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20 October 2021

American warfare and the battle for profit

New books by Andrew Cockburn and Samuel Moyn ask who are the true winners and losers in today's technology-driven wars.

By Lawrence Freedman

In January 1961, as Dwight Eisenhower was about to leave office as US president, he issued a stark and unexpected warning: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Those were the days when Republicans with distinguished military records wanted to restrain defence spending. Eisenhower had spent the final years of his presidency resisting pressure to authorise costly projects in response to exaggerated threats.

According to Andrew Cockburn in The Spoils of War, this warning had little effect. The “misplaced power” led not only to a bloated Pentagon budget but also to the wars that provided it with a rationale. Waste, mismanagement and corruption became the norm. Weapons programmes took years to complete, if at all, supported by contracts that encouraged gold-plating, with unnecessarily high specifications and no incentives to keep costs under control. Generals and admirals went along with this because the contractors promised lucrative retirement jobs. Congress relaxed its oversight as orders and military bases were strategically directed to the districts and states of influential House members. Even once the nation was at war, instead of providing decent boots for soldiers, money went into esoteric weapons systems that failed to deliver.

Cockburn, the Washington, DC editor of Harper’s Magazine, comes from a family of radical journalists who have made it their business to challenge official accounts and expose scandals. He has long been unearthing awkward facts about the practices and policies of the US national security establishment. During the 1980s, he produced a counter to the Pentagon’s glossy booklets about the Soviet Union’s military power, pointing instead to its weaknesses and dysfunctions, an analysis he could claim was vindicated after the end of the Cold War. In this collection of   more recent articles, he picks out choice examples to support his core themes, taking advantage of the “target-rich” environment of this century to show that little has changed.

He is not opposed to all weapons systems. In the opening piece he describes how the A-10 “Warthog” was effective in providing close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. The US Air Force, however, wanted to use the fantastically expensive B-1 bomber – designed for nuclear missions against the Soviet Union and quite unsuitable for the Afghanistan role – which resulted in the deaths of many innocent civilians.

Elsewhere, he tells the story of “Fat Leonard”, a naval contractor who serviced port visits for the Seventh Fleet, bribing senior officers with cash and lascivious parties to ensure that their ships visited his facilities. Cockburn’s indictment does not stop at showing how defence contractors and their allies extract what they can from the system while giving little of value in return. He also blames them for promoting the arms race and encouraging wars. This has been achieved by pushing for military action and sidelining diplomacy, while demonising potential enemies. He challenges portrayals both of American foes and its friends: the Saudis, for instance, come in for a rough time because of their connections to the 9/11 attacks and the war in Yemen.

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[see also: How the Second World War was won]

This is robust, old-fashioned progressive, polemical journalism. Not all the targets are hit with precision, but Cockburn describes some shocking practices, and provides valuable critiques – for example, of the over-reliance on sanctions as a coercive instrument. He picks up on issues that have been around since weapons manufacturers and their critics discovered war could be profitable. He argues that “the military are not generally interested in war, save as a means to budget enhancement”. Considerations of “foreign policy” and “strategy” are deceptive, hiding the real driving force. The most important question is always cui bono? Who benefits?

As someone who spends his time studying foreign policy and strategy, have I been missing the point? Cockburn is, of course, right that the Pentagon’s enormous budget provides opportunities for schemers and grifters – some in charge of large corporations – and that the institutional interests of the armed services lead to distorted defence priorities. Greater awareness of these issues helps civilians push back against this “misplaced power”– as they often do. When I started work in this area in the early 1970s, I was attracted by theories of the malign influence of the military-industrial complex, which then acquired added credibility as explanations were sought for the calamitous Vietnam War. Yet I soon discovered it explained less than expected.

For example, Cockburn attributes the “missile gap” scare of 1960 as a pre-emptive response (“on cue”) to Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech. The claim, however, that the Soviet Union was outproducing the US in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) was in part the result of the Soviet Union testing an ICBM before the US, and then launching the world’s first artificial Earth satellite (Sputnik 1) in 1957. These events were followed by Nikita Khrushchev’s boast that Soviet rockets were coming off production lines like “sausages”. Eisenhower, and the CIA, doubted the exaggerated Air Force projections about how far the Soviet Union was ahead with missile development. This was confirmed when US satellites provided evidence that the Americans were, in fact, ahead. It’s not clear how satellites fit in with Cockburn’s thesis, as in this, and other areas such as arms control verification, they were a source of reassuring evidence.

