Merchants of Death: How the Military-Industrial Complex Profits from Endless War

A look into how the military-industrial complex fuels endless war for corporate profits. CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin discusses her new report on the five largest US weapons manufacturers and their arms deals with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt

Merchants of Death: How the Military-Industrial Complex Profits from Endless War

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Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

For a century, peace activists have referred to weapons manufacturers as merchants of death. Even Pope Francis has repeated this phrase in the past several years. In 2016, the Pope warned against, quote, “The Industry of Death, the greed that harms us all, the desire to have more money.” The Pope continued, quote: “War is waged in order to defend money. That is why some people don’t want peace; they make more money from war.”

In the United States we refer to this industry of death as the military-industrial complex. And a new report by the peace group CODEPINK details how arms companies profit from death and destruction. This new report is titled “War Profiteers: the U.S. War Machine and the Arming of Repressive Regimes.”

Today we’re joined by the report’s co-author Medea Benjamin to discuss the contemporary military-industrial complex. Medea is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK. Thanks for joining us, Medea.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me on, Ben.

BEN NORTON: So can you tell us more about this report, which you co-authored with Nicolas [J. S.] Davies? This report focuses on the five largest U.S. arms manufacturers. That’s Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics. And specifically, you look at their arms deals with three repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes, this campaign is part of a larger campaign called Divest From the War Machine. And just as the environmental community has been having great success in getting money out of the fossil fuel industry. So we are now trying to get cities, universities, faith-based institutions, individuals to divest from the weapons industries. And that is a coalition of about 70 different groups, and we wrote this report to be used as a tool for that campaign, to show how the big five weapons companies are involved in selling weapons to some of the most repressive regimes in the world. Sometimes it’s like Saudi Arabia, where the Saudis are actually buying those weapons from us; and sometimes, as in the case of Israel and Egypt, it’s where our tax dollars are going to the weapons industries, then being funneled into those countries to be used for repressive attacks against either their own people or neighboring countries. So that’s why we did this report.

BEN NORTON: And let’s talk about some of the specific companies you looked at. Lockheed Martin, another U.S. arms manufacturer, it’s the biggest arms producer in the entire world. Boeing is the second largest, and Raytheon is the third. Just talk about these companies specifically, and maybe some of the deals they’ve done with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, Saudi Arabia is the largest one, and you can see how they have benefited, like the other companies have done, from the Trump administration, which doesn’t shy away from touting its its close ties to the industry. So Lockheed Martin two years ago had revenues of $35 billion, already huge last year, its revenues shot up to $61 billion. A lot of that is selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. And in fact, in the recent bombing of the school bus that left 44 children dead. It was a Lockheed Martin bomb that was used in that attack. I was just outside of Dallas, Texas in Grand Prairie, Texas, where that bomb was made, where we brought a letter to the Lockheed Martin officials asking for a meeting with the community to talk about this, just as we are pushing now for people all over the country to go to Lockheed Martin factories to protest.

This is one example in the sales to Saudi Arabia. But if we look at Israel, for example, Lockheed Martin produces the F-15s that have been the major attack weapon that have been used in the attacks on Gaza. They are now selling the F-35, an even more very high-tech version to the Israelis. They sell the Hellfire missiles that have been used against the people of Gaza. And you could say the same thing for the other companies that you mentioned. They are all selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, because that is by far the largest weapons purchase there these days, with all the oil revenue that it has. And another country that all three of them are selling to is Egypt. Now, Egypt, after a democratic uprising, after the Arab Spring in 2011, then had a coup that led to a tremendous massacre called the Rabaa Massacre, in which a thousand people were killed, and has since been governed by one of the most repressive regimes.

The U.S. government for a while right after the coup halted military sales. But I was one of the people who did a lot of lobbying to keep U.S. companies from selling weapons to a coup regime, which is according to the U.S. law supposed to be prohibited. And what we were told, Ben, is that these are contracts that the U.S. government enters into with the companies. And so no matter what happens in a place like Egypt, they still have to honor those contracts. And so after a short halt in the weapons sales the restrictions were lifted and the companies began selling once again to the coup regime in Egypt.

So it’s important to understand that while we were selling to countries that violate international law, it is also a violation of our own domestic law, which says we can’t sell to countries where war crimes are being committed.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and you were also referring to the Saudi bombing in Yemen, which, for context, the United Nations has warned is suffering from the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, largely because of this war that the U.S. has fueled. But getting back to the report for a moment here, you have some very interesting factoids. And one of them, you mention that in 2002 in the lead up to the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, the vice president of Lockheed Martin, Bruce Jackson, in fact left the company to chair the group the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. This is an organization whose only purpose, only goal, was to create support politically for the war in Iraq, and of course Lockheed Martin and other arms companies made billions and perhaps even trillions of dollars from this war in Iraq.

