We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Bang Bang You're Dead


new internationalist
issue 221 - July 1991

[image, unknown]


Armed to the teeth. Bombing to bits. The armed agenda
was invigorated by the Gulf war. But it may not be as
strong as it seems. Vanessa Baird explains why.

'GET a Patriot!'

'Nah. Boring ... I want a Tornado!'

'Get an F-15. Oh look. You can get a Tornado and an F-117 together,' said the small, fresh-faced boy with that particular relish for names that are numbers.

His friend touched the colourful package - the words 'Desert Storm' emblazoned across it - counted up his money and went up to a smiling shopkeeper behind the toy counter.

'I expect you have sold quite a few of those,' I observed.

'As a matter of fact, they are new in yesterday,' said the shopkeeper. 'That's Airfix for you.

The war didn't go on long enough for them.' The war didn't go on long enough. It was a comment I heard repeated at another venue a few days later. The pictures of military hardware were similar. So were the boys - though these were of the larger, pin-striped variety.

It was an international arms bazaar - or more correctly the Defence Components and Equipment Exhibition, sponsored by the Defence Manufacturers' Association of Great Britain and held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, UK.

The show was the first of its kind in the West since the Gulf war ended. It was well attended by the press - not least thanks to a rumour that Chilean ex-ruler General Pinochet might be paying a visit.

The officials had not been encouraging. 'I don't think you will find it very interesting,' one said, immediately arousing my interest. 'There won't be any tanks or planes or anything like that. It's just components.'

Just components
He was right. There were lots of pipes and mouldings and castings and bits of electronics the purpose of which seemed unspecific, obscure or euphemistic. Royal Ordnance suppliers were there promoting things called 'penetrators' and 'actuators'. You might be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a 'marital aids' fair by mistake. The actuators offered 'instant responses, a single shot causes piston to be thrust outwards'. We were also assured that there was 'no leaking after fire'.

Meanwhile, GEC Aerospace offered 'intelligent power control and generation systems' and 'remote thermal control'. Those words - 'intelligent', 'remote', 'control' and 'power' - cropped up time and again on the many stands. Words that did not appear at all were 'kill', 'maim', 'destroy', 'impoverish', 'terronze.

The images in the exhibition were clean, shining, precise. They bore, of course, no relationship to the carnage on the Basra highway, or the heart-rending scenes of people trying to identify the remains of their children in the aftermath of the Baghdad shelter bombing.

Cartoon by AUSTIN That the goods on display were 'just components' served as a powerful symbol of how the military-industrial complex works. It's how the culture of militarism works too. By splitting up functions we can become detached from the consequences of our actions.

Yet we are all involved in this deadly agenda. We are all - in a sense - components. The defence procurer from India who discusses a thermal imaging system with a sales rep from Bofors or Lockheed is a willing component. His impoverished compatriot back home picking tea on a Punjabi plantation has no choice in the matter. With the bags of tea she fills for export she is helping to earn the cash that will be spent on buying the Hawk or Mirage or Mig fighter plane that screeches across the sky above her.

She might prefer that the money were spent on building a. school for her children. She might ask why it still takes her four hours a day to fetch clean water - but only four minutes for a missile from the other side of the country to reach her region. And she might like to know why, during the past five years, her government imported more arms than any other country in the world - but could not afford to build a health clinic in her village.

The answers given would hinge on concepts like 'national security', on the need to defend against an enemy - in this case Pakistan. She would not be told - although she might guess - that this perceived threat serves the men in power very well indeed. It sets an agenda which maintains their privilege while holding down those with cause to challenge authority - the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the women. All done, of course in the 'national interest'.

It was a good war for men in power. The high-speed antics of Allied fighter pilots got the news coverage. The thousands suffering from disease and other after-effects of the bombing did not. Nor did the 20 million people in Africa slowly starving to death.

A good war?
'It will make the arms-traders happy,' was the oft-repeated cynical aside during this time. The companies were able to show off their wares prime-time and for free nearly every evening for 40 days. The news networks even used manufacturer's film footage - just as the manufacturers now use Gulf war news footage in their fairs.

