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The War Business: Squeezing a Profit from the Wreckage in Iraq

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We speak with leading scholar and author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire Chalmers Johnson about reconstruction in Iraq and profiting from empire. [includes transcript]

Chalmers Johnson, leading scholar of Asia and US-Asian relations and author of "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire" in his latest article writes:

"Munitions making and war profiteering have supplanted the energy and telecommunications deals pioneered by Enron and WorldCom in the late 1990s as the most efficient means for well-connected capitalists to engorge themselves at the public trough."

Johnson concludes, "This is the future. When war becomes the most profitable course of action, we can certainly expect more of it."

  • Chalmers Johnson, a leading scholar of Asia and US-Asian relations and the founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute. He is the author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. His next book, The Sorrows of Empire will be published by Metropolitan Books in January. His latest article titled "The War Business: Squeezing a Profit from the Wreckage in Iraq" appears in the November issue of Harpers magazine.

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about the reconstruction in Iraq, in his latest article, [Chalmers] Johnson writes, quote, "Munitions making and war profiteering have supplanted the energy and telecommunications deals pioneered by Enron and Worldcom in the late 1990’s as the most efficient means for well-connected capitalists to engorge themselves at the public trough."

Johnson goes on to talk about how the U.S. trains militaries in 70% of the world’s nations, and the historical parallels of profiting from empire. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Chalmers Johnson.

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It is good to have you with us.

You start with a quote from President Dwight Eisenhower, "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Dwight Eisenhower says ìWe must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.î

So what’s happening?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: The two most famous generals we’ve ever had as presidents, George Washington first and then Eisenhower, both warned about the enormous dangers to liberty of a large standing army, of a huge vested interest in the armed forces.

What’s happened today, of course, is simply the — Well the profits of the largest arms manufacturing company, Lockheed-Martin, last year went up 47%.

When you start making that much money, you know you’re going to get more war. It is virtually out of control.

There is no real system of oversight.

You must remember that since the Manhattan project during World War II, the 40% of the defense budget, all of the intelligence budgets are secret.

They’re so-called black budgets.

That means it is really impossible for anyone to do oversight on it, including members of Congress.

And now with two wars, as we enter the new millennium, it’s become enormously profitable. About one-third of the money being spent on Iraq, by one estimate from the "Washington Post," is going into private hands in one way or another.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the private military contractors?

CHALMERS JOHNSON: It’s a business that’s developed, above all, in the 1990’s. It was Cheney’s idea when he was Secretary of Defense in the first Bush administration — that allegedly, to save money, they were going to start privatizing numerous activities in the armed forces that, until then, were performed by soldiers on active duty.

This — He sent out a contract to the Brown & Root division of Halliburton — a very famous old company that bankrolled the lives of Lyndon Johnson and many other famous Texas politicians.

He gave a contract to Brown & Root to estimate how they might start privatizing the various activities in the armed forces. Then he turned around and gave Brown & Root the contract to carry out their plan and as he left the government at the end of the Bush administration, Cheney went on a couple of years late to become the president of Halliburton, which is the company that owns Brown & Root.

Basically it means today that a soldier in the armed forces doesn’t have any of those experiences that were present there in World War II or Korean or Vietnamese wars.

People don’t do guard duty. They don’t clean up the barracks. They don’t clean the latrines. They don’t do kitchen police, so-called K.P.

That’s all done for them by private contractors. It is extremely lucrative and the way the contracts are written, profits are guaranteed. It is impossible to lose on these things.

Perhaps the greatest example is camp Bondsteel in Kosovo in the Balkans, which is the most expensive base that we’ve built since the Vietnam war. It was built entirely by Brown & Root.

It is today operated for the government by Brown & Root, just as are the bases in Kyrzakstan, in Turkey, and many other places of that sort. It is a huge growing business.

Then there is also the other world of really mercenary organizations, like Vinnell, DynCorp, NPRI. These are retired military officers, normally from the special forces, who have gone into business supplying training, above all training, but in many cases, logistics operations.

The Vinnell corporation, for example, has been hired by the U.S. government now for well over a decade to train the Saudi National Guard. We have the people supplying the defense to President Karzai in Afghanistan.

This is an explosive growth of privatization in the armed forces.

Now Cheney originally argued, so did Rumsfeld before he became Secretary of Defense, that this was to save money. There is no evidence that it saves money. It just goes quickly into private hands.

There is ample evidence from Iraq right now that the money could have been more efficiently spent, had it not been subcontracted to Halliburton and to Bechtel and things of that sort — if instead it had been turned over to an Iraqi government.

AMY GOODMAN: It is interesting.

You end the piece by talking about the lack of rigors of the marketplace and without them, only the profit remains — the biggest of all munitions companies, Lockheed-Martin corporation playing an important behind the scenes role in developing support for Bush’s war with Iraq.

CHALMERS JOHNSON: Yes, they did.

They played a very influential role in various organizations. It looked like they were simply public interest, public education organizations, but which had long advocated a war with Iraq ever since the — 1991, the first war with Iraq.

It has been to their — War is the business.

What I mean when I say it’s not private enterprise, it is much more like state socialism. You have only one customer. The customer is not particularly interested in getting the best possible use of his money. He is much more interested in simply getting the contract filled.

Moreover, there is a huge circulation of elites today in the sense that most of the operating positions, appointed positions in the pentagon today are executives from the military industrial complex, whereas by contrast, any number of the high officials in these companies are retired high-ranking American military officers.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Chalmers Johnson, his piece appears in this month’s "Harper’s," called "The War Business; Squeezing a Profit From the Wreckage in Iraq."

Chalmers Johnson’s piece ends: "This is the future. When war becomes the most profitable course of action, we can certainly expect more of it."


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