fac­tur­ers deemed by the Unit­ed States to be essen­tial and critical.”

These joint efforts appear to have been effec­tive. Ten days after her ini­tial remarks about Mex­i­co, Lord indi­cat­ed in anoth­er press brief­ing that U.S. pres­sure had been suc­cess­ful. While I won’t pro­vide any num­bers, we have seen pos­i­tive results,” she said. I am thank­ful to our U.S. ambas­sador in Mex­i­co, and to the gov­ern­ment of Mex­i­co, who has tak­en great strides to eval­u­ate firms and their con­tri­bu­tion to U.S. Nation­al Secu­ri­ty requirements.”

Her admis­sion that Mex­i­co is being com­pelled to put its work­ers at risk in the ser­vice of U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty” is strik­ing. What’s more, Lord revealed that U.S. cor­po­ra­tions had a seat at the table when this pres­sure was dis­cussed. I have had ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tions with our U.S. ambas­sador to Mex­i­co, U.S. cor­po­rate CEOs, mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate, as well as oth­er offi­cials in the State Depart­ment over the past two weeks to high­light key com­pa­nies con­strain­ing our domes­tic defense sup­ply chain in order to cat­alyze re-open­ings in Mex­i­co,” she said. We appre­ci­ate Mex­i­co’s ongo­ing pos­i­tive response.” (The Wash­ing­ton Post report­ed on May 1 that Mexico’s Pres­i­dent AMLO has not clar­i­fied whether U.S. defense or health-care man­u­fac­tur­ers should remain open.”)

In a state­ment for a Defense News arti­cle pub­lished April 21, Eric Fan­ning, the pres­i­dent and CEO of the Aero­space Indus­tries Asso­ci­a­tion, attempt­ed to present the sub­servience of Mex­i­can work­ers’ lives to U.S. arms man­u­fac­tur­ers’ inter­ests as a form of mutu­al­ly-ben­e­fi­cial syn­chro­niza­tion in the spir­it of the Trump administration’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, slat­ed to take effect July 1. To restore cer­tain­ty and keep goods and ser­vices mov­ing, all lev­els of gov­ern­ment with­in the U.S., Cana­da, and Mex­i­co must work togeth­er to pro­vide clear, coor­di­nat­ed, and direct guid­ance about how best to pro­tect our work­ers, while ensur­ing aero­space and defense is declared an essen­tial’ func­tion in all three coun­tries,” he said.

The claim that a few months of slowed or stopped pro­duc­tion presents a threat to the U.S. mil­i­tary appa­ra­tus is untrue on its face. The Unit­ed States, by far, has the largest mil­i­tary in the world: In 2019 the coun­try account­ed for 38% of all glob­al mil­i­tary spend­ing, accord­ing to the Stock­holm Inter­na­tion­al Peace Research Insti­tute (SIPRI). The Unit­ed States is also the top arms exporter by a long shot, deliv­er­ing weapons to 96 coun­tries from 2015 to 2019, accord­ing to a sep­a­rate SIPRI find­ing. What’s more, this indus­try has grown sig­nif­i­cant­ly over the past five years, with U.S. arms exports from 2015 to 2019 23% high­er than 2015 to 19. The idea that this mas­sive indus­try can not pause to pro­tect the lives of work­ers with­out threat­en­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary fails on its own, vio­lent logic.

Mean­while, some Mex­i­can work­ers have vocif­er­ous­ly object­ed to being asked to work dur­ing the pan­dem­ic for U.S. com­pa­nies. In mid-April, protests took hold in Ciu­dad Juárez, near the U.S. bor­der, after work­ers for U.S. com­pa­nies died, as Reuters reports. These com­pa­nies are wor­ried about their sup­ply chains, but it’s the work­ers who are dying,” Susana Pri­eto Ter­razas, a labor activist in Ciu­dad Juárez, told the Wash­ing­ton Post amid protests against the Michi­gan-based Lear Corp., which makes car seats. And if all they do is export, how is that essen­tial to Mexico?”

It is not imme­di­ate­ly clear which sup­pli­ers or sub­sidiaries to U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tors in Mex­i­co have remained open as a result of pres­sure from the Pen­ta­gon, and whether any deaths can be direct­ly attrib­uted to the Pen­tagon’s actions. How­ev­er, even keep­ing a sin­gle fac­to­ry open for the good of U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tors presents an unac­cept­able risk to the work­ers being asked to clock in.

Mex­i­can work­ers don’t appear to be the only ones being asked to make a sac­ri­fice for the U.S. mil­i­tary indus­try. In her April 30 state­ment, Lord indi­cat­ed, while pro­vid­ing no details, that the Unit­ed States is apply­ing sim­i­lar pres­sure to India. We’re also watch­ing India very close­ly,” she said. India has man­dat­ed clo­sure of busi­ness­es, which is impact­ing defense sec­tor primes. India is a major defense part­ner, and we hope they can all stay safe while tran­si­tion­ing back to an oper­a­tional sta­tus.” This fol­lowed a brief state­ment she made in her April 20 remarks: Mex­i­co right now is some­what prob­lem­at­i­cal for us, but we’re work­ing through our Embassy, and then there are pock­ets in India, as well.”

Accord­ing to researchers at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty, there are cur­rent­ly 42,836 con­firmed Covid-19 cas­es in India, yet it has one of the low­est test­ing rates in the world, so num­bers could be far high­er. With a pop­u­la­tion of 1.3 bil­lion and just 0.55 hos­pi­tal beds per 1,000 peo­ple, a full-blown out­break in the coun­try could be catastrophic.

The U.S. mil­i­tary was already in the busi­ness of sac­ri­fic­ing the well­be­ing of ordi­nary peo­ple all over the world to main­tain its dom­i­nance. We see this in its 800 mil­i­tary bases across the plan­et, which erode self-deter­mi­na­tion and envi­ron­men­tal safe­ty around the world. We also see it in the military’s ongo­ing wars, occu­pa­tions, drone strikes and proxy bat­tles — which have per­sist­ed, and in some cas­es esca­lat­ed — dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. And we have seen this in the Pentagon’s request for bil­lions in the next stim­u­lus pack­age, demand­ing a bailout for arms indus­try CEOs while 30 mil­lion peo­ple in the Unit­ed States are new­ly unem­ployed. That the Pen­ta­gon is now demand­ing work­ers in oth­er coun­tries risk their lives for the sake of pro­tect­ing its U.S. con­trac­tors shines new light on the cru­el­ty of the U.S. mil­i­tary, and on the fol­ly of allow­ing sys­tems designed to car­ry out war to deter­mine what con­sti­tutes essen­tial” work.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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