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 the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.