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The big, bad business of America's war industry



As the Western allies flirt with starting World War III in Syria, it is worth examining some of the financial and business dynamics behind the United States' 'military industrial complex'. War may not be good business, but it is certainly big business. And in contrast to Russia and China, the war industry in the US is heavily privatised, including the use of mercenaries.

Chris Johnston cartoonFirst, some statistical context. America's military spending, which will rise to US$716 billion in 2019, is almost half the total of the world's military spending. It is bigger than the next 15 biggest countries' combined outlays, four times China's level and ten times Russia's. And that is just military spending. As Alexander Nekrosov commented, the CIA's budget is $US44 billion a year, which is about two thirds of Russia's military budget. America is a warrior nation like no other: it has been at war 222 out of its 239 years.

Then there are the bases. Depending on how you count them, America has between 800 and 1000 military bases, giving it leverage, if not control, over 191 nations. Russia has only a handful, mainly across Central Asia, although it has been establishing new ones in Syria. China has almost none. The US bases are presented as being part of America's investment in defence, but it looks much more like offence.

Then there are the munitions output and the body count — what we might call the business operations. In the past 16 years, the US has invaded, occupied and dropped 200,000 bombs and missiles on seven countries. If the overall impact is considered, and not just the immediate casualties from the combat (an epidemiological approach) the death toll is estimated to be more than two million (and maybe as high as five million).

Then there is the co-opting of public and political life. Military providers depend almost totally on sales to their governments, with of course America being the biggest buyer. This represents an extremely lucrative market, but to make sure that it will buy it is necessary to persuade politicians and the media that there is a constant threat that must be met with ever higher spending.

This does not prove too difficult. Even basic logic is easily taken out. Thus we see the recent bombing of Syria justified as teaching Assad a lesson that goes something like this: 'Because Assad appears to have killed Syrians, we have to punish him by killing more Syrians.' Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts would thoroughly approve.

The spread of militarism does not just involve creating the specific apparatus of war. There is a huge parallel industry in false-fact creation and spin. This goes back decades, but a recent example was the revelation that in 2016 the Pentagon paid PR company Bell Pottinger to deliver propaganda during the Iraq war.


"Madeleine Albright's infamous comment that killing 500,000 Iraqi children was 'worth it' said it all. The word hypocrisy hardly seems to cover it."


That is only one instance of many. Some of the people involved with the infamous Cambridge Analytica seem to have been involved in various types of psyops. The Pentagon lists control of information as one of its core operational activities, which encompasses heavy influence over the media (along with intelligence agencies) and influence over Hollywood.

It is true that there are bigger industries. Military expenditure, plus spending on veterans, only accounts for about a quarter of the total US federal budget. Defence equates with about 3.5 per cent of the nation's GDP, smaller than finance and health.

But as a business, the military is distinct, and it has unusual effects. Economically, military investment is dead money. Unlike other industry sectors, there is no domestic multiplier effect, it does not stimulate further economic activity. Either the weaponry is used to destroy the economies of other countries, or it lies idle.

Because the business imperative is to fight wars, thus creating demand for its products and 'services', it has an incentive to corrupt the rest of the polity. It is necessary to sustain a sense of urgency about resorting to violence, which has in recent times meant destroying moral conscience. Thus we see the absurdity of action against the Assad government, because they have allegedly killed children, by a Western military that has specialised in killing children. Madeleine Albright's infamous comment that killing 500,000 Iraqi children was 'worth it' said it all. The word hypocrisy hardly seems to cover it.

Such ethical failure is a measure of the military's commercial effectiveness. The ultimate aim of the industry is to convince us that 'we' are the good guys and 'they' (the targets) are the bad guys. That way, no matter how illegal or unjustified the attack, it is always right.

To that extent, the military industry now represents the greatest threat to Western morality — a morality that is rendered meaningless if it is not also applied to our own actions.



David JamesDavid James is the managing editor of businessadvantagepng.com. He has a PhD in English Literature and is author of the musical comedy The Bard Bites Back, which is about Shakespeare's ghost.

