Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Arms Race


"Take the profit out of war"
Bernard M. Baruch

If it occurs to you that I am hopelessly out of date and that the arms race is over now that Reagan's "Evil Empire" has fallen by the wayside, I offer the view that the power structure within the armaments industry has merely shifted its target. Where once we built another needless nuclear submarine in order to force Russia to the expense of keeping up, we now arm the lesser countries for no other purpose than the sheer profit in it. And a huge profit it is, a profit that overwhelms our sensibilities.


The arms race with Russia that consumed the capital of both nations wasn't won on ideological terms or even on the basis of intimidation. It was fought to a draw for fifty debilitating years, then won simply because our capitalist machine out-earned their communist machine and we proved ourselves able to absorb those costs while growing stronger. Whether the world was made safer by the effort, I leave to history but concede we somehow avoided nuclear holocaust. Their system sank slowly below the surface of a sea of red ink and it was never a close thing, not in the long run, but it's been a dangerous and exhausting effort and we'll pay the price for generations to come.

Mr. Reagan takes the credit for that and it well belongs to him, but he tripled the national debt in the eight years of his presidency to do it and history again will be called upon to judge whether it was a bargain or not. Probably it was, but the precedent is suicidal to less strong nations. There's a pretty good case for the position that the West had no effect, that the wheels merely fell off Communism because it didn't work, but that's another subject.

Arming the world has been sold to us like a Pepsodent smile, as a method by which we can balance various national interests, providing firepower in the place of diplomacy. What a great idea--arming beligerents.

To a very large degree that policy has resulted in religious and nationalistic polarizations that have driven the nations of the world further and further into corners from which they view one another with suspicion and deadly force. After decades of pouring weapons into the Middle East, we are naively surprised when war breaks out and are required to step in to face our own weapons. We constantly build toward the day when those weapons will be unfaceable.

The legacy is a world increasingly populated with children armed with automatic weapons and the willingness to use them, as well as despotic governments that hold death-grips on human rights. We cannot long maintain our exclusive control of nuclear weaponry, as technology advances and fissionable material disappears from impoverished communist governments into black markets. Children of violence grow into adults of violence, the weaponry ever more sophisticated. Rulers with helicopter-gunships control their populations, ever less likely to relinquish that control in favor of national growth and national peace.

A recent newspaper article suggests that with hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually in world armament markets, the cutbacks due to the easing of the cold war are encouraging weapons producers to look towards South and Central America. The article goes on to say that there is "growing optimism that Latin America will become a major arms market, spending up to 5.2 billion annually on armaments."

I find little cause for growing optimism in the statement. The United States brought the largest contingent to the 1996 Air and Space Show in Argentina, a cause of apparent pride as Defense Secretary William Perry attended and Defense Department officials "provided valuable assistance in transporting goods to be displayed." What business has our Defense Department in the support of the sale of offensive weaponry to other nations? Have we lost our heads? Does our State Department support such an effort and if so, why?

Even the name Air and Space Show is evocative of passenger jets rather than the helicopter-gunships, tanks, hand grenades, radar systems, machine guns and rocket launchers transported and offered for sale in part with your and my tax money.

Latin America, as most of the world, finds itself desperately in need of capital for agriculture, industry, schools, hospitals and the building of a solid middle class from which their countries can join the expanding world economy. The cost of one helicopter gunship would build and staff a half-dozen schools.

The common justification for promoting a weapons industry is that if we fail to serve these "markets," they will be served by others and the huge profits will flow to other economies, as well as the political manipulation that accompanies such access to armaments. So be it.

Are we willing to follow profit wherever it leads? Apparently. Is it a sustainable philosophy to turn away from peace in the name of that profit? The armament industry would have us think so. Are we so suspect of our ability to lead that we must join the followers? Is greed so deeply ingrained in our national fabric that we can no longer make the case for schools over gunships? Having stood off Russia, are we so fearful of small-time dictators that we cave-in to their demand for guns? Will we face those guns in another Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq (again) or North Korea? Are we so bankrupt of leadership that we have little to offer but the failed diplomacy of weaponry? Pretty depressing scenarios.

Money spent on weapons serves nothing but the power of those who control the weapons and profit to those who build them. Such money merely provides power over the powerless, lays no bricks, plows no fields, feeds no hungry and educates none who thirst for knowledge. Every dollar or kopek or dinar spent drives the poor more securely into poverty and lifts the rich further out of reach above them.

It is significant to note that a general, who knew more than most about weaponry, chose to provide development funds for a war-ravaged Europe. The Marshall Plan bought peace and prosperity in place of terrorism and hunger. A victor rebuilding. A thought apparently so pure it has never been duplicated and what a sad comment that is on the progress of man.

The emerging nations of the world are already awash in weapons, all held in the hands of those who stand over their citizens. There is no peaceful hope for Kurds against Saddam Hussein's gunships, no rising from the suffocating hardship of the world's powerless against a military or police state. In their anguish against such force, Palestinians and Algerians and whoever else, are crushed and in desperation turn themselves into human bombs. In the aftermath of those bombings, we make statements from a hoked-up stage of rhetoric, a stage where we control the sets and lighting and titillate the audience with the subversion of our weaponry. What goes 'round comes 'round and there's a terrible harvest to be reaped.

It may well be time to bring our arms dealers and diplomats home from their exhortations and begin to create a Latin American policy built upon the rewards of peace and prosperity. Billions for the Columbian Army will solve nothing. Indeed, a similar policy in the Middle East and elsewhere might well bring an understanding that, having pulled back from a financially devastated Russia, we are unwilling to export the financial privations and despotism of cold wars to other nations.

A nation that claims leadership cannot mouth the words of world peace and profit at the same time from world armament. Nor can we forever clean up after such a policy.