The good news is that the arms-makers are not happy at all. 'The Gulf war was a blip,' said the man from GEC Aerospace, echoing the comments of many. 'It boosted confidence for a while. But it did not go on long enough. Not enough equipment was lost.'

The big problem for the anus-makers is that the Cold War - and the crazy arms spending party of 1970s and 1980s - is over. Most countries in the industrialized world are slashing their defence budgets, with the effect that the global arms trade shrunk by 35 per cent in 1990.

Some makers of arms are even saying that the Gulf war was 'a bad thing' for them. It cost too much - mounting Desert Shield alone cost $53 billion1 - and defence ministries cut orders to pay the bill. Even Japan - a keen arms buyer - dipped into its military kitty to pay for its contribution to the war effort.

But the unhappiness of the arms-makers is not cause for unqualified joy. It has sparked off two negative reflexes. Thousands of defence workers have been sacked across Europe, the US and USSR in the past few weeks. This has been particularly galling for trade unions who for years have been trying to get sluggish management to think about diversification and conversion.

Far more dangerous, however, is the second reflex: a frantic drive to export arms, especially to the Third World. This is being encouraged by governments in the major arms-producing countries - the US, USSR, UK and France. They don't want massive unemployment as their defence-dominated economies crumble.

This is likely to create havoc in the Third World. Arms traders thrive on instability - and rich pickings are most obviously to be made in the Middle East. It is likely that the current spate of arms sales to Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will create another Gulf war scenario in the next few years - though the main players may swap roles.

Other potential trouble spots are being eagerly viewed by the major arms companies such as McDonnell Douglas (US), British Aerospace (UK), Thomson (France). Seen as promising are Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan. The reason is that East-West detente has caused neighbours to regard each other more nervously as old regional rivalries and conflicts re-emerge. Fear of China in particular is causing tension in Pacific Rim nations.

The arms trade does not actually cause conflicts, of course. Conflicts happen anyway - for a whole range of reasons. And providing they are not resolved through violence they can be dynamic and productive. But the arms trade makes conflicts more bloody and prolonged. For example, it's estimated that the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war would have been over in a fortnight had the arms-makers of France, Britain, USSR and the US not supplied the two sides during the fray.

Swords and ploughshares
But governments go on building up their arsenals in the belief that they are buying greater security - and greater power. It's a tragic and expensive myth, as both the US adventure in Vietnam and Soviet engagement in Afghanistan demonstrated. The Superpowers were armed to the teeth - but without political support they failed.

In private, the defence fraternity knows that arms don't make sense. 'Arms are counterproductive, even militarily,' says Peter Drucker, advisor on procurement and personnel for nine years to the Secretary of Defence in the Kennedy administration. This opinion was shared by his senior military, business and academic colleagues.

The recent Gulf war appears to contradict this: the weapons worked and the side with the fanciest gadgets won. But military analysts know that the Gulf war proved little about technology. Saddam Hussein never used Iraq's most sophisticated and expensive weaponry - including the 100 fighter aircraft stashed in Iran. Those Iraqi soldiers sent to the front were fodder for the grotesque Allied 'turkey shoot' that was to follow.

[image, unknown] British military analyst Major General Ralph Crossley comments: 'The Iraqis on the ground were blind. We could see everything they did. They could see nothing we did. It is very easy for planners and procurers to draw the wrong lessons

More important is to draw the right lessons from the ending of the Cold War - to stop making arms and start making things that are socially useful.

It won't be easy. Most defence companies haven't a clue how to compete in a civilian market, so accustomed are they to getting the feather-bedded, assured contract treatment from their defence ministries.

The military establishment is tremendously resistant to change. The snobbishness associated with producing prestige weapons of destruction goes hand in hand with a prejudice against making more practical household items. One defence journalist calls it the 'you-won't-catch-us-making-electric-kettles syndrome'.

