Beyond The Cross Of Iron
issue 163 - September 1986
cross of iron
You may be convinced that the arms race is morally wrong.
But did you realise it made mortgages more expensive? And that it
fuelled unemployment? John Wiseman explains why military
spending does not even make economic sense.
"This world.., is not spending money alone (on arms). It is spending the sweat of its labours, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of war it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."
Former US President Dwight Eisenhower
HOW many times have you turned on the television news convinced yet again that the world has gone quite mad? The images are all too familiar. There is the picture that shifts from starving children in the desert to a glittering military parade in the Ethiopian capital. There are the world leaders solemnly declaring war on poverty and then, in the very next report, announcing their plans to spend a billion dollars on weapons for a real war. Meanwhile another factory is closed while another Trident submarine is launched.
The sheer waste of military expenditure often seems absurd but it is not entirely irrational. To understand the twisted logic of the arms race we need to go beyond the simple slogan of 'Bread not Bombs'. We need to look more closely at the connections between military spending, the depletion and waste of the earth's resources and the economic devastation we see around us.
These connections often seem impossibly complex, like a monstrous tangle of barbed wire strung across a nuclear mine field blocking our vision of the future. To unravel and cut through this tangle we first need to develop an overall picture of how the strands interweave and reinforce each other.
The first strand in the tangle is waste. President Eisenhower once said: 'every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired is a theft from those who hunger and are not fed'. It is immoral that over $600 billion is annually spent on arms at a time when over 600 million people are malnourished. It is obscene when, according to UNESCO, one day's global military spending would save the lives of all the 15 million children who die each year from starvation and disease.
But reallocating resources from military spending to human needs would not only benefit the Third World. Few people realise the economic distortions and devastation wrought by the arms race.
For a start military expenditure is clearly a non-productive use of our scarce human, natural and capital resources. If we choose to devote some of these resources to security and defence, we should be well aware that, as economist Adam Smith noted, 'the whole army and navy are unproductive labourers', They produce almost nothing which can then be exchanged for other goods and services.
This is part of the reason why military expenditure fuels inflation. It is no accident that the Vietnam and Korean wars were followed by galloping inflation. Arms spending generates income but not consumer goods and services or productive investment. On top of that it is rarely subject to real market competition or to adequate government controls on costs, prices or profits. The infamous story about $400 ash trays in US fighter planes is just one dramatic example of this.
So the price of war does indeed affect the price of eggs. It also affects the price of buying a house. For military expenditure is a primary cause of rising government deficits and interest rates. President Reagan's trillion-dollar defence budget may have provided some short-term stimulus to the US economy. But at the same time it has put pressure on interest rates throughout the world as large amounts of money are borrowed to cover the budget deficit. For developed countries that means business bankruptcies and evictions. For developing nations it means the international debt crisis threatening to bankrupt their governments and further impoverish their people.
This is one of the ways in which the arms race also contributes to the mounting crisis of worldwide unemployment In addition, while military expenditure does provide work for some people, the same amount of money spent on health, housing or education would produce over twice as many jobs. Such work would meet urgent social needs and be far more relevant to young unemployed people than the esoteric and untransferable skills required for the development of nuclear weapons or Star Wars. Finally the specialised nature of these high-tech industries makes useful 'spin-offs' increasingly unlikely and diverts over 25 per cent of the world's scientists and research investment into unproductive and destructive programmes.
It would be dangerously simplistic to blame all our economic woes on the arms race. What can be said, however, is that reductions in military expenditure and conversion from military to more socially useful production would have substantial and tangible benefits.
Why then does the arms trade keep booming? There are any number of complex causes, from the new wave of Third World revolutions to an increasingly savage global economic contest. But it is also worth remembering that military force is a violent means of achieving political or economic goals.
In case we think this argument is too simple for a complicated modern world we can turn to the words of George Kennan. Kennan is now an advocate of the 'nuclear freeze' proposal but in 1948 he was a senior advisor to the US State Department. In that year, at the dawn of the nuclear age and the first Cold War, he prepared the following advice for the President.
'We (the US) have about 50 per cent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans the better.'
Such honesty is rarely revealed but when it is it casts an illuminating light on the tangled obstacle we face. It also allows us to see the maintenance of exploitation and economic power as one of the key reasons for the arms race. Let us look briefly at some examples.