Topic tags: David James, Syria, United States, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, China, Russia



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Existing comments

Thanks David. A powerful article supplying some shocking data about the USA. However, on a smaller but equally misanthropic level, many nations do exactly the same. The horrifying cartoon says it all; only there are far more players in this deadly game. Hasn't it been like this since greedy city-states learned how to psych their citizens into horrific mass slaughter? That's only about 200 generations ago. An attempt to explain this 'change-for-the-worse' in the human species is tendered in: "The Anthropocene Misnomer" - available free on the web. There must be a genetic basis and it's a puzzle why we still have no research results explaining the impact of civilization and continuous warring on the neuro-genetics and hence socio-pathology of our sort of humans. So much of the teaching of Jesus Christ in The New Testament seems to be offering us as an antidote. Not surprising then that The Incarnation chose to visit us right at the height of Roman military dominance?

Dr Marty Rice | 20 April 2018  

What a fine article. Thank you for it. I'd like to forward it but it doesn't seem possible now, unless I've missed something. Can you advise? Another grisly result of the power of the US military-industrial complex is the massacre of American citizens in endemic gun-related violence. As everyone knows, the NRA is a lobby for the weapons manufacturers.

Sara Dowse | 23 April 2018  

Thank you David James for this important factual article. Always a puzzle why the US can get so upset about others' war machine and nuclear capacity and demands for others' de-nuclearisation while having by far the most weapons themselves. As regards our own Australian government's aims, it was good to hear Richard Flanagan in his National Press Club address last week, decry our Prime Minister's 2018 aim to become one of the world's 10 top producers of arms. Unfortunately the Josephite congregation's welcome January media release- 'Merchants of Death- profiteering from the arms trade' after Mr Turnbull's announcement, failed to be picked up by much media.

Michele Madigan | 23 April 2018  

And so, what the alternative ? If America did not turn up in the pacific or in Europe ? If the Nazi or Russian regime was the first to develop nuclear weapons and be able to deploy them ? Stalin in sole possession of nuclear weapons is not a comforting thought. Are we better to foster military relationships with China? Are they not a totalitarian regime that jails and threatens those that challenge it in thought, word, deed ? You would be "visited" if you were in China and had this freedom of expression. We do not require long memories to recall the Yazidis begging for US arms and intervention as their men were murdered and there women sold. Sons murdered and young daughters sold. Democracy and its ability to prevail cannot be taken for granted. It would be better where we all lived in a world, without any violence but this is not the nature of the world. We are so fortunate to have America in the world and to have its military might at our side.

Patrick | 23 April 2018  

You make some good comments, David, but the anti-Americanism is overdone and in general un-historic. The US was reluctant to get involved in either WW1 or 2 and only had to do so to sort out the international mess and to respond to Axis aggression against itself. It was at both stages disproportionately non-militarised and unready. At the end of WW2 it fond itself the last man standing in the Western democracies and the only power able to stand up to Stalin`s truly evil empire and then the Chinese equivalent. Give or take the odd mistake and aberration it has kept the peace pretty effectively; for all of us. It has spent its treasure in doing so, but has had a rich enough economy to bear the burden. Iraq was a terrible miscalculation in all sorts of ways, albeit with good intentions. This has lead to a sea-change in US policy, which might not be good for the rest of us. Since the inauguration of President Obama the US has been trying to withdraw from its military hegemony and Trump is even more inherently isolationist in fact. The cynical, totalitarian dictatorships of Russia and China are moving into the space left unoccupied. These are poor countries in which large military spending has really negative impacts on their populations and they don`t have the essential goodness and virtuousness of the USA. Careful about what you are asking for David!

Eugene | 24 April 2018  

David James has written a very important article about the obscene levels of expenditure that the US, in particular, spends on armaments. The point he makes about the US being involved in wars for 222 out of its 239 years along with the huge spending on war materials indicates that it is surely the most bellicose of nations. And under the neo-liberal phase of capitalism, much of the US economy is very much associated with having wars. Sadly, Australia is one of these. This is a nightmare for those nations that have been attacked and invaded by the US and its willing allies. A big problem for ordinary Americans is the undue emphasis on everyone owning firearms and we can see the consequences of this as more innocent people become victims of mass shootings. It is as though the US is trying to re-enact the Gun Fight at OK Corral at home and abroad on an ongoing basis! The question for peace-loving Australians is do we just acquiesce to Australian governments that continually send our youth to fight in these wars at a great cost in loss of life and the squandering of our taxes that need to be used for quality education, a universal health scheme, planning for combatting pollution and climate change and for adequate social services.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 08 May 2018