Another example is Nato’s expansion during the 1990s. It is true, as Cockburn notes, that drawing former members of the Warsaw Pact into the alliance was good domestic politics for Bill Clinton. It may have opened up new markets for defence contractors, although they were already opening. But the issue cannot be understood without appreciating the anxieties of those central and eastern European countries which had been let down badly by the Western democracies before and now wanted stronger security guarantees.

The debates about foreign policy and strategy should, therefore, not be dismissed too lightly. In Humane, Samuel Moyn, a professor of both history and jurisprudence at Yale University, asks what has gone wrong with US defence policy this century, and he does not mention defence contractors. Instead, he explores a dilemma that has long dogged anti-war campaigners: war is horrible, so we must find ways to alleviate the suffering; but if this results in war becoming less horrible, then it is a more tempting option.

This was a sharp debate in the late 19th century as the first efforts were taken to make war less miserable, such as the formation of the Red Cross; attempts to codify the laws of war so the injured and prisoners could be treated properly; prohibitions on particularly obnoxious weapons; and the first Hague conferences on disarmament. These could be presented as steps towards the abolition of war, but the likely outcome was to sustain war as an acceptable instrument of statecraft. The steps were dismissed accordingly by critics, such as Leo Tolstoy and the Austrian anti-war campaigner Bertha von Suttner.

It was not, however, the possibility of a humane war that led the rush into the First World War, but the prize of an early victory for the side that mobilised first. Once there was no quick victory and the fighting took hold, the war became attritional and – with poisoned gas, air raids and attacks on merchant shipping – ever more deadly. After it was all over, efforts to abolish war were taken up again with renewed vigour, strengthening both global organisations and international law. To no avail. Another, even more brutal world war followed the first, this time with organised mass murder.

The Korean War confirmed that nuclear weapons had created an incentive to limit conflicts, although for the Korean people the fighting was as deadly as anything that had gone before. The conduct of the Vietnam War led to more soul-searching, especially after the revelations about the atrocity at My Lai in 1968. Moyn skilfully takes us through the debates prompted by Vietnam about international law and how it should be adapted and enforced. Out of this came a determination to find a more humane way to fight such wars.

From the early 1970s, highly accurate weapons were introduced into the US arsenal that made it possible to avoid large-scale civilian casualties. Now drones can loiter above possible targets before launching missiles. Lawyers can be brought in to check whether the targets are appropriate before they are hit. For the lawyerly Barack Obama – looking for a way to deal with US enemies without getting entangled in more occupations of unfriendly territory – these were the perfect weapons, although his enthusiasm gradually waned as he became more troubled by their legal and ethical implications.

Moyn is also torn between the obvious advantages – if war is going to be fought – of doing so in a way that reduces its human cost, and the concern that if we get too comfortable with “humane wars”, then we will forget about the need to ban them altogether. Despite his claim that the US has “reinvented war”, his focus is too narrow for this to work. Drone warfare is only one part of contemporary military practice. It might provide a means of assassinating terrorists and other hostile figures, but it provides no means of controlling territory, which is what most wars are about. The vicious urban battles fought in Iraq and Syria, and the persistent militia campaigns mixed with gangsterism in Ukraine and in Sub-Saharan Africa, also describe modern warfare. In these cases, civilian suffering is as great as ever. Moyn also fails to address the current US preoccupation with China (also oddly ignored by Cockburn) and what a war over Taiwan might look like.

If the institution of war survives, it will not be because of the lobbying efforts of the military-industrial complex or the promise of combat without tears, but rather because people and states keep finding things to fight about.

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London and the author of “The Future of War: A History” (Penguin)

[see also: The new age of American power]

The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine
Andrew Cockburn
Verso, 288pp, £17.99

Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War
Samuel Moyn
Verso, 416pp, £20

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West