Even when they do try there can be snags. Take the Soviet tank-makers who were asked to make something for the consumer market. They produced a washing machine with no fewer than 37 programmes, far too complex for anyone to want to use and far too expensive to buy. Such baroque excesses are more indicative of the mental blocks, than physical obstacles to conversion.

If those mental blocks are not removed, arms-making countries will dig themselves deeper into a financial crisis with no room for manoeuvre. Arms companies make much of the cost of conversion and the jobs that will be lost. If they took the long term view however they would see that more jobs will be created. Defence is notoriously capital intensive - and not particularly labour intensive. Research in the US has shown that for every one billion dollars cut in US military spending 24,000 jobs are lost - but 31,000 can be generated for every one billion dollars of civilian investment.2

For developing countries the contrast is even greater. In India, for example, it costs $13,500 to create one job in the arms industry, $3,800 in civilian industry, $90 in road construction, $80 in agriculture and $9 in trade and commerce.3

But how, in practical terms, can we turn swords into ploughshares?

International housework
There are many ideas. One of the most exciting is redirecting military money towards environmental security. This is not as far-fetched as it may at first seem. Environmental protection technology is tipped to be a serious growth industry in the coming two decades. And former arms contractors might be the best equipped to take the lead - and do a bit of global housework for a change.

A good place to start would be the thousands of contaminated military bases and plants - relics of the Cold War - stretching across the world from the Pacific islands to the South Atlantic. In the US alone there are 14,000 of them, 1,000 of which are highly toxic. Germany has a further 300. And there is also a massive munitions stockpile in Europe - 350,000 tons of it in Germany - much of which is in a dangerous condition and of unknown chemical composition.

'Nobody really knows what went on at those sites,' says John Reed, editor of Defence Industry Digest. 'But military technology such as quick response control systems, data analyses, sensors, fibre optic technology could perhaps deal with this dangerous material.'

If the North invested in developing this environmental technology it could export this - not weapons systems - to the South. But any North-South trade must be based on equality not robbery. That means Third World producers must get a decent price for their commodities. This would give them disposable income which would stimulate global trade.

We are at a point in history when the industrialized world could - with the political will - do much to eliminate world poverty simply by redirecting South some of the money it is saving on defence cuts.

If the North makes the defence cuts it has announced during 1990s this will produce a peace dividend of two trillion dollars. Just one per cent of this - $20 billion - a year could provide the entire Third World with primary education, basic health care and safe water. By the end of the century poverty and hunger could be eliminated, says Dr Mahbub ul-Haq of the United Nations Development Programme.4

It would be good to see the UN take a more responsible role; it is after all the only body that could control arms in an international and integrated way. The gentleman's club of arms dealing countries which calls itself the Security Council, will have to be democratized and restructured, of course.

And there are other hopeful signs. This autumn the UN Secretary General will propose the creation of an international export register to remove the cloak of secrecy under which the international arms trade is currently allowed to operate. Banning arms sales to countries with poor human rights records - such as Indonesia - and countries where war is currently raging could be a next step.

The moral arguments have always been on the side of the disarmers. Now market forces have joined them. But militarism is more than an economic or technological phenomenon. It is a political pattern - which serves the interests of a minority at the expense of the vast majority, but in which we are all involved.

As she was being dragged out of the hall at the Birmingham arms fair a peace protester screamed: 'Every component counts. It is all part of the whole.' This was met with shrugs of amused indifference from the men on the stands.

And this may be the hardest struggle - against those who would depersonalize the issue, who have the 'just components' view, who refuse to make moral connections and ridicule notions of integrity.

Not only does the international arms trade try to divide us and detach us and depersonalize us. So do the very weapons that are its end product. Those components may help blow people to pieces; it may be you, or me or someone we love. And it makes the international trade in arms deeply and irrefutably personal.

1 SIPRI Yearbook, 1991, Stockholm Institute of Peace Studies.
2 South Magazine, London, March 1991.
3 The Baroque Arsenal, Mary Kaldor, (Verso, 1983).
4 Human Development Report 1991, United Nations Development Programme.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

New Internationalist issue 221 magazine cover This article is from the July 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop