Follow the money

Mike Phipps reviews The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine, by Andrew Cockburn, published by Verso.

“Outsiders generally find it hard to grasp an essential truth about the US military machine, which is that war-fighting efficiency has a low priority by comparison with considerations of personal and internal bureaucratic advantage,” explains Andrew Cockburn in this informative and entertaining book. “The Air Force… has long striven to get rid of a plane… that works supremely well in protecting ground troops. But such combat effectiveness is irrele­vant to the service because its institutional prosperity is based on hugely expensive long range (and perennially ineffective) bombers which… pose lethal dangers to friendly soldiers, not to mention civilians, on the ground… Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of veter­ans of the post–9/11 wars suffer from traumatic brain injury induced by bomb blast, the Army has insisted on furnishing sol­diers with helmets from a favored contractor that enhance the effects of blast.”

Aerospace is an infinitely more powerful lobby in the US than makers of boots, socks or other basic equipment. This might explain why, as US soldiers struggle to get the most basic gear, the Pentagon bought, at $100 million each, Lockheed EC-130H aircraft equipped with ground-penetrating radar that could supposedly seek out the buried bombs. “Unfortunately, an in-depth study of its effectiveness in Iraq by a military intelligence unit in Baghdad in April 2007 concluded, after analyzing hundreds of flights, that the system had ‘No Detectable Effect’.”

The Pentagon is more interested in budget than conflict, argues Cockburn. But the consequences, for civilians in conflict zones, can often be devastating. In May 2009, bombs from a prestigious but hard to manoeuvre B-1 killed at least 140 men, women and children in Farah, Afghanistan, because the pilot, according to the Pentagon’s own explanation, couldn’t see what he was bombing. Afghanistan has suffered many similar incidents – “a trail of havoc”, thanks to a plane that was “developed principally to bolster Republican electoral fortunes in California, where it was built.”

Cockburn describes America’s Afghan war as “a prolonged and entirely successful operation to loot the US taxpayer.” The war itself cost over a trillion dollars and the £100 billion allocated to reconstruction largely disappeared, much of it stolen. One government investigator told the author: “Somebody came up with a brilliant idea in the Department of Agriculture that Afghans really should eat more soy. So they spent $36 million on creating a soy program. The Afghans don’t grow soy, they don’t eat soy, they don’t like the taste of soy… It was a total disaster from the beginning to the end.” In another example, “the net effect of the most intensive effort ever to curb opium in Afghanistan was that the local crop almost doubled.”

US military procurement has long been bloated and efficient. “Three decades ago, revelations that the military was paying $435 for a hammer and $640 for an aircraft toilet seat ignited widespread media coverage and public outrage,” notes Cockburn. But by 2018 the Air Force was paying $10,000 for a toilet-seat cover alone. Yet these sums pale into insignificance compared with the trillion-dollar overhaul of the US nuclear arsenal.

Furthermore, lobbyists don’t always stay within the law when pushing their products at the military. One contractor was found to have bribed a wide range of officers, including senior admirals, with lavish parties and prostitutes.

Cockburn explores the financial drivers of the new Cold War with Russia and the so-called War on Terror. This includes the relentless Saudi bombing of impoverished Yemen, “made possible by the material and moral support of the United States, which supplied most of the bombers, bombs and missiles required for the aerial onslaught.”

In the Obama years, Saudi Arabia did a $60 billion weapons deal with the US, the largest arms sale in US history. Unsurprisingly, when the Dutch government, six months into the Saudi bombardment, sponsored a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council calling for an investigation into war crimes committed by all sides in Yemen, the US refused to support it. This was a green light to the Saudis who increasingly targeted busy markets, hospitals, restaurants, universities and residential areas. Meanwhile, the US was fully aware, as we now know from WikiLeaks, that Saudi Arabia was a key supporter of international terrorism.

The author certainly knows his way around defence equipment, and the scale of corruption unearthed here helps explain why the US military budget is so inflated. But Cockburn’s main gripe is that US taxpayers are not getting value for money – rather than problematizing the imperial mindset and quest for global control that allows this cycle of waste and destruction to continue with so little public outrage.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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