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The Spoils of War by Andrew Cockburn – How money makes the wars go round

Accessible yet forensic account of why – and how – runaway military spending is wrong

The Spoils of War Power, Profit and the American War Machine
The Spoils of War Power, Profit and the American War Machine
Author: Andrew Cockburn
ISBN-13: 978-1839763656
Publisher: Verso
Guideline Price: £19.55

In the heyday of jingoism, before the first World War, an interest in military matters was considered almost as necessary for polite conversation as a knowledge of horses, or French.

Britain, France, Germany, the US, Japan and many other countries had naval and army factions in their politics and media, and ordinary members of the (wealthier, male) public joined professional officers in subscribing to such publications as Jane’s Fighting Ships or the Admiralty and Horse Guards Gazette, writing splenetic letters to the papers about rival gunnery control systems and anti-torpedo tactics.

Then came the poisoned mists of Bolimów and Ypres, the deliberate submarine attacks on civilian vessels, and that nadir of arch-militarism, the genocidal Third Reich. After Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war could no longer be enjoyed as a game of armchair Top Trumps, except by the queasy likes of Gareth from The Office.

By 1961, when US president and former general Dwight D Eisenhower warned of the growing power of the “military-industrial complex”, polite society agreed with him but turned its attention away. We all know that a devil is loose, but with military matters relegated to the fringes of public consciousness, few have much knowledge of the details.

Into this gap steps Andrew Cockburn, the British-born Washington editor of Harper’s magazine, whose work combines an insider’s access with an outsider’s scepticism, providing an accessible yet forensic account of not only why runaway military spending is wrong, but how.

The Spoils of War, a new collection of his pieces from the past decade, begins with an account of a single incident in Afghanistan. In a device repeated in other powerful chapters on military, diplomatic and financial chicanery, he moves from the particular to the general, demonstrating how ever-metastasising defence budgets, and the vested interests feeding off them, have made the world a darker and bloodier place – not only for foreign victims of the US’s wars, but for its own citizens, soldiers and sailors.

On the evening of May 6th, 2012, a US air-strike controller, watching a screen in a room far away from the action, told two A-10 ground attack planes patrolling over Afghanistan’s Paktia province to bomb and strafe a farmhouse thought to contain Taliban militants.

The pilots of the A-10s – designed to provide close support to ground troops by flying low and slow, with excellent downward visibility – studied the area with their own eyes and refused the order: they could see that the house was a civilian target.

Then another voice came on the radio network: The crew of a B-1 bomber, circling high overhead, was running low on fuel and, having failed to drop any bombs in recent missions, was eager to “go kinetic”. Its flurry of bombs flattened the farmhouse of the Shafiullah family, killing mother, father and five of their seven children, the youngest only 10 months old. No armed men were present.

In another such incident described by Cockburn, six US soldiers engaged in an Afghan firefight were themselves torn apart by “air support” from a B-1 bomber that was unable to see them visually, and whose sensors and screens didn’t work.

Cockburn’s accounts, based on subsequent inquiries, and interviews with well-placed informants, reveal the real culprit in these by-no-means-unique shambles: money.

B-1 bombers, designed for supersonic nuclear attacks in the cold war, are totally unsuitable for ground attack – they are too big, too fast, too clumsy, too blind. But they cost about $300 million each, and the air force, as desperate as the other US armed services to maintain ever-mounting budgets, needs a new mission for them. So it wants to scrap the older, much cheaper A-10s (cost, long since paid off, of about $20 million apiece) and replace them in the ground support role with B-1s and the new F-35s, thought to cost $200 million each.

Notoriously, the over-engineered F-35 doesn’t even fly right, but, says Cockburn, it “has one attribute that outweighs all other considerations: its enormous cost and the consequent political influence that comes from supporting 133,000 jobs spread across 45 states”.

War, like every other human endeavour, is a cultural activity, and Cockburn glimpses an even wider process at work: “Most fundamentally, we’re talking about a drive to eliminate a direct connection with outside reality – the sort of connection that prevents children from being mistakenly bombed as Taliban fighters. Instead, the military would rather focus on images relayed along electronic pathways, undeterred by the frequently catastrophic consequences.”

Paradoxically, the US’s ever-mounting defence spending (he records that it has doubled since the end of the cold war) is producing less in the way of actual defence. Cost-plus-profit contracts incentivise arms developers to go massively over-budget, which means the armed forces usually end up being able to afford far fewer new weapons than they had sought.

An original placement for 750 new F-22 aircraft shrank to only 187. The Zumwalt destroyer programme overran its budget so much that the US navy is settling for four, instead of the 32 it needed to replace older ships. Meanwhile the least monetisable profit points, the actual troops, sailors and air personnel, go without adequate training, reinforcement and protection equipment.

More importantly, the money train roles on, serving/strong-arming clients in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Yemen and Nato member states.

Writing earlier this year, before the US’s abrupt capitulation to the Taliban, Cockburn cited declassified papers that showed US officials were long aware that the Afghan war was unwinnable. “They did not acknowledge, of course, that the war’s trillion-dollar budget was a victory in itself.”