More than a dozen years after the end of World War I, a book appeared that developed into a movement.
“Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry,” by University of Chicago instructor Helmuth Engelbrecht and journalist Frank Hanighen, advanced the radical idea that the sanguinary Great War, which claimed 20 million lives, hadn’t been a catastrophe for everyone. In fact, they argued, companies such as Colt (small arms), DuPont (gunpowder), Germany’s Krupp works (artillery), and the Czech Skoda factories (tanks, hand grenades) had done quite well for themselves.
The book prompted a congressional investigation and briefly popularized the epithet “merchants of death,” which fell out of fashion many years ago.
Time for a reboot?
On the one hand, citizens of Western democracies, like me, sincerely support Ukraine’s heroic resistance to Russia’s sudden and brutal invasion. On the other hand, it’s hard not to notice politicians’ enthusiasm for opening up a new armaments market. “Being the arsenal of democracy also means good-paying jobs for American workers . . . in the states all across America, where defense equipment is manufactured and assembled,” President Joe Biden said last week. He was visiting the Lockheed Martin plant in Troy, Ala., that manufactures Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Some of those Javelin procurement dollars — the Biden administration authorized $100 million for Javelin transfers to Ukraine last month — find their way to Massachusetts. Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a subsidiary of Waltham-based Raytheon Technologies Corporation, is Lockheed Martin’s partner in the Javelin Joint Venture.
Former New Republic magazine editor Peter Beinart ungraciously noted in The New York Times a few weeks ago that “many of President Biden’s top foreign policy aides did spend their years between government service at either consulting firms funded by defense contractors or think tanks funded by defense contractors. Few politicians acknowledge how unethical that is.”
Thanks to Vladimir Putin, it’s going to be a very good year for the armaments biz. Small countries not previously known for saber-rattling are suddenly eager to flex their military muscles. Finland, which for decades pursued a policy of judicious non-involvement in geopolitics, “is now upgrading its air force,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “announcing in February that it had completed its purchase of 64 Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters to replace its aging fleet of Hornets.”
Raytheon also participates in F-35 manufacturing.
I don’t mean to whomp on Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, which are just individual tiles in the grand, multibillion-dollar mosaic that president Dwight Eisenhower branded “the military-industrial complex.” But it’s odd how few people have commented on the bipartisan frenzy to bankroll a protracted war against a well-armed opponent. Suppose they put all that effort into negotiating a peace treaty instead of sharpening the weapons of war?
One voice crying in the desert: Pope Francis. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera earlier this month, Francis opined: “What seems indisputable is that in [Ukraine] both sides are trying out new weapons. . . . Wars are fought for this reason, too: to test your arsenals. This is what happened in the Spanish Civil War, before the Second World War. The production and the sale of armaments is a disgrace, but few are bold enough to stand up against it.”
In “Merchants of Death,” Engelbrecht and Hanighen noted that “the war year 1916″ — when the United States was supplying weapons to the combatants but had yet to formally declare war — “was by far the most prosperous in the entire history of American industry and finance. There was only one cloud on the horizon: the war might end.”
You may remember the lyrics to Edwin Starr’s number-one hit of 1970, “War (What Is It Good For)”: “War. It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker. War. Friend only to the undertaker.” And also to weapons manufacturers, to be sure.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.