You also point out that support for the arms industry in the U.S. is bipartisan. This is not just a Republican issue. And you mentioned in the report that a major beneficiary of President Obama’s record military spending was the company General Dynamics. The CEO of General Dynamics, Lester Crown, and his Chicago family, you write, played a critical role as career-long patrons and fundraisers for Obama’s rise to power. So can you talk a bit more specifically about this kind of revolving door between Washington and these lobby groups and the arms industry? And then also these arms industry fund many politicians from both parties.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: That’s right. It’s really the military-industrial-congressional complex that Eisenhower talked about back in 61, but gone wild. And when you look at the fact that every single congressional district in this country has some kind of piece of a weapon being manufactured there, both as a way to push the Congressional official to say, well, this is about jobs, but also as a way to bribe those officials. About 55 percent of the lobby money coming from the weapons industry is going to Republicans; 45 percent is going to Democrats. So it is certainly bipartisan. And given the examples that you gave, we could give a lot more to show the revolving door where there are high-level people from these companies that are actually not only supporting the wars, but cheerleaders for the wars, helped manufacture the excuses to go to war, as they did in the case of Iraq.

And unfortunately, I think down the road we’ll find out examples of how they are creating the animosity with Iran right now that might take us down that road. When the CEO of Boeing was asked about how he felt with the new sanctions that the Trump administration imposed nixing a $20 billion deal that he was negotiating with Iran, he basically said, we’ll make more money from the conflict. And when you look at the stocks of these companies you see every time there is an uptick in the war there is an uptick in their profits.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And this is- what’s also interesting in your report is you highlight somewhat of a shift under Democratic administrations, although of course you maintain that this is bipartisan. But you mentioned that under President Obama, like Clinton, Bill Clinton in the 1990s, it is true that there were slight reductions in Pentagon weapons purchases. However, these were balanced with expanding foreign arms sales. So while you have Republicans claiming that Democrats are soft on war, and that they actually want to decrease the military spending, what we actually have seen is that Obama and Clinton increased weapons sales to these repressive foreign regimes. And you also point out that many of the weapons sales that Trump has boasted of since he took office are in fact the result of contracts that were negotiated under Obama. And you write, quote: “The current regime of U.S. arms exports is part of a deliberate strategy to outsource U.S. warmaking, projecting military power through alliances with U.S.-armed client states as a substitute for direct military action.” Can you please explain more about that.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: We certainly saw during the Obama years the way that the administration understood that the Americans were unhappy seeing body bags come home of U.S. soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq. And as he had promised that he was going to wind down the wars, it moved into a different kind of warmaking. And it’s not only the use of drone warfare special operations, but it’s also using proxy wars. And it is also interesting how President Obama really boasted about the enormous weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. You would think there would be more sensitivity to selling weapons to one of the most repressive regimes in the world would not be something that Obama would want to herald. But indeed he did. And then when Trump came in, his first voyage overseas was to Saudi Arabia. And he wanted to take credit for the weapons sales, so he upped it by $10 billion, saying we sold $110 billion dollars, when most of those were deals that had already been negotiated under the Obama administration.

But I think the sad thing in all of this is that we the people haven’t built enough up enough of a movement to at least to embarrass these leaders when they sell weapons to repressive countries like Saudi Arabia.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And then finally I want to talk a little bit about what these companies are saying themselves. And you highlight this in your report. It’s quite surreal. You point out that as Obama was launching his 2012 re-election campaign, and he was campaigning on policies of supposedly ending the war in Afghanistan by 2014, which he did not do, and withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, at the same time the arms industry was actually not very worried. You point out in your report that General Dynamics, a major arms company, in its annual report it assured investors, quote: “While the level of U.S. defense spending will be impacted by fiscal realities, there is not a foreseeable peace dividend.” And then you also point out that as Trump took office in 2017, the Wall Street Journal correctly predicted, quote: “The global aerospace and defense sector is likely to experience stronger growth in 2017 after multiple positive but subdued years.” So really what these reports from General Dynamics itself in an annual report to, an annual report to investors, and then also in this report in The Wall Street Journal, which is a very pro-Wall Street, pro-business oriented, right-wing newspaper, we see these reports really openly boasting that in fact peace is bad for the war industry, for these these arms industries, arms companies, and in fact that they are gloating about the opportunities they will have in Obama’s second term and under Trump to make more and more money from war, death, and destruction.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It really is mind boggling, Ben, that they can get away with building an industry that can only be successful if there is war, mayhem, violence, violation of international law, lack of diplomacy. And the chaos that we see in the Middle East is a product of their need to sell more and more weapons and the vicious cycle of our elected officials and the White House and Congress going along with it, as if this is some legitimate industry. And if you look at the pay of the CEOs, like Marilyn Hughson from Lockheed Martin, $20 million a year, similar kind of pay for the other- the other four top weapons manufacturers. It’s not only the pay. They’re invited to speak around the country as wonderful examples of good old American citizens that are using their entrepreneurial spirit and civic engagement. And that’s another reason we wrote this report, is really that these people should be considered war criminals, just as the people who are actually using the weapons. Those who profit from the weapons should be held responsible as well.

BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end the discussion there. Thank you so much for joining us, Medea. Here at The Real News Network we were speaking with Medea Benjamin, who is the author of several books, and is a leading peace activist. She is the co-founder of the women-led peace group CODEPINK. And we were talking about a new report that she has drafted looking at the military-industrial complex in the United States. And that report is titled War Profiteers: the U.S. War Machine and the Arming of Repressive Regimes. You can find it on CODEPINK’s website. Thanks for joining us, Medea.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you so much, Ben.

BEN NORTON: For The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.