Big Business and Warfare
THE international selling of armaments became big business in the 19th century. Steel producers like the German firm Krupp and the English firms Vickers and Armstrong began producing armaments in large quantities. When home governments could not or would not buy enough armaments, these firms developed an international trade and soon became huge multinational institutions.
From its early days, doubts were voiced about the morality of producing and exporting armaments. Alfred Nobel of Sweden discovered a form of cordite (a smokeless gunpowder called ballistite) for guns and, at the age of 60, he purchased the Swedish gun company Bofors. Yet he professed an interest in pacifism and bequeathed the famous Nobel Peace Prize, to be given to those who did the most to promote friendly relations between nations. When William Armstrong died in 1900, a British newspaper commented: “There is something that appals the imagination in the application of a cool and temperate mind like Lord Armstrong’s to the science of destruction.”
Nevertheless, any qualms were soon overcome by consideration of either patriotism or profit. By the beginning of the first world war, arms salesmen were swarming in most of the world’s capitals, vending their wares. However, that war did show up a serious moral problem with the arms trade.
During the war, weapons of British and French manufacture were used against British and French soldiers on the battlefield. Germany fought against Russians and Belgians who had been armed by Krupp. Most of the navies involved had armor plating made under a Krupp’s patent, and in the Battle of Jutland, both sides fired shells with Krupp’s fuses.
Armaments firms made huge profits from the war—so much so that many suspected they had tried to prolong the war for their own benefit. A 1934 magazine article calculated that during that war it cost $25,000 (U.S.) to kill one soldier, “of which a great part went into the pocket of the armament maker.”—The Arms Bazaar, by Anthony Sampson.
Since that war the arms trade has persisted, and today it flourishes as never before. Some still question the morality of dealing in weapons of death, but no one denies its profitability. “War is good business again,” said one Wall Street analyst. The New York Times, referring to modern high-technology weapons, added: “More than a miracle of technology, electronic warfare is lucrative business.”
“The arms trade is . . . booming, with the USSR having overtaken the US as the leading exporter of major weapons,” confirmed the British magazine New Scientist, adding: “And no doubt the next year or two will see an upsurge in British arms exports after the shop window provided in the Falklands.”
In fact, to the corporate heads of the companies producing modern weapons, the Falklands and Lebanese conflicts must have seemed like a godsend. The Guardian comments: “European and American companies see exciting new prospects after a war [in the Falklands] that provided a classic demonstration for their wares.”
This must also have been obvious to those who are looking for some safe place to invest their money. New investors in armaments are “coming out of the woodwork,” as it were. One defense analyst quoted in The New York Times said: “The stocks have performed well since these incidents [the Falklands and Lebanese conflicts]. Clearly this has attracted more investor attention.”
During the 1970’s, while war was raging in Southeast Asia, Protestant churches—some of which had protested against the war and against the growing military buildup of the United States—were among those taking advantage of the lucrative arms market. In a booklet on the subject, the National Council of Churches said: “The investments identified here are with the ‘big business’ of military production and procurement. The amount of Church investment is almost $203 million . . . These investments are big business for the churches, representing an important if not the most important portion of their holdings.”
What makes corporate heads of arms-producing companies rub their hands with special glee is that for the most part they do business with the military and not with commercial clients. Their advantages are thus many. Most large nations have already appropriated billions of dollars for defense, so money coming into the tills of the manufacturers is assured. Since these components must meet military standards, the price is four to five times higher than that of those sold to commercial clients. Generally speaking, the military will purchase products made within the country’s own borders rather than from outside sources, thus reducing the threat of outside competition. American companies in particular, in their quest for military contracts, are in the unusual position of seeing no competition from Japan. Armaments are indeed lucrative business.
Standing squarely in the middle of this big business of war are the arms salesmen who peddle the destructive wares like door-to-door vendors. “The great thing about making weapons compared to making cars,” said one, “is that they’re always getting outdated or used up: there’s infinite scope for expansion.”
Arms shows, where buyers and sellers converge to look over the latest styles in war weaponry, are popping up all over the world like fashion shows. Producers are developing what are called the third generation of weapons—high-technology projects involving an increase in military spending for research and development. Christopher Paine, of the Federation of American Scientists, called this “a perilous ruse perpetrated by the weapons builders to keep them in business.”
The moral problems of the arms trade have not changed. For three years before the Falklands war, the British sold over 200 million dollars’ worth of warships and electronic weaponry to Argentina, much of which was fired back in their faces when the war broke out. This is the chance that both nations and big business choose to take. Voices are raised in condemnation of the international sales of arms. Yet the sales go on, usually encouraged by national governments. And meanwhile the world becomes a more and more dangerous place to live in.
[Blurb on page 8]
The British sold millions of dollars’ worth of armaments to Argentina, only to have these fired back at them in the Falklands
[Pictures on page 7]
Doubts about the morality of selling arms were soon overcome by the profits rolling in