There is the desire to maintain control over natural resources - oil, for instance, is one of the chief prizes at stake in the Middle East. Then there is the aim of expanding access to new markets and new opportunities for investment. Think of the gunboat diplomacy used to 'open up' Japan or the military might used to ensure that South East Asian markets (in Korea and Vietnam, for instance) stay open to Western exports and trade. Think too of the emphasis placed on securing trade routes - from Suez to the China Sea.
At a time when large corporations are pressing for further expansion into new markets, new investment opportunities and new sources of cheap labour, it is not surprising that 'freedom' has come to mean 'open' economies, 'free trade' and starvation wages. Wherever possible this is to be achieved by political and economic pressure but there is always force as a last resort and a potent reminder of power and influence.
So how do we respond to this tangle? We need first to see where nuclear arms fit in. Nuclear weapons are different. Their use would mean the end of human development - and perhaps human life. So perhaps the greatest danger lies in the efforts to treat them as if they were not different from conventional arms - to develop battlefield, tactical and first-strike weapons, all shrouded in the smokescreen of deterrence.
The second step is to realise that struggles for economic and political independence are an essential contribution to disarmament. This is as true for Britain as it is for Aotearoa (NZ) or Nicaragua. Democratic control over your own resources, investment and technological development is a vital component of any alternative strategy for 'defensive defence'. It provides security from being held to economic ransom when foreign missiles or bases are removed.
Finally though, the goals of sovereignty and self-determination need to go hand in hand with an international perspective and co-operation. This includes the need to break down Cold War fears and suspicions between people in the East and the West. Most importantly it also means supporting people in the Third World working for democracy, development and human rights. The linking of disarmament and development campaigns has never been more urgent and the concept of 'Think globally: act locally' has never been more apt.
One reaction to this picture of the links between waste, economic devastation, the abuse of power and the arms race might be despair. It is all too much. But, in fact, a clearer picture provides increased grounds for empowerment and hope. We can begin to see that our individual efforts are contributing to a broader, collective process. We can find new friends and allies. We can develop new arguments which reach new people because they can see how disarmament and development affect their lives in an immediate and tangible way. And we can begin to clear away and cut through this deadly tangle
John Wiseman is a freelance journalist and peace activist based in Melbourne.
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
Editor: You quote President Eisenhower twice. Isn't this just a blatant attempt to give your argument more authority by quoting someone from 'the other side'?
Wiseman: Yes, but that isn't the only reason I chose the Eisenhower quotes. First, I thought they were good quotes regardless of who said them - they are both succinct and dramatic. Second, I hope the fact that a US President and ex-general said those words will make the reader stop and think. You expect such statements to be made by a pacifist or a religious leader. Why did Eisenhower say that? Did he really mean it?
On the other hand I am always nervous about using quotes from 'the other side'. It is a common journalistic trick, particularly in the peace movement, and is often used to show the breadth of support for you position. But it is also an appeal to people's respect for authority. Would those words be any less true if they were said by someone unknown?
Editor: You mention that arms spending makes people's mortgages more expensive. Isn't this just a rather crude appeal to self interest?
Wiseman: I don't see anything wrong with appeals to self-interest. What I object to are crude and narrow definitions of self-interest. I believe 'self-interest' includes not living in a world which terrifies and appals me every time I open the newspaper.
However, the main reason I refer to home mortgage rates is to make my point as concrete and tangible as possible. The prime aim of writing is to communicate and to do that I think you need to touch the reader's everyday concerns. Then you can go on to show how issues that appear more distant and abstract are relevant to the reader and how they can have a real impact If they choose to act.
Editor: You refer to 'gunboat diplomacy' and 'starvation wages'. You only apply this kind of catch-phrase to your opponents. By doing this aren't you just aiming for a knee-jerk response from the reader instead of making them think?
Wiseman: All writers use catch-phrases - emotive words and rhetoric that grabs the readers attention. Phrases like 'gunboat diplomacy' are also a sort of shorthand which is fine so long as the meaning is clear. My main concern in using such phrases is to avoid clichés and slogans which are boring to read and do often over-simplify.
I also believe that, particularly in the nuclear debate, there is a place for very direct language. Much of the doublespeak used by military strategists and some politicians is obscene and dangerous. The Pentagon says Vietnamese peasants were 'terminated with extreme prejudice'; I say they were killed. Economists talk about a competitive labour market in South Korea; I call that starvation wages.